Sunday, January 20, 2019

Phil Kniss: Lazy about love

“From sloth toward embracing love’s demands”
Luke 9:23-27

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The first sin in this series is the sin of sloth
because it’s an easy one to misunderstand, 
and thus dismiss.

The most common mistake we make
is to think sloth is equivalent to idleness and inactivity,
so we assume its remedy, and corresponding virtue, 
is to strive harder—
have more ambition, more industry, more productivity.

Some well-known writers have said as much.
I’ll quote one: “...far from being a deadly sin, 
[sloth] is one of the world’s most amiable of weaknesses. 
Most of the world’s trouble seems to come from people 
who are too busy. 
If only politicians . . . were lazier, 
how much happier we should all be . . . 
The lazy person is preserved from committing 
almost all the nastier crimes.”
Harper’s Magazine once ran a cartoon that said, 
“If sloth had been the original sin, we’d all still be in paradise.”

The idea that being idle is being sinful
should resonate with Mennonites.
We have long had a reputation for being industrious. 
In late 1700s Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia,
invited Germanic Mennonites to settle in the Ukraine
and establish farms to help feed the nation.
She had heard how industrious and productive Mennonites were.

And thanks to Mennonite Central Committee 
and Mennonite Disaster Service, 
we are known the world over for our activism, 
especially in times of disaster and human need. 
We don’t sit back on our haunches, we get up and take action. 
David Myers, a former Mennonite pastor, 
and former leader within FEMA, 
the federal emergency mgt agency, 
said an in-house joke floating around during his time,
was that FEMA stood for “Find Every Mennonite Available.”

You might even say, given our spiritual DNA, 
we are inoculated against the sin of sloth.

So to all of you who have highly developed work ethics, 
and are always doing something, 
I guess I could suggest you just take a nap during my sermon. 
But I would hate for this sermon on sloth, 
in a bizarre twist of irony,
to cause you to commit the sin I’m preaching on.

So stay awake.
In fact, if you are an industrious do-er of good deeds,
pay special attention right now, 
because you are especially vulnerable 
to committing the sin of sloth.

Why is that? Glad you asked.
First, here’s a thought to ponder:
the word diligent . . .
the Latin root of that word means, to love.
To love.
So maybe the apathy that comes with the sin of sloth,
is not a general laziness 
or some preference for idleness, rest, contemplation, and sleep.
Maybe the root cause of sloth
is not being moved by the love of God,
not openly receiving and returning the love of God,
and thus not truly loving those who suffer,
rather than just having pity on them.
Maybe the sin of sloth is best described as a failure to love.

Love is, by definition, to feel a common bond with another,
and to choose to move toward the other.
If we have compassion and empathy for others 
(that is, feel with others)
we will be moved outward, we will be motivated to act.
If we are a-pathetic (literally, without feelings for the other) 
we will stay where we are,
not take risks for the sake of love.

Let me be clear.
The opposite of sloth is not hard work.
The opposite of sloth is not industry, or busyness, or workaholism.
In fact, workaholism may well be a symptom of sloth.

When the ancient desert fathers wrote about the sin of sloth,
they were not focused on inactivity, per se.
They saw sloth as being cold, spiritually—
failing to warmly embrace our calling and identity,
and the practices that rise out of that identity.
Sloth is a diminishment of our 
loving, devotional commitment to God and God’s purposes.
A slothful Christian would prefer to avoid their divine calling,
to run away and escape 
into some other form of excitement and personal fulfillment.
So they may well become workaholics,
escaping into their daily work,
so as not to have to face their deeper calling and identity,
not have to face their need of God’s grace.

How many devoutly Christian people do you know of,
who are hard-working, 
who are on the move from before sun-up to way past sun-down,
who make things happen by the sheer force of their will,
who seem to have boundless energy,
but who also, 
when you stop to reflect on the character of their lives,
seem to have forgotten how to practice loving presence?
who cannot be truly and deeply present with another?
They know how to cut a check and give to charity,
but seem to have missed the memo on loving the poor.

I believe these are those of whom Jesus spoke,
as in today’s Gospel reading from Luke:
“those who want to save their life will lose it, 
and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.
What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, 
but lose or forfeit their souls?”

There are an abundance of these hard-working, 
ambitious, and productive Christians,
putting in 70 or 80 hours of work every week,
who nevertheless, stand guilty of the deadly sin of sloth,
and don’t even realize it.

And I have seen plenty of pastors and church leaders—
especially those with a large public presence—
who are Type-A, driven, ambitious, prolific, and productive,
doing the good work of the Lord,
but whose souls are being drained daily . . .
who have lost any real connection with the God they preach about,
who don’t know how to slow down and listen and be present,
who are unable to love those who truly need someone
to embody the love of God, in word and deed and presence.

If we want to address the sin of sloth that threatens to encroach on us,
we will actively nurture our loving connection to our Creator God.
We will learn to love what God loves, and who God loves.
We will be motivated to move toward 
the people close to God’s heart,
and we will naturally, and beautifully, 
be moved to courageous action 
and even joyful sacrifice.

Love, true love, demands something of us.
It demands an active choice, active engagement, 
active movement toward the other.
Otherwise, it is not love.
It is only a passing emotion.
God’s love compels us to get off our haunches.
The love of God in us compels us to rise, 
and walk toward the objects of God’s love.

Sinking down into the sofa,
as we watch the ever-more depressing news night after night.
becoming increasingly dis-couraged, dis-engaged, and apathetic,
that, dear friends, is a temptation we all face 
in chaotic times like these.

And an equally insidious temptation is to let our righteous anger
turn into a deep hatred of the enemy,
a hatred that is foreign to the God who is love.
And we let that hatred blind us to the humanity in the other.
We are not lazy in general.
We are actively up and at them,
engaged in a battle that is spiritually destructive,
and leads to various forms of violence.
We are not lazy in general.
We are lazy about love.

I’m not pointing fingers of blame.
We have all succumbed to one or both of those responses,
from time to time . . . myself included.
But that doesn’t excuse us.
That doesn’t make us sinless.

This chief vice, or deadly sin, of sloth,
is a real and present danger to our spiritual life and well-being.
It distances us from our divine calling and identity.
It represents lies we would like to believe — 
that sitting it out is the only way to survive,
or that its on our shoulders to fight to win at any cost.

No, no. Those are both lies.
And the truth lives in the space between those lies.
The ultimate battle belongs to God.
But God does not want us to sit out this struggle against evil,
and watch it from the sidelines.
Nor does God want us to think that we own the battle—
or that no human suffering dare happen on our watch,
or that we must be there for every person in every situation.
That’s called a messianic complex.
And that is also folly.
And that is also a deadly sin, called pride,
which we will get to later.

There is a challenging, but hopeful, and joy-filled middle road.
We listen to the clarion call of love.
We obey the very real demands that love requires of us.
And then we are fully present with our loving and gracious God,
with our neighbors,
with ourselves,
and yes, with our enemies.

We who choose not to give in to the sin of sloth,
can, and will, name evil for what it is.
We can, and will, join in the struggle along with others.
And, we who are motivated by love,
who choose to embrace the demands of love,
will not lose ourselves in despair or hatred,
we will not fail to notice the humanity
even in those responsible for the evil we are struggling against.

We will continually be looking for, and finding, and rejoicing in,
the life and beauty that keeps popping up when God is on the move.

So . . . to use the three examples before us this morning,
we celebrate with, and 
we participate with, and 
we stand in solidarity with,
those who have chosen courageous action 
in the face of human evil and suffering.

Those of us who are not content
to let the outcast in our community 
sleep on the streets in the cold of winter,
are compelled by the love of God
to extend mercy toward those who suffer,
and be present with them, affirming their human worth,
as well as work for longer term sustainable solutions.
Thank God for Open Doors,
which gives us a manageable way to put our love into action.

And there are those who notice how diverse 
our North Park View neighborhood has become in recent years.
No longer a white, middle-class, mostly-Mennonite hamlet
clustered around EMU and other Mennonite institutions,
our neighborhood has changed around us.
We are a neighborhood of Christians, Muslims, other faiths, or no faith,
who speak English, Spanish, Arabic, Russian, and Kurdish,
who come from differing racial and ethnic heritage,
who are very rich, and very poor, and somewhere in-between.
And having noticed that,
some of our number have decided to answer 
the joyful and challenging call
of learning to know our neighbors,
welcoming them, showing them basic kindness,
and sharing the love of God with them,
connecting first with the children, 
and then with the whole family.
Thank God for our Kids Club,
and our people here who have a vision and a heart for children,
and the most vulnerable of our neighbors.

And there are those who watch the news 
about the desperate humanitarian crisis at our southern border,
and decide love compels them to do more than rail against it,
but to go and be with those who are suffering.
So five in our community have formed 
a band of compassion and Christian love,
and are going to the border to work with others
who are also obeying the demands of love,
and many of us have joined with them in solidarity, 
and with finances,
and are part of this life-giving effort,
even as we stay home in Harrisonburg.

And there are those among us who have noticed other things 
in our community, in our nation, in the world,
and have gone to those places,
to engage in hopeful, courageous action,
because of the demand of love.

I think of Christina Buckwalter, just as one example,
who is “retired,”
but just left to spend some months with MCC in Chad,
to serve, and teach, 
and accompany people at their point of need.
This is at least her fourth trip abroad,
often to places of great human need, or even danger,
because love compels her to act.

That kind of story could be repeated a hundred times,
but the rest of you in this room.
What is the love of God compelling you to do?
As you notice, and receive, the gift of God’s boundless love,
how will you respond 
in the face of all the suffering and evil in the world?

Let us not be lazy about love.
And let us bless each other this morning,
as some of us are making real and immediate choices
to act on love.

—Phil Kniss, January 20, 2019

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