“What’s The Good Word?”
2 Corinthians 12:14-21
Chilmark Community Church
August 7, 2016
Rev. Vicky Hanjian
“Have you heard the latest?” “Did you hear what happened to so and so…?” “Did you know that thus and such is going on?” When I watch myself respond to conversation starters like this, I have to admit, I feel my ears opening up with amazing speed to hear whatever bit of information is about to be imparted to me. I seldom ask myself “do I need to hear this?” “Do I want to hear this?” And before I even know it, I have become part of a grapevine! It doesn’t matter how often I commit myself to not listening – – or not repeating – -there is something about the enticement of knowing this or that little piece of information that is very seductive.
You know, probably even better than I do, that we live in a cultural milieu that has an amazing grapevine. It kind of goes with living in a place called “The Vineyard.” News travels around the island quicker than the speed of light. Gossip is a way of life in small communities. Sometimes this is really beneficial. When someone is in need, the word gets out quickly and all kinds of compassionate help is available. That’s one of the things that makes life in a relatively small community so special. But on the shadow side of the grapevine, negative, incomplete and damaging information is passed on as well – -and no one benefits from that.
Out of curiosity, I looked up the definition of gossip. I was amused to find that the word comes from an old English word “godsibb” which was formed from the word “god” and the word “sibb” – -which means kinsman or relative. It is the word from which we derive the word “godparent.” Somehow, the meaning of the word has changed over the generations. It now refers to someone who habitually reveals personal or sensational facts, or reports rumors of an intimate nature. What these definitions fail to tell us is that gossip rarely conveys the whole truth about anything and, indeed, the juicier the tidbit is, the less likely it is to be accurate.
Gossip of this type is harmful. It has an insidious way of undermining life in community.
No less a person than the Apostle Paul felt the sting of gossip and slander which was spread about him in the city of Corinth. Apparently the relationship between Paul and the church at Corinth had deteriorated during the period between the writing of the 1st letter to the Corinthians and the writing of the 2nd letter. For some reason, Paul had not been able to make a third visit to Corinth as he had planned. A crisis in confidence developed between Paul and the church there. He was accused of vacillating in his responsibility toward that church.
There is a fine thread running through 2 Corinthians alluding to the fact that Paul has suffered in some way at the hands of at least one person in the Corinthian Church community. Much of the tone of 2nd Corinthians is very defensive as Paul repeatedly states his love for the church while repeatedly explaining himself and his ministry. Paul fears that when he does finally get back to visiting that congregation he may find quarreling, jealousy, anger, selfishness, gossip, conceit and disorder.
We have no other letters or documents from that congregation or from the people that might have wounded Paul in some way. All we have is Paul’s persistent defense of himself and his ministry in response to whatever has happened. The wounding must have been deep. And gossip was a part of what was undermining both Paul’s ministry in Corinth and the quality of the life of the church there.
Rabbi Lawrence Kushner has written a book called THE BOOK OF WORDS – TALKING THE SPIRITUAL LIFE, LIVING SPIRITUAL TALK. There is a brief section on what is called in Hebrew l’shon hara – which literally means “the evil tongue.” Kushner translates it as “gossip.” L’shon hara may also be translated as “garbage.” Kushner grounds the prohibition against gossip in the scriptures so clearly that we can’t avoid understanding that we, as the people of God, are to be aware and very careful of our words and of our participation in the dynamics of gossip.
At the beginning of his reflection, Kushner cites these words from Exodus 22:30: You must not eat flesh torn by beasts in the field; you shall cast it to the dogs. You must not carry false rumors. Also these words from Leviticus 19:16: You shall not go about as a tale bearer among your people. These texts are embedded in what is called “the holiness codes” – – the scriptural “plan” for God’s people to live as a holy community. Interesting that the scriptures equate carrying rumors with eating the flesh of dead animals in the fields – – that is – with consuming fly ridden garbage. Kushner writes “Like eating carrion, hearing derogatory information about another person can make you ill. Would you eat garbage off the street? Then why tolerate auditory filth in your ears?”
Gossip damages human beings. It damages those who are the subject of the gossip. It damages those who speak it. And it damages those who hear it.
Near the end of my seminary career, I had to take a course in United Methodist Polity and Doctrine. The professors who taught it rotated every semester. It was just my luck to have to take it with Dr. Tom Oden who was probably the consummate authority on the subject at the time. I had heard about how conservative he had become. I had heard that he didn’t much like women and if you were anything even remotely resembling a feminist you could be sure you wouldn’t do well in his class. I opted to take my final exam with him as an oral exam because I just couldn’t face sitting through another 2 hour written test. My mouth was as dry as cotton as I climbed the stairs to his office. It was pure torture for me to sit on the bench outside his office door, waiting for my turn on the rack of that final oral exam. I was shaking and really uncertain why I had ever decided to come to seminary in the first place.
Then, all of a sudden the office door opened. Another student came out laughing. Tom Oden was right behind him. Tom signaled me to come in and I followed him down a tight, narrow hallway lined with bookshelves from floor to ceiling on both sides. The hallway opened out into a fairly large room that looked more like a library than an office. In one corner there was a heap of rubble that turned out to be a desk buried in articles and paperwork. Tom invited me to sit down – – and offered me a cup of tea. He asked me how I was feeling and told me to relax. 30 minutes later the exam was over. It had seemed more like a friendly conversation, and suddenly I was being escorted to the door, laughing over some comic observation about John Wesley – – catching a glimpse over my shoulder of the next student sweating it out on the bench in the hallway.
Gossip had given me an unattractive image of Tom Oden. It was not accurate. It gave me an upset stomach for sure. It shaped his reputation as a human being in an unkind and harmful way. Sure – his theology was much more conservative than mine, but I really felt quite respected by him.
Why such a big deal about gossip? Why talk about l’shon hara – the evil tongue? Because words shape and create our reality. In our faith tradition we are known as People of the Word. God created the world by uttering words – – “…and God said “let there be……” and all things came into being. “In the beginning there was the Word – – – and nothing was made without it…” We celebrate Jesus as “the Living Word.”
We need listen to only a few minutes at the top of every news hour to hear how words are used carelessly and destructively to bend our opinions and attitudes in this embarrassing and debasing election year. We are caught in a kind of meat grinder – if you will pardon the allusion – for the carrion of the fields. There is abundant garbage for our consumption at every click of the TV remote. It is making us sick as a nation – – and hardly any of us are free of it. It has been said that the most impossible of the 10 Commandments to keep is the one that says “Do not bear false witness….”
We heard from the Beatitudes this morning – – the wisdom Jesus gave his followers to help them to understand how to live holy lives in difficult times. Jesus did not give them gossip or hearsay – he gave them the truth. He ended that discourse with two incredible teachings about the responsibilities of people who would follow him:
You are the salt of the earth; but if salt loses its saltiness, how will it be restored?
You are the light of the world – let your light shine before others so they may see your good works and thank God.
While I was looking up “gossip” in the dictionary, I also noticed that about 5 entries above it was the word “gospel.” Again, it comes from an old English combination of two words: god – meaning “good” and “spell” – – meaning a tale or story. So the word “godespel” – meant a “good story” – -and we receive it into modern English as “gospel.” A person who tells a good story is a “gospeler.”
The nature of gossip is that it undermines our collective ability to tell and to live a “good story.” We have a vibrantly living example of this in front of us every day as we move toward the November elections. It is hard to see if there is, indeed, a “good story” anywhere. To be a disciple means to be “disciplined.” Lawrence Kushner puts a challenging discipline before us: He suggests trying to go for three hours sometime in the coming week without saying one thing about another person. Even more challenging – – try going for three hours without hearing something about another person. When you begin to hear something coming at you, try pushing it away with the palm of your hand and say “Let’s talk about something else.” Makes me a little queasy to even think about trying something like that. I don’t think I could do it successfully – – but there is the challenge.
Given the nature of our culture and our political climate, if we all chose the same three hours to practice simultaneously the challenge to neither speak nor receive information about another, I think the silence could be deafening!
This morning we will gather at the table to which we are invited by Jesus. Part of the tradition is that before we eat and drink, we confess that we have missed the mark – – that we have, perhaps done more to conceal God than to reveal the Holy One in our weekly paths. Joining together at the table is our opportunity to covenant together again to support one another in a life of wholeness and holiness, assured of God’s grace and compassion as we continue the journey of return to our high calling to be salt for the earth and light for the world. We are called to bring a good word to the world. What is the good word that you will bring to those whom you touch this week?
I’ll close with the 1st stanza of a prayer hymn we often sing at the end of worship:
Savior, again to thy dear name we raise
with one accord our parting hymn of praise;
guard thou the lips from sin, the hearts from shame,
that in this house have called upon thy name.