Sabbath Rest – its Gifts, its Glory, its Grace

Mary Magdala Community

28th  Sunday in Ordinary Time,  October 10, 2021

Rev. Jim Ryan, M.Div.,Ph.D.

Sabbath took on new meaning for me when I picked up and read Wendell Berry’s collection of poems, “Sabbaths.”  Wendell revealed to me the understanding that Sabbath is not one certain day of the week.  Sabbath and Sabbath Rest is a matter of the connection between place and spirit.  The place can be a physical location, a mental state of mind, or even, these days, a virtual screen (but I don’t recommend the latter.)  The spirit can be a restful orientation of one’s self.  To be at rest in a place one’s spirit loves is Sabbath rest.

Wendell Berry is, for my liking, a Baptist good-ol’-boy from central Kentucky (Port Royal, to be exact) who has a lock on sacramental theology.  I have found few poets – or theologians, for that matter – who have such a grasp of the giftedness of creation with its revelation of divine presence; and yes, loving that this is evidence of real grace present and active in my life.  Thus, Berry is our inspiration for Sabbath rest.

The other readings from the New Testament that we heard also speak to rest and the shedding of baggage to gain entry into this rest – this divine gift.  The Letter to the Hebrews (4:3b-4,8-10) recalls God’s contentment in this divinely begun creation.  It also speaks of the promise of future rest for all God’s people.

Further, entering into God’s rest requires one to thin out life’s clutter, to shed the baggage that is the burden of avoiding the silence which speaks from within this rest.  Jesus says in Mark’s gospel (10:17-30) that entering God’s reign – read, God’s rest – is akin to entering the gate that permitted entry into Jerusalem, known as the Needle’s Eye.  As he said, “It is easier for a camel to pass through a needle’s eye” than for the rich – the burdened, the baggage laden – to enter the reign of God.

Berry gives guidance on how this passing into God’s rest is an entry into Sabbath.  So, let’s take a look at this Sabbath poem.  I would like to bring up three things about it.

The first two stanzas present us with the all too familiar ways that we keep ourselves busy and connected with “projects, plans unfulfilled” that “waylay and snatch at me like briars.”  Then he informs us, “I go on pilgrimage.”  We step with him into a holy trek that takes him to “trees that have been left free” where the soil itself is called “Eden.”  He is about to speak of the holy things one encounters in this search for rest.  First are the gifts: “music stirs the pool” and leaf-like fall “notes of wordless grace.”  This is nothing constructed by hand and hammer, toil and sweat.  To leave behind that baggage is to be open to new sight, as he offers “There is no vision here but what is seen.”  One need not construct interpretations and meanings for these gifts of Sabbath rest, one simply allows the vision to appear.

When we enter into prayer, how we long for this gift to see and not immediately attempt to make sense of what is seen.  To seek out this rest is to open oneself to the glory of these gifts – these grace-giving holy things.  This glory, this being present to the divine, “opens and lets us hear a stillness longer than all time.”  How deep might this Sabbath rest reach into us considering the limitless stretch beyond time of the quiet, the non-commotion, of just being present.

Wendell’s sacramental theology of seeking those gifts that are signs of divine presence, of giving God the glory of unending assurance and calm, culminates in the grace of the dance of life and death.  His imagery of rotting leaves turning round and round in the air with newly fallen leaves is not of death and the end.  It is, rather, the imagery of renewal and promise.  Reading this last stanza at this time of year moves us from sacrament to resurrection.  Over the next few weeks we will – weather conditions permitting – enjoy the annual changing colors of Fall.  The yellows and oranges have already gone large to be followed by the reds and the silvers.  But when all this turns to brown and then black will we only have death before us?  If Sabbath rest reveals the wider and the deeper realities we will recognize and embrace the tell-tale gift of renewal.  This, too, will become new life.  “These passings resurrect a joy without defect.”

Wendell Berry shares his Sabbath rest with us.  I’m fairly sure, because he knows with a little effort, this rest could be ours as well.  These gifts become the holy things of which sacrament is made.  This glory of stillness and depth is made from the loving Creator’s actions.  This love, given life by resurrection and renewal, is wordless grace.  In the end this promise of the poet is the discovery and joy of Sabbath Rest.




A Prayer   (JR)

Holy Creator, All-loving God, you bring us here – physically and virtually – to pause     and to rest in grace, with and without words.  Free us from the noise, the pace, the clutter of our  lives and of the world that is so busy around us.

May we see the gifts of your creation, including our bodies, our  minds, our spirits, as the splendid yet wholly undeserved realities they are.

May we acknowledge the glory of your Word – the Sign of your Way – to preserve, sustain, and honor your creation.

May we love the quiet and the stillness of your primal Sabbath hymn which sings of the beauty which connects us with you in restful places.

Gather us, renew us, and free us to enjoy the presence of each other af your Word, Jesus, who with you and Sophia Spirit live and reign forever.   Amen.


A poem by Wendell Berry from “Sabbaths – 1979, IV”

The bell calls in the town

Where forebears cleared the shaded land

And brought high daylight down

To shine on field and trodden road.

I hear, but understand

Contrarily, and walk into the woods.

I leave labor and load,

Take up a different story.

I keep an inventory

Of wonders and of uncommercial goods.

I climb up through the field

That my long labor has kept clear.

Projects, plans unjfulfilled

Waylay and snatch at me like briars.

For there is no rest here

Where ceaseless effort seems to be required,

Yet fails, and spirit tires

With flesh, because failure

And weariness are sure

In all that mortal wishing has inspired.

I go in pilgrimage

Across an old fenced boundary

To wildness without age

Where, in their long dominion,

The trees have been left free.

They call the soil here “Eden”; slants and steeps

Hard to stand straight upon

Even without a burden.

No more a perfect garden,

There’s an immortal memory that it keeps.

I leave work’s daily rule

And come here to this restful place

Where music stirs the pool

And from high stations of the air

Fall notes of wordless grace,

Strewn remains of the primal Sabbath’s hymn.

And I remember here

A tale of evil twined

With good, serpent and vine,

And innocence as evil’s stratagem,

I let that go a while,

For it is hopeless to correct

By generations’ toil,

And I let go my hopes and plans

That no toil can perfect.

There is no vision here but what is seen;

White bloom nothing explains.

But a mute blessedness

Exceeding all distress,

The fresh light stained a hundred shades of green.

Uproar of wheel and fire

That has contained us like a cell

Opens and lets us hear

A stillness longer than all time

Where leaf and song fulfill

The passing light, pass with the light, return,

Renewed, as in a rhyme.

This is no human vision

Subject to our revision;

God’s eye holds every leaf as light is worn.

Ruin is in place here:

The dead leaves rotting on the ground,

The live leaves in the air

Are gathered in a single dance

That turns them round and round.

The fox cub trots his almost pathless path

As silent as his absence.

These passings resurrect

A joy without defect,

The life that steps and sings in ways of death.

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