[This was a sermon delivered by Michael Cattlet at Mt. Vernon Baptist Church on March 30, 2014. It is, as you'll see, a eulogy for Fred Phelps, the late leader of the Westboro Baptist Church - a "church" famous for its hate speech targeting homosexuality. I'll let you read this sermon for yourself, but I think it pretty much sums up how we as Christians should approach those so full of bitter hatred. --Ben]
For the past twenty years I have led funeral services for individuals and families who do not have a pastor. A funeral director calls me and asks if I am available to lead the service, and, if I am, he or she sends me contact information for the family. I schedule a time to meet with the bereaved in order to learn about their loved one and plan the service. The only services I have refused to do are those for which I had a conflict that could not be worked out. I have never made my decision to help contingent on the faith or character of the deceased. All of us are God’s children and as a consequence should be treated with dignity and respect.
A good friend of mine once asked if I would lead a funeral for a person who did and said horrible things; he wondered if I would lead a service for someone despicable and cruel. I would lead the service because all of us are created in God’s image and we need to acknowledge that truth.
Then Fred Phelps, Sr. died, the leader of the Westboro Baptist Church, the small and small-minded congregation that pickets military funerals announcing God killed thosesoldiers in retaliation for our nation’s acceptance of homosexuality. Fred Phelps’ children and grandchildren, along with a handful of others, carry posters at the funerals with language so offensive I refuse to repeat it since by repeating it I offer an echo of the hatred and vilification they proclaim.
Fred Phelps and his congregation made headlines in 1998 when they protested at the funeral of Matthew Shepherd, a college student tortured and murdered because he was gay. Phelps and the people of Westboro carried homophobic signs filled with hate speech. According to the church’s website members of the congregation have picketed more than 52,000 times, including the funerals of soldiers and homosexuals, and meetings of churches or organizations that are willing to speak out for the civil rights of homosexuals. Jews have also been objects of Westboro’s hatred since the Jews killed Jesus, according to Phelps. Phelps vilified our nation because our nation was unwilling to execute homosexuals in accordance with his interpretation of biblical law.
Fred Phelps loved to hate. I think he loved to be hated and found almost as much satisfaction being vilified as vilifying others. “Fred Phelps’ family is the most hated family in America,” according to one of the many articles announcing his death. I expect Phelps was proud of that; after all, folks hated Jesus, too, he likely thought. He was glad to take a stand for God when others lacked courage. His faith in God gave birth to and caused him to be the object of hatred.
It’s one thing for me to say I’d do his service; it’s another to figure out what I’d say. His children had no funeral for their father. Funerals are the creation of men, according to last Sunday’s sermon posted on the Westboro church website. There’s nothing biblical about a funeral, according to the preacher. “You can’t look down at that hole in the ground and at the same time look up at God,” he sermonized. After all, Jesus said the dead should bury the dead. Fred Phelps’ entourage prefers to glorify God through the hatred they offer as God’s word. Since they had no funeral for Fred Phelps, Sr., I guess these words will have to do.
I offer this eulogy for Fred Phelps, Sr., a child of God. Fred would likely have known the word eulogy comes from a Greek word that means praise. A eulogy is a word of commendation offered for someone because of who they are or what they’ve done.
I was taught if I could not say anything nice about someone it was better not to say anything at all. Yet I’m not comfortable with the silence, with the things left unsaid that are said whether they are spoken aloud or not. Folks have said awful things about Fred Phelps. They’ve rejoiced he is dead; they wished him agony at the end of this life and for all eternity; they prayed God would punish him the way he thought God would punish others. Very few if any wept when Fred Phelps died, unless they shed tears of joy.
I wonder what gave Fred Phelps comfort or hope as he knew his time on earth would soon be over? I thought of the twenty-third psalm, a favorite text for funerals. But what struck me as I read the text this time was how focused on self the psalm is. I, me and my occur with great frequency in the few short verses. Perhaps that’s how Fred saw life and ministry. The Lord was his shepherd, not Matthew Shepherd’s shepherd. Fred didn’t want. God led Fred, which is certainly what Phelps believed. Fred’s cup overflowed, though I doubt many thought the cup contained love, grace or compassion. Goodness and mercy were not qualities that followed him. He left behind a legacy of hate, which was what he intended. Phelps accomplished what he set out to do; few can say the same.
Ecclesiastes, another familiar funeral passage, reminds us there is a time for hate, and for some this seems an appropriate moment. Fred thought any time was a good time to hate, and those who hate him feel much the same way, which means Fred and his detractors agree at least on this. Fred thought it was time for war and he waged it relentlessly against those who others hated with more subtlety. Fred gave expression to anxieties and fears that were whispered rather than shouted, hinted at rather than openly declared. Some who would never picket a soldier’s funeral shared Fred’s hatred and carried his posters in their hearts; some still do.
Martin Luther King reminded us darkness cannot dispel darkness; only light can. Hatred cannot dispel hatred; only love can. Fred Phelps was a hater God loved.
I imagine Fred’s wife, children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren loved Fred, though I am sure he was never an easy man to love. At his death he was estranged with a few of his children and may have been estranged from his church. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t love him. I am sure there was goodness in him we never saw; all we could see were the pickets he carried and the hateful slogans he shouted. I imagine he brought a smile to his grandchild’s face even if he brought a frown or grimace to others. I suspect there was goodness in him though goodness knows I never could find it.
God loves Fred Phelps. God loves him not because there’s goodness in him, not because he made a child laugh, not because he rightly or wrongly understood the scriptures, and not because he stood up for what he believed. God loves him because that’s God’s nature, a quality and characteristic of God Fred Phelps refused to believe in, or believed in less than he did the notion of a vengeful God. Fred trusted God gives us what we deserve for our sinful ways. I trust Fred’s wrong.
God’s love is unconditional. God’s love is not contingent upon anything, for if God’s love were subject to our actions and decisions than we would be in control of God’s love which would make us mightier than the Almighty. God’s love is not a reward; God’s love is not withdrawn as a penalty. God loves us because we are God’s children, God’s creation made in God’s image. Jesus said we are to love our neighbors as our selves. Perhaps that’s means we are to see a bit of ourselves in our neighbor. Perhaps God loves us as God loves God’s self, seeing in each of us a reflection of the divine. We never fully reflect God’s image and we cannot fail to reflect a bit of God’s image. If all we offer Fred Phelps is hatred than we give him what he wanted, what gave him life, what energized him and enabled him to continue hating. Jesus said we are to love our neighbor and our enemies, which includes everyone, even Fred Phelps.
Love certainly doesn’t mean all of our transgressions are overlooked. In fact, love means each transgression is considered and examined. One doesn’t love one’s child if one simply overlooks his or her errors and mistakes; love points out the transgressions and encourages him or her to correct the mistakes. A husband and wife do not love when they choose to ignore the faults and failings in the one they love but when they recognize the imperfections in the one they love and still determine to love.
I don’t know what kind of reception Fred Phelps received when he and God met face to face. I believe Fred Phelps and I are both flawed human beings who imperfectly reflect the image and love of God. I trust God will be true to God’s self and do what is good, right and just with Fred and me. I have no need to interfere or watch and no reason to gloat.
I need to love Fred Phelps, not for his sake or mine, but for God’s sake. Loving him does not mean I embrace or endorse what he did, believe he was right, or think he was a good man worthy of loving. I love Fred Phelps when I treat him with dignity and respect. Some will see that as countenancing what he did or ignoring the hurt he caused. Truth is it is easier for me to love Fred Phelps than it is for some others to love him because I was not the target of his hatred. Yet when he targeted some of us he targeted all of us. When he denigrated some of us he denigrated us all, including himself, for we are all God’s children.
Some good has come from Phelps’ hatred. Our nation is far more aware of how damaging it is to us all to discriminate because of sexual preferences. We are more cognizant of the terrible toll unspoken and quiet hatreds take when we hear those hatreds amplified. Some have gone to great lengths to say God is not made in Fred Phelps’ image, which should be a reminder to us all God is not made in anyone’s image.
I wonder what it would have been like to picket Fred’s funeral, if he had had one. I’d carry a placard that said, “God loves Fred Phelps.” There could have been another that read, “Hatred cannot dispel hatred; only love can.” What if a poster declared, “Gays love Fred Phelps,” though only a gay person with an enormous capacity for love could write and carry it.
The only eulogy I offer is Fred Phelps was and is God’s child. It’s a word of praise given not because of accomplishments or in spite of transgressions. Perhaps to declare one is and will always be a child of God is the least and most we can ever say with certainty about anyone. It’s a word of praise based on the character and essence of God. God is love, which is the least and most we can ever say with certainty about God. Amen.