Sinning Like a Christian: Sloth

The sermon series, Sinning Like a Christian, A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins, base on the book by the same title by Bishop Will Willimon continues at Starrsville UMC.  This past Sunday sloth, I so enjoy the sound of that word as I think it sounds like its meaning, was the sin of focus of the seven deadly sins.  I thought the Holy Spirit was at work with me as we crafted this sermon.  Maybe you will think so, too.

 

 

Ecclesiastes 1:1-9, Common English Bible

The words of the Teacher of the Assembly, David’s son, king in Jerusalem:

Perfectly pointless, says the Teacher, perfectly pointless.
    Everything is pointless.

Some things are inevitable

What do people gain from all the hard work
    that they work so hard at under the sun?
A generation goes, and a generation comes,
    but the earth remains as it always has.

The sun rises, the sun sets;
    it returns panting to the place where it dawns.
The wind blows to the south,
    goes around to the north;
    around and around blows the wind;
    the wind returns to its rounds again.
All streams flow to the sea,
    but the sea is never full;
    to the place where the rivers flow,
    there they continue to flow.
All words are tiring;
    no one is able to speak.
    The eye isn’t satisfied with seeing,
    neither is the ear filled up by hearing.
Whatever has happened—that’s what will happen again;
    whatever has occurred—that’s what will occur again.

There’s nothing new under the sun.

 

            We continue to take a new look at the seven deadly sins using Bishop Willimon’s book, Sinning Like a Christian.  Continuing to read this book and to examine my life, I also remain convinced that I am doing well at “sinning like a Christian.”  Pride, Envy, and Anger I clearly see in the ways I think and live.  I thought, that Sloth might finally be the one of the seven that really did not apply to me.

            Willimon and I, maybe some of you, too, are kindred spirits in the way he begins this chapter on Sloth:

Surely Sloth is one sin of which we pragmatic, hard-working, high achieving, Mother-I’d-rather-do-it-myself Americans are not guilty.  We are a purposeful, driven nation that resonated to Ben Franklin and his Poor Richard’s Almanac: ‘Early to bed, early to rise’ and all of that.’ (On the other hand, the phenomenal growth of stare-sponsored gambling suggest that there are many of us who expect to be given a life for nothing, betting on luck, rather than hard work, to get what we want.)…If we think about Sloth, which is probably less thought about than any other of the Seven, it is not considered by us as a sin against God.  Sloth is an offense against time, a sin against our potentiality, a sin against ourselves, a failure to get out there and grab what we deserve—in other words, our failure to become gods unto ourselves.

            God created me with a personality that has more energy and “gotta-get-it-done-now” drive than one person ought to have.  Goal oriented, results oriented and task oriented with ideas, vision and Plan A, B, C, D and on through the alphabet until it gets done—always working to get one more thing done—burning the candle at both ends is what my mother said to me often as she would caution me to slow down and take care of myself.  Multi-tasking? I was born multi-tasking.

            I, and maybe some of you too, find yourself in this category with me which Willimon says is where we may define sloth as:

an offense against time, a sin against our potentiality, a sin against ourselves, a failure to get out there and grab what we deserve—in other words, our failure to become gods unto ourselves.

            Unfortunately, this is not what the sin of sloth is about.  Sloth is not caring enough about God to wrestle mightily with Scripture and spiritual disciplines that would challenge us.  Sloth is the failure to put one’s shoulder to the task, that impatience that comes with following Christ—practicing the spiritual disciplines or the means of grace as John Wesley called the spiritual disciplines:  worship, Holy Communion, prayer, acts of mercy—loving and serving our neighbor—to name just a few of the spiritual practices.

            And this brings us to the only book of the Bible that fully addresses and describes the problem and quandary of the sin of sloth and acedia, Ecclesiastes.  Here we find the words that fully describe an attitude of spiritual apathy, and we heard this passage earlier:

Everything is pointless.

Some things are inevitable

What do people gain from all the hard work
    that they work so hard at under the sun?
and

Whatever has happened—that’s what will happen again;
    whatever has occurred—that’s what will occur again.

There’s nothing new under the sun.

Basically, why bother with practicing the spiritual disciplines, struggling with understanding the Bible, which by the way is contradictory and impossible to understand, praying ceaselessly, having faith in God when life can be so hard and unfair because good people suffer evil people prosper and do well, and people who claim to be Christian are just hypocrites?  These would be the 21st century words of Ecclesiastes. 

            Author Kathleen Norris would caution us to realize that our 21st century Christian ears and minds see the Christian religion define sin as a grocery list of dos and don’ts.  Whereas the desert fathers and monks, as Dominican Simon Tugwell writes, were not at all concerned that people should behave correctly according to the rules, but rather that people should be able to see their situation clearly for what it is, and to become free from the distorting perspective which underlies all our sins.

            The desert fathers believed that reading scripture and praying the psalms every day were inherently powerful—and a source of holiness with the capacity to transform their lives according to author and professor Douglas Burton-Christie in his book, The Word in the Desert.  Often, our 21st century intellect is insulted by the ancient and pagan ways of scripture that portray a culture and society that seems light years away from the current life we live with technology, science, and medicine.  Are we to give up our intellect in order to comprehend scripture?  The desert fathers and mothers and the ones who began the monastic life in monasteries and abbeys would tell us that we cannot only approach scripture or prayer or any of the spiritual disciplines with our intellect, if we desire to experience these spiritual practices as sacred and as a living force within us.

            Norris says:

Sometimes it is necessary to remind myself that I am not self-sufficient and never have been.  When my oldest niece was three years old, my brother would drive her to day care in the morning, and her mother, who worked as a stockbroker and financial planner, would pick her up in the afternoon.  She always brought an orange, peeled so that her daughter could eat it on the way home. One day the child was busying herself by playing, ‘Mommy’s office’ on the front porch of our house in Honolulu, and I asked her what her mother did at work.  Without hesitation, and with a conviction that I relish to this day, she looked up at me and said, ‘She makes oranges.’  My niece could wait without anxiety for this daily ritual, a liturgy of the delicious orange, bright as the sun, sweet with the juice that is the body and blood of this world.  The child thus fed learns to trust in others, and in God.  The fruit we are given is not always what we expect or want; it may even be bitter, but we are secure in knowing that it is given to us out of love.

            This ritual that Norris describes with her niece and her sister-in-law is the same kind of ritual we must develop in our relationship with God through the spiritual disciplines—practicing them every day.  Never growing weary, apathetic, sorrowful or becoming neglectful or slothful in pursuing praying without ceasing, struggling with reading scripture daily not because we can completely understand it or even accept what we read, and clothing, feeding and serving the homeless and the hopeless—the widow and the orphan—in all the ways God presents them to us.  Sloth keeps us from daily practicing the means of grace and spiritual disciplines that keep us in touch and in relationship with God who loves us and in that love gives us life with all its struggles, joys and things we cannot understand.  God presents us with a perfectly peeled orange every day, and we say, “No thank you, God, I don’t like oranges. I would prefer strawberries, apples, grapes, kiwi, grapefruit or whatever it is we think we know is best for us or our preference.”

            I subscribe to Netflix, and recently I have been watching West Wing from season one to season seven, 1999 to 2006 (I only have about five episodes left in season seven) the television series.  Do you remember the series?

            Aaron Sorkin, the series creator and executive producer for the first four seasons, produced an excellent story line and cast of characters that were real and faced with life, political and governing decisions that could cause anyone to run screaming into the night.  The show did not shy away from religious topics either. 

            In fact, in season six near the end of the season, President Jed Bartlett (a practicing Roman Catholic), actor Martin Sheen, now in the final months of his second term as a Democratic party president, is eating a variety of flavored ice creams out of ice cream buckets in the White House kitchen with the newly chosen Republican party presidential candidate, Senator Vinick (a non-practicing Roman Catholic), actor Alan Alda.  The two of them have just struck a deal on working together to get bills passed that will raise the national debt ceiling and increase the minimum wage, and they respect each other and have a working relationship—amazing isn’t it?—and because they reached the agreement quickly, Senator Vinick asked the president if they could spend more time together so it wouldn’t appear that he had “caved in to the president”—thus the trip to the back White House kitchen because the senator asked the president if he had any ice cream.  Senator Vinick tells the president he loves to eat coffee flavored ice cream.

            The media/press has been relentlessly questioning Senator Vinick about his lack of religious practice—mainly not attending church and mainly because his character supports abortion being legal in this country—an anomaly in the Republican party because we all know that all Republicans attend church and are against abortion being legal.  This series is very above board about implying that Democrats are liberal thinking and not religious except for President Bartett who is a practicing Roman Catholic and Republicans are all religious church attenders and against legal abortion except Senator Vinick. 

            These two men start talking about this issue of religion and church and the quandary that Senator Vinick is having with the press while eating ice cream, and Senator Vinick asks, “What happened to the separation of church and state in our government?”  To which President Bartlett replies, “There is no separation of church and state in politics.” 

            Senator Vinick then asks, “Do voters really need to know that I go to church?”  President Bartlett replies, “I think a candidate’s religion or how often he goes to church doesn’t matter.”  And then he presses Senator Vinick on the question about why he doesn’t go to church—as in, there was a time when you went to mass wasn’t there?  Yes, he says, I did.  What changed—what happened, the president asked?

            The senator says, “One Christmas many years ago my wife gave me a 17th century edition of the King James Version of the Bible.  I read it.  I read it literally—the more I read the less I could believe.  My priest friends told me that I should not read the Bible literally, and I did not listen to them.  I could not believe in a God who said the penalty for working on the Sabbath was death and that the penalty for adultery was death and that there was no penalty at all for slavery.  In fact, God was not against slavery.”

            President Bartlett says, smiling, “I’m a New Testament kind of guy myself.”

            The Senator says, “I struggled for a long time with that book.”

And then he asks the president, “You going to try to save my soul?”

            The President says, what happened?

            Senator Vinick says, “I finally just gave up the struggle.”

            President Bartlett then says, “The only thing I have the power to do in this job is to pray for the strength to get through the day.  You can try coffee flavored ice cream, but prayer works better for me.”

            And there you have it—one of the best explanations of sloth. 

The senator, along with many of us, “finally just gave up the struggle” because he could not believe in a God who, as we heard last Sunday when we focused on the sin of anger, would “bash the heads of children against the rocks.”  He gave up the struggle because he wanted to read the Bible literally, and that was too hard and not a believable God to his intellect.  So the senator was over come with acedia—an apathetic spiritual life. 

            God, perhaps through his wife, presented him with a gift of a Bible—ready to read and ready for him to engage in studying it with his priest friends and in the company of a community of faith—and the senator said, no thank you, I don’t like oranges.  God, if you are literally everything in this Bible, then count my intellect gone—I don’t want the orange.  I’m done—this is too hard to understand and my self-sufficient brain says it’s nonsense.  I’m done.

            Sloth?  Oh yes.  Sloth, I think, is alive and well in America and as sin against God it has, in my opinion, thoroughly infiltrated and taken over the religion of Christianity.  Overall, we are slothful when it comes to daily practicing the spiritual disciplines.  When these disciplines, perceived through our intellect only, show us a God that we cannot accept or explain, then we quit going to church, look for a church that gives us another description of God we can intellectually and literally accept, or we blame it on the preacher or the people in the church because they cannot explain God well enough and, if God is like those people—well, yes, I’m done, thank you very much. 

            Bible study and the daily spiritual practices are too much of a struggle.  It’s easier to walk away, give up, and quit the struggle to build a relationship with God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit.  Sloth.  Yes, sloth is the sin that best describes the state of Christianity in America and in American lives today.  May God have mercy on us and teach us again to like oranges.  Amen.

1 Comment

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One response to “Sinning Like a Christian: Sloth

  1. Linda Williams Woodworth

    I can’t figure out how to comment, but I really like this one. Thanks.

    TheWilliamsFarm.com 404.353.0177

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