Monday, September 26, 2016

Sloth Versus Mourning

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was John 11:17-27, 32-44:

Pulitzer Prize winning play write Wendy Wasserstein wrote a tongue-in-cheek account of a self-help book that could sweep the nation entitled Sloth: And How to Get It. It promoted sloth as being achievable in just five easy steps, and even used sloth as an acronym. The S is for sit instead of stand, L is for let yourself go, O is for open your mouth and let anything you like enter, T is for toil no more, and H is happiness is within me, I don’t have to work at it. Now the problem with a self-help book promoting sloth is multifold. The first is that anyone who wants to promote such an idea is probably too lazy to actually write it, and the second is that those who want to become more slothful are too lazy to go get the book and those who would actually leave their couches to purchase it are too self-actualized to ever truly become slothful, and thus a book on how to become a sloth is probably destined never to be written. And perhaps that’s all for the best since sloth is one of the deadly sins, which is why we are looking at it today in comparison to what we find in the beatitudes and that is Jesus’ statement that those who mourn are blessed.

From the earliest times that the seven deadly sins were being compiled and pronounced, they have been compared against the virtues that the church thought we should be pursuing, but the list of comparative virtues has changed around depending upon who was doing the expounding. And so as I was trying to put together my list of comparing and contrasting the beatitudes and these sins, which I was not the first to do, I had to figure which was going to go with which, and the hardest one was for those who mourn. I decided to put sloth together with mourning because in some sense they can be very similar, or at least the behaviors can be similar. That is people who are mourning are often depressed and don’t want to do anything, which can be seen as sloth, and yet it’s not, besides for the fact that Jesus tells us that those who mourn are actually blessed. Do you feel blessed when you mourn?

The last time I preached on the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount was three years ago, and it was also at the time my 9-year-old nephew Wyatt died very suddenly and unexpectedly. And so I had just preached on the Beatitudes and then was at his bedside with the rest of the family praying for him and certainly not feeling blessed, and I remember even saying “Lord, you have to tell those who mourn that they are blessed because it certainly doesn’t feel like that. Instead it feels like a curse.” We, as a culture, don’t like to mourn, and we’re getting even worse at it. We want to push death to the side. We don’t talk about it. We simply get rid of the body and get back to work, back to real life. And yet that actually doesn’t change the reality of mourning, or grief, we can’t run from it, eventually it will catch up with us. But we want to ignore death, because death impinges upon our happiness, or our pursuit of happiness as Thomas Jefferson told us we had a right to. Which is why we get confused when Jesus says blessed are those who mourn, because even if we might be comforted, it still feels like a curse.

Which then leads us back to the definition game again which has kept coming up each week, and our mistaken belief that to be blessed means we will be happy. Robert Schuller even wrote a book about the beatitudes entitled The Be Happy Attitudes. But while blessed can have a connotation of happy, that is not the primary meaning, and we can say that because in scripture the opposite of blessed is not unhappy, but instead cursed, or the woes. We can even compare this to Luke’s version of the beatitudes found in the 6th chapter in what is known as the sermon on the plain, in which Luke has Jesus saying "Blessed are you who weep now,for you will laugh,” but that is followed by “Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.”  This is not just found here, however. As Matthew and Luke are the only two gospels to contain the Beatitudes, those who are blessed, they also focus the most on those who are cursed, those of the woes. Matthew has Jesus saying “woe to you,” 13 times, while Luke has it 14 times. Mark only contains to woe statements and John has zero. Happiness is a subjective state. What makes me happy might make you miserable, but there is nothing subjective about a blessing. Either God has blessed us or not, and it has nothing to do with happiness nor does it have anything to do with material rewards or good things happening. Just because you might  be really rich does not mean that you are receiving God’s blessings. Similarly, if bad things are happening to you it does not mean that you are not cursed. In fact, Jesus says that if you are following his teachings you can be assured that bad things will happen to you, which is why he also includes the fact that blessed are those who are persecuted and suffer on his behalf. So the beatitudes stand as blessings in contrast to everything that says otherwise.

But the blessings that come for those who mourn is that they will be comforted. This is an eschatological claim. That’s one of those 60,000 words I have to use to justify my student loans, but eschatology is about the end of times, how things will conclude, and that has much to do with comfort.In Revelation chapter 21 we hear John of Patmos’ vision, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away... And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God... And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.’ In this vision, God will wipe away every tear, God will comfort the people, and mourning itself will be no more. But I believe that the comfort that is being talked about by Jesus is more than just the comfort we might receive from God, because it’s also up to us.

In the passage from John we heard this morning on the raising of Lazarus, while his main interactions are with Lazarus’ sisters Mary and Martha, there is also a crowd of people who are there mourning with the sisters. It is in Jesus seeing Mary crying, along with the others also crying, that we are told that Jesus was “disturbed in spirit and deeply moved,” and shortly thereafter begins to cry himself.  Mourning is not something done by yourself within Judaism; it is a communal activity. Following a death in the family, the community surrounds the family in sitting shiva, which is seven days of mourning. In the ancient world, the family would tear their clothing and pour dirt over their heads as a sign of their grief and loss, and the community would sit with them during this time. They are not allowed to talk unless the family talks to them first, if you remember the story of Job, his friends sit with him in silence for seven days following the loss of his family, and then they can only talk about the deceased, and visitors cannot talk to each other.  The family is not allowed to do anything for themselves other than wash their hands and face. Others bring over the food and they prepare it and clean up the house, the family just sits in their grief and mourning for the seven days. At some points in time, the family weren’t even allowed to feed themselves, others even fed them, and individual terms are never used, only plural, even if it is only one person sitting shiva.

Now people not doing anything for themselves and having others do it for them, or it’s just not done, could be seen as a form of sloth, but of course it’s not. That’s why I wanted to compare these two ideas. In allowing others to take care of them, and in allowing themselves to be cared for, which is just as much of a service as caring for others, there is a reminder that we are not alone. That in this moment of despair, when something has been ripped out of our lives, and there is this enormous hole there that will never be filled, and that while life still goes on, we have others telling us not only is it okay to mourn, but that it’s necessary, and that we care for one another in our time of need. This too is how people who are mourning are comforted. Sympathy means “to feel with” and compassion is literally “to suffer with,” so when we are comforting those who mourn what we are really saying is that I too have experienced grief, and while I may not know exactly what you are experiencing, I am here for you to care for you and to let you know that you are loved, and that you are not alone, which is the exact opposite of sloth.

While sloth does have an aspect of laziness associated with it, and the Bible certainly promotes industriousness, the sloth being referred to as the deadly sin came out of two different aspects. You may remember last week I said that originally there was the sin of pride, plus seven other sins that came out of pride. When the list was reduced to seven, two sins were combined into the sin of sloth. One was tristia, or melancholia, which had to do with sorrow and sadness, but not in the sense of mourning, but in a sense of hopelessness, of having no purpose or plan for life, which also indicated a separation from God. So I feel the need to say that being depressed, or having depression is not a sin, and to also say that there is help available to get you better, to give you a sense of hope. But the more common use of the term sloth referred to acedia, which means a lack of caring or indifference towards our responsibilities to God but also towards our responsibilities to others, in general it’s apathy. This might best be summed up by Nobel Prize laureate and holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel who said “The opposite of love is not hate. The opposite of love is indifference.” It’s not paying attention to, or caring about what is happening to others, so sloth is different from the other six sins in that they are about the sins of commission. The sin of sloth is about the sins of omission. Things we didn’t do, but should have, things we said were not our business, but were, things we were not concerned about, but should have been.<

That’s why the mourning that Jesus is talking about in the beatitudes is about more than just mourning the loss of someone or something, it’s also about the mourning of our own sins, the ways we have trespassed against others and against God, the ways we have broken relationships and the ways we need to return to healing and wholeness. I will keep saying this: Repentance and the Kingdom of God are inherently linked. That’s why Jesus begins his ministry saying “repent for the Kingdom of God has come near.” It’s why in the Lord’s Prayer we ask for God’s Kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven, and we also ask for forgiveness and promise to give forgiveness to those who have hurt us. We are to mourn our sins and to seek forgiveness, and we are told that when we mourn those sins that we will be comforted. We will receive God’s grace and God’s mercy and God’s forgiveness, we will be reminded that we are not the worst thing that we ever did, that we are beloved children of God, loved by God, cared for by God, comforted by God. Indeed, the Greek word for comfort here comes from the root word parakletos, which means something like “the one who walks beside”, which is also used for the Holy Spirit, the paraclete, the comforter, the advocate, the counselor. Those who mourn will receive the Holy Spirit.

But it’s more than just mourning our own sins, it’s also mourning the sins of the world, our corporate sins, of calling them out for what they are, remembering turning the other cheek was a way to point out social injustice, and then working to alleviate them, to provide comfort for those who are victims and those who mourn injustices. It’s not enough just to call it out or even pray for it, we have to do something, even if it’s a miracle that we are seeking.  In the story of Lazarus, we are told that he had been dead for four days, and this was significant because it was said that the spirit stayed near the body for three days just in case it could come back, but left after three days, as well as decomposition is well underway by the fourth day, thus Martha’s warning to Jesus, and so what Jesus does was truly considered a miracle, but what does he do after Lazarus comes out of the tomb? He orders the people to “unbind him and let him go.” Not seeking to be involved, not doing the work necessary, is sloth, an apathy towards the needs of others. Jesus says, you have to be involved, it takes us to mourn the sins of the world and to seek to bring comfort to those affected, to let them know they are not alone, that when they suffer, when they mourn, that we suffer and mourn with them. And it’s about recognizing and calling those things out when they do happen.

We had two more well publicized police shootings of black men this past week, as well as the continuing of the trial of two former APD officers on trial for murder. Regardless of where you stand on these issues, we should mourn the fact that they are happening, that they are a reality, whether they are justified or not.  And you can also support the police and also be opposed and to want to call out police violence, those two things are not mutually exclusive. But here is what we cannot do. We cannot say that protesting in the streets is wrong because it leads to violence and they need a different way to protest and simultaneously also say that Colin Capernick’s kneeling during the national anthem is also not an appropriate way to protest. And if we are going to get up in arms about Capernick’s protest, then we have to get just as upset as when the things that Capernick is trying to point out, like the reality that if the police shoot an unarmed person that that person is four times more likely to be black then they are to be white, happens. We have to be just as upset, if not more so, about that.

And when the Tulsa officer’s attorney says that she was not a racist that she had just been working at an all-black high school football game with no problem, we need to understand that the very fact that we have all black high schools, and as Trevor Noah points out, they are never in the affluent area of town, is just an underlying part of the problem, something that we all just accept as normal. Remember the Kingdom of God is not about the way things are, but about the way things should be. And the last thing before I get off my soapbox, and this is for the white people this morning, we don’t have the right to discount another person’s experience and say that because it doesn’t happen to us therefore it’s either not happening or not important. We don’t get to vote on the feelings and priorities for people of color.  But what we do have to do is to allow them to have their voice and to support them and listen to what they are saying and work to change it.

Martin Luther King, Jr. said that the people who made him most upset were not the racists, because at least he knew where they were, it was the ones in the middle because they were the ones that allowed the status quo to continue. "I must confess,” King said, “that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not… the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods…’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’”

Apathy in the face of injustice, in not hearing the cry of the least, the last and the lost, and not standing up to do anything about it is sloth. We are called to call out and respond to those who mourn, to be the ones who provide comfort, knowing that when we mourn we too will be comforted, not just by God, but also by those who walk this journey with us. In that comfort we overcome the sin of sloth not just because it means we aren’t sitting on the couch doing nothing, although I might point out that in our hyperactive world we need more than ever to understand and to practice Sabbath, an intentional break to recover, but that’s not this sloth. The sloth we are worried about is the sloth of apathy, of not responding, of not caring, or not doing something. And so as we think about these attributes, and the election, what we need to ask ourselves about those we might vote for is how do they respond to those who mourn? Do they offer comfort, or something else? Do they reach out with compassion, suffering with, or do they simply neglect or ignore them, or worse treat them with disdain? Do they mourn for their own sins and seek reconciliation? And do they mourn for the sins of society and call them out? Blessed are those who mourn Jesus says, for they will be comforted. I pray that it will be so my brothers and sisters. Amen.

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