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.

Lent Begins in Grief



On Ash Wednesday, which coincided with Valentine’s Day, as all of us know, by now, there was another school shooting in Florida, in which 17 persons died. Our Ash Wednesday service in the evening was heavy with the knowledge, grief and anger in the wake of the shooting.  It was good to put ashes on our foreheads, as a symbol of collective mourning, and also as a confession of our frailty, an acknowledgement of the brokenness so many of us feel regarding the culture of gun violence in our country.  I know many of us felt wordless with shock; I certainly did, and in that helplessness, the words of an ancient  prophet came as help:

Will you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?

6Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
7Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
8Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
9Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.

If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
10if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.
11The Lord will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail.
12Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to live in.

There were children at the service, on Wednesday night, and I was so very grateful they were there, to be gathered in the arms of prayer that evening. The next morning, a parent in the neighborhood wrote me to say her child was afraid of going to school.  She was able to calm her son down enough, and she called the school to find out what the teachers and guidance counselors might be doing for him and other children. She, too, felt frightened by what can happen in the halls of school.

If we want to change gun violence in this country, prayers and thoughts are not enough. Lent calls us to fight evil with good. Gun violence is a clear and present danger to our communities; we are not helpless to change it. It is an evil we can fight with prayer AND action.  If you are looking for a way to use Lent as a time of healing and life-giving activities, consider taking action about gun violence, even if it is something as straightforward as calling your national Representatives and Senators, or perhaps registering people to vote. Gun lobbyists get people to vote. Peacemakers better be able to do that, too. Educate, advocate, vote, and get your friends to vote. The church has a public responsibility to speak and act in the matter of preventing gun violence in this country. If you doubt that, please check the Sermon on the Mount. We are Christ in this world, and I’m pretty sure Jesus doesn’t get behind assault rifles.

If you are interested in getting involved with and helping to work for change, then there are several organizations through which you can do that. Moms Demand Action is one I like; it’s a secular organization,, but we have great resources within the church, too. I’ve listed them below with a pastoral letter from our bishops, written in 2013, and sadly, still needed.

Here’s a local organization started in Massachusetts by a MA resident and gun violence activist, John Rosenthal:

Church resources: