Sermon preached the Twentieth Sunday After Pentecost + October 10, 2010
Let us pray, Lord you are a present help in trouble. Come revive. Redeem. Restore. In our darkness come as light. In our sadness come as joy. In our troubles come as peace. In our weakness come as strength. Come Lord to our aid. Revive. Redeem. Restore us. O Lord, Open our eyes to your presence. Open our minds to your grace. Open our lips to your praises. Open our hearts to your love. Open our lives to your healing. And be found among us. Amen.
Sladjana Vidovic’s body lay in an open casket, dressed in the sparkly pink dress she had planned to wear to the prom. Days earlier, she had tied one end of a rope around her neck and the other around a bed post before jumping out her bedroom window. The 16-year-old’s last words, scribbled in English and her native Croatian, told of her daily torment at her High School, where students mocked her accent, taunted her with insults and threw food at her. At her wake, her family watched as the girls who had tormented Sladjana for months walked up to the casket and laughed.
Eric Mohat was flamboyant and loud and preferred to wear pink most of the time. When he didn’t get the lead soprano part in the choir his freshman year, he was indignant, his mother says. Eric Mohat shot himself on March 29, 2007, two weeks before a choir trip to Hawaii. His parents asked the coroner to call it “bullicide.”
Meredith Rezak, 16, shot herself in the head three weeks after the death of Eric Mohat, a good friend of hers. She was bright, outgoing and a well-liked player on the volleyball team. Shortly before her suicide, she had joined the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance and told friends and family she thought she might be gay. Meredith endured her own share of bullying “name-calling, just stupid trivial stuff,” but nobody ever knew it was getting to her.
A year after Meredith’s death, the older of her two brothers, 22-year-old Justin, also shot and killed himself. His death certificate mentioned “chronic depressive reaction.” This March, her only other sibling, Matthew, died of a drug overdose at age 21.
These cases over little more than a two-year time period. Four times a bullied high school student in this small Cleveland suburb on Lake Erie died at his or her own hand, three suicides and one overdose of antidepressants. These tragic deaths happened in a town called of all things Mentor, a pleasant beachfront community voted one of the “100 Best Places to Live” by CNN and Money magazine this year. It is just one place that has been in the national spotlight following high-profile suicides of young people who have killed themselves as a result of being bullied and outcast by their peers.
Bullying is an increasing problem for young people and September was a difficult month. Four individuals who were bullied and harassed killed themselves last month. Fifteen-year-old Billy Lucas hanged himself in a barn in Greensburg, Ind. Asher Brown, 13, shot himself in the head in Houston. 13-year-old Seth Walsh of Tehachapi, California hanged himself from a tree in his backyard. And 18-year-old Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers University freshman and accomplished New Jersey violinist jumped off the George Washington Bridge.
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While leprosy is a medical condition, we bully, harass, and separate many people as lepers due to our own un- or dis-ease with those who are different than us. And we often use others differences to justify our actions. We stigmatize and call names people for the way they were born, the way they behave, or the way they are different from others. These tragic stories of people outcast by bullies and the indifference of teachers, peers and communities has led to sensationalized news reports, increased awareness for some, and perhaps soul-searching for those who bully, harass, stigmatize, or just look the other way.
People are made fun of, bullied, and ostracized for anything that makes them different. It doesn’t matter…
- if it is a medical condition like mental illness or a physical difference,
- if it is who we are from the color of our skin or our sexual orientation,
- if it is our academic or athletic ability,
- or, if it is the way we act and live as unique human beings.
We are all different, we are all in a sense lepers like Naaman, or the ten that Jesus heals. It doesn’t matter why… because the reality is we are all unique, each of us human beings having thousands of traits and differences that distinguish us as who we are, and each of us uniquely made in God’s own image, a reflection of an inclusive God of abundant grace and unconditional love.
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Luke tells us that it happened as Jesus made his way toward Jerusalem, travelling along the border between Samaria and Galilee. It was in this in between place that ten men, all lepers, met him. They kept their distance as was the custom but raised their voices, calling out, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!” Taking a good look at them, Jesus said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.”
The lepers as they went on their way became clean. One of them, when he realized he was healed, turned around and came back, shouting his thanks and praising God. He threw himself at Jesus’ feet so grateful that he couldn’t thank him enough. The man was from the country of Samaria. Jesus then asked, “Were not ten healed? Where are the other nine? Can none be found to come back and give thanks to God except this outsider?” Then Jesus said to him, “Get up and go. Your faith has restored you.”
We don’t really know what put others at un-ease about the ten, or even what type of dis-ease the ten had. All we really know is that the ten were labeled, set apart from “normative” society, and called lepers. The ten would have been bullied for their differences, kept apart from others because it was the societal understanding at the time that their dis-ease was the result of something they must have done. Their dis-ease was thought to be punishment from God, so it didn’t matter who they were, or what they had or hadn’t done… they were unclean, untouchable, their very lives unacceptable.
And so people worked to keep them in their place, outside, out of society’s sight, out of society’s mind. And how different are we as a society today? What barriers and behaviors do we see as normal to keep other, particularly those we may see or treat as modern day lepers outside, out of sight, out of mind? Wouldn’t it be a better world if people knew their place, kept their distance and their differences to themselves?
Insiders and outsiders. It doesn’t matter whether we are talking about our schools, our playing fields, our workplaces, our families, or our churches…
- We categorize each other as insiders and outsiders,
- We categorize each other by the differences we accept and those we don’t.
- We categorize each other by our expectations, both known and unknown.
- We categorize each other as acceptable saints or unacceptable sinners.
Insiders and outsiders. We give thanks and praise because these categories do not matter to Jesus…
- Thankfully Jesus’ place is everywhere, and inside or outside, he welcomes and honors differences.
- Thankfully Jesus sees no boundaries, and today in Luke we find him literally between Samaria and Galilee.
- Thankfully Jesus accepts and loves all regardless of which side of the gates of the village and the “norms” and expectations of society.
- Thankfully Jesus spends time outside the gates, the place where beggars, sinners and outcasts usually are.
- Thankfully Jesus colors outside the lines, thinks outside the box, steps, lives and loves those across societal, class and racial lines.
- Thankfully Jesus is at ease with people society insiders label as outsiders, treat as outcasts, harasses, or bully.
We as insiders or outsiders, we who some days feel whole and connected to community, and we who some days feel like lepers and completely disconnected can find cleansing, comfort, and connectedness to Jesus. Jesus who steps outside the lines, modeling for you and me through his actions, how to show others God’s love! Jesus calls you and me to not only be concerned for others, but
- to step outside societal lines for others,
- to speak across lines for others when injustice happens, where harassment happens, and when bullying happens,
- to act in God’s love… tenderly shielding and sparing others, gently hearing and rescuing others from all their foes.
Jesus’ Word brings healing and wholeness. Our world needs that Word. Our world needs that Bread of Life. Our world needs to know that we go…
- as children of God each made in God’s own image,
- as children of God each loved and forgiven,
- as children of God each with God’s blessing and never alone.