I want to say that I don’t usually believe in focusing a sermon on a particular “sin” or error of behavior. I don’t like this for many reasons, not the least of which is that I think we all must be extremely careful about looking at the specks in other people’s eyes without dealing with the logs in our own eyes. Pastors are not exempt from this. I was reminded recently story teller, Willie Claflin’s, twist on the Little Red Hen story. His version begins the same as the one we all know: the little red hen invites friends to help her in making loaves of bread from scratch: planting the wheat, harvesting the wheat, mixing the bread, baking the bread; but at every step of the way, all her friends find reasons why they can’t help: they are too busy, too sick, too involved with other things. Then when the four loaves of bread are finally baked, she asks who will help her to eat them and everyone is suddenly available to share in the bread she has worked so hard to make. But unlike in the traditional story, Willie Claflin goes on to say that at that point the little red hen gobbled down all four loaves of bread herself with the words, “then I will eat them myself!” And the result is that she makes herself very ill eating all of that bread on her own. The friends, it turns out, were just offering to try some of her bread to be polite. They are not sad to have missed out on the bread at all. They do have concerns over their sick friend, however, who has eaten herself into a coma. Willie Claflin ends his story with this line, “and the moral of the story is, if you are doing something in order to teach someone else a lesson, it is likely that the one to receive the lesson will be yourself.”
Given that, I find that the best sermons I’ve written are the ones I write to myself and that picking specific “flaws” or errors to confront in a sermon can be counterproductive. Still, the lectionary passages for today all focus on the sin of gossiping. And I think, honestly, that this is something we can all work on, including myself, so I beg your indulgence as we focus on gossip today.
When we look at scripture, there are many, many passages that tell us that God abhors gossip. On one bible commentary web-site, I typed in the word “gossip” as a search and was rewarded with nine pages of biblical quotes that denounce gossip and lying. Some examples:
Ephesians 4:29: let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths.
Proverbs 6:16-19: There are six things that the Lord hates…(and then three of those six things include..): a lying tongue, a false witness who breathes out lies, and one who sows discord among siblings.
James 1:26: If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue, but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.
Psalm 101:5: Whoever slanders his neighbor secretly I will destroy.
The list goes on and on and on.
It is clear: lying about other people, gossiping by saying untruths or spreading slander is anathema to God. This is not surprising. What perhaps, IS, surprising, is how hard it is to refrain from gossiping. And how absolutely damaging it is to gossip.
Almost ten years ago now I was invited to be part of a group of pastors who were experiencing crisis. It was a small group that gathered together for a week to share experiences and to be gifted by the support of counselors, spiritual directors, and other helpers. Within our group there was a clergy couple who shared a story about being the victims of truly malicious gossip. The couple had just been let go, fired, from a church that had a history of firing their pastors after just a few years. The process for booting the pastors at this church was always the same. This was a significant congregation in a very small town. And there was a particular powerful individual who would decide when it was time for the pastor to go. She was powerful and when she made that decision she always went about getting rid of the pastor in the same way: she would start spreading a rumor: something that was… well, it was a lie. She would take a kernel of something that resembled truth, but would twist and turn it into a falsehood and then spread it along. She would start the gossip and it would morph, it would expand, it would take on a life of its own. With each telling it would become more outrageous. And it was always something that there was no ability to disprove, no way to confronting, no way to tear down. Once these terrible rumors would take off, the story would be forever in the minds of the parishioners until the pastors were forced to resign. Again, this was a pattern of behavior in this church. But the originator of the story felt justified every time in her gossiping, first because it started with a grain of truth, and second, she deeply believed it was time for the pastor to go; and she told herself that the ends, of getting rid of the pastor, justified the means – the gossip that she began. We know that of course, this is false. The couple that I met had been destroyed by these lies. They had not just been forced to leave their church, but had been forced to move out of the area. And still, with social media and the increasing small-ness and connectedness of the world, were being followed and haunted by these false lies, false stories. Their kids had suffered bullying at school, one of the parents of this couple had suffered a complete break-down in health, a sense of safety and well-being for an entire extended family were destroyed, and all of them have left church, permanently, after seeing what churches can do to people through the simple use of gossip.
The church also did not escape the damage of the gossip. Some people left the congregation, and the faith, entirely. But even those who stayed were damaged. Everyone knew the pattern. And everyone knew who started the lies. They also knew that if they went against the person who instigated the gossip, that they risked being the next to be torn down by this woman. They all participated in the evil of the gossip because they knew to stand up against it meant they would become the next victims of it. An entire community became entrenched in this evil behavior, and could not see their way out.
I wish this story were unique, but it isn’t. I know too many pastors who have gone through similar nightmares that all started because of gossip. And as you know, this is not just limited to people in my profession. It happens in our schools, it happens in all of our places of work.
Just this week I learned about this happening at a local school board situation. Again, lies were put forth about someone who has been incredibly active but who was trying to become more involved in a position of greater authority. The lies were presented in a way that there was no forum for the person attacked to defend herself, to set the record straight or even to present a different opinion. But those lies determined the decisions of the committee, to the huge detriment of the board who will miss out on the amazing energy and talents of the individual who was slandered.
We see this in our politics. We’ve come to a place in our country where we no longer know what to believe, what is true. We assume that those who disagree with us are lying or are misinformed by lies. And those who disagree with us assume that the news that we read is false. Slander, and the quick choice to lie when we are in a tough spot, when we are caught, when we are confronted with something we don’t want to admit, has muddied the waters so much, has become so rampant, that we just no longer know what to believe, who to believe. It is separating us from our brothers and sisters within our own families, let alone within our communities, and in the larger world.
While gossiping gives us something to discuss, while it may feel good to be on the “inside” of a story about someone else, while being able to separate the world into “us” and “them” may give us a sense of security and power in the world, there is a good reason why the Bible is so extremely hard on gossip. It is evil. It is harmful. Any “gain” for one’s self made through the use of lying, gossiping and slander does not only harm the one we attack, it harms everyone touched by the gossip.
Frankly, our gossip reflects more on ourselves than on those about whom we are gossiping anyway. And if we were actually aware of how true that is, we probably would refrain from gossip. Some examples: someone I knew kept saying about other people, “that person is so power hungry.” “That person is all about getting power.” And finally, “it all comes down to power you know.” And it was very clear that actually, it was all about power FOR HIM and that is why he was so focused on that being the case when it came to other people. We see this regularly. When someone repeatedly focuses on a particular “problem” with those around them, often that reflects back on who the speaker really is, where his or her focus lies, what really matters most to that person.
I’ve shared with you that in one early episode of Joan of Arcadia, Joan was trying hard to get in with the “popular” crowd. And the popular kids basically told her that if she wanted to be one of them, she needed to find out who her friend, Grace, “likes”. In order to do this, Joan sidled up to Grace and talked to her about how much Joan herself had this crush on one of the other guys at school. She didn’t really have a crush on the guy, didn’t even know who the guy is, he was just a name of someone that was supposedly popular. Grace didn’t give anything away. The next day, people were giving Joan a hard time for having a crush on the guy she mentioned to Grace. Joan assumed Grace has been gossiping about her and went after Grace, telling her to stay out of her love life. Grace responded, “I don’t care about your love life and haven’t talked to anybody! However, it is clear that you have been talking about ME and trying to find out about MY love life so you can share it with your friends! YOU are the one gossiping here.” Grace understood that Joan’s accusation said more about Joan than about Grace.
I'm certain we can all think of people we know who attack others through gossip, by accusing the other of being a gossip. Most of us see through this, though it is clear that it is difficult for the one gossiping to see it in themself.
Some of the Biblical passages tell us to not even associate with those who lie and slander and gossip, and this too is for good reason. As I mentioned in my first story, an entire community became caught in the web of slander and gossip that one individual perpetuated. If those in the community had stepped away, or better, confronted it the first time it happened, it never would have grown to the repeating evil that it has become. But now, in associating with the gossiper, the tangled webs of lies and gossip have become so entrenched that no one knows how to step out.
It is not easy to step out or to confront someone who is gossiping or lying and tell them that they have it wrong. But it is necessary. I remember a situation I was in, in which someone was badmouthing me but made the mistake of doing it in an email to several other people. I will always be extremely grateful to the person who responded to the email by INCLUDING me in that response and inviting my answer so that I could see the lies, could see the gossip, could see the slander and could address it directly. The decision my friend made to include me in the email was not an easy one. It could have ended his friendship with the originator of the email. But he made that choice, which led to the truth telling, and eventually healing of all involved in the communications.
There is another side to all of this. I read an article a while ago that focused very specifically on the fact that women are discouraged from sharing with other women about predatorial men. According to this article, women who share their experience of being victims are often accused of being gossips, and the social pressure to avoid being labelled as a gossip can prevent them from telling their stories. Their silence, in turn, has prevented other women from knowing about unsafe men and has led to other women therefore being victims as well. While I realize there is a gender bias here, this would apply to people of all genders and situations. The author, Theo Wildcroft, wrote, “A teacher of mine once said that gossip had to be made a sin because it’s a social survival mechanism for the almost powerless. For good or evil, right or wrong, true or false, gossip is the glue that kept traditional communities together, an early warning system and in extremis, call for sanction. Of course it’s traditionally our sin, a woman’s sin.” But what the author is confronting is a social stigma against the sharing (which becomes labelled “gossip”) of our feelings and experiences. That is very different from what the bible is confronting when it talks about lies, slander and gossip. The base difference is truth. What the bible is confronting is the passing on of lies. But there is another difference as well. Discussing one’s experience is very different than talking about others with condemning words. “I felt x because this happened. I experienced a because b took place.” These are important experiences to share. “That person is a blankety blank” or “that person did x” when it is a lie, is not acceptable, has no real experience connected to it, is simply name calling, it is childish and it is wrong.
The bottom line: God condemns gossiping, lying, slandering. And that can be hard: hard to follow, hard to practice, hard to change within ourselves. But it is essential, not only for others but for ourselves as well, that we strive to refrain from gossip, from slander, and from lying. We are more centered and whole when we speak from our own experience rather speaking words that attack others. No ends justify a means of lying and condemning others with hateful, hurtful behavior that is damaging to our very souls. It is hard to speak truth all the time, but it is a goal worth striving for, especially when the alternative choice is so harmful. Gossip is not okay. Lying is not okay. AND, the more we speak truth, the easier it is to recognize it spoken by others too. Thanks be to God.