Readings: Psalm 36:5-9, John 13:1, 4-9, 12-17, 34-35, Secrets of heaven #2057:2 (see below)
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Welcome to the fifth installment of our sermon series The Seven Types of Rest. I’ve drawn these seven types from the work of Saundra Dalton-Smith M.D. in her book Sacred Rest, and I invite you to check that out if you have any interest. Today, we will be talking about Social Rest and restful relationships.
I sort of engineered this particular topic to fall close to Valentine’s Day because we will already be saturated by images of romantic relationships, and I thought that our discussion today might be able to provide an interesting counter-point or accompaniment to that.
St. Valentine was a Roman priest who was martyred some time in the late 3rd Century BCE, and whose feast day falls on February 14th. Legend has it that he was imprisoned for marrying Christian couples during a time of Christian persecution in Rome. It is said that he would cut hearts from parchment to give to persecuted Christians as a reminder of God’s love, which is perhaps the genesis of the use of hearts of Valentine’s Day (1)
And if these legends are true, St. Valentine was someone who was willing to risk his life for relationship; the relationship of Christians with their God, and with each other. That kind of passion and self-less love is admirable, even if viewed through the rose-colored glasses of historical legend.
There are two key ways of thinking about social rest. The first is the necessity of a rest from superficial relationships. When I say superficial, I don’t necessarily mean to be derogatory, although we all know how exhausting actually toxic relationships can be. By superficial I really just mean the regular relationships that we encounter in our everyday lives, online or IRL, not terribly deep. People we work with, various acquaintances, clerks in a store, students in the same classroom; I’m sure we can all think of many other examples. These relationships will represent varying levels of engagement and satisfaction, but they also require energy from us and eventually we all need a break from them. Introverts will probably feel this more acutely, and be more aware of the need for this type of social rest.
But the second type of social rest is not a movement away from relationship but further into safe and restful relationship. This is also an important human need. We are social animals and we gravitate toward connecting with each other. Relationships become restful spaces when they embody acceptance and compassion, when they make space for vulnerability, and when truth is spoken with love and openness. We can see how much restful relationship is connected then to the authenticity we spoke about a few weeks ago with Emotional Rest.
To quote poet Adrienne Rich “An honorable human relationship, that is, one in which two people have the right to use the word “love,” is a process of deepening the truths they can tell each other. It is important to do this because it breaks down human self-delusion and isolation.” (2)
The truth of the matter is that we can be surrounded by people and still feel alone. Human self-delusion or isolation is not necessarily a direct function of our total social contact. We can still feel alone inside an abundance of superficial relationship, or we can feel alone inside an abundance of our own pride, inside our own fortress of self-righteousness. More relationship cannot actually replace the need for restful relationship.
But it is when we are able to have the courage to tell each other the truth with love, and the courage to hear that truth, and as a result we are seen and valued as ourselves, this is restful relationship. Though it might ultimately feel peaceful, it is certainly not passive, and though it might involve love, it is not always or only romantic. Dr. Dalton-Smith writes “social rest is how we practice the give-and-take of authentically vulnerable relationships”(3). Any relationship that is able to comfort and revive us is a restful one, restoring the part of us that was built to connect with others.
And, the ultimate manifestation of this type of relationship is our relationship with God. Despite all the ways in the Bible in which God is described as angry and vengeful, Swedenborg tells us that this is just an outer appearance, the way God has been described by human beings, and that the true reality is that God cannot even look at us with a frown (4). Imagine removing any sense of conditional love or disappointment or striving for worthiness from a relationship; this is what we have with God. There is nothing to fear, we are known and loved as we are, and being known and loved in such a way is deeply deeply restful. God wants that for us, with God and with each other.
In our story from John, Jesus gives words to this desire. “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another (John 13:34). God desires that we take the steadfast love God offers to us (as I have loved you) and try to offer that to each other (so you must love one another). The love of God is used as model to help us understand the expansive way we are called to love each other. And, we see this love embodied in the way that Jesus ministers to the disciples by washing their feet. He was opening up their relationship to a new level of vulnerability and service, and certainly the disciples felt uncomfortable at first. But they came to understand what Jesus was doing, pushing them to redefine how they were to love their neighbor, how they were to embody restful relationship for each other.
Because, what makes this type of rest different from the others we have talked about so far, is that the notion of restful relationship is necessarily a communal one. All the other types of rest—physical, mental, emotional, sensory—are ones that we are invited to make time for, or reclaim space for, for ourselves. And there is certainly an aspect of social rest that can follow that same vein: the importance of reclaiming space when we need time alone. But the part of social rest that involves restful relationship; this we cannot do alone. To get social rest, we must rely on another person. It is a type of rest that we all have to embody together.
And this brings us to the mystical wonder of Swedenborg’s vision of heaven: that in giving ourselves wholly to mutual love, the practice of loving our neighbor more than ourselves, this produces a cohesive and connected whole, an inter-related and inter-dependent whole that has the quality of single human being. Not of course in a literal sense, but in a metaphorical one; that the ways that so many individuals become one heaven is similar to the way that so many individual cells in our body become one being —all working together in harmony for a single purpose.
But the mystical wonder goes even further than that. Our Swedenborg reading today spoke of the fact that even in this heavenly oneness of form, each person functions like the center point. In visions of oneness we often think of individuality receding but instead individuality becomes, paradoxically, even more central. This is the strange and wonderful gift of the spiritual life: that the more we love others, the more we strive to embody restful relationship for others, the more we focus on the other rather than ourselves, the more deeply we are woven into the fabric of community, and the more deeply we can experience *our* authentic selves. I don’t know about you, but this seems like an amazing thing to be celebrating on Valentine’s Day, and something that St. Valentine himself would likely be completely on board with.
This week’s type of rest is different because we can’t actually control receiving it; we can’t control other people. But what we *can* do is work on embodying restful relationship for others, and make space for the restful relationships we have. What we can do is devote ourselves to a vision of mutual love that will ultimately connect us. We can ask ourselves, how can I be a steadfast, safe, open, loving, truthful and compassionate space for others? I’m not sure how all that fits on a candy heart, but I’m sure the result will be just as sweet. Amen.
5 Your love, LORD, reaches to the heavens, your faithfulness to the skies. 6 Your righteousness is like the highest mountains, your justice like the great deep. You, LORD, preserve both people and animals. 7 How priceless is your unfailing love, O God! People take refuge in the shadow of your wings. 8 They feast on the abundance of your house; you give them drink from your river of delights. 9 For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light.
John 13:1, 4-9, 12-17, 34-35
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…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. 16 Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. 17 Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.
34 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
Secrets of Heaven 2057:2
 Mutual love in heaven consists in those there loving their neighbour more than themselves, and as a result the whole of heaven represents so to speak one human being; for by means of mutual love from the Lord all are associated together in that way. Consequently every manifestation of happiness possessed by all is communicated to each individual, and that possessed by each individual to all. The heavenly form produced by this is such that everyone is so to speak a kind of centre point, thus the centre point of communications and therefore of manifestations of happiness from all. And this takes place in accordance with all the variant forms of that love, which are countless. And because those in whom that love reigns experience supreme happiness in being able to communicate to others that which flows into them, and to do so from the heart, the communication consequently becomes perpetual and eternal.