We gotta do it differently!
This message was offered at Wesley United Methodist Church (Culver, IN) on Sunday, September 23, 2012. It is an adaptation of John Wesley’s Sermon No. 49, “The Cure of Evil Speaking.”
15 “If your brother or sister sins against you, go and correct them when you are alone together. If they listen to you, then you’ve won over your brother or sister. 16 But if they won’t listen, take with you one or two others so that every word may be established by the mouth of two or three witnesses. 17 But if they still won’t pay attention, report it to the church. If they won’t pay attention even to the church, treat them as you would a Gentile and tax collector.18 I assure you that whatever you fasten on earth will be fastened in heaven. And whatever you loosen on earth will be loosened in heaven. 19 Again I assure you that if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, then my Father who is in heaven will do it for you. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, I’m there with them.”
Matthew 18:15-20, Common English Bible
Gracious God, in the moments to come, give me the words to speak and they the ears to hear, that together we might learn and be inspired to live your Word in the world. Amen.
It is the snake that poisons everyone.
It has no respect for justice. It wounds but does not kill. It is cruel and malicious and gets stronger with age. The more it is quoted the more it is believed. It flourishes at every level of society.
Its victims are helpless. They cannot protect themselves against it because it has no name and no face.
To track it down is impossible. The harder you try, the more elusive it becomes.
It topples governments, wrecks marriages, ruins careers, destroys reputations, causes nightmares, spawns suspicion, and generates grief.
It wrecks churches and separates Christians. Even its name hisses. It’s called gossip.
We know it’s dangerous. We know that it divides. But, like a person drawn to the rhythmic movements of a snake charmer’s dancing pet, we forget how risky it is to be so close. Gossip—whether we’re the subject of it, the hearer of it, or the spreader of it—is destructive. It terrorizes individuals and breaks relationships: which is the very definition of sin. We know it’s wrong, yet we’re drawn to it nonetheless.
Proverbs 18:8 sums up our attraction to gossip well. The sage writes: “The words of gossips are like choice snacks; they go down to the inmost parts” (Proverbs 18:8, Common English Bible). Gossip is like a milkshake on a hot afternoon or a homemade peach cobbler after Sunday dinner. Gossip is like a PayDay candy bar you eat in the checkout line at the grocery store. Gossip is like the all you can eat buffet at Golden Coral where there’s a cotton candy machine and chocolate fountain. We belly up to the buffet and load up. But just because something goes down easy, don’t make it right.
In a culture where gossip goes unchecked through word of mouth and electronically, the Church must model a way of being in community that does not allow idle talk, rumors, slander, or gossip. We must model healthy relationships that disallow third parties and outside information. We’ve gotta learn to talk directly with each other; instead of going around each other with slanderous, one-sided stories that demean each other and divide the body of Christ. As individuals and as a community, we’ve gotta put a stop to gossip in all its forms! We gotta do community differently! so that the world will know, if only through our witness, what it means to live in peace as a community rooted in God’s love.
What is gossip? Simply put, gossip is speaking ill of a person when they’re not there; saying something critical (or “evil”) of something which may have really been done or said by someone who is not there to represent and answer for oneself. It is being critical of someone else without them being present to defend or explain their actions.
Consider this scenario. Suppose, having seen a man drunk, or heard him curse or swear, I relay the story to a friend when this man is not present. It does not matter if I tell the story and report the incident with all the best intentions in the world. It does not matter if I relay this story through the prayer chain at my local church with hopes that he’ll never do it again. When I tell the story in his absence, I am gossiping.
Gossip is extremely common. It doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor, wise or foolish, young or old, have a post-graduate degree or never finished high school, people who differ from each other in every other way, seem to agree on this. Whether we want to fess up to it or not, we all have, at one time or another, been guilty of gossip.
It is the very commonness of this sin that makes it difficult to avoid. We are inclined to gossip because it gratifies our pride to speak of someone else’s faults and not our own. Anger, resentment, and all unkind tempers are indulged by speaking against those with whom we are displeased; and, in many cases, by reciting the sins of our neighbors, we indulge our own foolish and hurtful desires.
Gossip is even more difficult to avoid because it sometimes comes to us in disguise. Gossip is shared in an attempt to “set right” the offenses of another. Gossip is sometimes spread out of righteous indignation for what has happened. And in so doing, we commit sin from the mere hatred of sin! We serve the purposes of evil out of what we perceive as being faithful to God!
So, is there any way for us not to gossip? Is there a way that we can address concerns about our brother or sister without gossiping? Absolutely! Jesus, in our Gospel Lesson for today, has shown us a plain and simple way to avoid gossip. This teaching is not only a preventative, but also a cure for all gossip.
If your brother or sister sins against you, go and correct them when you are alone together… If they won’t listen, take with you one or two others so that every word may be established by the mouth of two or three witnesses. But if they still won’t pay attention, report it to the church, treat them as you would a Gentile and tax collector.
“If your brother or sister sins against you, go and correct them when you are alone together.”
The most literal way of following this first rule, where it is possible, is the best. If you see with your own eyes a fellow Christian commit undeniable sin, or hear it with your own ears, so that it is impossible for you to doubt the fact they have done something wrong, then take the very first opportunity to go, in person, and talk with your brother or sister about what you witnessed or heard them doing that seemed contrary to ways of Christ. DO NOT go if you heard about the fault through gossip! You’re not being any one’s hero. You’re only perpetuating a sin. Go ONLY if you witnessed the act or heard the words for yourself. Take great care to address your brother or sister with humility and grace. Avoid arrogance and anger. Do not accuse them of anything. Simply bear witness to what you heard or saw speaking the truth in love to your brother or sister.
If you are unable to meet with your brother or sister in person, then writing a letter or email is the next-best-thing. In fact, in some circumstances it may be the most advisable way of speaking. If the person is angry or even violent, then offering a handwritten letter or email may be the best option. For some people reading is better. It does not give so violent a shock to their pride, nor so sensibly touch their honor. And, if they completely disregard what you have to say at first glance, they may pick it up again a second time and take your observations to heart. Whether you hand write a letter or send an email, always make sure to sign it. Anonymity is not an option and only increases suspicion.
This is the first step Jesus teaches us to take. He commands us to take this step first, before we attempt another. No alternative can be allowed. This is the first step. Go directly to your brother or sister in private, or if you’re unable to go in person, send a handwritten letter or email. Don’t make excuses for avoiding it. It is not easy. But, it is the way of Christ.
But what “if they won’t listen”?
Then “take with you one or two others so that every word may be established by the mouth of two or three witnesses” (Matthew 18:16, CEB). This is the second step. Take one or two whom you know to be kind and loving people, lovers of both God and neighbor. Make sure that that they have “put on compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience” (Colossians 3:12, CEB). Make sure that they are tolerant, unbiased, unprejudiced, and forgiving. Care should also be taken to insure that those who accompany you are not strangers to the person you are approaching.
When you gather, make sure it is stated up front that the other two have no preconceived ideas about what happened nor do they hold any prejudice toward the other person. They are there to hear both sides of the story and to help the concerned parties process the situation. They are not there to make judgments or take sides. Therefore, they should not enlarge upon, open and confirm one side or the other. They should not give weight to one side or the other. They should simply bear witness to what is said and explained.
Again, as well as with the preceding step, we must observe that Christ gives us no choice, leaves us no alternative, but expressly commands us to do this, and nothing else in the place of it. After we approach our brother or sister in person and only after they refuse to listen, are we authorized to share what we have heard or seen to any other person. If we fail to take these first two steps, there will be conflict and hurt feelings, and rightfully so, for we will have sinned against God and against our brother or sister.
But what “if they still won’t pay attention”?
Then, and not till then, “report it to the church.” This is the third step. Now it should be mentioned that the term church hear does not mean the church universal nor does it mean the local church. It is not helpful to tell the faults of every particular member to the church (however you understand it). So what is meant by “church”? You should tell the situation to the pastor for the pastor is the overseer of the church to which you belong. It is the job of the pastor to watch over your soul, “as they must give account.” And, this should be done, if at all possible, in the presence of the person concerned. It is the pastor’s responsibility to teach faithfulness and facilitate healthy relationships within and outside of the church. Once you have attempted to address your concerns with your brother and sister in person, with a few Christian friends, and then before the pastor, you have done all which Jesus has instructed us to do, all that the law of love requires.
Again, we must observe that this is the third step which we are to take; and that we are to take it in its order after the other two; not before the second, much less the first.
Note: these steps would be slightly tweaked if you witnessed your pastor (me!) doing or saying something contrary to the ways of Christ. If that were the case, the first two steps would be the same. The third would be slightly different. In our (United Methodist) way of being church, you would go to the Pastor Parish or Parish Relations Chair whose responsibility it is to help facilitate, along with the rest of the committee, healthy relationships among the clergy, staff, and congregation. Though the third step may be slightly different if your grievance is with your pastor, the other two—the first two—steps remain the same.
“If they will not pay attention to the church, treat them as you would a Gentile and tax collector.”
After following these steps, laid out by Christ, if your brother or sister persists in sin, then you are under no obligation to concern yourself with it any more (except in your personal prayers). There is no need to speak of it anymore, but leave it all up to God. You need not ignore your brother or sister. You should still treat him or her with kindness and courtesy. But, focus no more on his or her fault. You have done all that is required to correct the fault. It is now between your brother or sister and God.
These are the steps Christ has laid out for us to follow. These steps prevent and stop gossip. They promote healthy, transparent relationships, but how many of us are willing to observe them? Will you?
From this point forward will you follow the ways of Christ and put a stop to all gossip? Concern yourselves only with the things you see and hear for yourselves. And, if you see your brother or sister sin, will you “go and correct them when you are alone together”? Afterwards, if your brother or sister will not listen, will you “take with you one or two others,” and then and only then if they still will not pay attention “report it to the church”? If this is your purpose then learn this final lesson: “do not listen to gossip.” If there were no hearers, there would be no speakers of gossip. If, then, anyone begins to speak evil through gossip, stop it immediately. Refuse to hear it.
Can you imagine the example we would set for the world if, in only this one instance, we would follow the teachings of Jesus! Refuse the evil snare of gossip. Let none of it leave your mouth! See that you speak evil of no person, of the absent, nothing but good. Let this be the distinguishing mark of our Christian life. Let us stop talking about our brothers and sisters behind their backs, behind closed doors, and in our isolated groups. And in so doing the world will know us not by our divisions, not by our gossip, not by our conflict. The world will know us by the way we love one another.
Friends, we’ve gotta stop the gossiping. We’ve gotta do it differently. We gotta go to each other directly, disregarding outside information and third parties (at least to start). Let us, therefore, affirm that from this day forward the gossip will stop and we’ll follow the instructions of Jesus so that the world will know that we are Christians by the way we love one another. Amen.
 Adapted from “The Snake that Poisons Everyone” (Preaching.com <http://www.preaching.com/sermon-illustrations/11543494/> Accessed September 21, 2012) and “Gossip: The 8th Deadly Sin Proverbs 18:8” by Charles Kimball (Preaching.com <http://www.preaching.com/sermons/11565825/> Accessed September 21, 2012).
 The only exception to this rule would be in the case of immediate danger. If you witness violence or overhear threats of injury toward oneself or another, then you should immediately contact the authorities. But, remember, only report what you saw or heard to the authorities. Do not spread gossip to others.