Based on a sermon by Rev. Scott Elliott (a former RUCC pastor)
A message for LGBT teens and others who feel oppressed.
This message focuses on two things from Matthew 5: (1) Jesus’ observation that “You are the light of the world;” and (2) his command in the lesson to “Let your light shine…” Jesus is talking about people being light in the world.
Often sermons on this text are a call to being the shining example of goodness. The text can fairly be heard that way. It is also sometimes understood to be a call to Christians who hide their religious allegiance in order to avoid being persecuted. The call is to let their religion be known and shine so their example allows others to see their goodness and give glory to God. These are both fair ways to hear the text.
The beauty of the Bible and especially Jesus’ teachings is that they can have layered meanings. More than one meaning is possible and none necessarily has to be wrong. It’s good thing to be a shining example of goodness in the world. It is also a good thing to not hide your Christianity so others can see the goodness and give glory to the God. I want to suggest another good meaning. A third option. Jesus can be heard to teach all of us that we have a light to shine. Regardless of what others may say, what we ourselves might even think, Jesus sees us all for what we are, a great and good light, and we need to let that light shine!
This sounds simpler than it is. Many people live in darkness, many people do not understand themselves as being a light in the world. The culture and subcultures are often the root of this, telling folks they are lesser beings or making them aware that they do not fit cultural constructed “norms.” We see this with things like race and religion, gender and sexual orientation, things that make a person seem different from the majority or those in power is used to dampen the light – or try to do so. This is particularly true amongst adolescents in the teen sub-culture. Over the past six months there has been a heavy emphasis on stories in the media of young adults who have taken their lives or had violence imposed on them by others both due to bullying based on sexual orientation.
Here are some facts that keep LGBT teen lights from shining:
-9 out of 10 LGBT students have experienced harassment at school.
-LGBT teens are bullied 2 to 3 times as much as straight teens.
-More than 1/3 of LGBT youth have attempted suicide.
-LGBT teens are 4 times as likely to attempt suicide than their straight peers.
-LGBT youth with “highly rejecting” families are 8 times more likely to attempt suicide than those whose families accept them. 1
These types of statistics sadden me greatly, they bring me to tears. It is beyond reasonable doubt in the scientific and psychological and medical world, in the world of reason, that homosexuality is a natural part of creation. It is a fact that a percent of humanity has been created by God as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual or Transgender, L…G…B…T.
The Bible indicates that God has declared all of creation good. This necessarily includes LGBT! So it is natural to shed tears about people being hurt over how God made them. My tears are not just about statistics and reports of people being brutalized for being LGBT. That would be enough to upset me. It is not just that I know dear people in this congregation who have told me stories of such violence in their lives. That would be more than enough to upset me too. But my tears go deeper than that, I have very personal experiences that bring me to those tears.
The first two statistics I read about bullying reflect my very own experience over 30 years ago in college and high school and middle school. First of all, for most males of my generation being bullied was pretty much your lot in life as you moved into school as an underclassman. The small males endured taunting and brutality by the upperclassmen and bigger kids in the class. Threats, hall gang violence, hitting, shoving, and lots of scary words were the norm. I know. I was small until I was a junior in high school and harassment was an all too common place and occurrence at my schools.
No one should have to undergo such bullying. Gay or Straight, Black or White, Christian or Muslim or Jew, short or tall. When I got involved in theatre as a youth the harassment increased. You know why? Because in the teen world of the 1970’s to be an actor meant to a great many folks that you were a homosexual. There was no logic to this. It did not matter that tough guy heroes of the culture, John Wayne and Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson, were actors.
In the teen world I occupied, males like me who were in drama were, to use a legal phrase, ipso facto Gay. Period. You could have a note from your doctor saying otherwise, you could have lots of girlfriends, it did not matter, drama connections meant you were homosexual. It’s the craziest thing really.
I was not Gay, but that did not matter, I was perceived as Gay and became a part of some of the statistics we are talking about. I may not be bonafide LGBT, but, I was an honorary one. And so like 9 out of 10 LGBT students who experienced harassment at school, I did too. Like LGBT teens I was probably bullied 2 to 3 times as much as straight teens. Mean words, threats, assault and battery occurred. The worse of this bullying occurred when I was not only shoved around and harassed in the halls of my college dorm, but received anonymous written death threats from a gang of athletes in that dorm. It was very ugly.
My best friend at that college had it even worse. When he went on to graduate school he was brutally beat up on campus by a bully who perceived him as Gay. Both he and I were, however, not Gay. We were straight males, but we were subjected to very real, very scary, senseless violence because some boys declared us to be Gay by our major – if you can believe that.
But you know what? Even though our being straight did not prevent others from perceiving that we were Gay and trying to hurt us, it saved us from something else; The greater culture’s sense of unworthiness. We had to wrestle with others’ sense of our worth, but never our own or the culture as a whole.
When you are really LGBT (not just honorary) the culture tries to snuff out the light of your LGBT-ness, who you are. The culture’s preferred norm is heterosexuality. Anything outside that norm is suspect. And people were raised back then – and even still today – to think there is something wrong with you if you are not heterosexual.
This is wrong of course, since all of God’s creation is not just good, but right…and frankly normal. As straight men my drama pal and I did not have to wrestle every moment with the wrongheaded idea ingrained in our culture that there was something wrong with us. We knew that in reality we fit the heterosexual norm (even if we were actors). I was not rejected by my family and I did not attempt suicide because of my sexuality, oddly enough all I had to do to become acceptable to those who bullied me was not be an actor. But even as an actor I knew I fit the sexual norm of the culture.
But my friends who were LGBT could not walk away from who they were made to be by God in order to fit in a culturally constructed box others wanted them in. There are, by the way, a number of folks in drama who are Gay. So while I suffered side by side with harassment from folks who knew I was in theatre, my Gay friends suffered wherever they were Gay – which was, of course, everywhere.
My closet and dearest friend in high school was named Scott. (A good name, if I do say so myself.) Our friends and family called him Scotty so we’d know who was being spoken to. Scotty was a wonderful young man with a sweet loving disposition and a singing voice that was otherworldly good. We did a number of plays together and believe it or not we actually worked up an amazing duet of The Star Spangled Banner that folks often asked us to sing. Scotty and I spent many a day together as close friends are wont to do.
When I was a high school senior I received a call from Scotty after he had taken a bottle of pills in an attempt to kill himself. He was one of the more than 1/3 of LGBT kids that have attempted suicide. Thankfully we got him out of that attempt alive. But Scotty grew up to live his life recklessly with harmful, even near death events, as a not so uncommon feature.
Over the years I lost track of Scotty and a few years back I traced his older brother down in an effort to reconnect. I sadly discovered that Scotty had died in his forties of a combination of problems due to ill health. It may not have been suicide, but he died way before his time.
LGBT kids are 4 times as likely to attempt suicide than their straight peers. LGBT youth with “highly rejecting” families are 8 times more likely to attempt suicide than those whose families accept them. Scotty’s father rejected him outright, and so he fit both of these categories. 2
So did Jeff. Jeff went to church youth group and high school with me. Jeff was in plays with me, he was Barnaby to my Cornelius in “Hello Dolly” so we even sang a duet and danced together. Jeff looked up to me like a younger brother. He thought I was funny, so naturally I liked Jeff. He hung out at our house a lot. Later when Nancy and I lived in LA, Jeff was down there too and we met up once or twice. But Jeff did not call me in LA after he took his bottle of pills. I wish he had. They found him dead of an overdose thirty years ago. I still mourn that loss.
It was very hard to be bullied as a teen. I hated going to school. I hated being small and helpless. But I never tried to take my life. Because no one had taught me that a major core of my being was not a light. My dear friends Scotty and Jeff, were taught otherwise. They were wonderful people and so full of light, but they could not see it. In many ways the culture hid their lights, even tried to put them out.
Both Jeff and Scotty could not see their own bright lights, they were hidden under the bushel of homophobia. Because they were Gay, Scotty and Jeff were told to be that way was to have no light, to be that way was to be a dark, sinful being going to hell. What nonsense! What a harmful lie!
Jesus puts absolutely no limits or exceptions on his statement in the text we are considering. He literally says “You are the light of the world.” He can be heard to be speaking to every single person – that means each one of you.
WE are the light of the world. You and me are all lights of the world. Everyone needs to hear that. Teens need to hear that. Scotty and Jeff needed to hear that. Today’s Scottys and Jeffs need to hear that. No matter where you have been, what you have done, what others may say, please take Jesus seriously: “YOU ARE THE LIGHT OF THE WORLD.”
Last fall an online project began called the “It Gets Better” Project which shares videos and information with teens about a light at the end of the tunnel of teen bullying. It does get better, I can vouch for that having not been harassed for being a perceived Gay since I was 20 (which I know does not look like it, but it was a long time ago). Here is an excerpt from the It Gets Better Project website:
Growing up isn’t easy. Many young people face daily tormenting and bullying, leading them to feel like they have nowhere to turn. This is especially true for LGBT kids and teens, who often hide their sexuality for fear of bullying. Without other openly gay adults and mentors in their lives, they can’t imagine what their future may hold. In many instances, gay and lesbian adolescents are taunted — even tortured — simply for being themselves.
Justin Aaberg. Billy Lucas. Cody Barker. Asher Brown. Seth Walsh. Raymond Chase. Tyler Clementi. They were tragic examples of youth who could not believe that it does actually get better. While many of these teens couldn’t see a positive future for themselves, we can. The It Gets Better Project was created to show young LGBT people the levels of happiness, potential, and positivity their lives will reach – if they can just get through their teen years. The It Gets Better Project wants to remind teenagers in the LGBT community that they are not alone — and it WILL get better.
What a beautiful ministry. You can google “youtube” and “It gets better” and find the videos with the message that “it gets better.” Over 10,000 videos have been submitted so far with stories of grown-ups telling LGBT teens that life gets better after high school, that the bullies and bullying become much less important in life later on. I have watched and posted many of the videos on my facebook. They are inspirational and touching, very powerful examples of God working in the lives and words of others.
There has been at least one mainline song that has made the charts that touches on this issue in a general way. You have probably heard it and not even known it. The song is called “Firework” it is sung by Katy Perry. Ms. Perry has a very powerful video of the song that makes the very point of this sermon, that echoes the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 5 that “You are the light of the world” and his command to “let your light shine.” I have no idea if Katy Perry knows that she is paraphrasing Jesus but, her song and video bring the very kind of hope we can hear in Jesus words. We are lights! And we are supposed to shine the light that we are.
That’s what Jesus can be heard to say in our lesson today. And he is saying it to everyone. “You are the light of the world! Let your light shine!” Katy Perry’s song does the same thing. She calls upon those who are feeling less than light – perhaps even dark – to “ignite the light, And let it shine.”
Please go online and watch the video. Here are some of the lyrics, they are so uplifting:
You just gotta ignite the light,
And let it shine.
Just own the night,
Like the Fourth of July.
Cause baby you’re a firework.
Come on show ‘em what your worth
Make ‘em go “Oh, oh, oh!”
As you shoot across the sky… 3
To every single one of you, not just LGBT folk, but all of you; LGBT, Straight, Young, Old, Middle-age, Teen, Men, Women, Black, White, Red, Brown, Yellow, Conservatives and Liberals, hear – HEAR – what Jesus says: YOU ARE THE LIGHT OF THE WORLD! LET YOUR LIGHT SHINE!
1. From the It Gets Better Project website at: http://www.itgetsbetter.org/pages/about it gets better project/
2. While Scotty’s father was, in my opinion, highly rejecting, the rest of Scotty’s family was not. Indeed, they appeared to love him dearly.
3. Katy Perry Firework lyrics found on http://www.directlyrics.com/katy perry firework lyrics.html
COPYRIGHT Scott Elliott © 2011 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED