This past week we watched several major stories weave their way through our consciousness. The tragic events of South Carolina were brought into sharper focus and context this week with the delivery of President Obama’s eulogy at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charlestown. We also had a landmark decision delivered by The United States Supreme Court affirming that the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection under the law applies to same-sex marriage; And yesterday, in Salt Lake City Utah, where the General Convention of the Episcopal Church is underway, the House of Bishops elected, with the House of Deputies confirming, The Right Reverend Michael Curry, Diocesan Bishop of N. Carolina, to serve as the Presiding bishop of our church for the next nine years. Bishop Curry will be the first African American to serve our denomination in the role of Presiding Bishop.
In the midst of these headlines there was story the for the most part slipped in under the radar. It was the press release of a personal letter written 17 years ago from Coretta Scott King to Dennis and Judy Shepard. In the year 1998, the death of the Shepard’s son Matthew, who was a student at the University of Wyoming, made National News not just because of the brutality of the beating that led to Matthew’s death, but because the severity of the attack was directly related to the assailants learning that Matthew was gay.
The letter from Coretta Scott King to Matthew’s parents reads as follows:
Dear Mr. and Mrs Shepard,
I was stunned and deeply saddened to learn of the killing of your beloved son Matthew Shepard. On behalf of Dexter Scott King, The King Center, and the King Center family, I send our heartfelt condolences, our love and prayers to your family in your hour of bereavement.
Clearly, your Matthew was a fine young man, a kind and open-hearted person who believed in human rights and the dignity of all people. The outpouring of sympathy from his many friends, as well as his family, is a testament that he was a caring and much loved human being, and his loss diminishes us all.
The epidemic brutality that took your son’s life and has caused so much pain to your family must be confronted and stopped. Americans of conscience must work a lot harder to eliminate this sick culture of violence that threatens even our best and our brightest.
Matthew Shepard will be sorely missed. But we will be praying that your family will soon be unburdened by the knowledge that his beautiful spirit will live on in the hearts of all those he touched.
Sincerely, Coretta Scott King.
One of the things notable about Coretta Scott King’s letter is her obvious empathy for both the Shepard family’s pain and for the struggles faced by all members of the larger Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender community. It is a courageous letter because there was at time when considerable pressure existed, within a part of the Civil Rights community, not to acknowledge the pain and suffering within the gay rights movement as being on a par with the struggle for racial equality. And what Coretta King acknowledged was that ignorance and prejudice that results in the infliction of pain and injustice anywhere, no matter what the source, threatens to diminish the fabric of our Society and the quality of life everywhere. And so Coretta King’s letter of 17 years ago gives us insight and adds depth to the varied stories behind two of the notable symbols that have marked this week past—the confederate flag and the rainbow flag.
One can not help but notice that our 150th anniversary celebration of the establishment of St. Matthew’s as a parish—also marks 150 years since the end of the Civil War. 150 years since the end of the Civil War is the principle fact that makes the shooting and death of 9 members of a noted African American Church in Charleston so painful. For aside from the tragic loss of life, the shooting reminds us that issues of race and racism still haunt our nation, despite the fervent prayers of many to the contrary.
Perhaps we are simply naive in our expectation that seven generations would be enough time for the wounds inflicted by the brutal institution of slavery to end. Or Perhaps we have been blind to the power of the structures, symbols and language of oppression that still exist: De facto segregation, racial profiling an unequal prison system, and other factors that work to undermine the proposition that: Black Lives—do indeed—Matter.
In his eulogy for Clementa Pinckney, President Obama made reference to a persistent symbol of oppression when he noted that ‘…we all have to acknowledge [that] the (Confederate) flag has always represented more than ancestral pride. For many, black and white, that flag was a reminder of systemic oppression and racial subjugation. We see that now.” And then our President added to Governor Haley’s call to remove the Confederate flag from the states capital by observing that:
“Removing the flag from this state’s capital would not be an act of political correctness. It would not an insult to the valor of Confederate soldiers. It would simply be acknowledgement that the cause for which they fought, the cause of slavery, was wrong. The imposition of Jim Crow after the Civil War, the resistance to civil rights for all people was wrong.
It would be one step in an honest accounting of America’s history, a modest but meaningful balm for so many unhealed wounds. It would be an expression of the amazing changes that have transformed this state and this country for the better because of the work of so many people of goodwill, people of all races, striving to form a more perfect union.
And the President concluded his thoughts by proclaiming that:
“By taking down that flag, we express God’s grace.”
The important principle for us to wrestle with—what I think lies behind the Presidents words—is that leaders, and those who are in power, bear an added obligation to work to eliminate and remove barriers that are placed in the path of those seeking recognition healing and justice.
At first glance, it might appear that this morning Gospel, a passage that sets out to tell the story of the Healing of Jairus’s daughter, has little to do with the events of this past week. If you listen carefully there were actually two stories within the gospel passage: the story of the women suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years is kind of sandwiched into the middle of the other story. And at first you may think How strange that this woman with hemorrhages who suddenly appears in the crowd. And you might say 12 years—how awful—-but you do not know the half of it. As an observant Jew in the time of Jesus the woman’s life would have been further constrained by the laws of Moses
Leviticus Chapter 15 lays out that: When a woman has a discharge of blood she shall be in her impure for seven days, and whoever touches her shall be unclean. The law further states that: Everything upon which she lies or sits during her impurity shall be unclean… And whoever touches her bed shall must wash their clothes, and be unclean until the evening.
Effectively the purity law that applied to the hemorrhaging woman would have condemned her to 12 years of strict social isolation. Cast in that light—it is amazing that this woman, who we are told had endured so much, even makes it to a public place to come into contact with Jesus. By itself, the healing of the hemorrhaging woman is remarkable, yet perhaps even more notable is that Jesus is primarily interested in the plight and the humanity of the woman—more than he is in the dogma & social structures that have effectively shut her out of the community for half her life. On that day, in one breathtaking encounter with a hemorrhaging woman, Jesus began to change the whole notion of who was acceptable before God—and worthy of healing and wholeness.
It has ever been the work of the church to continue to engage in that conversation—asking if there are any groups within the people of God who bear the burden of less than full acceptance for reasons that cease to match our current understanding of our common human condition. With regard to sexual orientation and identity our denomination by different means has reached a conclusion similar to that upheld by the Supreme Court. It was Justice Kennedy who explained:
the Constitution’s power and endurance rest in the Constitution’s ability to evolve along with the nation’s consciousness. In that service, Kennedy said, the court itself has recognized that new insights and social understandings can reveal unjustified inequality within our most fundamental institutions that once passed unnoticed and unchallenged.
Following in the footsteps of Jesus, it is our vocation to take notice and to challenge the status quo and address inequality in the world around us. You many not be familiar with the writings or sermons of our New Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, but I want to conclude with the thoughts of another African Anglican Leader. Archbishop Desmond Tutu offered these thoughts in the year 1991. He related this short Vignette:
At home in South Africa, I have sometimes said in big meetings, where you have black and white together: “Raise your hands!” Then I’ve said, “Move your hands,” and I’ve said “look at your hands—different colors representing different people. You are the rainbow people of God.” And you remember the rainbow in the Bible is the sign of peace. the rainbow is the sign of prosperity. We want peace, [We want]prosperity, And [We want] justice—-And we can have it when all the people of God, the rainbow people of God, work together.
Sermon preached by The Reverend Eric Kimball Hinds at The Episcopal Church of Saint Matthew, San Mateo, California on The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost on 28 June 2015, Year B. Lessons: 2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27; Psalm 130; 2 Corinthians 8:7-15; Mark 5:21-43.