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Seven Unholy Habits: Sloth


Romans 12.1–8

Seven Unholy Habits: Sloth

Jill was at work again. No matter how early one showed up at the office, you couldn’t beat Jill there. And, for the most part, you couldn’t outlast her in the evening. She was almost always at the office. She did her work, then took on extra projects in order to help others out. Whenever it was time for annual reviews, no one wanted to be in the same small group as Jill, because they knew that she would make them look bad. She was always meeting—and exceeding—everyone’s expectations. In fact, the few times that you could see Jill skip out a little early—perhaps after only working a 9-10 hour day—was when she had a family commitment. As committed as she was to work, she still found time to be just as committed to her daughter’s activities. Whether it was dance, or T-ball, or church music, Jill made sure that she was always there. Again, she didn’t just meet everyone’s expectations; she exceeded them! She made cookies for her daughter’s school parties, recital outfits for dance, threw the end of the season party for T-ball, ran the children’s committee at church. Jill did it all. If you saw her sitting still, something was wrong!

Jill was at work, again, when Justin pulled into the parking garage. His plan the night before was to come in early to catch up. But he had forgotten that Netflix was releasing a new season of his favorite show, and of course he had to watch it all! By the time he crawled into bed in the wee small hours, he knew that his alarm would be completely useless. And it was. He pulled into the last spot he could find and ran toward the office. Late again. Justin liked his job, but next to someone like Jill, he was pretty lackadaisical about it. It never seemed like work could keep his attention for long. In fact, nothing could keep his attention for very long. He would start one project, but when it bored him, he would start another one. Or if there was a project at home, or one of his sports teams would get competitive, or that Netflix season came out, that latest and greatest shiny object became his new obsession. Behind his back at work, some of his co-workers called him lazy. He suggested that he was simply, “discerning in the projects that he prioritized.” Of course, home or work, it was tough for him to finish any project. For Justin, if it didn’t capture his attention, it wasn’t worth his time.

Two very different personalities. Today, we continue our series on the seven capital vices with the vice of sloth. So, as we begin, I want you to think about both Jill and Justin and answer a simple question: which one exhibits the vice of sloth? Jill or Justin?

For those of you playing along at home, what do you think? If you are watching on YouTube Premieres, tell people what you think. Which one seems to be a better example of sloth?

As you figure that out, let’s take a look at the book of Romans. First, let’s take a step back and imagine what life might have looked like to be in the Christian church in Rome. At this point, the church was this fledgling thing. It was pretty far away from Jerusalem and Antioch and all of these places where the church began and really built up steam. They were cut off from so many other Christ-followers, physically and culturally. Paul had not even visited them by the time he wrote this letter to them. He had intended to, but kept getting thrown in prison for preaching about Jesus. So they were pretty far removed from most of the rest of the congregations of Christ-followers.

Meanwhile, they met in what was easily the center of power in the known world. Rome was the center of political power—this was the place where the emperor lived and ruled and his courts and power all emanated from Rome. Rome was the center of religious power—there were temples and worship centers on every corner for another Roman god. And Rome was the center of cultural power—there was a swagger and an arrogance because everyone who was anyone wanted to be in Rome.

So those Christ-followers who worshipped there felt pretty beat up and kicked around. In fact, they had been kicked out at least once, and had recently been allowed to come back. For them, it made all the sense in the world to worship at the feet of these powers. To act like them, talk like them, live like them.

But then they get this letter. From this guy named Paul. Of course, they had heard about Paul and his preaching. But he seemed so far away. There was probably this whisper campaign that the letter was going to be read out loud. Tuesday night at 10:30. Junia’s house. And so they all gathered in this place to hear the words of Paul.

And someone stands up and reads to them: DO NOT be conformed to the world around you. Don’t live like them. Don’t act like them. Don’t make their priorities your priorities. Instead, be transformed by the renewing of your minds. Live a different way. Live a different life. Paul gives them this challenge to receive this very different identity. Don’t be like everyone else around you, accepting their identity. You are different. Be transformed into that different way of life. Be different.

Of course, in order to be different, it’s going to take some work. Hear the language about sacrifice there at the beginning? There is some work involved in identity transformation. I would argue that this is true in any worthwhile identity transformation. Think about it in terms of a marriage. I tell couples in premarital counseling all the time “if you think that you are marrying your soul mate and you are meant to be together and everything is going to be roses and perfection, think again. Relationships require work. They require sacrifice. They require commitment. That work it worth it, but it is work. Transforming your identity from a single person to a married person requires change.” Paul is saying the same thing about relationship with Christ and our fellow Christ-followers. It requires commitment. Sacrifice. Being different takes some work.

So, in these few short verses, Paul sets the Roman Christians apart under a new identity. He explains that each of them will be a different part of the body, have a different role, and accomplish different tasks. Some will give. Others will teach. Others will preach. But then together, they as a body are different. They are transformed. They don’t live like the world around them, but receive this new identity under Christ. Separately and together, they receive this new identity.

OK, now that we have a little bit of Paul in the back of our minds, let’s go back and tackle Jill and Justin. Again, the question on the table is which one of these two demonstrates sloth?  If you picked Justin, congratulations! You have won the play-at-home version of Pastor Matt’s sermon!

This ancient idea of sloth suggests something akin to laziness. Inaction. Inactivity. Our old buddy Justin fits the bill! Those who are often perpetrators of this vice of sloth demand that they are entertained 100% of the time. Sloth is often associated with boredom. I think that a lot of us have become Justins in recent years, because we feel the need to always be entertained. Our phones don’t help this, right? There is always another app, another ping, another notification. We all know about the “stoplight head drop” right? I pulled up to a red light…what do I do next, in these few seconds of inaction before the light turns green? Head drop to phone. Until the guy behind us is honking his horn because the light has been green for 10 seconds. That has become a way of our being. This thing that I am doing is not interesting me enough, so I demand a new project, a new hobby, a new Netflix series in order to keep my attention. If work is not keeping my attention, if it is not entertaining me, then it’s OK for me to not care about it.

In fact, there is this Greek word that the desert fathers used: “acedia.” It literally means “lack of care.” So someone who demonstrates sloth is someone who doesn’t care enough to put in the effort in life. The “Justin” who doesn’t finish what he starts, isn’t interested in anything that doesn’t entertain him, gets bored with anything that isn’t keeping his attention. If you picked “Justin the Sloth,” pat yourself on the back.

But, what if I told you that those who suggested that Jill is an example of acedia, of sloth…you are just as correct? Sloth is more complicated than simply laziness. In fact, Frederick Buechner suggests this in his definition of sloth. See if you can find Jill in there…

Slothful people…may be very busy people. They are people who go through the motions, who fly on automatic pilot. Like somebody with a bad head cold, they have mostly lost their sense of taste and smell. They know something is wrong with them, but not wrong enough to do anything about. Other people come and go, but through glazed eyes they hardly notice them. They are letting things run their course. They are getting through their lives.

Recognize a little bit of Jill in there? See how busy-ness can be an example of sloth, of acedia? It is a different look, but it is still a demonstration of “lack of care.” So many people have thrust so many expectations on the Jills of this world, that they simply say yes with out caring enough to pause and ask if it is the right thing to do. Work project. OK. T-ball party? Sure. Dance outfit? How many do you need? And eventually, their eyes get glazed over to the point of not even noticing who they are doing this stuff for. “Going through the motions.” Can you see how even busy people can be lazy? Lazy in the way that they discern their time. What they say “yes” to or “no” to. Lazy in asking whether this activity or project is a worthwhile one or if they have the capacity to do it. It is a whole lot easier—and lazier—to just tell everyone yes than it is to determine priorities or even say “no” every once and a while. That is acedia. That is lack of care.

So both the Justins and the Jills of the world suffer from this same vice. They get stuck allowing the world around them to keep them entertained. Keep them buzzing. Keep them happy. Keep them meeting expectations. When deep down, they have simply failed to care.

But there is a better way. Remember the formula that Paul gave the church in Rome? Be different…and it’s going to take some work. Same thing for the path out of the vice of sloth. Instead of failing to care, instead of just getting through our lives, what if we lived our lives with this intentionality that Paul talks about? What if we allowed ourselves to be transformed by the renewing of our minds?

Again, it is Frederick Buechner who gives us a way out. He calls it the way of vocation:

It comes from the Latin vocare, to call, and means the work a person is called to by God. There are all kinds of different voices calling you to all different kinds of work, and the problem is to find out which is the voice of God rather than of Society, say or the Superego, or Self-Interest. By and large a good rule for finding out is this: The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need most to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done. If you really get a kick out of your work, you’ve presumably met requirement (a), but if your work is writing cigarette ads, the chances are you’ve missed requirement (b). On the other hand, if your work is being a doctor in a leper colony, you have probably met requirement (b), but if most of the time you’re bored and depressed by it, the chances are you have not only bypassed (a), but probably aren’t helping your patients much either. Neither the hair shirt nor the soft berth will do. The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.

Vocation. Calling. Identity. Purpose. The place where “your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” Who has God gifted you to be and what has God gifted you to do? That is the way out of the vice of sloth. It takes work, sacrifice, the energy of identity transformation. But at the end is your deep gladness. True fulfillment. Deep joy.

All well and good, but what does sloth look like in the middle of a pandemic? Can you really stand there and say “go meet the world’s great hunger” if I can’t even leave my house? How am I supposed to accomplish my vocation if I can’t do my job? Or if I lost my job and have no way to get another?

Let me suggest that the ancients’ teaching on sloth is absolutely relevant, perhaps more so during these days. Now, more than ever, it is our calling to ask “what is needful?” Now, more than ever, it is our vocation to seek the world’s greatest hunger. Now, more than ever, we must do the work of asking what our true vocation is…not our job, but our calling. Now, more than ever, we are to be a people transformed by the renewing of our minds. Now, more than ever, we are called to figure out how we can care for each other, how we can care for the most vulnerable of our community, how we can support those on the front lines of this pandemic. Now, more than ever, we must not suffer from a lack of care—from acedia—but must care more deeply than we ever have. Now, more than ever, we must ask “how is God still at work in these days?”

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