April 1, 2010
William G. Carter
When Jesus got up from prayer, he came to the disciples and found them sleeping because of grief, and he said to them, “Why are you sleeping? Get up and pray that you may not come into the time of trial.” (22:45-46)
It’s a story that finds itself on stained glass. Near the back of the first church I served, there was a window with Jesus praying in the moonlight. The Lord was on his knees. His hands were clasped tightly, as his eyes looked skyward. Peter, James, John, and the rest were scattered around him, snoring beneath the olive trees.
This was the favorite stained glass window for a man who sat in the adjacent pew. He clipped his fingernails during the sermons he didn’t like. When I preached, he gave himself a weekly manicure. Somewhere around the fourth paragraph there would be a haunting “click – click – click.” It was a signal he had stopped paying attention.
Now, I know a lot of preachers like to compare themselves to Jesus, and the more pious ones compare their church members to those sleepy disciples. That’s not always fair, yet in this case the comparison seemed to fit. He showed up early so he could get that pew. That window was the closest thing he had to sacred space. As Peter, James, and John began sawing wood, Dick was tending to his hangnails. If Dick had ever come to coffee hour, some joker might have asked what he thought of the sermon, but most people were pretty certain Dick never heard it.
It makes me wonder how many times I’ve fallen asleep on Jesus. He gives his commandments, but I’m not paying attention. He warns against trouble, and I fall right into it. He urges us to “watch and pray” and either I daydream or snooze. This is evidence of sloth, the one deadly sin we have yet to consider this Lent.
Sloth is an old word, from the Middle English word for “slow.” It is commonly equated with laziness, but that doesn’t quite capture its destructive power. Those sleeping disciples were not lazy – they were worn out. Luke says they had a long day, and an emotionally demanding evening. The Passover Seder was a big meal that drained energy for their digestion. There’s nothing sinful about sleepiness. No, the problem seems to be that they have checked out, that they have became numb and incapable of attention. What Jesus asked of them, they refused.
This has been going on all evening. He taught them to be selfless, and they squabbled about being important. He instructed them in non-violence, and they reached for two swords. Simon Peter declared, “I am ready to go with you to death;” well, we already know how that’s going to turn out.
Now at the time of his greatest need, as he prays a prayer that Luke calls “agony,” as he wrestles through the call of God upon his life, he hears them snore. They are ignoring him. They are indifferent to him. In the present of One who was the light and life of their world, they fell asleep on Jesus.
The venerable sin that we call “sloth” has a much better name. It’s the ancient Greek word “acedia.” It literally means to stop caring. To neglect the daily work that all of us have to do. To become indifferent to anything or anybody. To lose all sense of joy. To refuse the goodness of God and the world God created. To have the shadows of our own listlessness block out the sun in the sky. For this reason, the early desert monks called it the “noonday demon.”
A few years ago, Kathleen Norris began to write a book about sloth called Acedia and Me. The really scary thing, she noted, is that the more she thought about sloth, the more she saw it all around her. It was ravaging her husband who struggled with clinical depression that sucked the light out of his soul. It was prevalent in neighbors in her South Dakota town who had long stopped taking any interest in their outward appearance. It crept into her study, as she read glowing reviews of the books she had written, then daydreamed how she wanted to smash the computer so she wouldn’t have to write any more books.
In one scene, she tells of a trip to the Hawaiian rain forest of Kau’ai, as a tourist complained how she didn’t have enough places to shop. Kathleen wanted to scream, “Look at the beautiful place where we are,” then began to understand the woman’s spiritual condition.
"The tragedy of her hubris goes deep," she writes, "for she is the sort of consumer the tourist industry avidly courts by inserting generic shopping malls into breathtaking tropical valleys." She continues:
"How is it that we can grow so insensitive to the world around us? Acedia is at work in us when we prefer buying things to witnessing the beauty of nature, ‘reading’ catalogues instead of books, or lingering in a museum store instead of touring the museum itself. These are not insignificant choices, for in making them we risk losing our capacity for wonder. When acedia has so thoroughly possessed us, making life seem so dull that only artificial stimulation can get our attention, it may be crazy to suggest that the ordinary rhythms of time, the passing of day and night, have something to teach us, or that there is a world to be revealed when the mall is closed, the electric power has failed, and it is too dark to see anything but shadows and stars. Cast back on our lonely, raw, and wounded selves, we may find that nobody is at home." (p. 195)
That’s the deadliness of sloth. I think that’s what Luke is talking about in his first century terms when he says the disciples were sleeping “because of grief.” The grief we usually know keeps us wide awake, tossing and turning through the night. In the case of Simon Peter, James, and John, all the light had been sucked out of their souls. Their hope had been snuffed like a candle. They have shut their eyes to escape the brutal realities of life, and in turn those brutal realities got the best of them. Jesus is in trouble, and they have ceased to care.
Sloth is a deadly sin, and all of us must battle it. It is difficult to keep our eyes awake and our hearts attentive. If we care about important things, it is equally dangerous to start despising those who do not. Like the church leader who suggested to his peers that they should knock on the doors of inactive church members and scream them back to the sanctuary. His pastor smiled, “How is that going to work with those two grown kids of yours?”
If we’re going to do battle with sloth, we must begin with ourselves. We take note of the places where we haven’t been paying attention, take stock the moments when we ourselves have fallen asleep on Jesus, when we have ignored what he teaches, when we have allowed his promises to grow cold.
And if we’re paying attention tonight, the first thing we might notice is Jesus never shuts his eyes. Not once. He watches for God to reveal the divine will, and then he does what God requires of him.
Jesus stays awake and he never stops praying for a sleepy church. In the end, that is what matters most.
(c) William G. Carter
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