A colleague told me about the time a friend came out to her. “We were talking,” she said, “when Lisa told me she’d recently come out.” My friend confessed that she was surprised by the comment and, quite truthfully, wasn’t sure how she felt about her friend’s coming out…so, she asked one of those good deflecting questions: “What does that mean for you?” Lisa responded, “It means I’m gay.”
When she heard that, my friend was greatly relieved. “Oh! You’re gay! What a relief! When you told me you’d come out, I thought that meant you were a debutante.”
This Tuesday is National Coming Out Day. Coming out is the process of naming and claiming one’s sexual orientation or gender identity. And coming out isn’t just a one-time event; it’s something that happens again and again and again. A friend once told me, “Last week, I came out 12 times.” Another friend said: I didn’t have a dramatic coming out experience…it’s staying out that’s been hard. When I feel like so many people feel hatred for me, it’s hard to keep my chin up and think about the goodness and love I feel from God every day.
In many places, being gay, transgender, bisexual, or non-gender conforming is still dangerous. In some places, it’s illegal. Even in countries with few legal restrictions, prejudice remains and violence against LGBTQ folks still occurs with alarming regularity. In our world, naming and claiming one’s sexual orientation or gender identity takes great courage. We’re so welcoming of folks here at UCT, it’s easy to forget that, outside this place, our LGBTQ siblings don’t always experience the same kind of welcome.
That’s why it’s important we are here. That’s why it’s important to live and celebrate our mission to welcome everyone in Christ. That’s why it’s important to create a safe place for folks to be who they are created by God to be, to listen to each other’s stories, to support each other when the world beats us down, to remind each other just how precious each of us is to God.
I suspect that if we asked our LGBTQ friends, most would confess to having struggled at some point in their lives to feel precious in anyone’s eyes, especially God’s. When basic rights are denied, when threats to one’s personal safety are constant, when people try to change you or call you names, it takes a lot of energy and imagination to believe in your worth.
The same was true for people suffering from leprosy in first century Palestine. According to Jewish law, here’s a day in the life of a leper:
The person who has leprous disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head be disheveled; he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, “Unclean, unclean.” He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease…He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.
This business about being unclean was taken seriously in biblical times. If you were clean, you were in the community; if you were unclean, you were out. The rationale was that illness resulted from sin. If you’re living right, you’re healthy. If you’re unhealthy, then you must be sinning. And if you’re sinning, you don’t deserve to be in relationship with God. If you’re sinning, the rest of us don’t want to be in relationship with you…because then we might “catch” your uncleanness. Then we’ll be cut off from the community and God, too.
Some of us know what it’s like to be excluded from communities. We’ve been asked to leave churches. We’ve been thrown out of our families. We’ve been “disfellowshipped” from our denominations. Some of us have been told we’re not welcome… and not just folks from the LGBTQ community. Also disabled folks, divorced folks, unmarried parents…lots of folks. Others of us, while not explicitly excluded from communities, have been treated in ways that we had no choice but to leave; at some point, the actions of people in the community made it impossible for us to stay.
Exclusion–overt and subtle–is devastating. It makes us feel small, powerless, unloved, unworthy. If you’ve ever experienced exclusion, you know just how devastating it can be.
As devastating as overt and subtle exclusion are, though, there is another even more insidious form of exclusion: self-exclusion. Sometimes we convince ourselves that we don’t deserve to be part of the community…so we exclude ourselves from the full benefits of community membership. We get involved, but not too involved. We get to know people, but not too well. We let ourselves become known, but only superficially. It’s as if we have an internal leper, something inside that convinces us of our uncleanness, something that tells us we are wrong or less-than or unworthy, something that convinces us we don’t deserve the nurture of a faith community.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu talks about flying on a small plane once that hit turbulence. As the ride grew rougher, the Archbishop found himself hoping the pilot was white. The thought shocked him. He, who had worked so hard to end Apartheid in South Africa, he, who was himself black, he had internalized racism to the point that, in that frightening moment, he assumed a white pilot would be more skilled than a black pilot. Internalized racism– even in this enlightened individual–continued to diminish him, continued to convince him of his unworthiness. Internalized racism was, for the Archbishop, something like an internal leper.
Have you ever done that? Taken a part of yourself that’s just a part of who you are and, because of how other people demonize that part of you, turned yourself into a leper? Do you have an internal leper, some bit of unhealed suffering deep inside you?
What do we do with our internal lepers? How do we help them heal? How do we allow ourselves back into the nurturing embrace of God’s love? Perhaps we can begin by kissing the leper within.
St. Francis was born to a wealthy family in Assisi, Italy. As a young man, he lived a profligate life, mostly partying and blowing through his father’s hard-earned money.
Then one day Francis met a person in the road who had leprosy. Something compelled Francis to go to the suffering man. When he reached the man, he kissed him.
That kiss changed Francis. Places inside him that once harbored selfishness and gluttony suddenly were filled with compassion. Where he’d once focused only on hedonistic pursuits, from the moment of the kiss, compassion for others, especially the poor, became his sole pursuit. Francis had found the life he was created to live.
As you might imagine, Francis’ family wasn’t pleased. They disowned him. As a result, Francis lost his family’s wealth, but his new life came with riches of its own, the most significant of which was Francis becoming his true self. And a key part of Francis becoming his true self entailed compassionate actions for others.
When we’ve been beaten down by life, it makes sense that we focus on on ourselves. We do that, first, because we’re just trying to survive. Then, when we do find acceptance, our focus turns to living life as our true selves. If you’ve been hiding your whole life, learning how to live as your true self takes time.
The next step–after surviving, after finding acceptance and beginning to live your true life–toward becoming fully human is to share love, acceptance, and resources with others.
Our fearless Finance Committee chair asked if I would preach about stewardship today. Yes! I’m all over it! Let’s go! Then, last week, I forgot to take up the offering. And now, Beth might be wondering what this sermon about healing the leper within has to do with stewardship.
In truth, it has everything to do with stewardship. True generosity is joyous…it comes from a place of love, of compassion inside us…it comes from deep gratitude for all we’ve been given…it comes from healing we’ve experienced…it comes not only from our love for others, but also from our love for ourselves…
The man healed of leprosy who came back to thank Jesus, he got it. He got that surviving the ostracization of illness and then being healed weren’t the end of the story. The end of the story is living a life of gratitude.
Years ago on the TV show, ER, Dr. Mark Green—the show’s star—was dying of a brain tumor. He, his wife, and his teenage daughter rented a house in Hawaii for Mark’s final days. The family’s time was tense, not only because Mark was dying, but because his daughter, Rachel, teenager that she was, was being rebellious.
Finally, just before Mark dies, he asks Rachel to come talk with him. She comes near wearing her ever-present sullen expression. Mark tells her, “I’ve been wondering what one thing I could tell you before I die…what one thing would I want you to remember about me when I’m gone. It’s finally come to me. The one thing I want you to remember is this: ‘Be generous.’”
As we enter this season of what one church calls our “annual giving opportunity,” I encourage us all to be generous…not because I’m the pastor and that’s what I’m supposed to say, not out of guilt, not out of resentment…Let us give out of gratitude for all the love and healing we’ve received…Let us give out of compassion for all who need resources that we can provide… Let us give because when we share with others we become more fully ourselves… Let us give because it brings us joy…
Be generous…be generous…be generous…
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan ©2022