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March 28, 2021 Sermon – Return from the Wilderness: Sloth

March 28, 2021 Sermon
“Return from the Wilderness: Sloth”
1st Scripture Reading – Proverbs 19:15, Ecclesiastes 10:18

Proverbs 19:15

15 Laziness brings on deep sleep;
    an idle person will suffer hunger.

Ecclesiastes 10:18

18 Through sloth the roof sinks in,
    and through indolence the house leaks.

2nd Scripture Reading – Mark 12:28-31

28 One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” 29 Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30 you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” 

“Return from the Wilderness: Sloth”

Do you remember the response of the Israelites to God’s plan to deliver them from Egpytian bondage?

  • The Israelites had been enslaved in Egypt for hundreds of years;
  • Their Egyptian masters were NOT kind.  According to the book of Exodus, “The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them” (Exodus 1:13-14.)  
  • More than making the lives of the Isrsaelites bitter, the Egyptian Pharaohs also slaughtered many of the Israelites – even Israelite babies – when it suited their purposes.

Which is WHY the Israelites cried out to God, and why God decided to send the Israelites a deliverer in the person of Moses.

Which brings me back around to my original question.  Do you remember the response of the Israelites to God’s plan to deliver them from Egyptian bondage?

We might be inclined to think the Israelites responded by jumping for joy and declaring some kind of national holiday, not unlike our American Independence Day.  But that’s not what the Bible tells us happened.  

At first, right after Moses arrived in Egypt and told the Israelite leaders of God’s plan, the Israelite leaders DID worship God.  At the end of Exodus 4, we receive this initial response from the elders of the Israelites:

31 The people believed; and when they heard that the Lord had given heed to the Israelites and that he had seen their misery, they bowed down and worshiped.

So…worship was their first response.  But things changed quickly.  At the beginning of Exodus 5, Moses met with the Egyptian Pharaoh and explained the situation.  Pharaoh responded by demanding even MORE from the Israelite slaves.  But God responded to the Egyptians’ mistreatment of the Israelites by sending Moses to ASSURE the Israelites that God would indeed deliver them.   How did the Israelites respond?  According to Exodus 6:9, “they would not listen to Moses, because of their broken spirit and their cruel slavery.”

We’ll get back to the story of the enslaved Israelites in a few minutes.  First…

(PAUSE)

Today is the sixth and final Sunday of the season of Lent this year; it’s the Sunday we call “Palm Sunday”.  Sometimes, on this day, I preach about Jesus’ triumphal entrance into Jerusalem or one of the coming events of Holy Week, but, this year, I’ll conclude our sermon series that has been about returning from the wilderness of sin to the ways God desires for us.

This Lent, we have been looking at a set of sins the Church has called “the seven deadly sins”; we’ve been considering these sins because they are the sins that are thought to lead to even more sins…which means, if we can turn away from these sins and back toward God, we might just be able to leave ALL sinfulness behind, we just might return from the wilderness of sin to a God-focused life. 

For this final Sunday of Lent in 2021, we turn our attention to the deadly sin of sloth. 

(PAUSE)

The Oxford Languages dictionary defines sloth simply as “laziness”; for an expanded definition, the dictionary offers “reluctance to work or make an effort.”  If I had to guess, this is the definition with which most of you are familiar.  In fact, it’s almost EXACTLY the same as the understanding behind the Old Testament word that gets translated into English as “sloth”.  Our two Old Testament readings for today – from Proverbs and Ecclesiastes – use the same Hebrew word (atslah): for some reason the NRSV translates the word as “laziness” in Proverbs and as “sloth” in Ecclesiastes.  Fortunately for us, these two translations of the word demonstrate that the Old Testament word at work does in fact equate sloth with laziness.

The only problem is: when the notion of the Seven Deadly sins was introduced, it wasn’t introduced in English…or Hebrew.  Rather, it was introduced in Greek.  And the Greek word associated with this sin was “acedia”.  And “acedia” doesn’t mean “laziness”; it doesn’t directly correspond with the Hebrew word from our Old Testament readings.  More importantly, “acedia” doesn’t occur in the Bible at all – it’s never used in the New Testament – so we have to look outside the Bible to understand what the folks who came up with this deadly sin meant by it.  It also doesn’t help that for about 1,000 years in the history of “the seven deadly sins” acedia wasn’t included among them but was rather folded into something called “sadness”.  Given that the construction of acedia most literally means “not caring” or “lack of caring”, this decision to combine it with “sadness” MIGHT make sense.  But I digress.

Since this sin of acedia is not explicitly mentioned in the scriptures, it can be difficult for us to define it accurately – from a biblical standpoint – and it can be difficult to find biblical examples.  For the purposes of this sermon, I’ll treat sloth as an apathy, a not caring, that can pervade multiple aspects of life.  When it manifests itself mentally or emotionally, it’s about an emotional apathy that leads to despair, a caring so little that nothing in life seems worthwhile.  When it manifests itself physically, it is about laziness: caring so little that you do little to no physical activity.  You just can’t bring yourself to DO anything.  But, as it turns out, while the emotional and physical aspects of sloth are significant, it’s the spiritual aspect of sloth that the early Church leaders focused upon with regard to the deadly sins, and that’s what I’ll focus on in this sermon.  I’ll call this “spiritual sloth”.

Which brings me back to the Israelites who were enslaved in Egypt.  Moses sent God to deliver the Israelites, but the early stages of God’s plan didn’t go so well…from the Israelites’ perspective, so the Israelites responded to God’s re-telling of God’s grand plan through Moses with something that sounds an awful lot like “spiritual sloth”:  “they would not listen to Moses, because of their broken spirit…”

Broken spirit.  The Hebrew phrase here is a bit tricky to translate; it’s a phrase that literally means “shortness of spirit.”  And, remember, the spirit, the “ruach”, was something breathed into people – into THEM – by God.  So this is about losing the part of the self that God has breathed into us and so becoming unwilling or unable to participate in God’s plans and desires for us.  THAT is spiritual sloth. (REPEAT.)

And it’s not something confined to the Israelites at the beginning of their Exodus journey.

  • It crops up again throughout that journey when the Israelites lose their connection with God’s plan and wish to return to Egypt.  Thinking slavery is better than God’s plan of a Promised Land sounds like spiritual sloth to me.
  • And it’s manifest in the story of Jonah, not the part where Jonah runs from God and gets swallowed by a big fish but rather what happens at the end of the story when God delivers Nineveh through Jonah.  Jonah becomes unhappy with God’s deliverance of the Ninehvites, so unhappy, so despondent, with God’s plan that Jonah desires death over living in a world in which God’s plan reigns.
  • And it’s manifest in a parable Jesus told – one of Jesus’ parables of the talents.  Jesus told a story about a landowner who goes on a journey and entrusts some of his money with his servants while he’s away.  Two of the servants invest the money, and the landowner calls them “good and trustworthy”.  One of the servants buries the money in a hole in the ground.  The master calls him “lazy and wicked”.  Perhaps laziness is this man’s primary sin, but I think it’s something else.  I read this as a spiritual sloth, as an avoidance of participating in the desires of his master.  When the master is God, if we avoid participating in our master’s desires, that is spiritual sloth.
  • And then, of course, as we approach Holy Week, how can we not think of some of the events of that week?  The disciples’ inability to stay awake while Jesus prayed in the garden demonstrated spiritual sloth.  Peter’s denial of knowing Jesus: not once, not twice, but three times, also demonstrated spiritual sloth.  And even the people of the crowd, who began the week on fire for God’s Messiah but ended the week without enough desire for God’s plan to stand up for God’s unjustly accused Messiah…they exhibited spiritual sloth.

Certainly, examples of spiritual sloth abound in the scriptures.  But, what about us, what about the modern Church in the USA?  Surely, we members of the modern Church do everything we can to participate in God’s desires…all the time.  Surely, we don’t ever avoid God’s plans and desires for us, right?  (PAUSE)  Unfortunately, examples STILL abound:

  • Every Sunday morning, Christians across this nation have an opportunity to worship God in community with other Christians.  (Granted, for the past year, the opportunity has been for virtual community more than in-person community as a result of COVID.)  And, how many times do Christians choose something ELSE?  I would suggest choosing something else, something other than what God desires of us followers of Jesus on Sunday mornings, is an example of spiritual sloth.
  • Or how about opportunities to show the love of Christ by HELPING other people, by helping meet needs?  I suppose this can be divided into two parts.
    • When Christians pass by needs right in front of them without even looking up to recognize those needs, that’s an example of spiritual sloth.  We CHOOSE to not look up, CHOOSE to not see the needs…as a way of not participating in God’s desires to stop and help.  That’s spiritual sloth…because our not looking for need prevents us from participating in God’s plans for those needs. 
    • And the second part consists of what happens when we DO see the needs.  Sometimes we see a need – like the need of the people holding signs on the street corners – and we walk or drive right on by.  Without stopping to discern whether or not the need is legitimate or is a need God is calling us to do something about, we too often just IMAGINE, tell ourselves, the need isn’t real.  But if we don’t stop and ask God, “God, do you want me to do something about this need?”, if we see the need and don’t ask God if we’re supposed to do something about it and then DO something if God says “yes”, we are guilty of spiritual sloth.
  • Or how about, in general, doing what WE want…most or all the time? When we spend most of our time doing what WE want – considering primarily what WE want – instead of very intentionally doing what God wants us to do, that’s AVOIDING even knowing what God wants us to do so we can actually avoid DOING what God wants us to do.  All the ways we avoid finding out what God wants for us and from us – avoiding by not praying regularly, avoiding by not reading scripture regularly, avoiding by not engaging in other spiritual practices – these are ALL ways of practicing spiritual sloth.
  • And, as was the case with the Israelites, this can happen in aggregate, at a national level, a state level, a city level, or even a denominational or congregational level.  I’m reminded of a story I’ve told multiple times over the past years, so I’ll truncate it for you today.  It’s the story of a crude life-saving station – not much more than a hut at the beginning of the story – that was situated on a rocky shoreline where many ships wrecked each year.  The members of that station kept watch night and day to rescue people who were tossed into the sea.  Over time, many of the people who had been rescued joined the station, as did folks from the surrounding area who wanted to be associated with the good work of the station.  Eventually, many members of the station became more concerned with the quality of amenities at the station (amenities which had been added primarily for the comfort of the members) than the actual work of saving lives…to the point that at a Board meeting of the station, the stations’ members split into two factions: those who wanted to stop the life-saving activities because they were a hindrance to the normal social functioning of the club and those who insisted that saving lives was the primary purpose of the station.  The first group was large and, upon winning the vote, told the other group if they insisted on saving lives they could go down the coast and start their own life-saving station.  I fear we – the universal Church – have got far too many congregations that resemble the station, the club, of this story near its end.  That’s congregational spiritual sloth, congregational acedia.

 

As I mention these ways we practice spiritual sloth – these ways we fail to participate in God’s plans for us – something comes to mind.  Of all the seven deadly sins, sloth is unique in one very important way: it is the only deadly sin that is a sin of OMISSION rather than a sin of COMMISSION.  In other words, sloth isn’t about doing something that is WRONG so much as it’s about NOT doing something that is right…in God’s eyes.

Which brings me to the final question of this sermon: what can we do about sloth?  More specifically, since I’m focusing on spiritual sloth, what can we do about spiritual sloth? 

There are a number of potential answers in the scriptures, but I believe they all start with Jesus’ words in our second scripture reading for today: what is known as Jesus’ double love command.  By the way, if you feel like I’ve mentioned this command before during this sermon series, you would be right.  As it turns out, Jesus’ double love command could be used to combat pretty much ALL of the seven deadly sins, even all sin.  Loving God and loving our earthly neighbors is an excellent way to return from the wilderness of sin…which is why I began and am ending this series with pride and sloth, the two sins for which love is the primary solution.

But, what does love have to do with spiritual sloth?  Quite a lot.

For starters, loving God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength is the complete OPPOSITE of spiritual sloth.  Really.  If you’re in a place of loving God like this, you can’t ALSO be in a place of spiritual sloth.  However, the challenge is in getting to this place.  Remember, this kind of love is not a feeling.  You can rather easily “feel” like you love God, tell yourself you love God, and also be in a place of spiritual sloth.  For this kind of love, you’ve actually got to DO.

I’ve told you before that this kind of love – this agape love – is about a preference for.  So, to live out Jesus’ command, you’ve got to live out a preference for God.  What would this look like?  Imagine starting each and every day by making a list – making a mental list or physically writing it down, it doesn’t really matter – imagine starting each day by making a list of what you will do that day.  I would imagine most of us do this.  We imagine things like: get up, make breakfast, eat breakfast, brush teeth, get dressed, go to work, run down a list of everything we need to do at work, consider things to do when we get home, and even plan a time to go to bed for the evening and a time to wake up for the following morning.  Notice – NONE of those things I mentioned INTENTIONALLY involve God.  So, NOW imagine making a list of what you will do each day that demonstrates a PREFERENCE, a love, for God (with all your heart, your mind, your soul, and your strength.)  I’m guessing this list would look DIFFERENT.  It might include things like: scripture reading, prayer time, spiritual gift identification and development, group Bible study, daily worship time, and more.   Y’all, a God-focused daily to-do-list, a God-preferring daily to-do list looks very different from all the other to-do lists out there.  I encourage you to make a habit of creating a God-focused, God-preferring, daily to do list at the start of each day and then checking God-preferring items off that list as you go through the day.  Remember what I said about sloth – it’s a sin of omission…which means it will take some intentional acts of commission to get past it.

How about loving your neighbor?  The process can look very similar.  It’s very easy to be intentional about looking for ways to prefer people other than yourself and your family; you’ve just got to be intentional and commit.  

  • Feed a homeless person each day; if everyone did that, the homeless population might not ever go hungry.  
  • Give a pair of gloves to a person living out in the cold.
  • Look for young families who need some help with their kids, and offer to help.
  • Look for older adults or people with impairments who need help with their yards.
  • Look for a person who’ s lonely and needs a friend or a person who doesn’t appear to feel heard and offer to listen.

It’s really very easy to seek out and find need, it’s really very easy to PREFER other people if you seek to do so intentionally.  Commit acts of love, and you will not have spiritual sloth.

Now, some of you might be wondering how all this DOING can combat a spiritual problem; after all, spiritual sloth is a spiritual problem, a spiritual issue, not a physical issue.  The answer is simple: when you make your life all about DOING what God wants you to do, your life becomes ever more about God, your life draws you ever closer to God…which solves the spiritual issue.  I know, I know, it’s possible to be like Martha in the New testament.  It’s possible to be so busy with your doing that you get distracted and forget to BE with Jesus, forget to BE with God.  If you do that, you will still find yourself amidst the problem of spiritual sloth.  The key here is to be sure your doing is as a result of a preference for God, not a busy-ness that stems from a preference for YOU – your desire to be busy, your desire to be seen being busy, etc.  It’s about listening to GOD’s desires and doing what you find in that listening. 

(PAUSE)

Which brings me back to the story from the Exodus with which I started this sermon.  The Israelites did NOT show a love – a preference – for God and God’s plan.  They showed a preference for their own desires…not just once, but over and over and over again…so much so that they even FEARED entering into the land to which God was leading them because they wanted the kind of land they wanted and embellished stories about God’s Promised Land being inhabited by fierce giants.  The result?  Only a few of those Israelites who left slavery in Egypt ever made their way into the Promised Land…primarily because of spiritual sloth.

My friends, if you want to live into the Promised Land of God’s great love and desires for you, you’ve got to move past your own plans that lead to an unwillingness to participate in God’s plans.  You’ve got to place God FIRST in life.  Then, you will return from the wilderness of sin.  Then, you will enjoy God’s great desires for you.

Amen!