by Daniel Harrell
I was going to write a sermon for today about Sloth but I didn’t feel like it. I also had a basketball game to watch. North Carolina basketball is true blue pride and joy for us Tar Heel alumni: epitomized in the long legacy of Dean Smith and Bobby Jones, Michael Jordan and James Worthy, Tyler Hansbrough and Marcus Paige and now Kennedy Meeks praising the Lord and so many more. Then there’s our deliciously antipathetic rivalry with Duke Junior College, the one school to which my daughter is not allowed to attend or ever apply. You see me hobbling around a bit these days—it’s because I have a couple of Plantar’s Warts on my feet which could have been treated with a topical cream, but my Duke-educated dermatologist determined he needed to burn them off–right after I told him I graduated from Carolina.
Sadly for fans, North Carolina basketball glory has dimmed of late—not on the court, but in the classroom. For two decades until 2013, administrators steered hundreds of student athletes into fake classes to keep grades high enough for eligibility. Despite its brilliance as an elite academic institution, Carolina basketball cut academic corners for the sake of athletic success, and most everyone, it seems, administrators, professors, alumni and students, simply shrugged, you know, who cares? Whatever. We got a game to play. See you Monday night.
Ronald Reagan once quipped that hard work never hurt anybody, but why take the chance? The early desert monks experienced sloth as the “noonday demon.” Sloth sneaks up to distract and derail, enticing you into an easier path to a lesser good. My own monastic experience with sloth happened on a three-day spiritual retreat some years ago. I’d signed on for the sake of a penetrating awareness of the Holy Spirit, an assurance of God’s presence, and a renewed delight in Scripture reading and prayer.
Upon my arrival at the monastery, the priory abbot courteously escorted me to my cell, a simple room devoted to spiritual pursuit—a kneeler by the bed, a cross on the wall, a Bible on the table. I checked my watch. It was 1:00. Perfect. I would have the entire afternoon to pray. I began by reading the Psalms and a gospel passage. I then sat quietly to contemplate and wait upon the Lord. I then offered prayers of praise and thanksgiving, prayers for the church and the world, prayers for my neighbors and those in need. It seemed as if the hours were flying by. I looked at my watch. It was 1:15. I tried to sit still and get spiritual again, but all I really got was bored. Looking to my left, I noticed I had fortuitously packed my Walkman—remember those? Was it really March with the tournament being played as I prayed? You can imagine how things went from there.
The Proverbs famously characterize sloth as laziness: “As a door turns on its hinges, so a sluggard turns on his bed.” I am aware about the irony of preaching sloth to those who managed to make it to morning church. Righteously indignant, perhaps you’re thinking, “Save this one for the Upper Room congregation!” But sloth is about restlessness and busyness as much as laziness. At its sinful core, sloth is a failure of resolve, purpose and even hope, which left unchecked, distills into neglect toward God and toward the welfare of others.
In healthier moments, spiritual dryness or melancholy can alert to a need for prayer and assistance from others. But with sloth, spiritual dryness and melancholy deform into self-pity and indifference. We get discouraged by the demands of doing right and following Christ. We never measure up, so why even try? You know, who cares?“Don’t worry about it,” we tell ourselves. It’s not that important. Nobody cares. Sloth is the great minimizer. By thinning out your struggles and watering down challenges, sloth excuses you from having to do anything about them. To be slothful is to avoid conflict and thereby avoid resolution and reconciliation; to avoid decision-making and thereby avoid movement; to avoid commitments and thereby avoid the messy burden of relationship and responsibility.
We’re now into deep Lent with our look at the Seven Deadly Sins—gluttony, lust, greed, anger, sloth, envy and pride—perversions recognized by early Christians and later theologians as vices that curve human souls inward, stunting love intended for others and God. Sin gets its energy from the goodness it perverts. Thus gluttony perverts the goodness of eating and nourishment; lust perverts the goodness of relationship and sex, greed perverts the goodness of contentment and sufficiency. Anger perverts the goodness and passion of justice. Sloth subverts joy and sucks the life out of conscientiousness and good work.
Dallas Willard labeled the slothful “vampire Christians” who want Jesus only for his blood without any obedience. You’re glad for God’s grace but resent if ever it infringes on your plans for the weekend. It’s one thing to experience a dramatic, life-changing conversion. It is quite another to endure the long haul of discipleship. It’s the difference between getting married and staying married. The latter takes daily attention and routine and stability and practice. Otherwise you’ll never box out in the free throw lane when it counts (for those who saw the game last night).
Sloth nibbles away at the soul bite by bite, tamping down passion and discipline until only nothing is left. As writer Dorothy Sayers once put it, “In the world Sloth calls itself Tolerance, but in hell it is called Despair…. It is the sin which believes in nothing, cares for nothing, seeks to know nothing, interferes with nothing, enjoys nothing, loves nothing, hates nothing, finds purpose in nothing, lives for nothing, and only remains alive because there is nothing it would die for.”
Sloth masks its apathy with an easy-going and care-free demeanor. On the outside you appear laid-back and relaxed, but underneath you are actually cynical, distrustful and self-absorbed. It’s not that sloth has no energy, it’s just that it has no energy for anybody else.
I had to pick up my car at the repair shop late after a meeting at church. It had started to snow and I needed a ride to the repair shop. A friend was happy to oblige, even though the repair shop was not on his way home. He dropped me off and I paid my bill, picked up my car, already anticipating getting home earlier than I thought, warming up by the television and watching the second half of what was sure to be a great game. But then my phone rang. It was the friend who’d just given me the ride. He’d gotten a flat on his way home from dropping me off; could I stop by and help him? “You mean, now?” I replied. There was a twinge of irritation. A thump of resentment? Sure, I’ll help, I said, but the whole time as I knelt changing that tire in that snow, I felt like a put-out Samaritan, mad at the victim by the side of the road for making me have to be Good.
The medieval theologian, Thomas Aquinas, viewed sloth as a kind of twisted, twofold sadness. With sloth, you’re sad on the one hand because you’re called to do what is good and right, but you don’t really want to do it. This makes you feel sad on the other hand because you’re such a bad Christian. “You’re stuck between a self you cannot bear and a self you can’t bear to become.” But rather than doing any work to improve, you choose to wallow in your sadness and keep feeling bad. Chronic guilt and self-pity, as exhausting as they can be, are still better than having to change.
The slothful presume that by doing nothing they can do nothing wrong. “It’s hard to sin while you’re sleeping.” Sloth has been historically condemned as a sin of omission. This morning’s familiar parable of the talents has a master off on a journey having entrusted his servants with his property. To one servant he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. These talents, in Biblical parlance, may be analogous to spiritual gifts given by God, not to be kept but used and shared. We speak of Christianity as a religion of love—loving God and loving others—but it begins with love received. The servant who received the five talents made five talents more, the one with two doubled his as well. The master returned and delighted in their resourcefulness, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.”
However, the servant who received the single talent confessed, “Master, I know you are a harsh man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. I was afraid. So I went out and buried your talent. See, here it is. You can have it back.” To which the master replied, “You wicked, lazy servant!” The King James uses the word slothful. “So you knew, did you (a question implying that in fact the servant did NOT know) that I am harsh? If that’s the picture you’ve painted of me, you should have put my money on deposit and at least earned some interest! It would have likely taken less energy than digging a hole!” Had the servant truly been scared, that might have motivated him to do something more. But he wasn’t afraid. He just didn’t care.
The slothful mischaracterize and defame in order to blame. Thus they delude themselves. The master was in fact both good and fair. The other servants received his goodness as an opportunity to do good and enjoy the true satisfaction of work well done. But the slothful received his gift as a burden. Curved onto himself, he misconstrued the master as harsh and used it as an excuse to bury his gift in the ground. In Luke’s rendition, the servant wraps it in a napkin like you do with food you don’t like as a guest at someone else’s dinner table.
Sloth “cares for nothing, seeks to know nothing, interferes with nothing, enjoys nothing, loves nothing, hates nothing, finds purpose in nothing, lives for nothing, and only remains alive because there is nothing it would die for.” Jesus says, “From those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Whatever. Who cares? Sloth, the great minimizer, maintains its comfortable indifference. It shrugs off grace and its demands, shirks its duty by staying distracted, keeping otherwise occupied, falling asleep on the couch.
The antidote for sloth is diligence—which we know as conscientiousness and care, devotion and hard work. Diligence derives from the Latin for love. It means to take delight; to enjoy whatever you do, not just doing what you enjoy. Diligence takes daily attention and routine and stability. The monastic tradition speaks of a rule and rhythm of life. We are shaped by our habits, our day-to-day rehearsal of purpose and plan. You’ll never box out in the big game if you don’t prepare for it in practice. We like to imagine that values shape character, but what we believe is not what we profess to believe. What we believe is what we do.
Cotton Mather, the 17th century New England parson, encouraged his congregation to begin each day by asking themselves a simple question: “What is there that I may do, for the honor of my Glorious Lord, in order to serve the welfare of those for whom I ought to be concerned?” If you need more specificity, try these: “Do I spend most evenings working late, watching television or in some other solitary amusement or occupation, or could I offer myself to someone in my family or household who may need a hand? Do I send my kids to bed early so as not to have to deal with them? Could I visit someone sick in the hospital or reach out to anyone I know to be lonely? Could I take time to listen to my spouse or my friend express their own frustrations or unhappiness with their life or work, at the expense of getting to express my own? Could I volunteer time or donate money, especially when it means that I will not be able to do something else that would give me greater personal gratification? And if I do any of these things, can I do them ungrudgingly, feeling that these simple acts are actually meaningful, spiritual moments in my life, moments pleasing to God, but also capable of bringing me meaningful pleasure too?
I was talking with a member of our congregation about her weekly volunteer work packing weekend meals for the Bethune School and the simple joy it brings her. I remembered recruiting a group of tutors for an urban school; otherwise busy volunteers who’d have to take off work early or sacrifice some other aspect of a their schedule to help, often to get stood up by the students. I always felt bad about this, and apologized to one tutor for wasting his time; his student had been a no-show three weeks in a row. “No worries,” the tutor replied. “Just happy to be here. Being available to help can be as important as helping.” Now I felt worse. Why couldn’t I be as delighted to consistently offer myself instead of whining when my offer wasn’t taken with reciprocal delight? Diligence goes beyond reciprocity. Like grace, it impels us to extend our talents unconditionally for the simple joy of following Jesus.
It’s no coincidence that Matthew follows the parable of the talents with the conscience-searing parable of the king who condemns those at his left hand: “I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit.” The condemned reply, with bemused befuddlement,“What? Where? When, Lord, when was it that we saw you like this and did not take care of you?” The king answers, “Just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” What we believe is what we do.
The communion table reminds us that Christ came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as purchase. “You have been bought with a price,” Scripture teaches, “therefore glorify God with your body”—with your work and your love, your talents and riches, your time and your attention, with habits and practice, with delight and with joy.