Fire and Poison

While COVID-19 makes our in-person services challenging, Knox is providing podcast services. Not everyone can access these, though, so we are also posting my sermons on our Knox Talks blog. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.

Fire and Poison


Wisdom of Solomon 7:26-8:1

James 3:1-12

Preaching on gossip might seem a bit silly these days. We live in a divisive society with horrible things being said on social media all the time; where people refuse to listen to anyone who has a differing opinion.

Even worse, we are in the middle of a federal election. Parties and politicians are being belligerent and some of their followers are getting really nasty. So why this scripture? Why this sermon?

The lesson happens to be of the readings in the lectionary this week. It spoke to me because I have seen the destructive power of gossip at work in the last few weeks and it has been really distressing. It has been a reminder of how important this simple teaching can be.

A neighbour of ours, a woman in her 40s, died of COVID recently, leaving behind a husband and children. The family belongs to a church that has a lot of unvaccinated members. At her funeral there was singing, which is considered unsafe enough that we don’t even do it outside yet. But she was an active members of that church and she decided for herself not to be vaccinated.

The husband, as he himself acknowledged at the funeral, is neuro-divergent: he is socially awkward; prone to saying things others consider inappropriate and I know that this bothers many people.

Even before the funeral the gossip had started and it got worse afterwards. There have been whispers of abuse; stories that the woman who died had begged to go to hospital and that he had refused (utter nonsense: I knew her well enough to know she would have called the ambulance herself if she felt that bad and it’s obvious that he loved her; he looks lost without her).

I have heard these and other pieces of gossip, not only from other neighbours but also from people who are members of their own church.

In my opinion, there are at least two sources for the gossip and both of them are based in fear: I believe that some of the people are afraid that her COVID death might happen to them – they are looking for stories to explain why they are safe when she was not.

I also believe that there is a deep misunderstanding of neuro-divergent people. This man is probably on the autism spectrum, functioning very well, but he scares people. They don’t know how to hear what he says and they start to turn him into a monster with their words.

It concerns me deeply that this family may become isolated, just as they are learning to live without their wife and mother. The children will have to live with these stories, not only the father. This gossip is not something I would wish on anyone and I wonder whether they will feel forced to move to escape the poison in the community.

The nastiness, the fear and loathing have been truly distressing to see and when I read our James lesson it was like he was looking down my street as he wrote it.

In preparing this sermon I had to consider the ethics of sharing this story: I didn’t want to preach against gossip by gossiping. I made sure that I have not shared any names and all the information I have shared has been publicly shared by the family already.

Refusing to gossip isn’t about “If you don’t have anything nice to say don’t say anything”; it is about being truthful and respectful, and loving.

Last week I identified that James set out a model for churches to refuse to treat people differently based on social status because we believe that all of us are God’s children; that we are all equally loved by God; that we are to treat each other with the respect due to every child of God, every human being.

That kind of respect should call us to speak respectfully at all times, not just in public statements but in every circumstance.

The fear that seems to be fuelling the fire of gossip is something that we need to work to overcome. We should remember that promise in John’s gospel: “perfect love casts out fear”. Perfect love isn’t easy. We need to work to develop it.

It’s too easy to fear people who are different. It’s too easy to condemn as a monster someone we don’t understand.

This teaching is basic: it’s not about political correctness or any other set of rules. It’s about speaking with love and respect at all times and it is a good place for each of us to start as we work to heal this divisive world.

If we could convince people to apply this principle, just imagine what kind of a difference this could make to the internet, or even to politics.

I listened to the leader’s debate the other evening with my sermon musings in mind. I remembered a leaders debate from years ago and I realized just how much I miss Jack Layton.

I’m not making a political statement – that’s not what a sermon is for. This is a personal expression of respect for someone who impressed me with his grace and integrity in a profession that often seems to lacks it. I met Jack a couple of times; the last time was at the Canadian AIDS society gala some months before he died, where we sat at the same table and compared moustaches.

The outpouring of grief the nation expressed when he died wasn’t because of his political position – many of the people who mourned him would never vote for his party – it was because of the kindness he showed and the dignity with which he treated others, even when strongly disagreeing with them. Jack clearly believed that we should respect others; that we are called to respect every individual we meet.

People respond to that kind of personal integrity; it’s a breath of fresh air.

And this letter of James calls each one of us to do the same thing: to refuse to take part in the nasty whispers; to hold back from the destructive, poisonous trends of today; to hold as a value the idea of respect, speaking to others, and about others in ways that respect each person’s value as children of God, even when they are profoundly different from us.

And when a person or a group scares us because they are so hard to understand, we should be determined to love them and to do our best to understand them, so we can overcome our fear with love.

As Christians we are being called to be people of integrity, to be people of love, of respect; people that can build others up instead of tearing others down.

If we can do this we will set an example for an increasingly dysfunctional society. People will notice and it will make a difference for them. But that’s not why we should do this, that should be a happy spin-off. We should do this because we understand it to be at the core

of God’s plan for human life: we don’t want others to gossip about us; we want others to speak about us respectfully.

It’s that simple: we want respect for ourselves, so we should give it to others, in everything we say and everything we do.


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