Lepers and bullies

Rev. Sara Lamar-Sterling

October 10, 2010

First and Summerfield UMC, New Haven, CT

Luke 17: 11-19

Recently I’ve been thinking of a guy from my high school.  I grew up in eastern Pennsylvania, near the famously defunct Bethlehem steel mills, surrounded by corn and hay fields.  I attended a small high school, there were about 100 people in my graduating class.  In a school that size, you get to know each other.  So I knew the names of just about everyone in my class as well as the students a year ahead of me and a year behind me.

One day, this guy John and some of his friends were walking down the hallway, goofing off as they usually did.  Probably skipping class.  And as I continued down the hall, I heard them say something to another student walking far ahead of me, Pablo.  They called him some names.  They didn’t hit him or push him.  They didn’t knock his books out of his hands.  They just called him names. One in particular I’m not really sure I understood at the time: John and his friends called Pablo a fag.  I’m not sure what I understood, but it was clear that John and his pals meant to intimidate Pablo.  In my small town high school in the 1980s, some of my classmates were casually harassing another classmate because of their perceptions about his sexuality. 

In the last month, a 13-year-old Californian hanged himself. A 15-year-old Indiana boy hanged himself. A 13-year-old Houston boy shot himself. A 19-year-old Rhode Island man hanged himself. A Rutgers University freshman jumped off a bridge after he was secretly filmed in a liaison with another man. Last weekend, 3 men, one of whom was 17 years old, were assaulted and tortured by a gang in the Bronx.  These suicides and assaults have one thing in common: bullying GLBT people.

It’s very unlikely that many of us in this sanctuary have gone through high school without witnessing or suffering from similar harassment.  It’s even possible that some of us have acted in menacing ways like John and his friends.  And it’s likely that some of us have felt like I did, not knowing how to respond or what to do.

I don’t know whatever happened to John or to Pablo.  I don’t know if either of them finished college, got jobs, got married, came out, had kids…I don’t know how they dealt with the ups and downs of life.  I don’t even know if either of them remember this one moment in our high school hallway they way I do.  At the time, I knew that what I saw and heard that day was wrong.  But I didn’t know what to do about it. I grew up in church and I didn’t know that my God expected me to do something about it.  

In those missing years of Jesus life, from age 13 to age 30, I wonder if he ever had moments like that.  Witnessing the despicable behavior of his peers, confused by it, or angered, or, knowing Jesus, overwhelmed with compassion for both victim and bully.  I’m sure he must have, because by the time he learned Torah inside and out, by the time he turned water into wine, by the time Jesus preached good news and forgave sins and fed multitudes and healed everybody who asked and even some who didn’t, Jesus knew how to handle the bullies of his day.

In Jesus’ community, those bullies tended to be scribes and Pharisees and priests.  People who had power and, much like the Romans, wielded that power over others in harsh and life-threatening ways.  A quick read of this story of healing 10 lepers may not sound like a confrontation with some 1st century bullies, but it was just that.  Jesus knew how to handle bullies. He stood up to them. 

Those 10 lepers, ostracized and excluded from their families, their friends, their entire communities because of skin diseases, had miserable lives.  The priests made sure of it.  These religious leaders made sure the lepers were outside the town walls; they made sure these 10 sick people who needed medical care and compassion were never shown either.  When the lepers call out to Jesus for healing, Jesus doesn’t just heal them.  He tells them to show themselves to the priest, to prove that they are healed so that can be reinstated in the community, welcomed home, gathered at the dinner table, able to hug and laugh and live full lives of grace. 

With the bodies of these 10 healed people, Jesus challenges the priests and their authority.  As God’s servants, the priests are supposed to bring healing to God’s people, not punishment.  The priests are supposed to bring hope not condemnation, justice not abuse.  When the former lepers show up with their healed skin, the priests are confronted with their failure to live and love as God has called them to do.

And the best part is, the bullying priest will have no option but to verify these unauthorized healings.  No longer will these former lepers be left out, abused, tormented, or harassed.  They will be welcomed back into the community, with healed skin and healed spirits. 

That is, at least 9 of them will be welcomed.  That last leper, the one from Samaria, the outsider of the outsiders, he’s still unwelcome and unwanted.  He can’t show himself to the priest—he’s from a different religious sect.   Even with his healed skin, the Samaritan is still an unwelcome and unwanted person in this region.  There’s a place for Samaritans, and this isn’t it. 

According to those guys I went to high school with, there was a place for teens like Pablo—our high school wasn’t it. 

But according to Jesus, there is a place for Pablo and the other Samaritans of our day.  There is a kind and compassionate welcome for gay men and lesbians, in the body of Christ, just as there is for straight people. There is a kind and compassionate welcome for poor and middle class and wealthy.  There is a kind and compassionate welcome for Africans, for Asians, for Americans.  There is a kind and compassionate welcome for men and women and transgendered people. For children, and adults and the elderly. 

For all people, there is Jesus’ kind and compassionate welcome to community, to healing, to grace.  Not because any of those groups or identities have earned it.  But because God is merciful and just.  There is even a place for the abusers and harassers, but we must stand up to bullies, as Jesus did. 

For too long the Christian Church has remained silent in the face of violence against gays and lesbians, hiding behind our confused United Methodist stance that all people are of sacred worth and homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.  Meanwhile teenagers commit suicide, or gay men are assaulted, or gangs attack a gay couple having a quiet picnic or walking home one night.  This kind of violence has a name, it’s called a hate crime.  And hate crimes are on the rise in the United States, especially against sexual minorities and immigrants.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer , the German Lutheran theologian who was executed by the Nazis, wrote, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil; God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”

So today, I’m going to ask you to do two things.  First, take out your calendars and iphones.  Find November 20th.  I want you to block out that day for a special event.  On the back page of your bulletin, you’ll see there’s an invitation to a symposium on hate crimes in November.  It’ll be held at Grace United Methodist Church, 121 West 104 Street, New York City.  It’s a great program, with educational resources, music, worship, a dramatic presentation and action items.  Come with me to this symposium, and be a part of a United Methodist response to hate crimes.  It’s not about race or class or sexual orientation. It’s not about being liberal or progressive or conservative.  It’s about acting with compassion and seeking justice for all people, no matter what.  As people of faith, we must stand up to hate crimes.

The second thing is this: Before we even get to that Hate Crimes symposium, we need to practice speaking up.  I know that not one of you would ever attack, assault, abduct, torture, or rape another person on any grounds whatsoever.  So you may feel like I’m preaching to the choir today.  “I would never condone violence,” you might say to me.  Even if you’re not so sure you’re on board with being a reconciling congregation in the United Methodist tradition, you may still say to me, “I would never participate in this violence.” 

Good!  But not every community of faith thinks this way.  Not every Christian church understands the gospel this way.  Not every United Methodist Church believes as we do.  And until the United Methodist Church and the Christian Church and the interfaith community can clearly and compassionately say without equivocation that all people are of sacred worth; that violence against any one is unjust; and that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, then there’s work for us to do.

Tomorrow is National Coming Out Day.  There’s a closet for us Christians to come out of—whether we are gay or straight.  It’s a closet of fear, framed by doctrine, a closet where we put difference, any kind of difference.  The cost of hiding in that closet is very high: it means more people like Tyler Clementis will kill themselves; it means more gangs will target sexual minorities for torture or assault like the events from last weekend in the Bronx or earlier this summer in Atlanta, Georgia; it means more violence in our cities, in our towns, in our churches, and in our families. Let’s get out of those closets of fear.  Let’s stand together with Jesus and those lepers he healed, all 10 of them, and say no to violence and fear. 

Someone’s life depends on it.  Amen.

Notes: Names have been changed.

For links to the news stories referenced above, please see:

http://www.nydailynews.com/news/ny_crime/2010/10/09/2010-10-09_gang_goes_on_sick_rampage_sodomizing_teen_with_plunger_and_forcing_another_to_bu.html.

A call for tolerance after the deaths of 5 gay teens - The Denver Post http://www.denverpost.com/opinion/ci_16281433#ixzz11uhuhfX4