Mark 14:32-42

Asleep at the Wheel

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Mark 14:32-42

Asleep at the Wheel

Rev. Amy Butler

Boy, is everybody getting into this sermon series on sin! I think making it through Lust last week was a relief for everybody because I heard even more jokes than normal in anticipation of my sermon this week—the topic of which is Sloth.

It was the same joke, incidentally, and I think a lot of folks thought their joke was original. It was funny . . . the first five or six times I heard it, but after a while it got a little predictable. “Hey!” they all said, “It would be so funny if you got up on Sunday morning and said, ‘Well, I was going to write a sermon but then I decided it was too much work.’ Hahahahaha!”

Well, I decided that this is a serious discussion of a serious problem and I would definitely not start with that joke.

Instead, I want to start by saying that I think the disciples have been rather harshly judged these past two thousand years, don’t you think? Their judgment comes in large part because of what happened in the Garden of Gethsemane as recorded in this passage from the Gospel of Mark we read this morning.

Unreliable. Not around when they are needed. Not dependable enough to be there when their friend Jesus was in the throes of utter crisis . . . they were—literally—asleep at the wheel. Lazy, good-for-nothings—those disciples have been painted as men who let Jesus down on one of the most critical nights of his life.

But let’s review, shall we? That night in the garden, when Jesus was praying and crying, desperate to know what he should do and deeply in need of friends, his buddies the disciples were asleep.

Yes, that much is true.

But that evening as they sawed logs under the olive trees the disciples had just come from a very large Passover meal—the Thanksgiving Dinner of the Jewish people. They celebrated, remember, in the upper room. And Jesus had sent the disciples to organize the festivities ahead of time. So, not only had they just finished a large meal full of favorite delicacies on which they could stuff themselves, the disciples also actually had had to do the prep work to make the meal happen.

(Anybody who has ever been up at 5:30 in the morning to put a turkey in the oven on Thanksgiving Day knows that by the time the 3:00 p.m. dinner rolls around it’s often all you can do to keep your eyes open. And even if you didn’t have to do the cooking, the couch looks awfully inviting after such a large meal.)

That’s the background we paint for this evening in Gethsemane, which, by the way, we suppose to be evening because Jesus and the disciples went to the garden after dinner, and later, when we read of Jesus’ arrest, we hear about soldiers and high priests coming into the garden with torches to light the darkness.


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It’s late at night. After a long meal. That they prepared. So they dozed off . . . . Cut the poor men some slack!

And, come to think of it, possibly along those same lines it is rather . . . inappropriate, if not downright insulting to be talking to Americans, in the high-paced, work-all-the-time, never get enough rest city of Washington, D.C., about the sin of sloth, about lazy inattention to the things that really matter, about falling asleep at the wheel.

After all, we know how much people work in this city. In fact, it has been proven in study after study that U.S. workers achieve a level of productivity that is far above even their counterparts in developed parts of Europe. Americans, in fact, are far more likely to work longer hours, hold down more than one job at a time, and to take on far more professional responsibility at younger ages. While in Germany, for example, the standard workweek is between 30-35 hours and holding down more than one job is illegal, it seems here in America we prize, as a colleague of mine reported to me with some measure of pride last week, a 70-hour work-week.

And, how many jobs do we have to have to make our lives count for something? There are those among us who take on several at a time. Furthermore, studies show that American workers are less likely to take the standard two weeks of vacation per year when their colleagues in Europe regularly shut down business for six weeks in the summertime for a mass holiday.

In light of these statistics it seems rather unfair to ask us, of all people, to consider the work of the sin of sloth in our lives. We’re the hardest workers in the developed world! We lead the entire global population in productivity . . . and we have the highest incidence of heart disease because, in and among all our efforts, we are killing ourselves.

Maybe there are a few who should take a look at sloth but, for the most part, it is indisputable that we work hard!

Ahhh, this is true, so true. But perhaps, once again, it’s time to go back and examine this sin a little more closely to see if maybe . . . possibly . . . perhaps . . . our thoughts about sloth are incorrect. Could it be that this sin is found everywhere, all around us, and in fact often disguised in frantic lives teetering on the edge of sanity? Sloth, you see, isn’t really about not working.

It’s more about not caring.

You can work your fingers to the bone . . . you can structure your life in such a way that all you DO is work, in fact . . . and you can still be slothful. You can be slothful because the efforts into which you invest your time, energy, money and personhood really add up to a whole lot . . . of NOTHING. That’s sloth. Dorothy Sayers defines it this way:

“Sloth is the sin that believes in nothing,
cares for nothing,
enjoys nothing,
hates nothing,
finds purpose in nothing,
cares for nothing,
seeks to know nothing,
interferes with nothing,
enjoys nothing,
hates nothing,
finds purpose in nothing,
lives for nothing
and remains alive
because there is nothing for which it will die.”

This is how the sin of sloth begins in our lives. First, we start to discover, for the first time ever, some things that seem to give our lives meaning. This is a good and right process of being human. For example, these things could be family, faith, career, relationship . . . good and wonderful things that add layers of meaning to our lives and make our humanity rich and rewarding.

When sloth creeps in is when we start to take these good and wonderful things and distort them. We do not pursue their excellence in a vigilant manner; we become cavalier; we lose a clarity of awareness that helps us discipline our lives in their pursuit.

Sloth is so much more than napping your life away; sloth is rather a numbing of our awareness and determination until we end up “falling asleep” and steering our lives into wreckage.

Think, for example, of Jesus’ disciples in today’s gospel lesson. They had given up everything they had, turned over their whole lives to follow this man Jesus. For three years they traipsed after him, struggling to understand what it was he was trying to teach them. And they were good, well-meaning men who wanted desperately to be good followers.

Somewhere along the line, though, they stopped paying attention.

They loved what he had to say, but the sin of sloth started creeping in when their minds numbed during certain teachings, when they glossed over signs of what was certainly ahead of Jesus and of them, and when they spent all their time and energy preparing dinner . . . so much work on something so insignificant that they could not stay awake . . . they could not expend any effort . . . for the moments that really counted, those dark hours in Gethsemane when Jesus needed them the most.

It wasn’t that they were being vindictive or mean; it wasn’t even that they weren’t tired. They meant well. It’s just that the things they thought were important weren’t really. And everything they were working so hard for distracted them from the things that really mattered.

There’s no doubt we’re hard workers; there’s nothing wrong with that. But sometimes our hard work becomes a misdirected effort, a distraction by which we feel justified to ignore the things that really matter. It’s like walking carefully along the edge of a steep hill only to find that the edge is muddy and slippery, and, despite our best efforts (even finger-to-the-bone work, in fact), we suddenly find ourselves sliding all the way to the bottom. That’s sloth . . . inattention, being asleep at the wheels of our lives until we slide down, down, down until we could really care less about anything or anybody, we’re just so tired.

It was March 23, 1989 when the large oil tanker the Exxon Valdez set out from Valdez, Alaska with a full load of crude oil. The normal route south into Prince William Sound was obstructed that day because of small icebergs from the Columbia Glacier that had floated into the tanker’s path.

The captain of the tanker, Joseph Hazelwood, radioed requesting permission to change course to avoid these icebergs. His new course would entail moving the tanker into the northbound lane to avoid the icebergs.

There is much debate, as you know, about what happened next. Was Hazelwood drinking? Was the Third Mate taking orders from Hazelwood inattentive? Did the helmsman who was supposed to turn the boat miss the directive and make the move too late?

Even after years of legal wrangling it’s unclear what happened. Somebody, though, was preoccupied . . . asleep at the wheel. And inattention, nonchalance, at a time in life that required vigilance and attentiveness, well, it resulted in far more than disappointment, missing out on something important. This time the falling asleep at the wheel, the sloth, resulted in far more devastating results.

You know what happened. Because someone was not paying attention the Exxon Valdez did not turn sharply enough; at 12:04 a.m. on March 24 th, the Exxon Valdez ran aground on Prince William Sound’s Bligh Reef and the devastation began.

30 million gallons of crude oil spilled into the sound. 30 million gallons.

As a result of the catastrophic spill thousands of animals died instantly. The best estimates are: 250,000 sea birds, 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbor seals, 250 bald eagles, up to 22 orcas, and billions of salmon and herring eggs. In addition, the oil killed off a majority of the plankton supply in the sound.

Centers were set up to clean animals but they were too late in many cases.

Despite years and years of litigation no one really knows what happened. Somebody was asleep at the wheel, either literally or figuratively. Now that it’s over there is no possible way to undo the damage, to clean up the mess, to correct the devastation.

On April 30 th a large number of folks will gather on the National Mall in front of the Capitol. They’ll be protesting to bring attention to the crisis of genocide in Darfur, the Sudan. They’ll be there because it seems that in the harried work of maintaining economic dominance, borrowing money and financing war something has gotten lost. The critical value of human life, the dignity of each person and the rights of everybody to live their lives in peace, without threat of harassment, injury or death because of something about themselves that they cannot change.

It’s happening in the Sudan and it’s happening all over the world. On a corporate level we are being challenged to investigate whether or not our quest for dominance and power is leading us to sloth . . . to not caring about anything but ourselves . . . and eventually not caring about anything at all. I wonder if we’ve all been asleep at the wheel, slothful in our response to something so critical?

In our lives sloth could be too much sitting on the couch when we should be showing up for work. But more likely in this country, in this city, in our lives, sloth creeps in as harried and lavish efforts in every area that is insignificant, in every acquisition that doesn’t matter in the long run . . . and as lazy inattention to the things that really matter.

This is what sloth can do . . . put us to sleep right at the very moment when we should be awake, engaged and present for critical moments, either in the details of our individual lives or in the big picture global injustices. It’s worth our time to investigate because when it really gets bad, sloth can result in utter, total, irrevocable destruction . . . in a nonchalance that digresses until we run our lives aground and cannot even quantify the destruction that ensues.

Take a few moments today to think about where sloth is creeping into your life.

Don’t be tricked into believing that harried schedules or punishing work exonerate you from the sin of sloth. Rather, think long and hard about where and how your efforts are expended, and whether or not those efforts steer your life toward true relationship, life-giving endeavor. Then think about the larger groups to which you belong: your family, your church, your company, your nation . . . look hard at where our corporate efforts are expended, because if we refuse to look, our lives will motor along at such a pace that we’ll soon (if we’re not already) be asleep during the times that really matter, asleep at the wheel until our humanity is such that we “live for nothing and remain alive because there is nothing for which we will die.”

That’s sloth.

In a few moments we will gather together at the table of Christ to share in the meal recalling the very meal those disciples shared before heading out into the Garden of Gethsemane and falling asleep that night.

As always, we come to the table to gain strength and nourishment for the journey ahead.

But today we embark on this meal together determined that when we have received the nourishment, resolve and courage offered here, we’ll turn from the table and head out into the world, ever alert for the leadership and presence of God, careful never to fall asleep at the wheel.


Copyright 2006, Amy Butler. Used by permission.