I was talking with someone this past week, and when they learned I would be preaching this Sunday, they (I think) jokingly said, “You won’t be stepping on my toes, will you?” I laughed and said, “Well, you may want to tuck your toes underneath the pew!” The title of the sermon may have given you a clue of what we would be talking about today. Our topic is complacency, and well, yes, I may step on a few toes, but I’ll be stepping on mine as well! This journey as Christian disciples is not an easy one, but we’re on it together, and together we will learn and grow.
Let us pray.
God, thank you that you are here with us. Guide us in applying your word in our lives, and may we grow ever closer to you. Amen.
Maxie Dunnam, pastor, former president of Asbury Theological Seminary, and author of over 40 books and Bible studies, once hosted a radio-television commentary called Perceptions. In one episode, he made these observations:
When the death of President Calvin Coolidge was made public, someone joked, “But how can they tell?”
George Bernard Shaw once said that the epitaph for many people should read, “Died at 30, buried at 60.”
You’re dead when the suffering of another causes you no pain.
You’re dead when your blood does not run hot in the face of blatant injustice.
You’re dead when you evade truth that hurts and accept an easy lie.
You’re dead when you are not willing to put forth the energy necessary to nurture a relationship.
What does it mean to be alive, to be truly alive? What does it mean to say that we are Christians? These are questions we will ponder today.
A few moments ago, we heard the scripture reading, from the book of Deuteronomy. At least part of it, if not the whole passage, may be familiar to you. In it, we hear Moses speaking to the Israelites. Moses had led God’s chosen people out of Egypt many years ago, decades ago, and now he is speaking to the second generation since that great exodus, the ones who are to cross over into the Promised Land. God does not permit Moses himself to go with them, but in this passage we find Moses giving God’s people final reminders and instructions before he passes the leadership of God’s people on to Joshua.
The most familiar part of this passage is found in verses four and five, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” In the Jewish tradition, this passage is known as the Shema, which is Hebrew for the first word in the passage, “Hear.” The Shema is important. In fact, it is fundamental to the Jewish faith, and it is part of Jesus’ answer when asked about the most important commandment. We will return to it from time to time today, but we’re going to focus especially on the latter part of the passage, where Moses is instructing the people on how to keep this commandment in front of them all the time. And Moses really spells it out, doesn’t he? He tells the people to keep the commandments on their hearts, to impress them on their children, to talk about them when they are at home and when they walk along the road, when they lie down and when they get up. He tells them to keep constant reminders by tying them as symbols on their hands and binding them on their foreheads, by writing them on the doorframes of their houses and on their gates.
Have you ever wondered why Moses was so specific in his instructions? He obviously thought they needed the reminders, and he would certainly know. Even their parents, who had experienced God’s power first-hand over and over, had easily forgotten. So Moses knew that this next generation, the ones who were to finally receive the long-held promise, could easily become apathetic, and he knew it was very important that they NOT do so. So Moses tells them why, and he tells them how.
Have you ever noticed how many times Moses says, “so that” in this passage? So that you, your children and their children. So that you may enjoy long life. So that it may go well with you. Another way to interpret that phrase is, “that being so,” or, “and so” or “therefore.” Moses tells them, this is who God is, and so your devotion to God is to be total. God is One, and so your devotion is one. Because this is who God is, your love of God is to be total.
And Moses’ instruction to the Israelites called for continual attention to this commandment. It was to remain upon their hearts, a conscious, intentional decision they made, a continual part of their daily lives, an ongoing topic of conversation. He tells the people, don’t forget. Remember. Don’t get lazy. Don’t take it for granted. You must keep this in front of you all the time. Moses is teaching the people how to guard against complacency in what matters most.
Let’s take a moment now to turn to the Gospel of Mark, where Jesus was asked by a legal expert which commandment was the most important. Jesus replied that of all the commandments, this passage from Deuteronomy as well as a passage from Leviticus were the most important.
We read in Mark chapter 12, verses 28-34, “One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” “Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all the burnt offerings and sacrifices.” When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions.”
Throughout Christian history, we have understood this passage to express the essence of Christianity. It provides the framework for our understanding, and it provides a kind of “test.” Do our thoughts, words, and actions reflect and embody love of God and neighbor? Jesus said those are the most important things. Are we doing them? The command wasn’t new, yet Jesus’ words are offering a sharp critique of the teachings of the scribes, the guardians of the religious establishment. The ones who should know. Up to this point, Jesus has repeatedly shown that they are on the wrong side of the work of God. And now here is a scribe who seems to share Jesus’ anguish over religious practices that have lost their soul and purpose. Complacency has set in, activity has replaced true love, true worship, and true devotion, and the religious leaders can no longer hear or respond to God’s voice, even when it’s coming from God’s very own Son. The activity has replaced the reason for the activity, and they are no longer willing, perhaps no longer able, to recognize God. They have become complacent about God.
And we just shake our heads, don’t we? We would never be like that. How could the scribes not understand what Jesus was telling them? His message is obvious, isn’t it? And why on earth didn’t those silly Israelites just trust God? Why, if we had seen God’s miracles right in front of us, we would sure never doubt! You know, we may think we’re different, but we’re not. Apathy, complacency, an old word for it is acedia. It’s insidious, and it seems to plague us across the ages.
News anchor Dan Rather once remarked, “Americans will put up with anything provided it doesn’t block traffic.” We may remember Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind, in the midst of a great crisis, yet saying, “I’ll think about that tomorrow.” Some of you from my generation may remember Pat Paulson, a comedian who ran bogus campaigns for president for many years. In his campaign speeches, he called for “a great, national groundswell of apathy,” but I’m not sure everyone caught the joke. Others of you will remember Neo in the movie The Matrix, who was given a choice. He could take the blue pill and remain in the safe, effortless, unreal, not-life. Or he could take the red pill and do the hard work of experiencing the world as it really was.
It’s no accident that complacency is such a common theme. It’s a major temptation that seems to be ageless. It’s nothing less than spiritual laziness, though, and it’s not something to take lightly. Another name for complacency is sloth, and sloth isn’t called a deadly sin for nothing!
So what makes complacency deadly? At its core, complacency is really a lack of spiritual attentiveness, perhaps even a smug lack of attentiveness. And it is far from harmless, for it rejects grace, and it rejects God. One definition of complacency is to fail to do the things we ought to do. You may have heard this paraphrase of a famous quote by 18th century philosopher and author Edmund Burke, a quote we are sometimes reminded of when we hear about the rise of Nazi Germany prior to World War II: Evil triumphs when good people do nothing.
Now, I want to be clear that there is a difference between complacency and rest. There is a good kind of doing nothing. Rest is good and necessary. The book of Genesis tells us that after the work of creating, God blessed the seventh day as a day of rest. In fact, over-business can be a kind of complacency. And I don’t mean to imply that we’re headed for the rise of another Nazi state, either. But little, seemingly harmless things can lead to big things, both in the world, and in our lives. And complacency is far from harmless.
At its core, complacency tries to escape human responsibility. At its deepest, at its worst, complacency is perhaps best expressed by Dorothy Sayers, a noted 20th century writer. She says, “Complacency is the sin which believes in nothing, cares for nothing, seeks to know nothing, interferes with nothing, enjoys nothing, loves nothing, hates nothing, finds purpose in nothing, lives for nothing, and only remains alive because there is nothing it would die for.” M. Scott Peck, a psychiatrist and Christian writer, sees complacency as the main reason many of us are failing at human relationships. He says that even at the most surface level, it takes effort to enter into and maintain human relationships. Complacency poisons the will, and it prevents us from loving.
Maxie Dunnam, this time in a book he co-authored with his daughter Kimberly Dunnam Reisman, also a United Methodist pastor, describes three types of complacency (although they use the term, “sloth”). There is mental complacency, in which we collect prejudices from our favorite media without taking the time to think, read, or enter into challenging dialogues or to get the facts for ourselves. There is moral complacency, in which we complain about social and moral evils, but we don’t do anything. And there is spiritual complacency, in which we neglect prayer, worship, Bible study, and the like. When this happens, we pay the price with shriveled and listless souls because we have dried up the wells of refreshment. Dunnam and Reisman go on to say, “Diligence, discipline, fortitude, perseverance—only these can protect us from the spiritual death brought by sloth. A struggle for holiness and a hatred for sin must characterize our journey.” Notice the active forms of the words here? There is nothing passive or complacent about this journey.
Complacency is the desire for ease, even at the expense of doing the known will of God. Its deadly defect is in what we don’t do. In Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, the Priest and the Levite passed by on the other side. Why? Their faith certainly taught them what their response should be. But they did not do it. They did not do it, and for no better reason than they simply did not want to get involved. Complacency is deficient love, the refusal to get involved because we do not care enough to be involved.
And what’s so deadly about that? Over time, as we refuse to become involved with hurting people or with God, our refusing eventually becomes habitual. When we are apathetic about God and others, over time our desire dies. We get to the point that we don’t even care that we don’t care. If we refuse to be involved and engaged and participate in God, in people, and in this world, it becomes habit forming, and we die inside, and our desire for all that is just and true and beautiful dies as well.
Love is active. Love is not just something we feel; it is something we do. The opposite of love is not hate, it is complacency. And we need to keep God in front of us and with us all the time, stitched throughout our daily lives and the fabric of our being, because we forget. We are so easily distracted. There are many things that can fill our time, but that distract us from being attentive to God and to others. Perhaps we are selfish, or we are dissatisfied, or we are restless. Perhaps we’re just careless. But no matter how much we seek peace and fulfillment in other ways, in other things, there is only one place, one way, we will find it. God knows that, Moses knew that. Moses instructed God’s people then, and God knows we need the reminder today. We must keep it in front of us. Not take it for granted. Not be complacent. Not forget. We must remember to be an intentional, active participant in our life with God, in our growth as disciples of Jesus Christ, and in our lives as Christians in this world that so desperately needs Christ. We need to love God with everything we have. With our whole heart, with our whole being, with our mind, and with all of our strength.
Complacency saps our energy, and it dulls our attitudes. We become satisfied with things as they are, and then we reject things as they might be. But we don’t have to live like that. God doesn’t want that for us. We can replace complacency with passion, with a hunger for God. It doesn’t just happen, though, because distractions are ever-present. We have to keep God in front of us all the time. And what does that look like? Truly caring for others, even the difficult ones. Being in Christian study with others. Volunteering with children. Worshiping God. Feeding the hungry. Welcoming people who are new to the community. Praying. Caring for the homeless. Studying the Bible. Noticing others. Being willing to be inconvenienced. Being willing to sacrifice out of our plenty. Remembering the why, not just the what.
This is what it means to love God, to love God with everything we have. And this may not make sense until you have experienced it, but living this way brings peace, and joy, and deep satisfaction. What may seem like a burden or a sacrifice or an inconvenience beforehand actually satisfies our deepest longing. Jesus told us his yoke was easy and his burden was light. Living fully for God completes us, because it is what we were made for.
As Eugene Peterson puts in in The Message, we need to write these commandments on our hearts. We need to get them inside of us and then get them inside of our children. We need to talk about them wherever we are, sitting at home or walking in the street, from the time we get up in the morning to when we fall into bed at night. We need to tie them on our hands and foreheads as a reminder, we need to inscribe them on the doorposts of our homes and on our city gates.
There is only one God. Love God with everything you have. Love God, and not the things that would distract you. Keep God in front of you all the time, so that you don’t forget. Because when you get complacent about God, you become apathetic about the things that matter to God. It’s so easy in our culture to be more like a distracted tourist than a pilgrim, to turn away from the very things that bring us to that which we seek, that we desire in the deepest part of our being. A pastor once said, “We want Christ, but only moderately. We love Jesus, but only moderately; we will follow Jesus, but only so far. But to claim to be Christian without wanting Christ more than anything else, is a contradiction.”
Are you truly alive?
Does the suffering of another cause you pain?
Does your blood does run hot in the face of blatant injustice?
Are you willing to face truth rather than an easy lie?
Are you willing to stretch and grow in your faith? Is God asking you to make a change in your life? The temptation to be complacent is real. But do you love God? Do you love God with everything you have? Do you love others as you love yourself?
Think about it, talk about it, live it, all day, every day.