RCL: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 or Isaiah 58:1-12; Psalm 103 or 103:8-14; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Ask people how they’re doing, and often the answer begins with a single word: “Busy!” This one word is then followed by a recital of all the projects and tasks that have been demanding this person’s attention. The tone of the response may suggest that the person doesn’t want to be reminded of these manifold obligations, or that the person is desperate for someone to empathize with their troubles, or both.
When the question is: “How are you doing?” and the answer is “Busy!” and the tone is full of weariness and regret, then there’s another question floating around that begs for an answer: “Who’s running the world?” Because when we say, with weariness and regret, that we’re busy, then the implication is that the world is ours to run, and it’s a job too big for us.
Today begins the forty days of Lent, which prepare us for the great fifty days of Easter. These seasons equip us to deal with the question “Who’s running the world?”
Lent and Easter make it clear that the world is not ours to run, and that if we think it is, then no wonder if regret and weariness fill our hearts and voices. Lent and Easter make it clear that such a job is too big for us, and that the world is, in fact, God’s to run. Lent and Easter show us that our misunderstanding is forgiven, and something far better awaits us than an impossible task.
The way that Lent sets us free from this tragic and avoidable mistake is through the practices characteristic of this season. The three most important are prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. These three practices are central to Judaism. Jesus endorses them in today’s gospel even as he reveals their interior significance. As practices, he almost takes them for granted. He does not say, “If you pray, if you fast, if you give alms.” Instead, he says, “When you pray, when you fast, when you give alms.”
These characteristic Lenten practices have this in common: each one helps us learn again that we’re not running the world; God is. Done in the proper spirit, as Jesus recommends, each practice enables us to let go, to rest, to have something more to say than “Busy! Busy! Busy!” And each of these three practices does so in a different way, in regard to a different relationship that we have.
Consider prayer. Prayer concerns our relationship with God; prayer is when we allow God to engage us. Insofar as we are praying and our prayer is true, then we simply cannot believe that the world is ours to run. Prayer takes us away from a false sense of responsibility that can turn us into driven people. The frame for our prayer is always that petition from the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy will be done.” We are free to rest, to rest in God.
Consider fasting. Fasting concerns our relationship with ourselves, as we are creatures of body as well as soul, flesh as well as spirit. Fasting from food or alcohol, television or shopping, makes us less dependent on those things. When fasting, we don’t claim to run the world, we allow some emptiness in ourselves and invite God to fill that emptiness with divine life. Not so much energy as usual is spent digesting, consuming, analyzing. We are free to rest, to rest in God.
The third practice is almsgiving. This means giving of what we have to meet the needs of people who otherwise would go without. Almsgiving concerns our relationship with other people and all of creation. It is a practical expression of God’s justice. When we give alms, we admit that we are not owners, but trustees: trustees of our possessions, our time, our lives. We’re not running the world, because the world is not ours to run. Together with everyone else, we are recipients of mercy. We are free to rest, to rest in God.
When we engage in these practices properly, then they bring rest. Not collapse from exhaustion, not even a lack of activity, but a deep restfulness that spares us from being so driven, distracted, and busy. We are able to find the joy that waits for us in what we do. We get a taste of resurrection in our flesh and bones, our moments and our days.
There’s a cycle at play here. The practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving can bring us rest, and rest can make these practices meaningful, channels of grace rather than burdensome tasks.
I recall an essay about Desmond Tutu, retired Archbishop of Cape Town, in South Africa, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, and leader of the struggle against the old order in South Africa. He is portrayed as an outstanding example of the Benedictine spirituality that is such an important part of our Anglican tradition. In the essay, there’s a quote from his confessor, Francis Cull:
“As I ponder the prayer life of Desmond Tutu I see the three fundamental Benedictine demands that there shall be: rest, prayer, and work and in that order. It is a remarkable fact, and it is one reason at least why he has been able to sustain the burdens he has carried, that he has within him a stillness and a need for quiet solitude. … The ‘rest’ of which St. Benedict speaks is not a mere switching off; it is a positive attempt to fulfill the age-old command to rest in God.”
Consider for a moment, my friends, this man Desmond Tutu. He served as archbishop of the Province of Southern Africa, a Christian community including millions of people in several countries. He was a principal leader in the fearsome, demanding struggle to free South Africa from the legalized racism known as apartheid. Upon retirement, he took up the responsibility of chairing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of his country, and thus led its burdensome work of restoring health to the soul of a sin-sick nation. And this man found it possible to rest, to rest in God. Indeed, were he among us here today, I’m sure he would tell us that doing these things would have been utterly impossible for him if he had not found rest in God.
Desmond Tutu’s example invites us to enter into the same cycle. Each of us in our unique way can give priority to rest, rest in God, and allow divine life to fill our spiritual practices and everything we do and everything we are. And each of us can engage in prayer, fasting, and almsgiving in a way that leads to deeper rest, a rest closer to the heart of God. That this is possible for us is the good news of Lent and Easter and the entire Christian life.
The forty days of Lent that begin today call us to leave behind the spirit of “Busy! Busy! Busy!” We are welcome to rest, then to pray and fast and give. We are welcome to pray and fast and give, and find these practices to be channels of grace, ways by which we can rejoice that – thank God! – we do not run the world and God does.
— The Rev. Charles Hoffacker is an Episcopal priest and writer. He is the author of A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals (Cowley Publications, 2003).