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Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost – October 10, 2010

In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,  who welcomes, embraces, and loves us all for who we are. Amen.

Where did those nine former lepers go? They didn’t come back to Jesus to express their gratitude and amazement. Did you ever wonder about that? We tend to focus on the one who turned back and praised Jesus but what ever happened to the other nine?

I wonder if one was a mother who couldn’t wait to see her children. Another may have been so excited that he just forgot to say “thank you.” Maybe one was a nonbeliever and thought that there must be a scientific reason for his cure. Could one of the lepers have been so grateful that she had to go and tell everyone that she had met the Messiah? Of course, this is all speculation, a little holy imagination. We simply don’t know what they did or where they went. We only know that the tenth leper turned back and fell down at the feet of Jesus with profound thanks.

Lepers suffered from a disfiguring contagious disease that created great hysteria among the people and were required to wear torn clothing and let their hair hang loose. They wore bells and announced themselves by shouting “Unclean!” when they approached the borders of the town looking for food. Perhaps worse than the physical deformity and loss of limbs was the pain of utter loneliness and isolation from the larger community.  They lived in exile.

On top of all this misery, this tenth leper was a Samaritan, a double outsider—not only by virtue of his leprosy but also by his non-Jewish blood. Samaritans were despised by Jews and looked upon as the scum of the earth. This man was a persecuted minority and he would live in exile from the mainstream community even after his healing from Leprosy, Exile. We hear this same theme in the Old Testament reading from Jeremiah—people forced by society to live on the margins of life.

This Gospel about the ten lepers has typically been understood as a paradigm about thanksgiving but recent events have led me to revisit this Gospel as a story about communities of people forced to live in isolation, to be the objects of humiliation—to be relegated to exile because of bigotry, injustice, and unadulterated hatred.

It would have been an easy out to use this text to make an appeal about your annual giving in the financial pledge you will be invited to make in the next few weeks. I’m not going to do that today. There is another message that needs preaching and I truly believe that for me, as a spiritual leader of this community, to be silent about it would be very wrong.

So this morning I need to speak for Tyler Clementi, Billy Lucas, Asher Brown, Justin Aaberg, and Seth Walsh— five teenage boys who killed themselves after being physically and or verbally assaulted for being gay. Five young people in California, Indiana, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Texas who were the victims of bullying—an epidemic that has invaded our schools and the internet.

The tragic story of Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers University student who jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge last week, may strike closest to home. Then on Thursday a young gay man was stripped naked and brutally tortured and beaten by a gang in the Bronx.

That these five deaths and violent beating should occur so near to the anniversary of Matthew Shepard’s murder in Wyoming twelve years ago is a huge wake-up call about the continuing pervasiveness and intensity of homophobia in this country.

A number of celebrities are speaking out in hopes of raising awareness and providing support to teens and young adults who are being victimized or who are having trouble dealing with their sexuality. Kudos to them, but what about the church?

I am not suggesting that kids are not harassed for their looks or their race or their weight or for many other reasons, but what makes anti-gay bullying different is that it’s the only kind of bigotry supported, even encouraged by so many religions. In the midst of these tragic teen deaths a top Mormon leader broadcasted a verbal rampage against gays to millions of viewers preaching that same-sex attraction is “impure and unnatural” and that same-sex unions are morally wrong.

Do we need more proof than the suicides of teens as young as 13 that words like these can do unimaginable damage? How many young lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender kids have to sit in churches that spew that kind of venom or endure the painful labels like “fag” and “dyke” or “queer” in their school environment.

The Episcopal Church has long affirmed the dignity, equality and inclusion of all people, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity but, sadly, we are in the minority and far too many denominations preach messages that make young LGBT kids think there’s no way out but suicide – that their parents will reject them, that their communities will shun them, and that living openly will bring pain or violence – that even God looks on their very identity as a sin, that maybe God truly hates them.

And that religion-generated rubbish fuels the bullying, harassment, and violence that plague our schools. A huge instrument for hateful, harmful behavior is Facebook. We cannot stay silent. There is no place for that in our life as one who professes to follow Jesus.

The mission of this church is to create an environment of radical welcome and hospitality offering the guarantee that each person who walks through our doors will be given the freedom to be just who God created her or him to be, assuring all a place at God’s Table here. Would that this were the mission of every church.  It could literally save lives.

Can you imagine that a God who is the embodiment of radical love would allow women and men to be born with an attraction towards their same gender and then sentence them to a life of misery, loneliness, and discrimination by forbidding them to fall in love and be subject to verbal and physical abuse?

Tomorrow, October 11, is National Coming Out Day, a day to raise awareness about the way society still discriminates against and marginalizes gay men and women. Please pray for the families of Tyler Clementi, Billy Lucas, Asher Brown, Justin Aaberg, and Seth Walsh tomorrow.  Imagine what a painful day it will be for them.

What if the world were the kind of place where those five teen boys and so many other women and men could safely, proudly, and easily “come out” to their parents, friends, family, and church. I call that kind of world the Kingdom of God. Let’s build it together.

The Gospel today offers us a new vision. It was only to the Samaritan that Jesus said, “Your faith has made you well.” He was not speaking about leprosy when he said that—the man was already cured—but about a different kind of wellness. He was teaching us that deep-rooted human divisions are a much more serious disease. God does not want any of God’s children living in isolation or exile, forced to the margins of life, but calls them all to the center.

I am profoundly grateful that  this community has grown into a New Creation where we work together to break down divisions that exclude people because of their race, age, nationality, sexual orientation, religion, or any other difference and tear down borders and fences that create a class of insiders and outsiders. Bullying, hatred, discrimination can be lethal weapons. They can kill as easily as a bullet. About this we cannot be silent and claim to be the church Jesus founded. We owe that to Tyler, Billy, Lucas, Justin, and Seth. May they now at last rest in the arms of the loving God who made them.

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