There’s a well-known story about a man with a very nasty problem: he liked talking about other people. Whenever he heard a story about somebody, he just had to tell his friends – especially if it was a good story.
Since he owned a shop, he heard a lot of stories. He loved the attention he got, he loved it when people laughed at his stories so he added a few juicy details to make them funnier. Other than that, – of course – he was really a nice chap.
One day he found out a really juicy story about another businessman in the same town. So he told his friends – how they laughed – they told their friends, and they told all the people they knew, until it went around the whole town, and it came back to the poor man the gossip was all about. The poor man went off to see the vicar – or the rabbi – or the imam – and he said – woe is me – I am ruined – because no-one would shop in his shop any more – not now they knew the gossip.
Now the minister was a wise old man – and he decided to summon the man who loved to tell stories into his office. When the nice man with the nasty problem heard how he had ruined his neighbour’s life, he was really sorry. He had really not meant to cause any harm – he was a nice man after all – “What can I do to make it undone?” he asked . “I will do anything you say!”
His teacher looked at him long and hard – then he said – “I know – do you have feather pillows in your house?” “Of course, – said the business man – I’m not poor; I have lots of them – do you want me to give them away to the poor perhaps and sleep on plain board as a penance?
“No, – said the minister – just bring me one to me here in my office.”
The man was mystified, but he returned a little bit later that day to the teacher’s study with his best, biggest, fluffiest feather pillow under his arm. The minister opened the window to let some air in, and he handed him a very sharp knife. “Now – he said – cut the pillow it open!”
The man was surpised and a bit sad –it was one of his best pillows – and anyway, he said, – it will make a terrible mess. “Do as I say!” said his vicar or rabbi or imam.
So the man cut the pillow and suddenly the lovely soft airy feathers flew out of the pillow and around the room – they landed on the chairs and on the bookcase, on the clock, on the cat which jumped after them. They floated over the table and into the teacups, onto the both him and his minister, and, of course, a lot of them flew out of the window in a big swirling, whirling trail.
After about ten minutes his teacher said : “Now your penance is to gather up all the feathers, and stuff every one of them back inside your pillow. All of them, not one may be missing!”
The man stared at the minister in disbelief. “But you’ve set me an impossible task – he said – I might be able to collect up all the ones here in this room – but ones that flew out of the window are gone forever. It’s impossible.
“Yes,” said the wise minister, and he nodded gravely, “that is how it is, you see, once a rumor, a gossipy story, a bad word, a ‘secret,’ leaves your mouth, you do not know where it will up. It flies on the wings of the wind, and you can never get it back!”
The man who liked to tell stories about other people went away sad, but a wiser man.
“Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips,
and I live among a people of unclean lips,
Now of course, what the nice business man who liked to tell stories needed – and what the prophet Isaiah needed was a nice fairtrade face mask. It’s much harder to gossip about other people if you can’t actually hear what their saying or read their lips!
Personally I don’t think we’re more gossipy, or say worse things than any other people or any other generation. – I think people have bad-mouthed other people, and shared secrets for ever. There’s nothing like a good story, and there’s nothing like putting other people down with a bit of gossipy scandal … but somehow it does seem to be different in our times. It does seem to be worse. The danger is worse for us. A hundred years ago the wind blew through the window and carried the gossip and wicked stories out through the window into the village and perhaps into the county – but now the wind blows through the entire world. Gossip, bad stories, appear in newspapers, facebook, twitter and and blogs – and what we said about someone in 2001 or what someone said about us in 2001 is still there in cyberspace in 2010, 2020 and for the rest of our lives. Idle gossip when we were young and reckless comes back to haunt us … we are undone, ruined, – if we are not careful. The gossip might be the same as a hundred years ago – but we need to be more careful – it spreads wider and thicker and it sticks for ever.
Over the years I’ve had quite a few things written about me in cyberspace – many of them are lovely, I’m pleased to say – but some of them are not very nice and some of them are just downright vindictive – but like feathers in the wind they’re always out there. You can look them up … that’s modern life.
And what Isaiah knows – way back in 800 BC – is that it’s not just other people who have unclean lips – he does it as well. He is no better than anyone else… he is also a man of unlcean lips. And we are no better than anyone else either. We all do our fair share of gossipping and badmouthing over the years, and, we’ll probably carry on doing it until we die. It’s more than just a habit – it’s what some people call human nature – and what theologians in the past called original sin – it’s just the way we are. …. and a facemask is not going to do much good to stop us.
But listen to what happens next in Isaiah’s story:
Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.”
Obviously God’s angel can do what the minister in the story could not do. Isaiah’s guilt is taken away and his sin is atoned for – he is forgiven and he is then able to make a fresh start as a prophet – even though he feels terribly unworthy. But why is it is a live coal from the altar – what does that mean ? Is there any signficiance in a live coal?
Now let me teach you just a little Hebrew and quirky theory I have about the words. The word for a live coal is ‘reshef’ – with a ‘sh’ in the middle of it – you would have thought that the Seraph would therefore have picked up a ‘reshef’ from the altar to touch the lips of Isaiah – but he doesn’t, he picks up a ‘ritspah’ instead – which really means ‘pavement’ – but that’s nonsense – the angel can’t have touched Isaiah’s lips with a pavement, so we always translate it ‘live coal’ instead – a reshef. Now – stick with me – the word ‘ritspah’ is a form of the word ‘retsef’ – which sounds very much like the word ‘reshef’ – only with a ‘ts’ in the middle and not a ‘sh’ – it’s as if Isaiah or the seraph has a lisp….. So I think there’s just a little bit of Bible fun going on in the text. Isaiah might just also be saying – I can’t be your prophet, I can’t speak to the people, I’ve got a lishp…. so the seraph speaks with a lisp as well – and touches his lips not with a spark of fire – but with a shpark of fire….. as if he was saying – it’s OK – you can still do it with a lisp.
And that’s a very good moral for the story. How many times have we said that we cannot do something for some strange reason…. Just think how many times Joe Biden said he could never be president of the United States of America because he has a stammer – and yet he could, and he did. When God’s angel calls us, God’s angel calls us just as we are – lisps, stammers, and with what others call disabilities included in the mix. And if God’s angel calls us then God’s angel will also empower us and enable us to serve – lisp and all.
So If I can change the ending of my story about the gossipy business man. It ended with him going away sad, but a wiser man. It should have ended with him going away to train as rabbi, a vicar or an imam – why? because he had a great gift for telling stories – he was just using it badly.
The Very Rev’d Paul Kennington