Graduates of the class of 2020: what a privilege it is to offer some words, on behalf of those who have loved, nurtured, and discipled you, on the occasion of your graduation. It is a tremendous threshold that you have crossed, and I hope you feel the gravity of the event, even amidst the strangeness of this season.
The verses your class has selected, from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians are well chosen: “Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” Walk in the way of love, Paul says. This, of course, is easier said than done – especially in a world characterized by cynicism, fear, and despair.
But Christ-like love is not an achievement. It’s not something that you arrive at when you turn eighteen or earn when you finish high school. It is rather a gift, a Spirit-shaped way of being in the world that you can only learn as you walk with Jesus. Learning to love well is a lifelong journey. And it goes hand in hand with another lifelong lesson: learning how to rest.
Perhaps you’ve seen an indie film that came out last year called Avengers Endgame. In the film, Tony Stark and Pepper Potts have a poignant conversation. Tony says that maybe he should just forget about saving the world and go to sleep. And Pepper asks him, “But would you be able to rest?” Now, none of us are trying to save the world like Tony Stark. But the question of what it takes for a person to be able to rest is one that you will wrestle with for the rest of your life.
Indeed, as you graduate from high school and move on to the next chapter, the question is not, “how successful can you be?” or, “will people take you seriously?” Or even, “who will I love?” It is, “when, and how, will you be able to rest?” Because it is only those who have learned to rest who will have the energy, in the long run, to walk in the way of love.
Take another image of restlessness, from Greek mythology, where Sisyphus is condemned to roll a gigantic boulder up a steep hill. Just as he reaches the top of the hill, the boulder escapes, rolls back down, and he has to begin again. And again. And again. This endless torment epitomizes one of our greatest fears – to work in futility with no finish line, to be forever restless, to fail to find the place where you can say, it’s enough.
The myth resonates with us, in part, because it captures an essential truth from the biblical story: we have lost our sense of rest. We are exiles from Eden, condemned to work by the sweat of our brows, pushing through thorns and thistles in search of a more settled place. Already in Genesis 5 we see a man name his son, Noah/“rest,” saying: “maybe this one will bring us rest!” From the beginning of the biblical story there is the haunting awareness that the human race has lost its rest, and the longing for someone to help us to find it again.
Outside of Eden we often feel like we are rolling boulders up a hill. And just when we think we have made it to the top, we see that there are more hills to climb and more boulders to push. It’s like completing third grade and realizing that the reward is fourth grade, and it will be more difficult. Or completing junior high and realizing that the resources that got you this far are not sufficient for high school. So too you begin to realize that the end of high school is the beginning of new challenges of greater complexity – including in your case, a global pandemic.
But everyone who graduates high school is now invited to play and to perform on a larger stage. What will you do with all that has been invested in you? What impact will you make? This is the way of the world: complete this series of proofs to show that you matter, prove that you belong. And if you are not careful, you may begin to ask, “how now will I prove that I am worthy of the love that I have been given?” Which is another way of asking, how will I justify myself? How will I prove that I matter? When will I be able to rest? And the danger with asking that question – which all of us must ask – is getting the answers from the wrong place.
But the one thing that Ephesians makes crystal clear in the chapters that precede this one is that love is God’s gift, not our achievement. Ephesians begins with a benediction that we have been blessed “with every spiritual blessing in Christ…. [chosen] is in him before the foundation of the world…” Belonging is not the prize pinned on you at the end of high school, or college, or after many years of faithful service. It is the blessing given at the very beginning, like the baptism of a newly born infant, like the smile of a mother when her child is placed in her arms. You didn’t have to earn that smile; you didn’t have to buy that baptism. The smile, the baptism, and the blessings they embody precede your performance in every way.
Some boulders are worth pushing up the hill. But the best lesson I can share with you, before you begin pushing new boulders up new hills, is that the boulder of belonging is not one that you need to push. The blessing of belonging precedes your performance in every way. You already belong. Remember the first question of the catechism: what is your greatest comfort in life and in death? That you are not your own but belong to God. When you wake up in the morning – before you wash your face, fix your hair, or accomplish anything to speak of – grace already rests on you. And that’s the reason why you can rest. And as you go about your day, God’s love leads you, and God’s mercy chases you. And that’s the reason why you can walk in the way of love.
Fifteen years ago, I was the youth pastor at church in Chicago. We met in a gymnasium, and every Sunday after the service we would put up the tables and chairs and play basketball in the gym. There was a young man named Daniel whose parents dropped him off in time for church, but he would sit outside waiting for the service to be over so that he could join us for the basketball. He and I struck up a friendship, and soon he moved from outside to inside, and then to standing in the doorway. Then to sitting the back row. Then, after one year, he came on a retreat with us. I was sharing some Scripture, and I noticed him watching me intently. Afterward I asked him what he was thinking. He said to me six words I’ll never forget: “I sure would like to rest.”
I sure would like to rest. Don’t you feel that in your soul? I sat in a seat like yours 21 years ago. And the most important thing I’ve learned since, what I am still learning, as I speak and write and teach and parent and live is how to rest. How to quiet the voice that says I am endlessly on trial and in need of a verdict. How to work with all my might, not out of a desire to prove myself or to impress a jury of my peers, but out of a desire to share the blessing that precedes my performance in every way. So I come before the Lord, and I pray, I sure would like to rest.
Finding rest does not mean that you become passive, or lazy, or unproductive. It does not preclude a sense of holy discontent with the way things are. It does not mean that you become safe, nice, and innocuous. Just the opposite: it gives you the deepest roots so that you can be like a tree planted firmly in love, bearing fruit in season, bringing blessing and beauty to the world.
You need deep roots, because the way of love is costly. It is shaped like a cross. It is not comfortable. But you can move out of your comfort zone because your source of comfort is found deeper still. You can launch out onto the proud waves of the world and not be overcome because of who is with you in the boat.
Please hear what I am saying. There is so much good work for you to do. Jesus invites you, through the Spirit, to join him in the Father’s work, to be a force for love and justice. Ephesians 2 tells us that “we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God has prepared in advance for us to do.” Even now the path is laid before your feet, to do work that is a gift to the world, to love your neighbor, to speak up for those who have no voice. I hope you will leverage the incredible education you’ve been given in service of others, especially the least of these.
But our work is always preceded by and a participation in God’s grace. It is always grounded in the recognition that everything we have is God’s gift: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and [none of this] is from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.”
There is a world of difference between a life that seeks ever to respond to the love of Christ and a life that seeks to earn it through achievement. Grace is not opposed to effort; it inspires effort. Grace is opposed to earning. We love because Christ loves us.
And so, the first step in learning how to rest is learning to listen to the voice of love. In the midst of the echo chamber of endless questions about ourselves, we would hear the still, small voice telling us about someone else. It says: Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. In his love is our peace. And we are invited to live our lives with him, walking in love as Christ loved us.
As you move into the next chapter of your life, may you find the place where you can rest. May the roots of your life go down deep into the soil of his love. So that when you are asked – on countless days and in countless ways – where will you find the resources to walk in the way of love? That your heart will sing, and your life will say: that I am not my own, but belong, body and soul, in life and in death, to my faithful savior, Jesus Christ. In a world where everything else can be shaken, here is the place you can rest.