"Problems: Sloth", Psalm 137:1-6 and Luke 17:5-10, William L. Hathaway, First Presbyterian Church, Annapolis, October 7, 2007
In my series on practices (spiritual disciplines like discernment) and problems (the seven deadly sins) we arrive today at sloth, that marvelous word that slides in the mouth and lazily slips off the tongue. Thomas Aquinas used the word "acedia" when he labeled it one of the capital or primary sins back in the 13th Century and, a few years back, novelist Thomas Pynchon, entitled an essay on sloth, "Nearer, My Couch to Thee."
Yes, sloth is usually related to laziness and epitomized in the "couch potato," the guy with the beer, chips and remote, idling away hour after hour after hour. Laziness is an issue but, a deadly sin ..... that sounds a bit overworked, as if American style multi-tasking and constant over-drive were signs of human achievement. Sure, laziness is an issue for some and we have a history of attacks on plain olí laziness, going back to Poor Richardís Almanac from Benjamin Franklinís day but "acedia" or sloth, is a bit more complicated and serious than the pull of the Barco-lounger or the temptation of direct service TV for every National League Football game every week-end. Sloth is about giving up .......... on life, on God, on things that matter. Sloth is akin to the despair that nothing matters and no one can make a difference. Kathleen Norris puts it this way:
We often think of sloth as a harmless form of physical laziness, and joke about how long itís been since we vacuumed the carpet. But sloth is much more than laziness. It is the inability to concentrate on serious matters, and profound weariness of the soul. As Evelyn Waugh once wrote, "The malice of sloth lies not merely in the neglect of duty (though that can be a symptom of it) but it in the refusal of joy. It is allied to despair."
(The Christian Century, January 11, 2003, p. 9)
Those who suffer from sloth are unable to rejoice in beauty or engage in the gift of life.
Sloth is political apathy or spiritual despair. It is giving up on self, on each other, on God. That is why Aquinas called it one the capital or primary sins. It is a black hole that is hard to escape and like cosmic black holes it has a way of absorbing and sucking up light and life.
I would guess that all of us have had times when weíve wondered if the struggle is worth it or it wouldnít just be better to "check out" of .... the church, the political process, the crazy family. I imagine that most of us could well echo the despairing words from Ecclesiastes, "vanity, vanity, all is vanity." Yet, we have different paths. And, even though the vanity of Ecclesiastes is in the Bible, todayís scripture point me in other directions when tempted just to give up. Todayís parts of the Bible move us in the direction of protest and perseverance, the enemies of sloth.
Psalm 137 is a protest. Sure, we tend to call it a lament but, in many ways, a lament could also be called a protest, a protest against God, before God. "How can we sing the Lordís song in a foreign land?" Iíve felt like that. Lord, how do you expect us to parade into your sanctuary and sing hymns when our youth are parading before IEDís in Iraq. How can we celebrate World Communion when the Presbyterian Churches of Iraq have been decimated by civil war with the people forced into exile and all but forgotten? Or, on a more personal note, some today may ask, "Lord, how can my body be one of praise when this body is wearing out or this one is invaded with cancer." How? Why?
Do you know why protest is so important and so much a part of the spiritual life? When we protest we donít give up. We may not have the answer or even see the way out, but in protest we donít give in, we at least hang on to the possibility of resolution. The opposite of love is not anger, it is apathy. Giving voice to anger, frustration, sorrow can be the steps to live; to not give up.
Later today I plan to attend the interfaith service for peace. Will it change the world, stop the war? I canít measure that. For me, it is simply the act of not giving up.
Then there is the long haul and the big perspective. I got an email from Jim Nelson this week. Jim is the quiet, saint of our church who has provided all the architectural work for our construction and remodeling as well as joining in the near ten years of Sweat Equity work days. He is on a well earned vacation with family in England and wrote me from York where he took a tour of the Cathedral. He writes: "It took 252 years to build it and they gave up on the original idea of a spire. In contrast our building efforts are speeding along." I like the spirit ......... although I donít think he has in mind another 242 to First Pres. construction.
Jesus said, "If you have the faith of a mustard seed you could say to this mulberry tree, ĎBe uprooted and planted in the sea,í and it would." The apostles wanted more faith and, thinking that faith was some kind of thing or commodity, they wanted more of it. It is sort of the Samís Club perspective on life: more, bigger, carts full. Jesus must have been smiling a bit and muttering to himself, "God, do you really think that I can build a church on the shoulders of these idiots?" But he held his tongue and told a story. Evidently they were near a mulberry tree when the question came up on the size of faith, for he pointed to the tree, saying, "If you have the faith of a mustard seed you could say to this tree, ĎBe uprooted and planted in the sea,í and it would."
But we give up. There isnít enough .... money or love or wisdom. And this kind of sloth is closely related to arrogance. Giving up is often saying, "Because I donít see a way out, because I am down and out, because I am in the dark, because my dreams may not turn out the way I want ...... then Iím giving up on life.
I appreciate the stories of the saints; they push me off the tyranny of the immediate. And, even though our Czech partners are extraordinarily modest about the telling of their story, I take note whenever there is mention made of the violence of the Counter Reformation or a reminder of the oppressive years under communism. And I stop and ask, "In the face of that kind of witness, who am I to give up ... on the church, on God?
The struggles are great. In our land of religious freedoms we are so tempted to fall into mindless and arrogant abuses, what one writer graphically calls "Christo-fascism." We are tempted to wed church and state, replacing the kingdom with the empire. Others are encouraged simply to "check out" and treat the rest of life as a cruise on a luxury liner, void of the messiness of politics and religion. But one of the great tragedies of life, letís call it sloth, is when a person refuses to rage against the wrong.
The bottom line to me for World Communion is the simple affirmation that God has not given up on the world. And, with the gifts of protest and in perseverance who am I to give up?