The Seven Deadlies: Acedia

Jubilee! Circle, Columbia, S.C.
Readings for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost: 

Woe to those… (Amos 6:1a, 4-7)
If they do not hear… (Luke 16:19-31)

Our first song tonight comes from the Indigo Girls. “Sugar Tongue” is from their latest album Poseidon and the Bitter Bug. Let’s try it:

All the fur and fin will lose again
Cause our better is their worst reckonin’
And our fine-feathered friends will sing until they bleed
And how will we replace that symphony?

[Chorus] I’ve got the blackest boots, the whitest skin
Satisfy my sugar tongue again,
Sing me lullabies of shoe-shine days
Gilded verses for your ethylene,
And sing it to me free and clean

Back in the day I was a big fan of Xena: The Warrior Princess. I’ve seen every episode, some many times over. I can recite the lines of some episodes by memory, and have even competed in some bar Xena trivia competitions and done quite well. Xena has been so influential on me, she’s prominently featured in one chapter of my book Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians.

One of the draws of the show was, of course Lucy Lawless, the actress who portrayed Xena. Her dark hair, blue eyes, and legs that beckoned you to think thoughts you can’t express in church, combined into one mesmerizing package. And the revealing costume just made it all that more enticing.

Along with Xena, of course, came her blonde sidekick Gabrielle – who also, later into the series, sported a revealing costume as well, and drew many fans – both male and female. And here is where the problems began. I spent a lot of time on fan message boards – and one of the biggest fights between fans of the show was over something called “subtext.”

I was a “subtexter” – which means that I believed that while the overarching theme, or text, of Xena was that she was a warrior – doing good in the world, trying to set wrongs right, and basically avenge the destruction of her home village by a warlord by doing basically the same thing to others – killing them. Although, she only killed the “bad” guys, so that made the violence justified. The subtext of the Xena story, however, was that this series was also a love story between Xena and Gabrielle. We “subtexters” were those who believed there was more going on between Xena and Gabrielle than the show let on.

This caused major fights on the message boards, and I was usually the one appointed to tackle the inevitable Bible and homosexuality fights that would regularly break out on these boards. While the arguments over whether Xena and Gabrielle, were or were not romantically involved, were interesting and often heated – what made me the most upset is what people refused to get upset about.

No one – not even the subtexters themselves – seemed to have any problem with a show that depicted people engaged in gratuitous violence. No one seemed to care how many people died per show – since they were all “bad guys” who apparently deserved a good killing. No one – and particularly not the subtexters – seemed to be the slightest bit offended either at how the show subjugated women. While it’s true that these women were strong and self-sufficient – they could not be that way without also being stunningly beautiful and scantily clad. The show was all about objectifying women and glorifying violence. But, what people chose to get angry about what whether or not these two women shared a love for one another.

So, let’s get this right – violence and objectifying women – O.K.! No problem there. Love between two women? Oh, now wait just one minute, we can’t have a love story going on here! Wrong!

This, Jubilants, is a perfect example of the first deadly sin of acedia. In our mental and spiritual laziness, we cannot find it within ourselves to actually care about the right things. When we get angry, we get angry over the things that either don’t matter – or we get all worked up over the wrong things.

In our acedia – in our overwhelming sloth – we begin to not care about others, and in that general state of not caring, we begin to care only about ourselves and what is good for us. We do it individually, and we do it as a society.

All the fur and fin lose when we decide what’s best for us without taking them into consideration. We’ve got the blackest boots – the most mighty military on earth. We’ve got the whitest skin – and an overwhelming taste for what’s sweet in this life, and we’ll satisfy that sugar tongue – that sweet tooth – without giving a second thought to how it affects others, or how others suffer when we selfishly satisfy our own needs.

The battle cry of acedia is, “I’ve got mine – I don’t care what happens to you and yours.”

All the kids come home with foreign limbs
From hunting trips abroad they lose again
And we’ll teach them how to talk
And whistle while they walk
And do the dirty work of battle hymns

[Chorus] I’ve got the blackest boots, the whitest skin
Satisfy my sugar tongue again,
Sing me lullabies of shoe-shine days
Gilded verses for your ethylene,
And sing it to me free and clean

The prophet Amos knows a lot about the deadly sin of acedia. He saw it all around him, and he condemned those Hebrew people who reclined “upon beds of ivory,” and “ate lambs from the flock” and spent their days singing “idle songs to the sound of the harp.”

Sounds like the good life, doesn’t it? A comfortable bed, meat to eat, good tunes on the harp? Don’t we all aspire to win the lottery and do little all day like these Hebrew fat cats? What’s wrong with this picture – sounds great to me!

But Amos says, “Woe to those” who would live this kind of life … not because people don’t deserve to live in comfort – they do! But, where we go wrong is when we live in comfort at the expense of others. Amos is not berating the little people for living the high life. He’s talking to the community leaders who are profiting off the backs of the poor.

Most Hebrew people slept on the floor, not beds inlaid with ivory. Most Hebrews at grains, and vegetables, and fruit and rarely ate meat. Most Hebrews were out in the fields working and had little time to sit around and sing along to the harp. Amos is talking to those who are in power – and those who are abusing their power by seeking their own privilege and comfort at the expense of those around them.

It would be easy, at this point, to just start bashing our current leaders, who send our kids off to do the dirty work of battle hymns – and can apparently still sleep at night in their ornate beds. But, Amos’ words of condemnation are not just for our modern day leaders who use their offices for personal gain. Like just about any verse of the Bible, this is a two-edge sword.

Conservatives could read this passage and justify their own views of corrupt government and say “if we got rid of oppressive taxes then we wouldn’t be so dependent on government, and those fat cats couldn’t get so fat.” Liberals, on the other hand, could read this passage and say, “If the corporations weren’t so greedy, and didn’t exploit workers, and line their own pockets, then there would be enough to feed us all!”

Instead, we need to understand how this passage indicts us all – and calls us from our stupor of acedia. Our culture continues to sing us lullabies of shoe-shine days – that time when they tell us things were simpler and nobody had any worries. These are the gilded verses for our ethylene – which is an anesthesia – something that makes us numb. If there are some “good-old-days” that we can return to, it means we don’t have to deal with what makes us uncomfortable now. All we need to do with sit back, enjoy our comfy beds, eat our veal cutlet, listen to some tunes and tune it all out. It’s somebody else’s problem, baby, it ain’t ours. They’re not shooting guns at my doorstep – the wars are all somewhere else. Nobody’s starving at my house. It ain’t my problem.

Hear Amos with new ears: “Woe to those who say, it ain’t my problem.”

Breathe deeply.

[Verse] Drinking tea with milk and Janjaweed
Pontificate on genocide or greed
With a spoonful of dissent,
For the orchestra of need
Is just enough to please this colony

[Chorus] I’ve got the blackest boots, the whitest skin
Satisfy my sugar tongue again
Sing me lullabies of morphine-dreams,
Belladonna with her atropine
And sing it to me free and clean

I’ve said that acedia is insidious – once it gets a toe-hold in our lives, it can take over. This one sin – of laziness and sloth – can lead us into a whole host of other temptations like idolatry, sadness, a lack of curiosity, ingratitude, despair, a tolerance of injustice, and most alarmingly, arrogance. Once we give in to acedia, we withdraw from the world. It seems hopeless to do things in the world, because what can one person do? One person can’t stop a war. One person can’t stop an economic collapse. One person can’t stop the injustice in this world.

This is the lesson of acedia – when we withdraw from the world – when we withdraw from doing good – we commit a very great evil. Acedia convinces us that our efforts are useless, so why even try? We give up before we can even start.

Acedia is about being disconnected – disconnected from the world around us, disconnected from the nature that sustains us – disconnected from each other – and disconnected from the Holy. But what acedia teaches us is that while one person may not be able to stop wars and economic collapse – a group made up of all those one persons can. One group made all that bad stuff happen – so why can’t another group change it? The cure for this first sin then is coming together in community – connecting with one another – connecting with the Holy – then connecting to the larger world as an intentional, progressive, and inclusive community.

How do we get there? We start by opening our ears and listening. Acedia makes us lazy, but it also makes us deaf to the world of creation around us – deaf to the babbling of streams, deaf to the singing of birds, deaf to the rhythm of the falling rain.

Breathe deeply.

In November 1963, our next song was at number 4 on the pop charts and had topped the easy listening chart, and by 1999, it was listed at the ninth most performed song on radio and television in the 20th century – so hopefully you’ll know it. It’s “Rhythm of the Rain” by the Cascades. Let’s try it:

Listen to the rhythm of the falling rain,
Telling me just what a fool I’ve been
I wish that it would go and let me cry in vain,
And let me be alone again
The only one I care about has gone away
Looking for a brand new start,
But little does she know
That when she left that day,
Along with her she took my heart
Rain please tell me now does that seem fair
For her to steal my heart away when she don’t care
I can’t love another when my heart’s somewhere far away

In our Jesus story, we find our guy arguing with his favorite adversaries, the Pharisees. Whenever Jesus started telling stories of rich and poor, the Pharisees, who learn a few verses back were “lovers of money” … would scoff at Jesus. They didn’t get why anyone, let alone God, would have a preference for the poor over the rich.

But Jesus tells them a little story. The beginning echoes Amos and the rich he describes as reclining on their amazing beds, eating lambs, and grooving to harp tunes. The rich man in Jesus’ story wears fine clothes and has an overfull belly every day. At the gate of the city lies a poor man, Lazarus. No ornate bed for this guy, he’s lying on the ground, covered in sores, eating whatever scraps fell from the rich man’s table.

Pretty soon, they both die. Lazarus is “carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom” – he’s in heaven. The rich man is carried to Hades – he goes to hell. There he sees that poor jerk Lazarus, lying in bosom of Abraham, and he complains. Abraham tells him – you had your good life on earth, now it’s Lazarus’ turn in heaven.

And, if just for a moment, the rich man has an unselfish thought. “Send someone to warn my brothers that this is the fate that awaits them!” Abraham says, “If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead!”

In other words – if we don’t listen now – if we don’t reconnect with community, with the Holy, with the world around us – right now – then even someone rising from the dead to warn us of what lies ahead will not even convince us. If you’re not listening now – then the chasm is fixed and you’ll never be able to cross to the other side.

“If they do not hear … if they do not hear … if they do not hear …”

What happens when we do not hear? We are overcome by acedia, by a wasting sloth that leads us right into a living hell right here and right now. Acedia kills our spirits and separates us from the wild mystery that is the Holy.

Matthew Fox writes that in the midst of this overwhelming acedia, “we domesticate our wildness and become a cynical lot. We domesticate our despair and take Valium and Prozac. We domesticate our lust by watching pornography. We domesticate our anger but we eat a lot. We domesticate our fear but watch horror movies. We domesticate our envy but make stars of entertainers and pay them to live our lives vicariously for us.”

Then he asks, “Might the original sin have been the sin of domestication?”

Do we domesticate God to the point that we can no longer be awed by the Holy and instead God becomes as Fox says, “no longer Creator of a vast and marvelous world, but is reduced to a comforter of our tiny and puny human souls?”

Are you listening? In your day to day struggle with acedia – with sloth – with the arrogance that you can live your life however you want with no thought to anyone else … are you listening? In your day to day struggle with acedia – with sloth – with the arrogance that God loves you better than anyone else … are you listening?

Screw-ups, change your mind. The sin of acedia is crippling us all. Repent, and listen. Do you hear the rhythm of the falling rain, telling you just what a fool you’ve been? Do you hear the rhythm of the falling rain, calling you to make a brand new start? Listen to the wildness of the rain – the undomesticated wind and storm that blows wherever it wills. This is the mystery of the Holy – the Creator God that is wild and untamed.

I invite you tonight, Jubilants, let it rain in your heart – let it fall on the fertile ground of a heart healed from acedia by the wild mystery of the Holy. In that ground of being may love for the world, for those all around us in this building and all around the world, take root and grow strong, wild, and free.

Listen, and repent.

The only girl I care about has gone away,
Looking for a brand new start
But little does she know that when she left that day,
Along with her she took my heart
Rain won’t you tell her that I love her so,
Please ask the sun to set her heart aglow
Rain in her heart and let the love we knew start to grow

Listen to the rhythm of the falling rain,
Telling me just what a fool I’ve been
I wish that it would go and let me cry in vain,
And let me be alone again
Oh, listen to the falling rain
Pitter patter, pitter patter
Oh, oh, oh, listen to the falling rain
Pitter patter, pitter patter

Oh, Yeah!