Sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

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

It is good to be back. I remain grateful for this parish’s graciousness in making it possible for me to take all of my annual vacation in one go rather than a week here and a week there; I might have said before that I realized years ago that this was the only way in which I could actually manage to take all of my vacation time. In any event, it will be no surprise that the greater part of our time away was taken up with visiting excellent museums, listening to serious music, and (especially!) visiting churches.

One of the most unexpected interactions we had came in visiting a church in Bergen, on Norway’s western coast. One thing that surprised me in all of the Scandavian countries is just how many weddings were taking place in churches seemingly every day. It was encouraging when all the doom-saying out there suggests that both marriage and religion are on the decline. Sometimes it meant that one had to come back an hour or two later to see a particular church, though that minor annoyance is greatly overshadowed by the aforementioned boost in optimism this reality gave me. (As a side-note, the reality that one can have a church wedding in the middle of the day and only require the church building for an hour or two rather than taking over every possible room for hair-and-makeup, floral arranging, photography opportunities and so forth for the better part of a day suggests, perhaps, a healthier view of the liturgical and sacramental nature of a wedding, though I suspect this is not a battle I’m going to win.)

Anyway, we were in this church in Bergen and noticed that the priest was rehearsing a couple up by the altar for their upcoming wedding. We looked around quietly and then I went to the narthex to ask a question of the docent who had greeted us when we entered. The pulpit was surrounded by carvings depicting the cardinal and theological virtues, but not the traditional seven. Justice had been replaced by truth (a close cousin, no doubt, but not the same thing precisely), fortitude by penitence, and the carving depicting temperance was not on the pulpit itself, but on the wall next to it. So I asked the docent what that was about, and he quite rightly reminded me that while the three theological virtues (faith, hope, and love) are clearly enumerated by Paul, the other four have always been fluid. Then he told me that he had just been reading one of the Greek Fathers whose name he couldn’t remember (it was Peter Damascene, I later discovered) who had listed 228 virtues while acknowledging that this was not an exhaustive list. He mentioned how often chastity came up (not among the seven, either, but one could class it as related to temperance), and in the middle of this conversation the priest and the couple had finished their rehearsal. The couple left, and the docent asked the priest how it went. He just shook his head and muttered “fire barn.” I am not conversant in Norwegian, but I understood that. Just in case, though, the docent turned to me and said “the vicar says they have four children.” “Better late than never,” I replied, “and what were you just saying about the virtue of chastity?”

Now, that docent shouldn’t have translated that for me. Neither should I have taken delight and made a joke about it. It was not the most malign example of gossip ever, since we both knew that I was just a tourist. Even so, it reminds me that delighting in gossip is a vice from which I am not immune. I hope it goes without saying that I would never imagine sharing privileged information known to me by virtue of my pastoral role; that is a serious violation and a line I’d never cross. But to hear a juicy bit of gossip still naturally gives one a literally sinful pleasure, and we must all be on guard against that. Hearing gossip can easily lead to sharing it, and even worse this can itself lead to intrigue and taking sides and manipulation and it can–as Jesus knew when he spoke the words in this morning’s Gospel–to fractured relationships and even schism.

And so, Jesus gives us another, better way. If we feel somebody has mistreated us, talk to him or her in private. If that doesn’t work, take a friend or two and try to hash it out. If that doesn’t work, bring it to the church, which is to say discuss your grievance openly with the authority of the community in which the accuser and the accused wish to maintain bonds of affection.

This is a great deal more effective than whispering insults to those uninvolved. We do not always wish to rectify the situation, loving the opportunity to gossip more than we desire to live in love with our brothers and sisters. The important thing about Jesus’ mandate here is not that it is more effective (though it is!) but that it is more Christian. If we love our brother or sister, which is our obligation, then we should avoid what the Old Testament called “murmuring in the tents” and which today we call malicious gossip.

There may be more in the psalms about malicious gossip than any other sin. Do you know what led God to declare that the generation of Israelites who left Mount Sinai would wander in the desert until only their children and grandchildren were left to enter the Promised Land? It was neither idolatry nor sexual promiscuity nor any other sin which we are quick to denounce. It was because the Israelites were “murmuring in their tents”, gossiping, that they were forbidden from entering the land which had been promised.

We must be careful about gossip, then, because it is deadly serious. We must catch ourselves, because we can do it without even thinking about it. We must examine our intentions before sharing information about another, because sometimes our intentions are hidden from us. Is something we say meant to encourage prayer and concern or is it meant to share a bit of juicy information?

This may be even more difficult and even more important in the age of social media, where “oversharing” is ubiquitous and bad enough, but also often leads from an ill-considered post to casting aspersions, ganging up, and “cancellation.” My brothers and sisters, avoid this. It’s not just a matter of propriety; it’s a matter of Christianity. Living in love with our fellows means speaking with love about them. Only in doing this within can Christ’s Church be prepared to weather the storms which beset her from without.

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