People of God at St. Stephen,

At the end of September, 18-year-old Rutgers student Tyler Clementi committed suicide by jumping off the George Washington Bridge.  A few days earlier, Tyler’s roommate, Dharun Ravi, from the dorm room of fellow student Molly Wei, posted video to the internet of Tyler kissing another man.  Tyler’s suicide was a tragic reaction to this prank.  Receiving national attention, the story sparked outcry against anti-gay bullying and inaugurated the It Gets Better Project (www.itgetsbetterproject.com).  Meanwhile, the Middlesex County Prosecutor brought criminal charges against Dharun and Molly, and three local families were left to figure out what all of this means.

But the question is also for us, not only for them.  This tragedy occurred not just locally, to our neighbors, but also in our own family.  Both Tyler and Molly are part of our church family, a brother and sister in Christ.  Since they are kin, we too have a place in this story.  Through Jesus, we are one degree of separation from Tyler and Molly both.  We eat at the Table of Christ with the one who was wronged and with one who did wrong.  So what does this mean for the church?

If nothing else, we may see vividly what is at stake.  The question of the Bible and homosexuality is for many a life or death question.  In the congregation Tyler grew up in and his parents still belong to, there was no question.  To be gay was to be cut off from God.  One of my own college roommates grew up in a similar congregation, and he also attempted suicide.  Thank God he failed.  His and Tyler’s stories are by no means uncommon.  Many gay Christians live in mortal danger, from others—their own brothers and sisters in Christ—and so also from themselves.

What we say about God and what we do as God’s people has life or death consequences.  Pointing a judging finger at “those” Christians further undermines the climate of love that gay Christians desperately need.  A Bible-based faith in Jesus Christ requires us to say and actively enact a message of love for gay people and for people with whom we strongly disagree.  Jesus commands us to love, desperately and compassionately, those who are most vulnerable.  And, “Love your enemies,” Jesus said.

Love is no small thing.  Love is life, sometimes a literal lifeline.  Given the hateful words and actions of others, people die when we do and say nothing.

This was literally true for our sister Molly.  She did not stop the prank that was staged in her dorm room.  What she did not do had life or death consequences.  She did not kill Tyler, but she fell short of the love to which Christ has called us.

But Molly is not the enemy, for we “all have fallen short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23).  Jesus commands us to love Molly, desperately and compassionately, even as we search for our place in this tragedy.  If Paul is right, then God raises a hard question.  If that video pushed Tyler over the edge, what was it that pushed him to the edge?

Too often, suicide is an expression of mental illness, an unpredictable consequence of the mystery of our flesh-and-blood minds and bodies.  And, suicide can also be an expression of despair, a predictable consequence of the limits of individual spirits in situations and societies where people fail to reflect God’s abundant love.

Is it true that to grow up gay is to be under constant, covert attack?  My own experience and relationships with people who are gay tell me overwhelmingly, Yes.  So when I confess my bondage to sin and what I’ve done and left undone, I confess that I too have fallen short of the love Christ calls me actively to show for Tyler and all God’s children who are gay.  Not acting hatefully is not enough.  Jesus calls me to act loving, to love actively.

This is, I believe, what we and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America did in August 2009, when in churchwide assembly we voted not to block synods and congregations from calling leaders in “publically accountable, lifelong, monogamous same-sex relationships.”  In other words, it was an act of love when the ELCA said, “Gay Lutherans can be pastors and be in love at the same time.”  Many people who are gay and parents of children who are gay heard this as a simple but powerful affirmation, “Gay people are people too.”

A few years ago, while Lutherans were not yet decided about this, someone asked me what saying yes to gay pastors would mean.  “What would we tell our children?  What would we teach in Confirmation class?  Does this mean that being gay is okay?”  I believe desperately and passionately that the answer is, Yes! Being gay is okay.  An image of kissing was used to shame Tyler.  But when a man and a man or a woman and a woman kiss, God sees exactly what God sees when a woman and man kiss: the possibility of true, Christlike love.  And now that Tyler has died I regret not saying so more boldly.

If Tyler Clementi had a pastor who told him this, would he have lived and fallen in love instead of died by falling into the Hudson River?  Would a similar loving witness have given Molly Wei the power to say no?  We will never know.

But we do know that Tyler and Molly fell first at their baptism into the waters of God’s unbelievable love.  And so, at his death, God received Tyler into the same arms of love that God receives all who die bearing Christ’s name.  And, at her falling short, God received Molly into the same arms of love that God receives all who sin bearing Christ’s name.

May our love be such that all may know God’s love for them is stronger than any and all hate.

Pastor Clark Olson-Smith

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