Idleness and endurance - St Bride's: Reflection

St Bride's: Sermons

Idleness and endurance

2 Thessalonians 3: 6-13

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Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which he received of us.

For yourselves know how ye ought to follow us: for we behaved not ourselves disorderly among you;

Neither did we eat any man's bread for nought; but wrought with labour and travail night and day, that we might not be chargeable to any of you:

Not because we have not power, but to make ourselves an ensample unto you to follow us.

10 For even when we were with you, this we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat.

11 For we hear that there are some which walk among you disorderly, working not at all, but are busybodies.

12 Now them that are such we command and exhort by our Lord Jesus Christ, that with quietness they work, and eat their own bread.

13 But ye, brethren, be not weary in well doing.

I can remember very clearly waking up in a cold sweat the night before I began my teacher training course - when the chilling thought occurred to me that I would probably end up having to teach children like me.

Because I was absolutely appalling at school.  I was bone idle, completely unmotivated, and had an attention-seeking streak that meant that if ever anybody dared me to do anything, I just could not say no.  On one occasion I was timed riding a bicycle indoors through the entire length of our sixth form centre, negotiating several sharp corners and a short flight of stairs.  I then had to explain to the head of sixth form that the reason why I couldn't make his detention was because I was already in detention that day for something else unrelated.

I look back in horror now at the way in which I squandered my education.  Mine was a very ordinary comprehensive school, but it was not a bad school.  However, it was enormous and complex, and if you were able enough to get by with minimal effort you could get away with murder.  As indeed I did.  In fact, towards by end of my time there I hardly ever turned up, because I was bored and unmotivated and couldn't be bothered to make anything of the education that was handed to me on a plate.  Basically, I couldn't see the point.  So life felt incredibly bleak, and pretty miserable.  And by the time I did discover what education was for, it was too late.  I left school with minimal qualifications and had to catch up later.

There are good reasons why, in early Christian tradition, sloth earned its place amongst the seven deadly sins - although it is of course rather harder to define than some of its sinful bedfellows such as murder, adultery and theft, which are associated with very specific actions.  Sloth has been variously interpreted as laziness; idleness; sluggishness; a lack of feeling towards your fellow human beings.  It also fundamentally self-pitying in nature.  Indeed, perhaps the single biggest problem with sloth is that it is profoundly self-centred.  It is depressive, and melancholy, and joyless.  And the reason why it was designated a sin is because all of that implied a denial of, and a failure to recognise, the good gifts of God.  Sloth is not only joyless, it is godless.

Now I should underline at this point that there is all the difference in the world between sloth and the kind of mental illness that is depressive in nature, which is a separate issue altogether.  No, sloth when it affects people like me, in the form of a fundamental loss of self-motivation, can feel overwhelming, but it is also ultimately self-indulgent.  Because at its heart lies the thought: Why should I rouse myself to do this thing that I really don't want to do?  After all, what is in it for me?  And when that is your governing mindset, it is generally accompanied by a tendency to use people around you to let you off the hook, or to get you what you want, or feel you have a right to. 

Judging by our second reading from Thessalonians, 'entitlement' is by no means a modern vice.  St Paul has heard that there are some in the community who are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work.'  Possibly because they have heard that the world is about to end, and Christ is about to come in glory, so there's no point actually doing anything anymore.  But as Paul knows, where there is no point, the sin of sloth starts to creep in and take over, and spiritually we start to rot.

If our second reading addresses the sin of sloth, our Gospel reading, on the other hand, gives us a glimpse of what we might interpret as its opposing virtue - endurance.  Jesus puts it very starkly when he declares: 'By your endurance you will gain your souls' - and he does so having prefaced it with a catalogue of the disasters he predicts are about to befall them all: nation rising against nation; great earthquakes, famine, plagues and for the followers of Jesus, not merely persecution, but families torn apart - betrayal by parents and brothers, relatives and friends.  It is in this context that he declares: 'By your endurance you will gain your souls.'

That probably makes it sound like a charter for superheroes, not for normal folk like you and me.  But actually the opposite is the case.  Because when I think of the people I have known during my ministry who have taught me most about endurance, they were without exception very ordinary people getting on with their very ordinary lives.  Indeed, many of them were profoundly disadvantaged, economically, socially, and in some cases even physically, and they lived the most challenging and unenviable lives.  I can think of those who have given up their freedom and independence to support and care for disabled relatives.  I have known those who live with the kinds of chronic, debilitating conditions that would leave most of us wallowing in self-pity, but who make no fuss, but simply get on with life.  I can think of those who have little quality of life in material terms, but who have an astonishing ability to treasure and make the most of what they have, of a kind that puts the rest of us to shame. 

But in order to be able to endure those kinds of challenges in that kind of way there has to be a point.  We can only endure when we see the point of enduring - even if it is no more than a basic need to keep going; to survive another day.  It can be as simple as that. 

It is a cliché to observe that the more you put into life the more you get out of it - but the reason why things become clichés in the first place is precisely because there is an observable truth at their core.  And regardless of age and circumstance, if we can approach each new day as a gift of God, then we will be able to discover its unexpected hidden gifts.  Very often what needs to change is not our external circumstances, but rather something within us. And very often the single biggest obstacle we need to face in order to do that is fear.  Which is why it is so interesting that one of the most common phrases in the whole of scripture is: 'Do not be afraid.'

When I was first exploring the Christian faith as a young adult, I can remember feeling very dubious about sayings such as the one we find in Colossians 3, telling us to fix our eyes on God, not on the things of this life:

So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.  Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth ...

At first sight, this seemed to me to be asking us to deny the grim reality of our daily lives, by diverting our gaze elsewhere.  It was only when I actually came to try living the Christian faith, that I discovered that the opposite was in fact the case.  Because it is by fixing our eyes on Christ that we get to see the point - a point that enables us to have the courage and the endurance to deal with the grim reality.  Indeed, for St Paul, suffering lies at the very heart of this process.  As he tells us in Romans:

Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured in our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

But I would like to leave the final word with the priest and poet John O'Donohue, and some lines taken from his piece entitled, 'A Morning Offering'.  If only we could indeed allow all that is eternal within us to shape each new day, and to set aside the things that cause us fear, then all manner of wonders would be released:

All that is eternal within me
Welcomes the wonder of this day,
The field of brightness it creates
Offering time for each thing
To arise and illuminate.

I place on the altar of dawn:
The quiet loyalty of breath,
The tent of thought where I shelter
And all beauty drawn to the eye.

May my mind come alive today
To the invisible geography
That invites me to new frontiers,
To break the dead shell of yesterdays,
To risk being disturbed and changed.

May I have the courage today
To live the life I would love,
To postpone my dream no longer,
But do at last what I came here for
And waste my heart on fear no more.

Amen.

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