Ecclesiastes 1:14, 16-17
14 When I observed all that happens under the sun, I realized that everything is pointless, a chasing after wind. 16 I said to myself, Look here, I have grown much wiser than any who ruled over Jerusalem before me. My mind has absorbed great wisdom and knowledge. 17 But when I set my mind to understand wisdom, and also to understand madness and folly, I realized that this too was just wind chasing.
So then let’s also run the race that is laid out in front of us, since we have such a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us. Let’s throw off any extra baggage, get rid of the sin that trips us up, 2 and fix our eyes on Jesus, faith’s pioneer and perfecter. He endured the cross, ignoring the shame, for the sake of the joy that was laid out in front of him, and sat down at the right side of God’s throne. 3 Think about the one who endured such opposition from sinners so that you won’t be discouraged and you won’t give up.
I confess to you that there are times when Saturday night rolls around, and Corey and I are relaxing at home, and I’ll turn to him and say, “Is tomorrow really Sunday already…again??” Or when my alarm goes off in the morning and instead of getting excited about worship on a Sunday morning or beginning another day of ministry during the week, all I really feel like doing is staying in bed. Or how about the times that instead of doing some devotional reading or reflection, I am looking at facebook instead? All of these confessions are examples of the times that the deadly sin of Sloth has gotten to me.
But the sin of sloth is more than falling asleep in front of the TV, not wanting to get out of bed in the morning, or nodding off during the sermon. At first glance, being slothful does not seem so sinful to us, or at least we don’t usually see it as some kind of opposition against God. It’s probably the one sin out of the 7 that is not talked about very often, and we probably don’t give it much thought. At worst, we might see it as an offense against time, a sin against our own potentiality, a sin against ourselves, or a failure to get out there and grab what we deserve (76).
In fact, Jesus had little to say in condemning those who were not living up to their religious commitments- it was the hard working, purpose driven believers, and the actively religious who suffered the most rebukes (77). Think back to the week we talked about pride when we met the Pharisee in the temple who was giving thanks to God that he was not like the sinners out there, but followed the Law and did everything he was supposed to do. The tax collector in the temple, on the other hand, simply asked God for forgiveness and mercy. Jesus points out that he went home the more righteous person.
The sin of sloth has more to do with apathy, lack of caring, and the fact that there is a deep problem with our faith if we no longer make an effort to deepen our faith and commitment to God- when we no longer seek God, when we no longer see faith as something that requires us to do anything, when we think we already have it all figured out. Sloth is the sin of simply giving up and seeing faith as just an accessory to our lives, and church as something we just do on Sunday mornings because that’s part of our weekly routine. Sloth becomes a deadly sin when we realize that it eats away at the soul, extinguishes the faithful fire, and when it wears down the soul by slow degrees. Sometimes this takes place over time, and we don’t realize how bad it’s gotten until we wake up one day and wonder where our faith and hope in Christ has gone.
Many would say that things such as natural disasters, suffering, wars, famine, disease, tragedy are the biggest threats to faith- but if we step back and look at it, perhaps the biggest threat is the gradual erosion of our faith. I’ve seen or experienced this myself many times. A spiritual awakening happens, whether it happens at some kind of retreat or conference, or for our youth, maybe it’s a camp or a youth retreat. We have an experience of God or the Holy Spirit lighting a fire in our hearts and we love Jesus so much that we can hardly stand it. But then after a while, time passes, life happens, and we forget our excitement and the promises and commitments we might have made in the heat of the moment. It’s one thing to have a life-changing religious experience or spiritual awakening at a conference or a retreat, or even sitting on your porch watching the stars- it is quite another to keep it going for the long haul. To keep our faith in God, to keep walking the road ahead of us, even when it seems boring or uninteresting, even when it becomes difficult- that is the real challenge, and that is when sloth is most likely to creep in.
No other book in the Bible addresses the sin of sloth better than Ecclesiastes. One of the Wisdom writings of the Hebrew Bible traditionally attributed to King Solomon, Ecclesiastes addresses the meaning of life and humanity’s purpose on earth. The author ponders what it means to be alive, and the message is ultimately one that speaks of life as fleeting, empty, and a mere breath, and points out that both the wise and the foolish end in death. Apathy is found here, but rare in other places in scripture. Even to admit the presence of the apathetic disposition among the faithful is a rather threatening admission. In the text I read for you this morning, the author laments that although he has grown wiser than any other in the land, he still believes that he is just wasting his time and chasing the wind. Wisdom doesn’t matter. Foolishness doesn’t matter. We are all just here. We might as well eat, drink, and be merry, and let God take care of the rest.
Ecclesiastes is a text adored by many Jews and Christians alike, and also even by atheists, perhaps because it speaks the harsh truths about life without putting too much responsibility on ourselves. It’s also one of the more honest books in the biblical canon because it faces the reality of our lives and our humanity- perhaps a reminder to try to get more out of life than simply vanity and nothingness.
Thomas Aquinas, recalling a monk, St. John Cassian, says that sloth arises “from the fact that we groan about not having spiritual fruit and think that other, distant monasteries are better off than ours” (79). Sloth, then, lends itself to thinking, “therefore, why should we even try?” I hear things like this in churches all the time. Things like, “they already do that better, so why should we give it a try?” or “they have already reached out to that community, so why should we?” or “They have more people than we do. We couldn’t pull that off.” It’s a dangerous line of thinking to get into. Sloth eats away at our faith communities AND prevents us from our task of making disciples of Jesus. It is one of the reasons that churches close and the excitement about what God is doing ceases to exist. Sloth not only affects our faith communities and our churches, but also our individual faiths. Too often, we become lazy in our discipleship and we stop caring. We forget why we are here in church in the first place.
We forget that faith requires active response, an engagement with God, a willingness to be formed and transformed by God’s work in us (79). We can’t expect to sit back and let God do all the work. Sometimes, I wonder if the greater spiritual danger is that gradual ceasing of faith that comes from a simple unwillingness to take the trouble to believe at all (80). When I was early on in my faith journey and wanting to explore Christianity, I had a dear friend who was with me every step of the way. I questioned a lot of the beliefs and practices of the church he belonged to, and knew that if I were to become a follower of Jesus, I would need to find a different place to grow in my faith. As he graduated high school and went off to college, he left his faith altogether, perhaps assuming that his church must be the only brand of Christianity, and that wasn’t the kind he wanted, and he had no desire to seek elsewhere. It is when we don’t take the time to challenge ourselves, to question, and to grow in our faith that we fall into the trap of Sloth- the sin that we just don’t care enough to put in the effort to further shape our relationship with God and community. When the going gets tough, we give up and walk away rather than seeing what our options are and what God is doing among us and within us.
What makes sloth so deadly is that if we let it get to us, then we lose our desire to believe, our desire to serve, our desire to have a relationship with God and with each other. We get lazy, not just in our personal or professional lives, but in our faith and we let it slip away. We let the Light of Christ within us grow dim. So we must keep running the race that is set before us, as the author of Hebrews writes so beautifully. We must fix our eyes upon Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, so that we will not get distracted and lose sight of our belief and our hope in God. After all, slothfulness is the failure to put your shoulder to the task and letting spiritual apathy take over. It is the sin of letting faith slip away, not putting it into action, not setting aside time to invest yourself within it. It is the sin of simply just showing up and putting forth no effort, ceasing to care or to even attempt to discern what God is doing.
One of my main jobs as a pastor is to remind you to be excited about God and get you to care about something outside of yourself- to do something out of your love for Jesus. If we lose our passion for God and our passion for the people of God, then we might as well close these doors right now, or confess that we are just going through the motions without Spirit or meaning, without joy or hope. Many believe that the opposite of sloth is joy. When we cease putting forth effort or caring about anything in our lives, then we cease to experience joy. When we let the image of God within us slip away, when our eyes glaze over and we stop caring about anything, that is when sloth takes over and our joy is gone. For many people, the pain of the world lends itself to sloth as a defense against the world.
Sloth slips in when we refuse to pick up the broken pieces of our lives and rebuild our joy and hope, and it is refusing the God-given means to make our lives interesting and meaningful. It brings us to a crossroads and asks us to make a decision about how we will live our lives. Will we sit around and do nothing, or will we make something of ourselves, our faith, and our lives? Will we make a difference? Will we inspire, help, encourage? Or will we waste our time in laziness or wallow in our boredom or sadness? When faced with the hardships of life, will we pick up the broken pieces or do nothing?
In this, I am reminded of people who survive traumatic events and then face a decision to shut themselves away from the world or go back out there and make a difference and be the faces of joy and hope in the midst of sadness and pain. On April 15, 2013, many of us were glued to our TVs as we watched the horrendous events of the Boston Marathon bombing unfold. We continued over the next few weeks to hear about those who set off the bombs, but we also began to hear the stories of the victims of the bombings- both those who survived and those who did not. Many survivors made the choice to return to the finish line just a year later to finish the race- some with missing limbs, many with physical and emotional scars that will never fully heal. One photographer took on a project called “message-on-skin” that included portraits of survivors at the finish line with writings of what they would like to say to the world. Click HERE to see more of the portraits.
So may we not be those who give up, fall asleep, and trip over the sin of sloth. It might be harder than you think. Even the disciples, on the night that Jesus was arrested couldn’t stay awake just one hour to keep watch with Jesus as he prayed. Yet he invites us to be watchful and to keep going, running the race with perseverance, even in the face of hardship, doubt, despair, and yes, especially our temptation into spiritual apathy and laziness. After all, the resurrection of Christ is the great awakening. Christians are those who, by the grace of God, awake out of our slothful stupor and move toward the Light of Christ.
May we not fall into slothfulness, which is the sin of the person who refuses to be forgiven, who has the arrogance of believing that we are without hope or help, and has the despair that there is no truth in the sacramental means of grace offered to us in the church. Sloth is the sin of the person who holds suspicion that when Jesus says to the sick, the broken, the tired, “Rise, your sins are forgiven,” that he is lying (88).
It is time for us to wake up from our slothful slumber and get to work, setting aside our sins of laziness and spiritual apathy, putting aside our sadness and despair, and open ourselves to the possibility of new life and hope. It is time to praise the God who calls us forth from our slothfulness and into the Light of the World. Will you join me on this great adventure? Or will you chose to stay in bed?