For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
Throughout church history lists of “Seven Deadly Sins” have emerged, but the list I’ve chosen to address these next weeks was made popular by Pope Gregory the Great in the 16th century: pride, envy, anger, lust, greed, gluttony, and today’s topic, sloth. Thomas Pynchon, the American novelist, wrote, “Any discussion of sloth in the present day is of course incomplete without considering television, with its gifts of paralysis, along with its creature and symbiont, the notorious couch potato. Tales spun in idleness find us Tube side, supine, chiropractic fodder, sucking it all in, reenacting in reverse the transaction between dream and revenue that brought these colored shadows here to begin with so that we might feed, uncritically, committing the six other deadly sins in parallel, eating too much, envying the celebrated, coveting merchandise, lusting after images, angry at the news, perversely proud of whatever distance we may enjoy between our couches and what appears on the screen.”
It has been said that sloth is the gateway to the other seven deadly sins, and television is a great example of how that might work. What do you think about when you hear the word sloth? Does that animal come to mind that hangs in the trees, moving in slow motion whenever it moves at all? National Geographic states that the sloth is the slowest mammal, sleeping an average of 20 hours of the day, sometimes being so still that algae grows on it. I wonder how this animal has survived! M. Scott Peck, the famous psychologist, wrote that sloth, being lazy, can be thought of as a major cause of evil, leading to all sorts of mental illnesses and relationship problems. He stated that Americans tend to have problems with others because of laziness.
Being in a relationship does take effort, but would you put it at as the root cause of interpersonal problems? Evelyn Waugh, the English author, would disagree. He wrote, “The word sloth is seldom on modern lips. When used, it is a mildly facetious variant of ‘indolence,’ and indolence, so far from being a deadly sin, is one of the most amiable of weaknesses. Most of the world’s troubles come from people who are too busy. If only politicians and insects were lazier, how much happier we should all be. The lazy man is preserved from the commission of almost all the nastier crimes, and many of the motives which make us sacrifice to toil the innocent enjoyment of leisure, are among the most ignoble- pride, avarice, emulation, vainglory, and the appetite for power over others.” He thought that being slothful preserved you from the other sins.
So we must find the problem with sloth somewhere between these two. Maybe it is found in how we pursue life, what we place meaning upon, and how we relate to God.
Frederick Buechner, the theologian, wrote, “Sloth is not to be confused with laziness. A lazy man, a man who sits around and watches the grass grow, may be a man at peace. His sun-drenched, bumblebee dreaming may be the prelude to action or itself an act well worth the acting. A slothful man, on the other hand, may be a very busy man. He is a man who goes through the motions, who flies on automatic pilot. Like a man with a bad head cold, he has mostly lost his sense of taste and smell. He knows something’s wrong with him, but not wrong enough to do anything about. Other people come and go, but through glazed eyes he hardly notices them. He is letting things run their course. He is getting through his life.”
Sometimes we feel that way, don’t we? We are just getting through life, kind of stuck in a rut, entrenched in our habits, our circumstances, wherever we find ourselves, so we just go along day to day, just “getting through life.” What a terrible way to feel! On this communion Sunday, we are especially reminded that God does not want us to feel that way. This bread from heaven, this manna, given to us through the gift of God’s Son Jesus Christ, reminds us that we can break out of the chains that hold us down in life, and we can experience new life. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, we can live a life that is not just getting by, but is empowered to live as God’s disciple in the world. The Holy Spirit directs us to be more than we think we are, to embrace a new reality of being loved by God, and a new purpose that releases a life that is beyond what we ever expected, because we are mysteriously connected to the work of Christ.
Whether the sloth in our lives is defined by feeling or being lazy, or by over-scheduling and being a slave to workaholism, or being reduced to a couch potato, or being so driven that life is passing us by, whatever the sloth is and how it appears in our lives, we must address it. We need rhythm in our lives – purposeful down time – and we need to prioritize our lives, too.
In high school days, seniors are given permission to check out with that slothful attitude of “senior-itus.” Priorities become mixed up. Some are accepted early to college and check out their last year of high school. Some are so glad to be done with high school that it is difficult to motivate them to apply to college. Some enjoy being a senior and feel that gives them a license to say, “Whatever,” to just about any decision. This word, “whatever,” can become an attitude that students may take with them to college. Of course these are frustrating to parents, but consider how frustrating it is to the professors.
Dean William Willimon once reflected that he used to have his students read the existentialist writers of the 1950s: “They were the first to tell us that in a post industrialist, technological world, our defining emotion is despair, the inability to impact the present. Camus’ The Stranger is a novel I have my freshmen read even today. It is the haunting account of a man, Mersault, who has withdrawn from the world, severed himself from life, unable to be touched by anyone and unable to be engaged by anything. ‘Mother died today, or was it yesterday?’ is the novel’s first line. I have them read The Stranger because Sloth is the sin of today’s college students, who not only fail to get ‘the big picture’ after their studies in college, but also no longer even expect that there is a picture to be gotten from their studies. … I sit there, flailing away in a lecture, desperate to grab their attention, and they sit there, masters of the vacant stare, eyes open, looking forward, living elsewhere, being nowhere. School is training in detachment, the ability to look upon all that the world has to offer- the history of ideas, the great achievements of Western Civilization, all the available options—and say, with a shrug of the shoulders, ‘I don’t care.’”
Unfortunately, this sense of detachment from the world is not relegated to college students. So many times throughout our lives we fail to speak out, to act, to stop something that we know is wrong. Sometimes the failure to act is more serious than others. Elie Wiesel’s mainly autobiographical book, The Town Behind the Wall, contains the story of Michael, a young Jewish man who survived the Holocaust. The book contains a quintessential example of sloth on the most serious scale. The main character, Michael, returned to his hometown in Hungary, going behind the Iron Curtain which was not a safe journey. He returned because his mind was filled with haunting images of the soldiers and police who arrived in his town with terror. They treated his family and friends with a brutal coldness. Yet those images were not the reason he made the trip. He had not come to satisfy a sense of revenge, but to satisfy his curiosity. There were people in his town who had witnessed the brutality- they were the ones who he could not understand. He could comprehend the hatred of the Nazis, their horrifying evil, the way they dragged his neighbors from their homes, screaming.
Beyond his understanding were the others in the town, such as the man who lived across from the synagogue, who watched it all happen, peering out of his window each day. Michael remembered, “The man reflected no pity, no pleasure, no shock, no anger, no interest. He was impassive, cold; impersonal…There is a bond,” Michael thought, “between the brutalizers and the victims. They have something to do with each other…They, at least, belong in the same universe. But not so the spectator. The spectator is entirely beyond us, seeing without being seen, present but unnoticed.” He concludes, “to be indifferent, for whatever reason, is to deny not only the validity of existence, but also its beauty. Betray, and you are a man, torture your neighbor, and you are still a man. Evil is human. Weakness is human. Indifference is not.”
Whether we define sloth as too lazy or too busy, we can agree that at its core, sloth is an indifference that can affect us no matter what speed our lives are lived. We can be indifferent to our neighbors, ourselves, and God. It is too easy to hide away what God calls us to do, to be, to love. This was what Jesus was referring to when he told the parable of the talents. One servant had invested wisely and was told him, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” But another servant had buried his talent in the ground, and Jesus said that he was thrown out into the darkness, away from the presence of the master. At first reading, we might think that Jesus was a little too harsh on that servant – he didn’t lose anything, he just didn’t make anything on the investment. Jesus was making the point that our sins of omission may be just as terrible as our sins of commission. What a terrible thought, that the things that we do not do have such weight, such consequence! Jesus taught that there was an antidote to sloth, it was love, and not just the thought of love, but love activated, love enacted. In his life Jesus demonstrated God’s love enacted to each of us. Jesus was God’s gospel message of love.
As we model Jesus, we must address sloth by activating love in our lives. The most simple way to do that is to say, “I love you.” Edward Everett Hale wrote, “I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something. Because I cannot do everything, let me not refuse to do the something that I can do.” We can all do this one thing- activate our love. It begins by telling another that we love them. There was a counselor who met with a couple that could not figure out why distance had come between them. “When was the last time you said, ‘I love you,’ have you told each other that recently?” the counselor asked. “We know it,” the woman said. “Yes, I told her that when we were married and she knows it,” the man agreed. “Now we have a starting point!” the counselor exclaimed, “You must tell each other!”
Today, we can see sloth making its way through our lives, but let us activate our love so we will be told, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” Using that talent that God has given begins with this small step: find another person who knows of your love, and say, “I know you know I love you, but I want you to know, ‘I love you!’” Let us activate love in our lives. Let that be our first step today to rid sloth from life, and put God’s purpose into both our work and leisure.