Sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

It is remarkable to me how much time some people in the church spend worrying about issues given so little attention in Scripture (namely, the matters which serve to set the dividing lines in the current culture wars) and so little time on those moral issues on which scripture is consistently clear in its moral demands. This is not to suggest that these hot button issues of the day are entirely unimportant questions, but rather that Scripture doesn’t seem to emphasize them, and it takes some rhetorical hand-waving to elevate said questions to the level of being worth dividing the church over.

On the other hand, there are several matters on which Scripture, taken as a whole, seems unequivocal. More than any other issue, the obligation of the community (whether that be Israel in the Old Testament or the Church in the New Testament) to support the poor. God’s greatest wrath in the prophetic books is leveled against those who oppress the poor, whether through shady business dealings or blatant abuse. Over and over again, Jesus calls our attention to “the least of these my brethren” and his strongest condemnations are leveled against the indolent rich. Jesus says all of about about three things regarding sex, but he’s constantly bringing up issues of economic disparity.

Perhaps the second most popular sin denounced in scripture might not be one you think about too often, either. While you’ll hear foolhardy preachers like me bringing up the preferential option for the poor from time to time, this issue is even less commonly discussed, perhaps because so many of us might be convicted by hearing it. It is a pretty safe bet, though, that if one were to take all the moral issues broached by scripture and rank them by frequency, second only to issues of economic justice would be gossip.

So the tongue [James writes] is a little member and boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is an unrighteous world among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the cycle of nature, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by humankind, but no human being can tame the tongue — a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

While James might have been a bit optimistic about humanity’s ability to domesticate wild animals (I’ve been trying with mixed results to do so with house-cats for some years now), I don’t think he’s underestimating the degree of harm that can come from an unbridled tongue. Back in the Second World War, as some of you will remember, there was a pithy bromide which warned “loose lips sink ships”. James goes even further. Loose lips can set the world on fire!

I recall an incident not too many years ago when an influential New York Rector had irritated the wrong people in his rather well-to-do parish, and a rumor was started that said priest was using church funds to by cat food. By the time all was said and done, this little bit of gossip had blossomed into a much larger scandal, with ridiculous accusations being reported in the now-defunct, muckraking broadsheet, the New York Sun.

It happens here, too, folks. Malicious gossip doesn’t only effect public figures. It is, I dare say, even more of a problem in small-town life. This is the point when (as I’ve heard some say) “the preacher stopped to-preachin’ and started to-meddlin’.” Gossip is a problem in Findlay, Ohio. It often doesn’t begin as malicious gossip. It’s easy to tell ourselves we are sharing information out of the most Christian of concern.

“Well, bless his heart, I think he’s running around with the wrong crowd.”

“Bless her heart, I think she’s taken up the bottle again, poor thing.”

Do you see how hard it is to figure out what is shared out of concern and what is shared because we love sharing juicy information? Of course, rarely do we ask ourselves what would seem the most germane question: Does sharing this tidbit with this particular person or group of people actually help? Perhaps someone with some influence over John Doe’s choice of friends or Jane Smith’s love of sloe gin could be of some help, but the other dozen people in the coffee klatch couldn’t.

St. James’ warning about the potentially infernal nature of speech should give us pause. We’ve no idea what effects a cross-word or a lie or a bit of juicy gossip might have when it escapes our mouth. James’ assessment and its implication is simple: “My brethren, this ought not to be so.” But for additional confirmation, an example occurred to me from literature (children’s literature, in fact!) and it is with that example I close.

In the third volume of C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, The Horse and His Boy, we are introduced to the eponymous boy, Shasta. He is an orphan on a journey to Narnia, escaping from the harsh fisherman who raised him. After a harrowing journey, being pursued by an apparently vicious lion and an evil army he finds himself lost on the trail. Shasta begins to feel sorry for himself, believing himself to be the unluckiest boy alive, when he is frightened to hear a creature sneaking toward him in the dark. As he feels the warm breath of the lion on the back of his neck he believes himself to be doomed. The lion admits that he was the beast who was chasing him, but that it was all to push the boy forward to his heroic fate:

“Who are you?” asked Shasta. “Myself,” said the Voice, very deep and low so that the earth shook: and again “Myself” loud and clear and gay: and then the third time “Myself,” whispered so softly that you could hardly hear it, and yet it seemed to come from all round you as if the leaves rustled with it.

The Lion, it turns out was Aslan, “the High King above all kings” who stands in Lewis’ allegory for God. The boy then asks Aslan why He had wounded his traveling companion and the Great Beast answers “Child… I am telling you your story, not hers. I tell no one any story but his own.”

I tell no one any story but his own. Nor should we tell anyone’s story but our own. It is not ours to presume to do so. Doing so does violence to the other, for it is a grasp for power over the other. That unrighteous world among our members, that deadly poison in our mouths is nothing less than the power to curse more easily than to bless, to dominate rather than to lay our lives down for the good of friend and enemy alike. My sisters and brothers, this ought not to be so. Let us pray for discernment in speech and for the grace to refrain when it does anything other than bless and console and speak in truth with love to God’s people.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.