. . . for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ . . . The last enemy to be destroyed is death. I Corinthians 15:22, 26 Amen.
I just returned last week from a mission trip to El Salvador. On the last day there we took the martyrs tour, including a visit to the chapel where Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated by the U.S. backed El Salvadoran government in 1980. Romero, a pious bookworm, surprised everybody by his outspoken solidarity with the poor and oppressed people of his country after becoming Archbishop of San Salvador in 1978. He was expected to maintain the status quo and support the right-wing government in the ongoing civil war there, but his heart was broken open when a priest and two parishioners were murdered by government militia shortly after he took office.
It was the beginning of a process of conversion whereby Romero came to know and champion the struggle of the poor for human dignity. At great personal risk, he increasingly distanced himself from the El Salvadoran government, calling for an end to the more than 1 million dollars per day the U.S. was spending to support the repressive regime, and requesting U.N. intervention. Eventually, he even sanctioned mutiny, calling on soldiers to refuse to kill their fellow sisters and brothers.
In a sermon preached just moments before he was assassinated by a sharpshooter while standing at the altar, Romero said, “One must not love oneself so much, as to avoid getting involved in the risks of life that history demands of us, and those that fend off danger will lose their lives.” Romero refused to accept the dominion of death on earth, or the threat of death used as a weapon to force people to accept injustice. He believed that God is the God of life, that God has nothing to do with the rivalry, competition, and violence that mark the dominion of death. “I do not believe in death without resurrection,” he said. “If they kill me, I will be resurrected in the Salvadoran people.”
Romero’s faith gave him the courage to act in such a way as to challenge the power of death to define the limit and meaning of life. He entrusted himself to a love that transcends death through the continuous irruption of new life in the midst of suffering, oppression and injustice. In the midst of a terrible civil war, Romero witnessed to the God of life who comes to us in the form of the crucified and risen Lord. He witnessed to our calling to be a people of the Resurrection, a people who refuse to live in fear or make peace with oppression.
Tonight, we gather to remember another martyr. Eight years ago today, a young man named Matthew Shepard died after being brutally beaten, tied to a split rail fence, and left alone in the middle of a cold Wyoming winter night. He was lured there by two young men who, fueled by a visceral and vicious homophobia, had gone to a gay bar, struck up a conversation with Matthew, and offered him a ride home. 18 hours later, Matthew was discovered by a cyclist who initially mistook him for a scarecrow. Barely alive, he was taken to a hospital where he never regained consciousness and died within days.
Matthew’s death stood in sharp contrast to the values he espoused in life. "Matt’s gift was people,” writes his father, Dennis. “He loved being with
people, helping people, and making others feel good. The hope of a better world, free of harassment and discrimination because a person was different, kept him motivated." Matthew refused to accept the dominion of death on earth, the power of prejudice and hate to distort and destroy the dignity of the human person. He refused to submit to fear, living openly and freely as a gay man in solidarity with all who are oppressed by heterosexism.
In a way, Romero, the 75-year old Roman Catholic archbishop who died in solidarity with the poor, and Shepard, the 21-year old Episcopal lay man who died in solidarity with gay and lesbian people, are very much alike. Both refused to allow the fear of death and its dominion to define the meaning of their life, choosing instead to entrust their life’s purpose to an unlimited love that continually renews all things. Their lives exemplify the fundamental truth of Christian faith: There is no death without resurrection. We no longer have to live in fear because not even death can separate us from the love of God. Risk everything for the sake of life and love, stake your life on the dignity of absolutely everybody, and there is no way you can lose.
We commemorate the death of Matthew Shepard, not because he was perfect, not because he was better than you or me or anyone else. We remember Matthew because he reminds us of who we are, because we are the people in whom he is being resurrected. He is an icon of the Christ in us, of the divine love that keeps breaking into the world and overturning the dominion of death. He is the mirror in which we see ourselves, God’s beautiful gay sons and lesbian daughters, loved unconditionally and created to share that love with wild abandon. Matthew’s life continues in our struggle for the full humanity of gay and lesbian people.
We are the people in whom Matthew is being resurrected, in whom Romero is being resurrected, because we are the people in whom Christ is being resurrected. We are the body of Christ, broken open and shared for the healing of the world. How does this resurrection happen? Resurrection happens when we are willing to allow God’s love to work through us to welcome strangers; willing to embrace those who are outcast, different, alone; and yes, even willing to forgive our enemies. Resurrection happens when love triumphs over death, when we are able to see Christ alive in each other.
That is what happened when the disciples on the road to Emmaus, fleeing Jerusalem in fear after the execution of their teacher, Jesus, offered hospitality to a stranger. In so doing, love bridged the gulf between them and the stranger. As they took the bread, blessed and broke it, the stranger disappeared, leaving only the presence of the Risen Christ that embraced them all. There is no death without resurrection.
Resurrection is the most real thing there is, if we have eyes to see it. The face of the risen Christ, the sign of love overcoming death, can appear in the most unexpected places. Consider Matthew’s parents, Dennis and Judy Shepard, who pleaded with the court to sentence their son’s murderers to life imprisonment rather than death. Not without great pain and struggle, they found the grace to see the face of Christ in those two strangers, offering new life in the wake of their beloved son’s execution. There is no death without resurrection.
I think, too, of the words of Archbishop Romero spoken to a reporter days before his death, “You can tell the people that if they succeed in killing me, that I forgive and bless those who do it. Hopefully, they will realize they are wasting their time. A bishop will die, but the church of God, which is the people, will never perish.” Romero’s vision pierced through the mask of victims and perpetrators to behold the face of Christ in all. There is no death without resurrection.
An ancient saying from the days when the early Church was persecuted by the Roman Empire declares: “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of new Christians.” There was a time when I thought this reflected a rather morbid preoccupation with sacrifice. But as I consider the martyrs of our own time, from Dr. King to Bishop Romero to Blessed Matthew, I realize that what is being affirmed here is the power of self-giving love to bring new life in the face of death, the power of justice to resist oppression, the power of forgiveness to interrupt the seemingly endless cycle of violence.
Their blood is the seed of love planted deep within our hearts, blooming into the brilliant light of Christ reflected in our faces. The face of Christ is visible in each and all. It shines in Blessed Matthew. It shines in you. It will shine forever. There is no death without resurrection. Amen.