The Rev. Callie E. Swanlund
The 5th Sunday in Lent, Year C
Way of Love Sermon Series: Rest
Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night,
and give your angels charge over those who sleep.
Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying,
soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous;
and all for your love's sake. Amen.
Along with Compline-praying Christians around the world, I pray this prayer with my children at the close of the day. As with many prayers attributed to St. Augustine, this prayer has layers of beauty and meaning, and different lines take on greater meaning during different seasons of my life. As we contemplate the Way of Love practice of Rest on this 5th Sunday of Lent, my attention is drawn toward the line “give rest to the weary.” When I think of the weary, those for whom we bid rest, I picture those first named in this prayer: those who work, or watch, or weep this night.
Those second and third shift workers.
Those holding vigil at the bedside of a loved one.
Those kept awake by loneliness and pain and grief.
My words become emphatic as I implore God to give them rest. But rest is not simply something God grants, magic fairy dust that settles upon us to help us sleep. Rest is something we are commanded to take. It’s right there in the ten commandments handed down to Moses: remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.
Rest is such a seemingly straightforward word that somehow manages to elude us time and time again. I have long prided myself as a person who models good rest: taking a period of sabbath each week, prioritizing my family above all else, and napping regularly as a way to stay healthy and focused. But lately I’ve discovered that what I’m often engaging in is actually half-rest: a state somewhere between activity and passivity, that is neither productive nor restful.
At the end of a long day, when I don’t have any more energy, I find myself scrolling through my phone in a mind-numbing review of social media. When I finally come to awareness, I realize that my soul wasn’t fed, my body wasn’t rested, and my laundry was certainly not folded. So I lost an hour of time that could have been constructive or restorative, but instead existed in the limbo of neither-not-yet-ness.
What if we were to follow the lead of Mary in this week’s Gospel passage and apply her act of extravagance toward rest? Mary has already been maligned in Luke’s gospel for resting while her sister bustles around preparing a meal. Here she appears again in the Gospel of John, failing to fulfill the role we might expect from a proper woman of her time. Mary takes a large portion of expensive oil — the kind reserved for anointing the bodies of those who have died — and pours it all over Jesus’ feet, using her hair to wipe them clean. With this kind of oil, a “little dab’ll do ya …” and yet, I imagine Mary didn’t think this was the day to be stingy. This was an occasion that called for extravagance. Mary of Bethany has been one of Jesus’ faithful followers, and knows that he will soon die. This isn’t a time for a half-measure, but an extravagant gesture of love and service.
I think we often practice stinginess, when perhaps it’s extravagance that’s called for. We can see this in how we give to one another, in our generosity. Stingy is when my kid asks for a bite of my favorite treat that I’m happily indulging in, and I give them a teeny tiny pinch of it. Extravagant is a coworker asking to try a bite of your delicious-smelling lunch and not only giving them a bite but remembering and bringing in a casserole dish just for them the next time. This is an act that can make someone feel seen, help them feel cared for, and put a bright spot in what might be a stressful week. It is reminders like this that help us know we’re not alone, but part of the larger body of Christ.
We also see the rub of stinginess versus extravagance in our practice of love and hospitality. Thistle Farms is a residential and job-skill-training program in Nashville for women escaping lives of sex trafficking, addiction, and homelessness, founded by Episcopal priest Becca Stevens. Their organization’s mantra is “love heals,” and they mean it. When women come in off the streets, Thistle Farms believes they should be treated with love and dignity. Stingy hospitality would be giving them a cot and a starched sheet in a crowded room filled with fluorescent lighting. Extravagant hospitality, on the other hand, is giving them a private room with beautiful, luxurious bedding, soft lighting, and fresh flowers. Which is exactly what they do. These signs of extravagance show the women they’re worthy of love and belonging, that they are created imago dei - in God’s own image.
What, then, is extravagant rest? In the rule of life for the Episcopal Church’s Way of Love, we are invited to “Receive the gift of God’s grace, peace, and restoration.” The practice of rest refers to Sabbath, and says, “From the beginning of creation, God has established the sacred pattern of going and returning, labor and rest. Especially today, God invites us to dedicate time for restoration and wholeness - within our bodies, minds, and souls, and within our communities and institutions. By resting we place our trust in God, the primary actor who brings all things to their fullness.”
Rest is elusive, especially when we aren’t intentional about building it into the rhythm of our lives. Rest is commonly avoided, especially among those who equate rest with being lazy. Rest is complicated, especially for those without the privilege of time or the freedom to claim rest without being judged for being slothful.
And yet, God commands us to take Sabbath, to rest from our labors, to set aside a period of time in which we are not producing or consuming, but simply being. So I would think extravagant rest would be establishing a sacred weekly practice dedicated to this restoration of wholeness, and resisting those practices which merely provide numbing or which become priority above being in right relationship with God, our selves, and one another. For God has heaped extravagance upon each of us. God has extravagantly poured out Godself by coming down to earth in the form of Jesus and bestowing radical love upon each of us, a radical love which - as we follow this Lenten journey - will soon result in Jesus’ death. God’s love isn’t stingy, but a constant, abundant invitation toward life and service and purpose. A purpose that lies beyond mere productivity.
One of my favorite modern day theologians is Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg. Recently, on a Friday at sundown, the beginning of the period of sabbath for Jewish people, Rabbi Danya tweeted this: “In a culture that assigns value to people based on their productivity, it is a radical act to choose to rest. Your value is not in what you do or make.” Then she signed off with the traditional Jewish sabbath greeting: “Shabbat Shalom, y’all.”
Give rest to us, O Lord, but also help us choose rest. We are each of us your beloved children, worthy of love and belonging, regardless of what we look like or what our job title is or how many initials are after our names. Just as Mary chose extravagance by pouring costly oil at Jesus’ feet, let us also choose extravagance. May we use our gifts to work toward sharing Jesus’ love and bringing about your Reign of Peace here on earth, but then, O Lord, let us rest boldly. Amen.