Matthew 26: 17-30, 36-46
April 24th is the Day of Remembrance for the Armenian Genocide. Beginning in 1915, inspired by nationalism and government scapegoating, Ottoman Turks drove ethnic Armenians from their homes and massacred them. Outside observers at the time described what was happening as “a massacre like none other,” “a massacre that changes the meaning of massacre.” Historians suggest that one million Armenian people were killed, often in unspeakably cruel ways. Those who weren’t murdered, were forcibly deported and marched to their deaths in the deserts of Syria. At the time, a number of influential people spoke out against these atrocities, including the British poet William Watson, who publicly decried England’s failure to come to the aid of the Armenian people. In his poem, “The Plague of Apathy,” Watson wrote,
“No tears are left; we have quickly spent that store!
Indifference like a dewless night hath come.
From wintry sea to sea the land lies numb.
With palsy of the spirit stricken sore,
The land lies numb from iron shore to shore.
The unconcerned, they flourish: loud are some,
And without shame. The multitude stand dumb.
The England that we vaunted is no more.
Only the witling’s sneer, the worldling’s smile,
The weakling’s tremors, fail him not who fain
Would rouse to heroic deed. And all the while,
A homeless people, in their mortal pain,
Toward one far and famous ocean isle
Stretch hands of prayer, and stretch those hands in vain.”
The willingness to passively stand by while mass murder is committed is endemic of the seventh deadly sin: sloth.
Sloth has been traditionally known in the Christian tradition as acedia, from the Greek word for failure to care. According to Thomas Aquinas, sloth is a “facetiousness” or “sluggishness” of the mind that keeps us from loving God and neighbor. Prayer and worship are too toilsome. Deeds of lovingkindness toward others are too much bother. While the other six deadly sins are sins of commission, sloth is a sin of omission. We fail to do what we know is right and best. Poet Dante Alighieri envisioned those who are slothful in the fourth circle of his inferno. There, in endless punishment for their failure to act in life, they are made to run eternally in death.
Nowadays, the word sloth is more likely to prompt images of a slow-moving South American mammal than a deadly sin. Better words for our contemporary understanding of sloth are apathy, laziness, procrastination, distraction, idleness, and “I don’t feel like it.” In her essay on sloth, English author Dorothy Sayer said, “It is the sin which believes in nothing, cares for nothing, seeks to know nothing, interferes with nothing, enjoys nothing, loves nothing, hates nothing, finds purpose in nothing, lives for nothing, and only remains alive because there is nothing it would die for.” When we are in the grip of sloth, we do not use our God-given gifts, and we fail to pursue God’s purpose. All our talent, all the difference that we could make in this world, simply goes to waste. C.S. Lewis in The Screwtape Letters wrote that sloth is “the safest way to Hell—the gradual, gentle slope, soft underfoot without sudden turnings, milestones, or signposts.”
Editor and theologian Brad Littlejohn warns that we live in the age of acedia, the age of sloth. Our love for God and neighbor has been usurped by “momentary pleasures, distractions, and stimulations.” We surf the internet rather than read a good book. We check our smartphones instead of enjoying the company of a friend or beloved one. On Sunday morning, we’d much rather sleep in than worship God. In the age of apathy, vulnerable minorities are stripped of voting rights without a public outcry, refugees languish in the no-man’s-land of camps, domestic violence goes unreported, and we lack the political will to stop school shootings.
Our scriptural paradigm of sloth takes place on the night of Jesus’ arrest. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus, grieved and agitated, anticipates the evil that will soon befall him. He implores his most trusted of friends—Peter, James, and John. He asks them to watch with him, to pray for him in his distress. Yet, again and again and again, the disciples sleep. They leave Jesus to face his darkest hour on his own. They fail in empathy, care and even the most basic of courtesies. How lonely Jesus must have felt!
The remedy for our sloth is the virtue of diligence. We are diligent when we practice careful and persistent effort. Diligence is tenacity, consistency, perseverance, commitment, and dedication. When we are diligent, we make a constant and earnest effort to accomplish whatever we undertake, regardless of the circumstance. Diligence is the resolve to live each day with love for God and love for neighbor, not just as a spiritual disposition but as a course of action. We work toward what is right in the right way for the right reason. The mantra of the diligent person is, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”
We all know diligent people. They may be scrappy, like paralegal Erin Brokovich, who learned about groundwater contamination in a California town, and built a winning legal case against Pacific Gas and Electric. Diligent students may not have the highest IQ, but they often get the best grades because they are willing to work hard to learn and excel. Diligent workers are the kind of people we can entrust with a project and know that they will see it through to completion, even if they encounter big obstacles along the way.
Jesus believed in the importance of diligence, especially in our spiritual life. His Parable of the Widow and the Unjust Judge (Luke 18:1-8) is a lesson in diligence. Jesus described a vulnerable widow who had been denied justice. While most women would walk away, Jesus’ widow wouldn’t give up the fight. Her judge was thoroughly corrupt, but the widow was so relentlessly persistent that he eventually gave in, just to shut her up. Justice was served, only because the widow insisted. Jesus suggests that we need to bring that same relentless effort to our relationship with God.
We build diligence when we reignite our love for God with worship, prayer, spiritual reading, and meditation. We can also take time for appreciation and gratitude. Take a few moments each day to savor God’s blessings for us: the beauty of creation and the goodness of friends and family. We can ask the Holy Spirit to be at work within us, to kindle our hearts and imaginations, to give us eyes to see the neighbors whom Jesus would have us love.
Educators have learned that mutual support is vital for the formation of diligence. Students, who have the support, encouragement, and positive expectations of teachers, parents, and classmates, grow in diligence and excel in the school and beyond. Likewise, we can seek out the people we need in our corner, people who will help us to stick with it and hang tough.
Perhaps the most essential way to grow in diligence is to notice what distracts us and do something about it. Does too much nightly news shut you down and make you throw up your hands? Then limit what you watch and explore some different media outlets. Does your cellphone get in the way of quality time with family? Turn it off. Is social media driving your bus? Try fasting from your favorite apps for a day, a week, maybe even a month. When all else fails, we can simply pray that greatest of commandments: “Lord, show me how you would have me love you, love my neighbors, and maybe even love myself.”
Researchers say that diligence, when practiced consistently, is rewarding. When we use our God-given gifts and we pursue God’s call for our lives, we experience joy. We believe we have a purpose, and we feel that we are making a difference. That joy finds us, even when we encounter difficulties. In fact, as we meet and beat those challenges, we grow in our gifts and purpose. We feel more connected to God, and more connected to others. I want to get me some of that. How about you?
To circle back to the start of my message and William Watson’s condemnation of his nation’s sloth at the genocide of the Armenian people, I suspect that the next mass murder of humanity is going on even as I speak to you on this Maundy Thursday evening. It’s happening in the Tigray region of Ethiopia. It’s befalling the Karenni people in Myanmar. It could be happening in Ukraine. Perhaps it is unfolding on our city streets and in our public schools as we numbly hear news of yet another mass shooting. Let’s not let sloth get the better of us. Be diligent, my friends.
Matthew 26: 17-30, 36-46
17 On the first day of Unleavened Bread the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Where do you want us to make the preparations for you to eat the Passover?” 18 He said, “Go into the city to a certain man, and say to him, ‘The Teacher says, My time is near; I will keep the Passover at your house with my disciples.’” 19 So the disciples did as Jesus had directed them, and they prepared the Passover meal.
20 When it was evening, he took his place with the twelve; 21 and while they were eating, he said, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me.” 22 And they became greatly distressed and began to say to him one after another, “Surely not I, Lord?” 23 He answered, “The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me. 24 The Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born.” 25 Judas, who betrayed him, said, “Surely not I, Rabbi?” He replied, “You have said so.”
26 While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” 27 Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; 28 for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. 29 I tell you, I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.” 30 When they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. 36 Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” 37 He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved and agitated. 38 Then he said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.” 39 And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.” 40 Then he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, “So, could you not stay awake with me one hour? 41 Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” 42 Again he went away for the second time and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” 43 Again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. 44 So leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words. 45 Then he came to the disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. 46 Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.”