Several groups were calling this week for clergy to speak out about bullying, particularly bullying directed at gay and lesbian young people (or perceived gay and lesbian young people), and to educate us all about the prevalence of gay and lesbian teen suicide. This call was a reaction to the death of Tyler Clementi, an 18 year old Rutgers University student. Six other gay teens are known to have committed suicide since the beginning of September as well: Asher Brown, 13, of Houston, Texas; Seth Walsh, 13, of Tehachapi, California; Billy Lucas, 15, of Greensburg, Indiana; Raymond Chase, 19, of Providence, Rhode Island; Caleb Nolt, 14, of Ft. Wayne, Indiana; and Justin Aaberg, 15, of Anoka, Minnesota. All boys; one of them, Raymond Chase, African American.
The reality is that gay teens commit suicide in these kinds of numbers all the time. The media happened to notice Tyler Clementi’s death and then poked around a little and were “shocked” to find that seven of them did it in a space of less than three weeks. Folks, this has been going on in America for decades. Best estimates are that around one-third of all teen suicide is related to sexual orientation. Those estimates have been around for thirty years.
We know that gay teens are four times more likely to commit suicide than heterosexual teens. If they have been removed from their home it jumps to eight times. And all of these numbers are only those who are successful in killing themselves and whose family reports them as having been gay or lesbian. If you figure in the number who attempt but don’t succeed and the number whose family will not say that about their loved one, we have something like an epidemic on our hands.
But like the shooting of young black men in cities such as our own, it’s not clear who actually cares.
Well, of course, I think I can safely say that we do. But we are a tiny minority in the church. Of course very, very few church people would encourage a gay teen to kill themselves, but many, many provide the words and the judgments that lead to the deed being done. At the risk of judging myself, I cannot help but think of something Jesus said at the beginning of the chapter from which we heard this morning.
It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble. (17:2)
One would think we would have made some advancements over the last forty years, and, of course, we have. It is easier and more likely for a young person to discover and claim their sexual orientation. And it is more possible to find a supportive environment in which to grow up if you are gay or lesbian. But we have a very long way to go, because the places where it is truly safe to be who you are if you are gay are still few and far between.
The messages out there are too mixed. The world has not decided whether gay people are OK or not. And the church is behind a lot of that indecision. The second in command of the Mormon Church, Apostle Boyd Packer, put out a video message to Mormons this week in which he explained why the church was not backing down in its opposition to homosexuality. In a four minute talk he used the words: evil, wickedness, unnatural, impure, immoral, wrong, addiction, unworthy, darkness. “We cannot change, we will not change the moral standards,” he said.
I thank God I was not raised in the Church so that I did not hear this kind of stuff. I could easily have ended up where Tyler Clementi and those other boys did in the last few weeks.
Instead, in my early twenties, I heard stories like the ten lepers, the Gospel reading for this morning. People in Jesus’ day were afraid of lepers and made sure they lived as outcasts from society. The Bible told them to do that. The Bible told them that was the way it should be. It could not have been clearer.
Jesus has already encountered one leper in Luke’s Gospel and healed him, back in chapter 5 (12-16). In that encounter Jesus touched the leper, something no Jew would have done in his day. Lepers were unclean to begin with, but everyone was also sure that skin diseases were highly contagious.
Now Jesus comes upon ten of them. Lepers frequently travelled in groups. They shout out, asking him for mercy, and he tells them to go to the priests and show themselves. Only a priest could certify that a leper was clean. They obeyed, and we are told that on their way to see the priests, they were healed.
One came back. In an easy interpretation of the story, we say that he was the grateful one, the one who remembered to come back and say thank you, just like our mothers taught us to do. That’s not a bad lesson, but there is more to it than that.
The one who came back was a Samaritan. In the eyes of Jews Samaritans were heretics and outcasts. Why did this one come back to Jesus? Because, I think, he had nowhere else to go. If he had gone with the others to the priests it wouldn’t have done him any good at all. He might no longer be a leper, but he was still a Samaritan. He would have been thrown out of the Temple, probably with some of the words Apostle Parker used in his little speech.
He could only run to Jesus, sensing that he was OK with him and once there all that he could manage to say was “thank you.” I think the thank you was as much for his acceptance as his healing, and his gratitude, we are told, saved him (“your faith has made you well” can also be translated “your faith has saved you”). Jesus didn’t insist that he convert or in any way change who he was. “Your gratitude has saved you.”
That’s the story.
So who in their right mind let the Samaritan lepers into the Church? Jesus did. And too many of his followers have been trying to keep them out ever since. And this exclusion is death dealing to our young people. And as impossible as it may seem, as “David and Goliath” as it may seem, this tiny minority of Christians who has let the Samaritan lepers in and said that since they are grateful just like us then they must be saved just like us, we have to tell the rest of the church it is wrong and work to change its heart and mind (or at least in the meantime just shut up).
Being afraid is not Gospel news. As a gay man, I am not as afraid as I once was, but it still happens. I still have a hair fear trigger. John and I were looking for a museum in St. John’s, New Brunswick this summer. We were walking more or less side by side but several feet from each other. We just had on regular clothes, nothing self-identifying. We walked past a couple of restaurants with many patrons outside on a nice summer day.
Suddenly from behind me I could hear: Look at the fags! They should know better than to be down here! You’d better be scared faggot! God hates you!
My heart was racing, but we got inside quickly and went to the museum. We got on with our lives; you learn to do that. But we spent about three hours in St. John’s and I never stopped looking over my shoulder.
You know the world doesn’t have to be like that. God doesn’t want it to be like that. The Church should not want it to be like that either, or it should just close up shop because it isn’t good for a whole helluva lot, making straight white “normal” people feel better about themselves while at best ignoring the rest of us and at worst seeking to do us harm in the name of an angry God.
The antidote starts here, as always, with our own thanks, which has the power to heal and to save. Let us receive this power of acceptance and go forth into the world as Samaritan lepers, all of us, full of good news.
And let us be clear to our brothers and sisters, “You must stop your words that take away people’s worth. They are death dealing. Young people listen to them and kill themselves. Stop, just stop it, in the name of Jesus Christ, stop it.”