Summary: A sermon about scandal in the Church
The 2008 film ‘Doubt’, based on John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer Prize winning play of the same name, is set in a Roman Catholic church in the Bronx in the 1960s. Sister Aloysius, the principal of the attached school, played brilliantly by Meryl Streep, suspects Father Flynn, the parish priest, of having an improper relationship with a pupil and altar boy. She confronts him. And part of what makes the story so powerful is that we never get to find out whether Father Flynn is guilty, or whether Sister Aloysius has got it completely wrong.
Not surprisingly, Father Flynn is unimpressed by Sister Aloysius’ accusations. And the next time he preaches in church, he tells the following story.
A woman was gossiping with a friend about a man she hardly knew - I know none of you have ever done this - that night she had a dream. A great hand appeared over her and pointed down at her. She was immediately seized with an overwhelming sense of guilt. The next day she went to confession. She got the old parish priest, Father O’Rourke, and she told him the whole thing.
‘Is gossiping a sin?’ she asked the old man. ‘Was that the hand of God Almighty pointing a finger at me? Should I be asking your absolution? Father, tell me, have I done something wrong?’
‘Yes!’ Father O’Rourke answered her. ‘Yes, you ignorant, badly brought-up female! You have borne false witness against your neighbour, you have played fast and loose with his reputation, and you should be heartily ashamed!’
So the woman said she was sorry and asked for forgiveness.
‘Not so fast!’ says O’Rourke. ‘I want you to go home, take a pillow up on your roof, cut it open with a knife, and return here to me!’
So the woman went home, took a pillow off her bed, a knife from the drawer, went up the fire escape to the roof, and stabbed the pillow. Then she went back to the old parish priest as instructed.
‘Did you gut the pillow with the knife?’ he says.
‘And what was the result?’
‘Feathers,’ she said.
‘Feathers?’ he repeated.
‘Feathers everywhere, Father!’
‘Now I want you to go back and gather up every last feather that flew out on the wind!’
‘Well,’ she said, ‘it can’t be done. I don’t know where they went. The wind took them all over.’
‘And that,’ said Father O’Rourke, ‘is GOSSIP!’ 1
Last year, the Anglican Church in New Zealand was rocked by a scandal involving two senior members of this Diocese. Most of you will be remember this. After all, it was all over the papers. But to those of you who don’t know anything about it, I am sorry, but I am not going to say what happened or who was involved. Because it is not my intention today to name or shame the parties. I have only brought up this affair because I want to talk about some of the different reactions I observed.
Firstly, there were the gossipers. And the speculators, who wanted to know all the gory details, but didn’t know them, so they had to imagine a few. I am not going to dwell on them, because the story I just told about Father O’Rourke and his gossiping parishioner says pretty much all I need to say about malicious gossip and unhealthy speculation. Except perhaps that I know what it is like to be the victim of malicious gossip. Many years ago now, somebody told my then partner that he thought I might be having an affair with a neighbour. Now this was completely untrue. But I believe it may have contributed to my partner becoming my ex partner not very long afterwards.
Then there were those who took the moral high ground, and loudly condemned those involved. Now I can accept some of them made some valid points. In particular, the observation that the ability of the Anglican Church to take a position on marriage had possibly been compromised, at a time when the very definition of marriage was being debated. But I would add that the Church also demonstrated it’s leadership had personal experience that marriages do not always work, which in an ironic way added to its understanding of the subject.
In today’s Gospel reading, the Scribes and the Pharisees tried to trick Jesus. If he had condemned the woman caught in adultery, he would no longer have been showing compassion to the people. But if he had not, he would have been showing contempt of the Law. In some ways, this was the reverse of last year’s episode in our Diocese, in that religious leaders were judging an ordinary person, instead of ordinary people judging their religious leaders.
But regardless of who we are, not one of us is without sin, and Jesus caught the Scribes and the Pharisees out, when he uttered those famous words, ‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’ 2 Note how they did not leave together, but all slunk off separately. Like we do, they all had their guilty secrets. And like them, we have no right to condemn others for their sins.