Editor’s note: The following is extracted from The Village Tragedy and Other Sermons, by Rev. Clovis G. Chappell, D.D. (published 1921).
“I passed by the field of the sluggard
“And, lo, it was all grown over with thorns, and nettles had covered the face thereof, and the stone wall thereof was broken down.”
This is a very realistic picture, one that the least imaginative of us can easily see. Here is the way the modern wise man would tell it: I was out walking the other day. I passed along a winding country road on either side of which was the loveliest of farm land. There were fields of waving corn; there were golden seas of wheat and oats. There were beautiful gardens where the magnolias blossomed and where a myriad roses spilled out their perfume, and where violets, hyacinths and pansies lifted up their modest, winsome faces.
Then suddenly I came to a spot that was a blot on the landscape, an old waste garden, untilled, unworked, uncared for. I did not enter through the gate, but stepped over the broken wall. I had taken but a few steps when suddenly there was a stinging pain in my ankles, and I looked down and saw the place was thick with nettles. A few steps further and something pricked me through my shoe, and I discovered also a luxuriant growth of thorns. And that was all the vegetable life I saw — thorns and nettles and noxious weeds in which doubtless poisonous serpents homed and hissed.
As I was preparing to hurry away I discovered a miserable tumbledown cabin that looked out upon this neglected garden. In the door of this cabin there sat a man bearing the marks of decay and of neglect quite as evident as those of the garden itself. His face was sallow, his figure stooped, his eyes weak and watery, his mouth half open- — the tell-tale sign of a flabby and wasted will.
I could not but speak to him: “Hello, old man! How goes it?” “Bad enough, bad enough,” he said with a yawn. “The capitalists have got everything today. A poor fellow like me has no chance.” “The summer is pretty well over, isn’t it?” With a yawn he nodded his reply. “Time for raising crops about passed?” Again he yawned an affirmative. “Where is your crop?” I said. “Got none.” Then I asked him why. “You have failed,” I said, “haven’t you?” And he acknowledged that he had. And wanting to learn, I put my question again: “Why have you failed?”
Why had he failed? It was not because he did not have any garden. If he could have replied, “God gave other men a chance, but He gave me none. Other men had fields to work — I had none” — but he could not say that. He had a garden, just as you have, and just as I have. Every man is born into the world with his own garden spot. That garden spot is himself, his undeveloped character, his ungrown personality. We come with a soul blank as an unwritten piece of paper. We have the privilege of writing either the good or the bad. We have our gardens, each of us. We may do with them in large measure what we will.
Nor did this man fail because his garden was lacking in fertility. He could not say that. Had he said it, I might have pointed to the luxurious nettles and the ripe thorns. Any garden that will grow rank weeds and thorns and nettles will also grow wheat and corn and flowers. Any man with large capacities in him for evil may have also, through the grace of God, large capacities for good.
No, he did not fail because his garden had no possibilities of good in it, nor because God had suddenly blotted the sun out of his sky or withheld the rain. God had done none of these things. Nettles and thorns require sunlight and rain, just as flowers do. God had done His part, but this man had used the fertility of the soil, the warmth of the sunshine and the moisture of the rain for the making of thorns instead of for the growing of roses.
Nor did the man fail because he had a bad environment. True, he was to grow his crop in a world where there were enemies. He was to cultivate his garden in the presence of many a foe, but you will notice that there was a stone wall about the garden, a stone wall that he had allowed to fall down, but that he might have kept up if he had so desired. No, this man’s enemies did not prevent his making a success. If you will, you can so fence your life through the power of God that you can keep out of it what you will. Not even God can break down the walls to get into your garden if you object to His coming. All He does at your garden gate is to stand and knock.
Then, if this man did not fail for lack of a garden nor because the garden had no fertility, if he did not fail because the beasts trampled down the flowers and ate up the tender plants — why did he fail? Just one reason, he failed through pure, unmitigated, unadulterated laziness. He failed because he would not work. He had a genuine aversion to work. He did not like to strain his muscles. He did not want to quicken his pulse beat. He hated to get any corns in his palms. He feared to bring a bead of perspiration to his brow. And remember laziness is one of the greatest soul wreckers, one of the greatest character killers that is operating in the world today. It is a foe that we must meet and grapple with and overcome, if we are to be of any value to God, to society or to ourselves. It is an enemy that we must conquer if life is to be worth while either here or hereafter.
Now, the first fact I want to present to you is this, that it is every man’s duty to be one of the world’s workers. This is as true of women as it is of men. It is as true of the wise as it is of the unwise. It is as true of the rich as it is of the poor. Everybody ought to work because it is nothing less than our common duty. It is true because it is what we owe to God and to society. What Paul said of himself is true of every man — “We are debtors.”
The first question we ask about every piece of machinery is, What is it for? If it cannot give a reason for its existence in terms of service or usefulness it has no place in the program of the world. It is the question we ask about every creature, and that creature that cannot give an answer in terms of service is ostracized. We make war against him. That is the reason we fight the house fly and the mosquito and the flea. They take without giving. They live for themselves.
And the recognition of this fact of obligation marks the dawn of moral manhood. We expect of babies that they should be self-centered. All children are essentially selfish, but with the coming of a larger maturity we expect them to change from mere getters into givers. We expect this of them whether they are rich or poor. For no amount of wealth gives any man the moral privilege, the moral right to be a drone, a bunch of mistletoe, a parasite. Every self-respecting man and woman must be a contributor. He must be one of the world’s workers. He must do this because it is nothing more than what he ought to do.
Every man must be one of the world’s workers, in the second place, because it is the only path to real self-development. It is the one way you shall come to be your best self. The young fellow that is too lazy to work is too lazy to be a man. Possibly the most contemptible character in all Shakespeare is the young fellow who said, “But for these vile guns I would have been a soldier.” But for this vile work many of us would have been worthwhile men and women. Many of us would have gone to the head of the firm, but we never came to our best because we were too lazy.
I saw a letter from a young fellow sometime ago saying that he wanted an easier job and better pay; that the one that he had at present caused him to have to lift a good deal and also that it got him dirty. He wanted a job where there was no lifting and where he could stay clean. A job of inheriting estates was something after his mind. He might have consented to sell bon bons to young ladies between the ages of sixteen and twenty. But the good job will never come to him because he will never do the hard work that will fit him for it.
It is only by work, I say, that you really find yourself. How is it that almost all the leaders in the world today were once poor? How is it that so few sons of the rich ever amount to anything? From the simple fact that they do not have to do enough work to make them men. And soul wealth cannot be inherited — the rich coin of character must be minted by your own self. The choice flowers of moral worth must be grown in your own garden.
Every man must be a worker, in the third place, because it is the only way to win success. I know that there is a specious sort of success that comes through the chances of the stock market and the gambling table, but that is a success that is always dangerous and disappointing. Real success is not a result of chance or of luck, but of work. And real hard work will achieve when everything else fails. I was reading the other day of a young fellow who started a jewelry store in a refrigerator. He is a man of wealth today, not through chance, but hard work. I have a friend who once was a member of my church. The first six months his salary was $30. He gave a tenth of that to the Lord. Sixteen years from that date he showed his pastor his financial statement for the year and it was $86,000. Work wins temporal success.
Work also wins spiritual success. We are to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. Why is it that so many in the church today are failures religiously? It is not because Jesus Christ cannot do what He claims to do. It is not because the Gospel has lost its power. It is simply because of our moral laziness. We claim to be Christians, and yet we do not give five earnest, honest minutes a day to working at the job. We claim to be Christians and go for days without ever a look into God’s Word to learn His will. We claim to be Christians and live in utter neglect of prayer, the prayer that takes time and energy and means work. We claim to be Christians and are too morally lazy to identify ourselves with the church where we are and to witness for Christ in the crowd in which we move. We utterly refuse to make a business of our religion and then wonder why it is that there is no vitality in it. We yield utterly to our moral laziness and then complain that we do not enjoy a sense of the divine presence and have not the vital grip of Christ that we once had. Being a Christian is not a matter of magic. It is a matter of vital, earnest, energetic, consecrated work. And if you are too lazy to work you are too lazy to be God’s man and God’s woman. If you are too lazy to work at your job religiously you are too lazy to be a blessing. Every blessing that comes to this world comes as a result of somebody’s earnest, self-giving toil.
Look what laziness did for this man. In the first place, it kept him from raising a crop. It kept him from cultivating his garden. It held him back from the realization of his possibilities. He might have raised a wealth of roses. The breath of the sweetness of his garden might have been wafted on all winds. His corn and wheat might have made thews of strength for other toilers. But he raised no flowers, and there was no corn and no wheat. He failed, as some of you are failing, not because he could not, but because he would not.
I am speaking to some tonight who have wonderful possibilities in their lives. You could do almost any high and holy task to which you would set yourself. You could be a blessing to the crowd in which you move. You could be a rare and helpful benediction to the church. You could live a life whose influence would be sweeter and more wholesome than the perfume of rare flowers. Why are you not doing it? Because it is too much trouble. You are unwilling to work at the task.
The second result of this man’s laziness was that he not only raised no crop, but his garden produced a harvest of noxious weeds. This was not the case because the sluggard deliberately determined that he would raise a harvest of thorns and nettles. It was not the case because he deliberately decided that he would be an enemy to himself and to his race. It was the case for the simple reason that he refused to set himself energetically to the task of raising flowers.
I know what he decided. He decided that he would raise nothing at all, that he would let his life lie a moral barren; that while he would not be a positive Christian, he would not be positively un-Christian; while he would not be aggressively good, he certainly would not be aggressively bad. But he found, as all men find, that this is impossible. Nature abhors a vacuum. The only power that can keep evil out of your life is good. If you are not going to fulfill the lust of the flesh you must walk in the Spirit.
Do you remember how Silas Marner was saved from his love of gold? He was not saved from it by having his gold stolen. Robbed he was, but he loved money just as tragically when he was penniless as he did when he had all his gold securely hidden away. How was he cured?
You know the answer. One night he came in from the snowy out-of-doors. As he entered the room he saw something on the hearth that shimmered and glittered in the flare of the light. His heart beat wildly. He sprang forward in eager expectation. He thought that his gold had come back. And he got down on his knees to run his fingers through it and hear the music of it once more. But his fingers did not find his gold. He ran them instead through the silken tresses of a little girl that lay asleep in the warmth of his fire.
In the after days Eppie stole little by little into his heart. By and by that once cold and narrow heart became so full of love for this little girl that there was no room for the old love any more. It was thus that the evil of a love for gold was overcome by the good of a warm, tender human love.
That is what Jesus meant when He said, “He that is not for me is against me.” That is what He meant when He said, “No man can serve two masters.” You cannot take a negative attitude toward the great fact of God and the right. If you refuse to be a positive Christian, then by that very refusal you become a positive evil. Refuse to cultivate your garden and weeds will grow there without any effort on your part.
For, mark me, my friends, it takes no positive effort to lead a wrong and worthless and useless life. You can raise weeds with very flabby muscles. You can gather up a harvest of thorns with very tender palms. You can gravitate inevitably toward hell without ever getting a bead of sweat upon your face. In order for my life to be wasted, in order for the garden of my soul to become infested with thorns and weeds, it is not necessary for me to sow them there. It is not necessary for me to protect them and to watch over their growth. All that is necessary for me to do is to let them alone. What must I do to be saved? I must give myself energetically to the task. What must I do to be lost? Nothing — bare, naked nothing. There is no way more common and there is no way more sure. For a man who begins by the cultivation of no right crop always ends by the harvesting of a wrong.
Not only does laziness rob us of a harvest of food and flowers and give us a harvest of evil, but it tends more and more toward complete moral disintegration. It breaks down the fences of life. It changes life’s garden into a common. If my life is to mean anything, the fences must be kept up around it. That is, there are certain things that must be kept out as well as certain things fenced in. There are sins in your life tonight that were not in it one year ago. What does it mean? You allowed your fences to be broken down. How did Daniel succeed? He fenced himself in with an energetic purpose. What was the secret of the victory of Joseph? He threw an earnest moral principle round his life.
How about your garden? In your indifference and your idleness and your moral laziness, have you allowed the fences to fall down? Has it become a galloping ground of every form of sin and worldliness that desires to enter in? Is it a spot made common by all unhallowed, unholy feet, or is it a sacred place for the indwelling of the King of Kings?
Do you remember the two girls of whom James Lane Allen speaks? One, he said, was like a peach that grew at the top of a tree. It was protected by its great height. It caught the first kiss of the morning sun and held its last caress at eventide. It was impossible to obtain it without a climb. The other, he said, was like a bunch of grapes that hung above a common path. Everybody who passed took a grape.
What is your life? Is it a garden or is it a common? Are you growing flowers or are you growing thorns? It is for you to decide. None can decide it but yourself. “One day,” the text tells us, “want and poverty are going to spring upon us as robbers;” that is, if we refuse to toil honestly at our task, we are going to find ourselves poor not simply for this world, but poverty stricken wretches to all eternity. What must you do to raise weeds and thorns? What must you do to be a curse? What must you do to be a menace to society? What must you do to breathe an atmosphere of poison in the circle in which you move? Answer: nothing.
What must you do in order to succeed, to succeed in your daily task, to succeed at this supreme task of the cultivation of your own soul garden? How may you be a blessing? How did Dempsey learn to fight? He worked at it. How did Sir Walter Scott learn to write? He worked at his job. How will you learn to be a Christian? How shall you cultivate in the finest possible way the garden of your soul? How shall you help this world, sweeten society and push it a little closer toward God? There is just one way — you must work at it. Will you begin now?