Dean Hall: “The Final Barrier”
Fifteen years ago this month, Matthew Shepard was killed in Laramie, Wyoming. Three years ago last month, Tyler Clementi committed suicide in New York City. Matthew was 21 when he died, Tyler 18. Both young men were gay. We here at the cathedral are taking this weekend both to remember and honor Matthew and Tyler and to commit ourselves to standing with and for LGBT youth.
In preparation for our conversations both Friday night and this morning, I reread Moises Kaufman’s play, The Laramie Project, an innovative theater piece created and produced by the Tectonic Theater Project as a response to Matthew Shepard’s death. Through a series of conversations with the participants, the play sometimes graphically represents the events of October 1998. As I reread The Laramie Project I was moved and shocked all over again, but this time I was particularly taken by the remarks of a catholic priest, Father Roger Schmit, who talks about his participation in a vigil held in Laramie for Matthew. When he was interviewed about his participation in the vigil, Father Schmit said this:
And I’m not gonna sit here and say, “I was just this bold guy—no fear.” I was scared. I was very vocal in this community when this happened—and I thought, “You know, should we, uh, should we call the bishop and ask him permission to do the vigil?” And I was like, “Hell, no, I’m not going to do that.” His permission doesn’t make it correct, you realize that? And I’m not knocking bishops, but what is correct is correct. (The Laramie Project, p. 65)
And then he goes on to say this:
You think violence is what they did to Matthew—they did do violence to Matthew—but you know, every time that you are called [and here he uses a couple of homophobic epithets I’d rather not repeat in the pulpit] … Do you realize that is violence. That is the seed of violence. (p. 66)
That’s Father Schmit, a Roman Catholic priest, speaking in 1998, not in the new, open days of Pope Francis but in the old, authoritarian days of John Paul. So think about the courage of those words in their own context. As a person of faith, he responded to a violent hate crime committed against a young man viscerally and from the heart. He knew what was right, and he did it.
A lot has changed socially and culturally in the last 15 years in America with regard to attitudes toward sexual orientation and gender identity. But still, as far as young people are concerned, the distance between Laramie, Rutgers, and the rest of the country is not as far as we might think. Every day, all across America, countless unnamed boys and girls suffer indignity, humiliation, bullying, and violence, and they feel that they are in it all alone. And I’m sorry to say that much of the blame belongs to our churches, which give religious cover to the last cultural prejudice that we allow to persist in our society: the stigmatization of a person because of sexual orientation or gender identity. And that cultural prejudice against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered people persists even in a time when every third television show features a gay protagonist or next-door neighbor. That prejudice persists because Christian churches continue to promote it.
Today’s Gospel begins with a very strange request to Jesus by his companions: “Increase our faith!” they demand. Step back from that question and think about it. More faith: isn’t that a weird thing to ask for?
But as odd as the “increase our faith” question is, Jesus’ reply is even stranger: “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you” (Luke 17:6). Have you ever seen a mustard seed? A mustard seed is really tiny. It makes a poppy seed look like a watermelon. Jesus responds to his companions by means of a startling comparison. If you had even an atom of faith you could work miracles. “You don’t need more faith,” he seems to be saying. “You just need some faith. Right now you don’t seem to have any faith at all.”
Now let’s go back to Father Schmit’s words and think about them in the context of this faith and mustard seed interchange. There were other Christian clergy in Laramie who didn’t stand up for Matthew Shepard. They didn’t want publicly to commit themselves to standing up for a gay young man, and they most likely were Christians of the “Increase our faith!” persuasion. “I’d stand with Matt if I had more faith.” In contrast to conflict-avoidant Christianity, Father Schmit seems to understand what Jesus is talking about this morning. “I’m not gonna sit here and say, ‘I was just this bold guy—no fear.’ I was scared.” He didn’t wait until he was fearless to act. He acted and found that he didn’t have to be ruled by his fear.
I don’t know what I would have done or said in Laramie, Wyoming, in 1998 or in New Brunswick, New Jersey, in 2010, but I hope I would have had the courage of Father Schmit. I do know what today’s Gospel calls me (and I believe you) to be doing and saying this morning. It’s tragic that we still live in a nation and in a world where the last socially acceptable prejudice is against LGBT people. It’s tragic that we still live in a nation and a world where LGBT youth are vulnerable because of that prejudice and the way it combines with the other stresses of adolescence and young adulthood. But it’s more than tragic—in fact it’s shameful—that faith communities, especially Christian ones, continue to be complicit in putting our children at risk and abetting the attitudes that oppress them, thereby encouraging the aggressors who would subject our children to pain, humiliation, and violence.
I’m old enough to remember a time when Christian churches, including our own Episcopal Church, segregated its churches and actively participated in racism. I’m old enough to remember the ordination of women movement, when many in our church found ingenious theological arguments to deny women leadership roles and so promoted sexism. In its wisdom, the church came to its senses and labeled both racism and sexism as sinful. And now we find ourselves at the last barrier—call that barrier homophobia, call it heterosexism. We must now have the courage to take the final step and call homophobia and heterosexism what they are. They are sin. Homophobia is a sin. Heterosexism is a sin. Shaming people for whom they love is a sin. Shaming people because their gender identity doesn’t fit neatly into your sense of what it should be is a sin. Only when all our churches say that clearly and boldly and courageously will our LGBT youth be free to grow up in a culture that totally embraces them fully as they are.
Those of us who gather around this table this morning believe that God has done a new thing in Jesus and is continuing that new thing in us. God is breaking down categories and barriers between people and creating a new humanity in which all the particularities of how we identify ourselves—racial, ethnic, gender, class—are accepted and blessed as they contribute to the expanding wonder and diversity of a human race created in God’s image. The new humanity that gathers with Jesus at his table come together as we are, secure in the knowledge that it is good and right to be who we are and to celebrate our identity in its myriad fullness. It is not only just OK to be gay, straight, bisexual, or transgendered. It is good to be that way, because that is the way God has made you. And the Christian community, the world community, needs you to bring the totality of your being—including and maybe especially your sexual and gender identity—to the table.
Young LGBT men and young women will continue to be vulnerable to the sins of homophobia and heterosexism, to the violence of hate and fear until we in the church can say to homosexuals now what it has said to heterosexuals for 2,000 years. Your sexuality is good. The church not only accepts it. The church celebrates it and rejoices in it. God loves you as you are, and the church can do no less.
Only when we find a way fearlessly to speak just that clearly and boldly to LGBT kids, their families, their schools, and their communities, will the world be a safe and nurturing place for the Matthew Shepards and Tyler Clementis of our own day. We don’t need more faith. We just need some faith—faith in a God who is bigger and deeper and more loving and compassionate than we are. It really is OK for you and me to be who we are. Our job, as Christians, is not only to proclaim that Gospel. Our job is to live it. And if we are faithful in proclaiming and living it, today’s generation of LGBT youth will thrive and grow and take their places around this table, with Jesus, as we bless, forgive, heal, and love the world. Amen.