Holy Gossip

Listen here.

Tonight’s passage from the Epistle of James scares the living daylights out of me. Apparently, my tongue is a deadly fire. It stains the whole body. It is a restless evil, full of poison. And as one who speaks to the gathered community, I will be judged with greater strictness for my speech. Even worse, this passage is often used to preach against gossip: that form of talking about people which is so often done by women. I should be quaking in my boots — and believe me, I am! For I am a woman who regularly chats with people about people. And yet, while there is no doubt in my mind that careless and malicious words can be incredibly destructive, I’d like to step back, and take a good look at gossip.

The Epistle of James was written to Jewish Christians. As such, it contains the big themes of Judaism, including the idea of “right speech.” Now, right speech is not about being a good person who earns points in heaven for saying the right thing. Instead, like all the commandments and the exhortations of the prophets, right speech is about building community. Why? Because, as Walter Brueggemann put it, “real community depends on reliable truth-telling.” Not on saying ‘nice’ things, but on speaking truth, naming the powers, and sharing stories about God.

In this world of fake news, seductive advertising, and lying politicians, right speech, truthful speech, is desperately needed. And it is prophetic work. But it does not happen in a vacuum. It not only forms but emerges from community: from people listening in love together for the voice of God, people who are willing to speak this true voice into diverse contexts. Such a group is not formed out of thin air. And now we come to the idea of gossip.

Gossip is a funny old word. Originally, it referred to a baptismal sponsor: the “sibling in God”, the God-sib: one’s spiritual brother or sister. In the role of sponsor, the God-sib, or gossip, spoke on behalf of the new baptismal candidate and vouched for their life in Christ. You can hear echoes of this word in “gospel,” which comes from the Old English words for “God” and “story.” God-spell. Gospel. So a gospel is a story about God, and a gossip is a sibling in God.

Over the centuries, the meaning of “gossip” shifted and changed. It became feminized; it spread into a verb, or a “doing word”; and it took on nasty overtones. Now, there is no question that careless talk can be harmful and destructive. If James was writing today he might use the phrase “going viral” to describe communication which is contagious, malicious and vicious; we all know how nasty it can get. And yet good gossip can build a congregation up.

The original recipients of this letter, like most people of the last two thousand years, lived in small communities. There were no cars, or trains, or bicycles; and only the rich had horses. People in Christian communities lived within a short walk of each other, and their lives were enmeshed in deep and complex ways.

Most of us, however, don’t live in a small village or an enmeshed community. We don’t know all the ins and outs of each other’s lives. Our children don’t go to the same schools; we don’t shop at the same shops; our families aren’t intermarried; and our friendship groups rarely overlap. Many of us are committed to two or even three faith networks; many of us here work in another city at least some of the time; and most of us are, quite frankly, insanely busy. All this means that it is very easy for us to float along, and never form meaningful relationships with one another.

So unless we share stories about each other and about ourselves, we will never come to know each other. In other words, unless we gossip, we won’t learn each other’s histories; we won’t form deep relationships; we’ll struggle to forgive each other’s foibles; we’ll never learn how to love. For us, gossip done well is the glue that will bind us, bringing us together as God-sibs: brothers and sisters in God. Good gossip will help us love one another. It will develop our sense of solidarity and shared identity, as together we look for God’s fingerprints in our lives and learn to speak these truths into a wider context.

So I invite you to become good gossips, God-sibs, siblings in God. People who tell stories about themselves and about each other. People who prayerfully ponder each other’s lives. People who look for God’s presence and action in each life, and in our common life. People who listen in love.

And as we gossips tell and re-tell each other’s stories, wrestling with how they intertwine with and reflect the biggest story of all, our gossip will gradually become something else: stories about God; God-stories; Gospels. For we are the body of Christ; his Spirit is with us; and this story must be lived and told in every time and place. And this story is never embodied by ideal groups of perfect people; but emerges always from ordinary groups of wounded people, hobbling along together through ordinary God-filled lives.

So let us gossip well together, and let us witness with our lives and our words to the most powerful and prophetic truth of all: that the reign of Christ has come, even here, even now, even among us. Amen. Ω

A reflection on James 3:1-12 given to Sanctuary, 16 September 2018 (BP19; Year B Proper 19) © Alison Sampson, 2018. Image shows The Gossips © Norman Rockwell.

Hello, friend

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