Deadly Sins Sermon Series, 2 out of 7 — 10/23/2010
Text: Matthew 25:14-30
Some of you might be aware that the country of France is in the midst of major protests because the government has proposed to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62. This has been an interesting backdrop for contemplating a sermon on sloth, the deadly sin of the week. Part of me wants to start singing Les Miserables. But another part of me wants to say to the French, “Are you serious? You have a 35-hour workweek with eight weeks a year of vacation! What are you retiring from? Where I’m from, we work 80 hours a week and we’re adding more and more hours every year.”
So maybe I need to go over to France to preach about sloth. How do I preach about it here in Northern Virginia? Are there actually any lazy people living in Fairfax County? I haven’t found them yet. This is one of the busiest places in America. The first challenge of preaching a sermon on laziness in northern Virginia is that, if anything, it seems like our problem is the opposite of laziness.
The other difficulty for me in wrestling with “sloth” is that I’ve been through periods of my life in which depression and anxiety caused me to be completely unproductive. I had days in which I would go into the office and literally stare at the screen all day. From the outside, I’m sure that I looked lazy; on the inside, I was acutely aware of what a failure I was. If I had gone to church during that time and heard a preacher say that lazy people need to “suck it up” and take responsibility for their lives, I’m not sure I would know what to do with that advice other than beat myself up even more and become even less productive.
At first glance, the message of Jesus’ parable of the talents seems to be that we do need to suck it up and throw ourselves full-throttle into the hypercompetitive world we live in. It’s like Apprentice. The go-getter servant who takes Donald Trump’s 5 talents and makes 5 more gets put in charge of bigger things – maybe a real estate company, a casino. But the servant who melts down because he’s scared and doesn’t know what to do gets kicked to the curb. If God handed me a million dollars (which is what a talent might amount to in modern day cash), I wouldn’t know the first thing to do with it. So is this parable saying that people who are insecure and doubt themselves better get over it if we want to be competitive applicants for the kingdom of heaven?
In a way, yes, but in a more important way, no. Our insecurity and self-doubt can be a crippling roadblock that keeps us out of communion with God, but the way around this roadblock is not something we can resolve by deciding to do so. One of the basic problems with how the modern world understands sin, and sloth in particular, is that we assume morality is mostly about decisions when it’s really about habits. We assume the way to avoid sin is simply to resolve in our minds not to do it and be strong enough to stick to our word. Since the time of the Enlightenment, when Rene Descartes said his famous maxim, “I think, therefore I am,” humans have put way too much faith in the power of our own minds.
The world is full of seemingly harmless clichés that follow this line of thinking, like “If you set your mind to it, you can do anything.” Sloth happens when we take advice like this seriously only to find out it’s a lie, when we discover the desperate truth of human reality Paul describes in Romans 7: “I want to do what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” The basic problem of our sinfulness is the impossible gap between what we know we ought to do and what we really end up doing. Sloth means giving up the hope that I will ever be who God wants me to be, which is understandable if I assume that I’m in this struggle all by myself.
The bad news is that sloth is not a decision but a habit, and bad habits are about as easy to get out of as quicksand; they require more than just resolving in our minds to change; we must engage in a patient, continual battle that is pretty well impossible to fight on our own. With sloth, I think about the battles of the kitchen sink and the laundry pile; it’s so hard to gain the discipline to wash the dishes right after we eat or put the laundry away right after it’s dry; and these are the least of our bad habits.
But the good news is that we aren’t on our own. Jesus is patiently waiting for us to acknowledge His hand reaching out to us in the quicksand of our bad habits. Twelve step programs are effective in dealing with bad habits because they dispel with the myth that our minds are all powerful. What are the first three steps of every twelve-step program? 1) Acknowledging that we are powerless over our problem. 2) Believing that a power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity. 3) Turning our wills and our lives over to God’s care. The way out of sloth and every other sin for that matter is to get rid of the motto of modern life – I think, therefore I am – which places so much responsibility and faith in the power of my mind, and replace it with a new one: I trust, therefore I am, in which my basis for being is the faith that Jesus can change me in ways I never could change myself.
If we say, I trust, therefore I am, that means accepting the gift of freedom that God has given us by turning our wills and our lives over to His care. Sloth properly understood is rejecting this gift and burying it in the ground, which doesn’t necessarily mean that I stay in bed all day. There’s plenty of ways to bury the call and gifts that God has given me. Throwing myself into my career and working hard enough that I’m too busy for God is a form of sloth. Going through the motions of church life without being attentive to my need for spiritual growth is a form of sloth. Trying to prove my worth as a pastor by launching new ministries and giving eighty hours a week to church work so that I no longer really have time to listen to God is no less slothful than lying on a couch in a Sluggie covered in beer and potato chips.
This is because sloth doesn’t have to do with the failure to make our lives busy; sloth is the failure to trust God enough to give our lives to Him and let Him set our agendas. All the worldly life accomplishments we could imagine – being made CEO, a full partner, a full professor; having successful, well-adjusted children; building a company from a shoe-string budget into a giant multinational corporation – all of these accomplishments are worth about as much to God as a couch potato’s loud belch when we are completely uninterested in following God’s will for our lives, when we do what we do to prove that we’re worth something rather than receive our worth from being part of Christ’s body and then give our lives to the advancement of God’s kingdom.
Too often, under the pressures of life, we settle for the mediocre goal of living in such a way so that nobody has any claim on us. This means working hard enough in school to keep my parents off my case, getting a decent job so I’m not mooching off anybody else, staying out of other peoples’ business, and, of course, making sure my lawn is cut on a regular basis (at least in the front). It is this approach to life that is embodied by the servant burying God’s money so that he can give it back to God intact. Thanks but no thanks, God; I prefer mediocrity to the scary prospect of trusting you to develop my gifts and use me in ways that I never would have imagined. I’d rather have a simple, basically good, inoffensive life in which I’m in charge.
What Jesus is warning us about in this parable is that even living cautious and inoffensive lives if we’re uninterested in God’s plans for us and the world can keep us out of the joy of God’s eternal presence. Jesus doesn’t want us to live with the regret of not using the gifts that God has given us. Such a life is an outer darkness of weeping and gnashing of teeth, despite whatever mask of busy-ness or worldly success we wear. As St. Augustine once wrote, “our hearts are restless till they find their rest in God.” And that is the final truth about sloth: there is nothing restful about it. What is truly restful is allowing God to order our lives into a rhythm of worship; true Sabbath rest is an embrace of complete trust in God that is the opposite of sloth and in fact the antidote to sloth.
Truly un-slothful people don’t come across as being busy, because they have given their time to God, which gives them a peace that underlies whatever level of activity their lives contain. I’m not there yet, but with God’s grace I’m going to keep on trying. Let’s not be the people whose anxious response to God’s call for our lives is to bury His gift in the mud and busy ourselves with other things. Let us be the people who trust that God will fulfill His purpose in our lives, so that, following His lead, we will have the surprising joy of harvesting fruit that we never thought we could grow: new talents to add to the ones that He first gave us.