Friday, March 11, 2011

The 7 Deadly Sins: Sloth

This is a revision of the first sermon series I ever preached, 10 years ago to the month. I had just been installed as the first Licensed Lay Preacher in the Diocese of Southeast Florida. You can't footnote sermons when you preach them but I do know this got its inspiration from Dorothy L. Sayers' essay "The Other Six Deadly Sins." This installment owes a debt to James Bond creator Ian Fleming's essay on the sin of Sloth, especially its manifestation as ennui.

In the Ash Wednesday service we are invited to observe a holy Lent "by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God's holy Word." Today Lent has eroded to simply giving up something trivial like sweets for 40 days. Occasionally we may give up something truly sacrificial--like TV or car travel. But will this result in spiritual improvement or are we just making things inconvenient for ourselves? It depends on how personal the denial is and what positive trait we are substituting for it. But if we really want to build spiritual muscle we must wrestle with our innermost flaws. And it starts with self-examination.

Medically, self-examination for breast or testicular lumps can be a life-saver. And the Heart Association is trying to make the symptoms of stroke, or as they prefer to call it now, brain attack, just as well known as those of heart attack. Mental health officials are publicizing the signs of clinical depression. I made myself a mnemonic list of symptoms that indicate a nursing home patient (or any person) should be sent to the ER: Bleeding, Blue, Blacked Out or Broken Bone. For centuries the church has had a list of major spiritual maladies for which one can check one's soul. But most people have forgotten the list except for its title: the 7 Deadly Sins. So here they are: pride, envy, covetousness, sloth, gluttony anger, and, of course, lust.

This is not a list you will find in this exact form in the Bible, although each of the sins do pop up alone or in clusters. And there are other sins that Jesus, Paul and other Biblical authors mention that are not in this list. So what makes these sins the deadly ones? They are not so much actions as attitudes and so are the roots of most other sins. We can illustrate this through an examination of this sermon's featured sin: sloth.

Fighting sloth is not easy today. Our world is filed with labor-saving devices that increase our leisure and thus our time for idleness. We drive even if we are only traveling a few blocks. We will sit in long lines at the drive-thru rather than parking and walking into a bank or restaurant. We are so addicted to the remote that if we can't find it, we will tear up a room looking for it rather than walk over to the TV. And they even have recliners which contain a small refrigerator so that we don't have to get up to get something to eat or drink. Our culture practically encourages sloth.

But while sloth makes us do absurd things, it does not immediately come to mind when one thinks of a truly terrible sin. Laziness is deadly? Well, yes, if you're the guy who's supposed to watch the gauges or do the maintenance at the Deepwater Horizon oil rig. Or if you wish to avoid heart disease. But primarily these 7 sins are deadly to the soul. Let's see how sloth does the job.

You could call sloth a gateway sin. One of its worst effects is that it leads to other sins. People can drift into sins like lust or violence or covetousness through sheer boredom and aparent lack of anything to do. This is what's often behind mindless misdeeds of youth: vandalism, casual sex, drug experimentation, random violence. It's not the only cause, but too much leisure and too little direction certainly contributes to the kind of otherwise inexplicable actions of otherwise decent kids. A study has shown that the more unstructured and unsupervised time a child has the more likely he is to get into trouble. This is hardly a new revelation. I remember an old saying that began "Idle hands…"

Adults, too, are susceptible to the subsidiary sins of sloth. Some midlife crises might simply be a reaction to the letdown of having achieved your goals and finding your life strangely empty. Having nothing else to work towards, you might furiously throw yourself into a frenzied show of enjoying the fruits of your labor: a new car, a new boat, a new house, rounds of parties, expensive vacations, expensive new hobbies, expensive new spouses. Eventually all but the most non-self-reflective person realizes that such things can fill your time and your home but they cannot fill your soul. And that's when sloth can become ennui--"been there, done that." Life loses its flavor and appeal, you cease to care and can become careless in the worst sense. I think one can see this in the lives of certain celebrities, like Elvis. Sloth led him to gluttony, an out-of-control consumption of food, drugs and women, and he carelessly lost his life amidst the clutter and chaos of his extravagant existence. Elegant actor George Sanders said in his suicide note that he killed himself out of boredom. However, I don't think it was simple boredom but sloth in its most malignant form: despair.

When ennui develops into despair, sloth really turns deadly. Once one realizes that things cannot bring more life into one's existence, that things are essentially dead, one can lose hope of finding goodness and meaning. Faced with a tasteless, grey and grating existence, death ceases to terrify. It becomes the end to the pain of despair. And despair is a very great sin because it is the opposite of one of the cardinal virtues: hope.

Now when I am talking of despair, I'm not talking of clinical depression. Depression is a disease of brain that manifest itself in black moods and even the inability to feel any emotion. Depression can be treated with medications and therapy. The despair I'm talking about is the philosophical and theological view that says existence is without value. Of course, such a stance can be depressing when one really lets the implications sink in. If more atheists followed their premise to its logical conclusion, they would find themselves in cosmic despair. They may put a brave face on their philosophy and say that without a God one can give things one's own values and create one's own meaning to one's life. And one can. But such meaning and values are all subjective and they won't last beyond one's life. It's like a condemned prisoner drawing a pretty landscape in chalk on the walls of his cell and giving the cockroaches pet names. It doesn't change the reality of his situation. And according to atheism, we are prisoners of a cold, impersonal universe, that is indifferent to our fate and which admits no hope for ultimate justice or an afterlife. At the end of the last mile is either oblivion or a new life and that makes all the difference.

Despair is a sin because it is a rejection of the world that God made. It contradicts his verdict that what he created was "very good." It is a refusal of all the gifts God has presented to us. The antidote is hope. Hope has been called the future tense of faith. It is trusting that the future is not necessarily determined by the past. It is the belief in possibilities just as despair is the belief that all doors are shut. And again, I am not talking of hope as a feeling but as a deliberately adopted attitude towards life, grounded in God's love and goodness. It must be cultivated and nourished through prayer, scripture reading, Christian fellowship and acts of love. And hope is a renewable virtue. Living in hope breeds more hope.

There is another virtue that helps us fight our sloth in its early stages. It is diligence. This is not to be confused with busyness. Many people think that they are immune to sloth because they are so busy. But it is not the amount of activity that counts but the kind of activity and how you are doing it. As Paul writes to the Colossians, "Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men…" Diligence is doing a job the way it should be done, with care and attention. It is not only satisfying, it is a good Christian witness in a world where workers are becoming more and more indifferent to the products of their labor and their performance is becoming more and more shoddy.

One area in which we increasingly need to practice diligence is thinking. Every day you hear politicians on all sides eschew hard thinking and simply parrot the talking points their party provides them, regardless of whether they contradict themselves or oversimplify reality. Vocal Christians often do the same, seldom checking what scripture actually does and does not say, or looking at church history or historical theology. Scientists with an agenda will do a study or experiment and then go well beyond the results or current facts to speculate on the reasons why things are as they seem to be. Experts in one field will make pronouncements on a field in which their knowledge is superficial at best and erroneous at worst. No one seems to understand the difference between paradox and actual contradiction; no one notices nuance; no one does research or critical analysis. Some of this is motivated by ideology but a lot of this is mental sloth.

An especially good way of fighting sloth is to practice diligence in the disciplines mentioned in the Book of Common Prayer: prayer and reading and meditating on God's Word. I daresay most of us could use a more regular devotional life. Put aside some time each day. If your mornings and evenings are too hectic, use lunchtime. Use the short devotional forms following page 136 of the Prayer Book. Read the scriptures assigned for the Daily Office in the back of the Prayer Book. Clip out the prayer list from the church bulletin and take it with you during the week. Bring them with you into the bathroom instead of a magazine and use the time to pray. It's not like God doesn't see you in there anyway.

Jesus said, "I come that they might have life and have it in all its abundance." And the best way to fight sloth is to turn your life over to God completely. If you do, you will find your life full of things to do and people to see. You will find challenges for your mind, body and spirit. Your life will be hard at times, scary at others, rewarding, frustrating, exhilarating, dead serious, and hilarious. But I promise you, it will never be boring.

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