Sabbath-Keeping and Lent

Dawn on Good Harbor Beach

As many of you already know, we chose to use a devotional supplement this Lent called Wendell Berry and the Sabbath Poetry of Lent published by the Salt Project. On the First Sunday of Lent, we held an intergenerational Beloved Community event, where we talked together about keeping the Sabbath, Lent intentions, and our needs as a community and as individuals. Children and adults were present, and you can see some of the responses on our Facebook page. It was a fruitful and provocative morning. Here’s what broke my heart: some of the children, as young as kindergartners, spoke of the anxiety and stress they feel. The thought of a day where they didn’t have to do anything was a joy to them. They said they’d like to do things like spend time with their families, walk their dog, read a book, stay in bed late. And they recognized their level of stress would decrease were they to have a day of peace. I hope that having some time to talk about Sabbath helped them think about how they might rest during this Lent.

During the morning, I presented some thoughts on Sabbath-Keeping and Lent. Below are my notes for the presentation in case you are interested.

Lent and the Sabbath

Lent is a kind of Sabbath: its disciplines are prayer, fasting, or making room for God, and works of mercy—doing good for the world. This Lent, we are thinking about Sabbath, and the ways we ourselves might keep it. I have come to learn that Sabbath is about trust, about surrender to rest, surrender to God, a releasing of the grip, all about that famous slogan people love to say: letting go and letting God. That’s the invitation of the Sabbath. That’s the invitation of Lent—as we travel along the way, to open, to release, to forgive, to widen our hearts.

On Ash Wednesday, Isaiah links Sabbath-keeping to justice, that our Sabbath rest, our capacity to deeply rest and enter that peace, that shalom, does have to do with what happens to our neighbors, our animals, our lands, all of our ways of making a living. Part of remembering Sabbath is doing just what Isaiah suggests on the days we work and play: we offer food to the hungry, we offer ourselves in service to neighbor; we “remove the yoke;” that is, we make attempts, however small they are, to undo injustice, to undo prejudice. And Sabbath helps us learn it. My rest, my peace, is linked to yours, and to people all over the world. Sabbath teaches our interdependence, our connections with God and each other.

Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. Sometimes we simply need rest to do what we are called to do, to work for justice and mercy with loving, peaceful hearts.

Here is the commandment from Exodus 20: 8-11 8” Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 10 But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. 11 For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.” (NRSV).

This description of Sabbath is inclusive. As you can see from reading it, Sabbath keeping guarantees rest for everyone, every resident and stranger, even livestock. This sacred world itself, our dear blue-green planet, would have a day of rest, if we would try to keep this commandment. Keeping the Sabbath disrupts the week, interrupts and resists oppressive work arrangements. We make room in the week to remember and honor the dignity of life and rest. Perhaps Sabbath-keeping is a way of remembering every person is made in the image of God. That memory itself is a disruption to inhumane social systems.  

Sabbath-keeping is built into biblical faith. This idea that time itself is a holy gift comes out of the creation story: that moment when God blesses each day, and on the seventh day, God calls it holy. God makes time itself holy, time itself a gift. The days of existence become precious, unrepeatable holy minutes, never again to be had opportunities for heaven and earth to meet in our lives.

There’s a quality to the Sabbath that we haven’t made ourselves—this is from Abraham Heschel who has a beautiful book called The Sabbath:

The Sabbath, he writes: “is like a palace in time with a kingdom for all. It is not a date but an atmosphere. It is not a different state of consciousness, but a different climate; it is as if the appearance of all things is somehow changed. The primary awareness is one of our being within the Sabbath rather than of the Sabbath being within us. We may not know whether our understanding of the day is correct, or whether our sentiments are noble, but the air of the day surrounds us like spring which spreads over the land without our aid or notice.”

As a pastor, I do remember the Sabbath, of course, but I’m not usually resting that day. And I can write about not keeping the Sabbath from my own experience of not keeping it, for which I ask God’s forgiveness. I know from listening to their stories that rest is in short supply for most working people and their families. It seems impossible to find time for restorative quiet, or even the brief vacancy of not thinking about what has to be done next. Some people are juggling more than one job, caretaking their children, and their aging parents. If a crisis hits, like an unforeseen illness, or accident, or loss of income, or some other larger crisis, the pressure is even higher.  During these weeks of concern and anxiety about the spread of the coronavirus, we can see how suddenly the orders of lives are disrupted. Our stress increases. To broaden the issue, rest is nearly impossible for those who are homeless, or hungry, refugees fleeing violence, or people suffering other forms of oppression. I can think of so many ways our simple human needs for rest, for peace, for quiet, even the need for sleep, are denied. Yet, the body needs rest, the spirit needs rest. What a different world it would be, were we able to simply put down our work for a day. All the great practitioners of mercy and justice needed rest. Jesus made a point of going apart for rest, to the mountains, or walking by the sea.

Perhaps the best part of remembering the Sabbath is the time to remember who we are, even if it’s a brief recollection: here is holy time to reorient, to recommit, to resist indignity, to honor life, to celebrate the beauty of existence, to worship the God of our understanding, to wonder, to receive the gifts of life. Sabbath is grace-filled. Lent is a time like this. Lent asks us to put down some of our preoccupations, just the Sabbath does. Peace simply arises when we stop our incessant doing. It just simply arises. Holy rest is there, within creation; it’s built into it. Tides rise and fall. Storms come and go. The day ends, night begins, the day returns. We did nothing to make that happen. We did nothing to make the sun shine, or the snow to fall. We did nothing to create the mourning dove huddled in the snowdrift or the heavy branches of the cedars, we did nothing to make the cry of a wolf at night, or the song of a whale, or the slow gaze of a turtle. We did not create ourselves. We did nothing to make this day, or any day. It is there, presented, offered, and vulnerable. Perhaps if we do nothing else this Lent, we could practice keeping the commandment to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. When you do, may you find rest and holy within that day. May you find rest and refreshment within this Lent.