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  • Rev. Sandra Larson

Gossip and Silence

September 22, 2019

Gossip and Silence

Matthew 18.15-17, Romans 12.17-19, and 1 Peter 3.9-11

Rev. Sandra Larson

Gossip is often thought to be the pastime of old biddies like those in the Rogers & Hammerstein’s musical, Music Man song: “Pick a Little, Peck a little. Talk a lot. Pick a Little More…I shouldn’t tell you this but…”

Gossip is more common than we might recognize.

Four pastors were talking. One pastor said, "Our people come to us and pour out their hearts and confess their sins. Confession is good for the soul. Let's do the same." They all agreed. One confessed that he liked to sneak off to movies…of all sorts. The second confessed liking to smoke expensive cigars and the third confessed liking to gamble at card playing. The others pressed the fourth clergyman: "What is your secret vice?"

He finally answered, "It is gossiping and I can’t wait to get outta here."

Gossip tells a semi-fabricated tidbit or factual news about someone or about a group behind their backs. Gossip is hurtful even if it is totally true. So, it helps to remember the dangers of gossip. Will Rogers summarized: Live so that you won’t be ashamed to sell the family parrot to a gossip.

Gossip includes whining about family members or any relationships, scuttlebutt about co-workers, church gossip, complaining about bureaucrats, and political rumors. Media and the Internet promote gossip, so there’s probably more gossip than ever before.

Gossip almost never solves the problem. Yet often, gossipers try to justify to themselves by rationalizing a vague intention that the gossip will help solve the problem. If the gossiper is actually trying to be helpful, the gossiper would talk directly with the person rather than telling other people. For any political gossipers among us—there is contact info for our legislators: Contact them directly with your complaints, rather than burdening your friends with your political gossip. We can use a simple formula before speaking of any person or group.

The formula spells the acronym THINK: T--Is it true? H--Is it helpful? I--Is it inspiring? N--Is it necessary? K--Is it kind?

1 Peter 4:11 says: Whoever speaks must do so as one speaking the very words of God.

Another problem with gossip is that the specific offender is often unidentified, as this cheeky poem explains:

Have you heard of the terrible family They, And the dreadful venomous things They say? Why, half the gossip under the sun, If you trace it back, you’ll find had begun In that thoughtless House of They.

In the last month, have you gossiped? Have you gossiped or encouraged gossip by listening when getting a haircut, chatting over a beverage, on the phone, on social media or with church buddies? A conversation that starts with a single can explode to a whole conversation of negative stories gossip--like wailing about airplane travel can quickly degenerate into a gossip fest about the faults of airlines. Listeners are nearly as responsible for gossip as the gossiper. In the last month, have you encouraged gossipers by listening to the tale with apparent interest? Or: have you discouraged gossip? Have you curtailed gossip by sincerely asking, “Have you talked to that person about this?” Or: Have you encouraged a gossiper to be constructive about solving the problem, perhaps asking, “What initiative have you taken about this problem?” Have you held the gossiper accountable for checking facts by asking something like: “What’s your source of information?”

Gossip puts negative thinking into the listeners’ minds and causes listeners to have to live with it. Gossip ALSO makes listeners wonder what the gossiper might say about themselves behind their own back. Such lack of discretion corrodes the listeners’ trust of the gossiper.The gossiper also reinforces the gossip in his own mind and gut because the problem is reinforced but not resolved.

A Yiddish folktale tells of a man who told many malicious untruths about the local rabbi. Overcome by remorse, he begged the rabbi to forgive him and asked how he could make amends. The rabbi replied, "Take two pillows to the town square. Then cut the pillows open and them in the air. Then come back." The rumor-monger hastened to the square, cut the pillows open, waved them in the air.

He went back to the rabbi and declared, "I did what you said, Rabbi!"

The rabbi smiled and replied, “Good. Now collect all the feathers."

But that’s impossible! The feathers have flown away in all directions.”

The gossip finally realized how much harm is done by gossip.And he trudged back to town to buy new pillows.

Jesus advised: “If a fellow believer does something bad, go and tell him—work it out between the two of you. If he listens, you’ve made a friend. If he won’t listen, take one or two others along so that the presence of witnesses will keep things honest, and try again. If he still won’t listen, tell the church. If he won’t listen to the church, you’ll have to start over from scratch, confront him with the need for repentance, and offer again God’s forgiving love. Jesus makes it clear: do not talk behind peoples’ backs. Talking directly to the offender entails a lot of empathy and caring. With compassion and patience, the offender might find a solution for the mess. Jesus indicates that Silence can be as harmful as gossip. Silence can hide truth and erode trust. Silence often festers in the heart and gut -- just like gossip spoken aloud.

What about positive gossip? Positive gossip is surprisingly dangerous, such as: Tim’s piano performance was the BEST. Seymour is the most generous guy I know. This group would fall apart if it weren’t for Janine. Machu Pichu is the best restaurant for the money in the Newburgh area. Dangerous positive gossip uses superlatives like best, strongest, smartest or prettiest. Superlative language is a dangerous judgment. If dad says that one son has the most potential--what do the dad’s other children feel?

If we say that one restaurant, author or athletic team is the BEST--we don’t give a chance to other restaurants, authors or teams. What are the negative consequences if we say that we have the best religious beliefs or the best church? What are the dangers of claiming that we have the best social or political viewpoint?

What is the cost of implying that our ethnicity is superior to other ethnicities by making a sweeping ethnic generalization?

I asked an NRA member to share with me what beliefs he had about gun rights. The NRA enthusiast talked non-stop about everything he’d been led to believe about the NRA and about the criticisms he’d heard about anti-gun proponents. His non-stop monologue technically included nothing but gossip. He never stopped his rants to offer any constructive problem solving or to find out my perspectives.

What does the Bible say about gossip? The law in Leviticus states: You shall not go about as a talebearer among your people.[period! 19.16] OT Proverbs explicitly counsel against gossip, and counsel that “a whisperer separates close friends. “[16.28] Ezekiel offers sympathy to victims of gossip. [36.6] In two of Paul’s lists of loathsome actions, Paul specifically mentions gossip.What about Jesus? The Gospels do not record anything specific that he said about gossip. Does Jesus ever gossip himself?

Jesus called Pharisees and Sadducees vipers, white sepulchers and hypocrites; and he said that inside, they are full of greed and wickedness. But Jesus criticized these leaders to their faces, with the hope that they would change.

The closest Jesus gets to gossip is to warn his followers about King Herod; and to “Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees!” and “do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.” [Mt. 16.11 & 23.3] These attacks are not strictly gossip have a clear stated purpose of warning. Was Jesus gossiping or warning when he said: “They devour widows’ houses; and for the sake of appearance say long prayers?” [Mk 12.40]

John records an instance when Jesus stopped the gossip of whole village in Samaria. Villagers had been gossiping about a woman in the town. But Jesus treats this woman with respect and gives her a privileged message to deliver to the village. His respect for this ostracized woman curtailed their gossip about her. [John 4]

Religious leaders gossiped a lot about Jesus’ followers; and their gossip about Jesus resembled a political smear campaign. Proof of their contempt-filled gossip is that Jesus would not have been crucified without their vicious rumor mill. A major piece of gossip they spread happens to be true: “The Pharisees and scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’” [Lk 15.2] What scandalously juicy gossip! Some common Jews also went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. [Jn 11.46] Did the hate gossip that the leaders spread persuade these people to tattle on Jesus?

Message for All Ages (game of telephone):

When someone talks about you, do not talk about him. Instead, pray that good will come to him. You were called to do this so you might receive good things from God. I Peter 3

The tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. James 3.5

Since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, they were filled with covetousness, malice, envy, and deceit. They are gossips, slanderers, insolent, and boastful. Romans 1:28-30 (NRSV)

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