Readings: Leviticus 19:9-18, John 13:1, 3-9, 12-15, True Christianity #67 (see below)
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Photo by Tara Winstead: https://www.pexels.com/photo/a-puzzle-piece-with-heart-shaped-icon-on-the-pile-of-puzzle-pieces-8386114/
Welcome to our continuing series: Exploring Mission. Each week we will be exploring an aspect of our church’s mission statement. We are doing this so we can connect ourselves to the WHY of our community, to ground ourselves in the spiritual principles that can give our work together its meaning. Today we will consider the part of our mission statement that says that we are:
Religions the world over share one very clear command: to love our neighbor. From a Christian perspective, one cannot come away from reading the Bible without assimilating this tenet as one of its main ideas. But, as pictured so beautifully by our text from John, loving our neighbor is not only a feeling but also means being willing to serve them. And of course, this does not necessarily always mean from a posture of servitude—Jesus in the John text was making an additional point about power by washing his disciples’ feet—but it does clearly mean being willing to extend ourselves in ways that we might not naturally or normally do.
Service grounds and actualizes love. Swedenborg writes:
“. . . if love does not become deed, it ceases to be love, the deed being the effecting of its purpose and that in which it has its existence.”(1) and that "The essence of spiritual love is to do good to others for their sake and not for our own.”(2)
So, part of our work as a spiritual community is to actualize love through the actions we take, to love our neighbor not only in word but in deed. And it is not important for us to do this because it will bring us some reward, including even the rewarding idea that we are “good” or we are doing what God wants us to do. Service is important because weaves us into a network of mutuality; it connects us to each other but also connects us to our deepest emerging selves.
In a Swedenborgian context, we cannot speak of service without also speaking of another foundational tenet of the tradition: the doctrine of use. To those new to the tradition, it might sound strange to hear the word “use” in that way. Why not say usefulness instead? We could, and we sometimes do, but it doesn’t quite get to the heart of the idea. Because, it’s not the doctrine of busy-ness, it’s not the doctrine of making oneself indispensable, it is not the doctrine of finding your dream vocation, and it’s not even the doctrine of effectiveness.
It is a doctrine of responsiveness. Use is what happens when love and wisdom interact in any given moment and in any given action. It is both an action *and* a state of being, serving the dual goals of mutual love *and* inter-connectedness. In the words of Swedenborgian theologian and psychologist, Wilson Van Dusen:
“In being useful, one is attempting to do whatever is at hand very well as a way of reaching out and learning. It is a way of practicing devotion in any work or activity. (3) Use is a way of considering the design, function, and purpose of everything.”(4)
As we heard in our Swedenborg reading, God created the universe so that usefulness could exist, and thus embedded use into the divine design. He tells us further that everything in the universe, both great and small, was created from use, in use, and for use (5) and is in this way, an image of God.(6) Swedenborg uses this idea that he calls USE, to explain how everything (which of course includes every*one*) has been created in order to fit together, to benefit and reflect each other, and to help us see ourselves as integral parts of a vast whole.
So you can see how the idea of usefulness, or good deeds, or charity, doesn’t quite capture the interconnectedness that the doctrine of use is trying to express, nor the way in which we can tune into our use in each moment, and in each act.
All our action can be service, all our action can be useful, large or small, internal or external. When our mission statement says creating opportunities to serve our neighbor and our world, this might well include food and clothing drives because sometimes love is a full belly and a warm hat. But sometimes it also might mean changing the way we do things and changing the way we look at the world. As Cornel West says, justice is what love looks like in public.
So, service might also be examining oneself for limiting beliefs, service might be closing our mouths and just listening, service might be standing up for someone, service might be planting a seed, sharing a sandwich. Service might be letting someone else shine. Service might be repenting for our wrong-doings and repairing relationship.
Ultimately, use is about asking what love and wisdom together are calling for in a given moment and then being willing to listen to the answer, even if it scares us. Because the ultimate promise contained within the idea of use is that God designed the universe for connection, with a place for everyone. It is our spiritual work to determine what that means for us at any given time, but it will always be true, it will always be a fact of our existence. We don’t need to earn it and we can’t change it. Our job is simply to cultivate an attitude of sensitivity and willingness.
From Van Dusen again: the basic attitude of uses is a respectful search…Uses as a spiritual method is an attempt to search *through* the task at hand.(7) It is the opposite of simply getting tasks out of the way. Uses is a way of speaking to all there is. It is spiritual communication. You wish to speak to God? Do the task at hand with the greatest faithfulness and devotion…Seen at its highest, uses is a way to the experience of heaven (8) [and to]…overcomes the painful nuisance of big selfness.(9)
What does this mean for us a spiritual community? I hope that it means we will strive to be a responsive community; one that values service toward basic need, as well as service that transforms small moments between people, one that values reaching out with resources as well as reaching within to dismantle barriers. The doctrine of use is grounding and holistic but it is also fundamentally subversive toward our ego’s status quo, because its main requirement is to look outward, beyond the self, to see ourselves as one part of a connected whole, and the self doesn’t always want to do that. We can’t control what love and wisdom will have us see when we do. But what we do know is that all of life is created out of a divine design that fundamentally connects us. Every experience that we have entails a choice to move further into or out of that connectedness, a choice to lean into use or away from it. We won’t always make the right choice, and that is okay, there is always a chance to realign. But, our ongoing task remains; to listen the the promptings of the divine that always seeks to draw us further into use and into heavenly joy.
9 “ ‘When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest.
10 Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the LORD your God.
11 “ ‘Do not steal. “ ‘Do not lie. “ ‘Do not deceive one another.
12 “ ‘Do not swear falsely by my name and so profane the name of your God. I am the LORD.
13 “ ‘Do not defraud or rob your neighbor. “ ‘Do not hold back the wages of a hired worker overnight.
14 “ ‘Do not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block in front of the blind, but fear your God. I am the LORD.
15 “ ‘Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly.
16 “ ‘Do not go about spreading slander among your people. “ ‘Do not do anything that endangers your neighbor’s life. I am the LORD.
17 “ ‘Do not hate a fellow Israelite in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in their guilt.
18 “ ‘Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD.
John 13:1, 3-9, 12-15
1 It was just before the Passover Festival. Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.
3 Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God;
4 so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist.
5 After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.
6 He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”
7 Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”
8 “No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.”
9 “Then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!”
12 When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them.
13 “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am.
14 Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.
15 I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.
True Christianity 67
Before creation, God was love itself and wisdom itself. That love and that wisdom had a drive to be useful. Without usefulness, love and wisdom are only fleeting abstract entities, and they do indeed fly away if they do not move in the direction of usefulness.
God created the universe so that usefulness could exist. Therefore the universe could be called a theater of useful functions…All aspects of the divine design have been brought together and concentrated in us so that God can perform the highest forms of useful service through us.
Without usefulness as a third party, love and wisdom would be as unreal as the heat and light of the sun would be if they had no effect on people, animals, and plants. That heat and that light become real by flowing into things and having an effect on them.