Nov 02 | “No God but Love,” (Sermon, October 31st 2021)

One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, ‘Which commandment is the first of all?’ 29Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” 31The second is this, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’ 32Then the scribe said to him, ‘You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that “he is one, and besides him there is no other”; 33and “to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength”, and “to love one’s neighbour as oneself”,—this is much more important than all whole burnt-offerings and sacrifices.’ 34When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’ After that no one dared to ask him any question.

Mark 12:28-34

On this day, one year ago, my husband and I went to visit our friends – the last time we were allowed to do so in person before we went back into lockdown. We always visit these friends on Halloween, because while we live in an apartment building, they live in a detached house, and we like to share their trick-or-treaters.

Mindful of COVID-19, our friends had meticulously constructed a candy zipline. At the top, on their front porch, we sat on their deck furniture with cocktails and a selection of pre-packaged bags of treats, topped with flickering LED rings and little hooks. Trick-or-treaters came to the foot of the stairs below and were instructed to stand next to a large inflatable ghost. When they were ready, the little bags were attached to the zipline, and sent down to them, and if you did it just right, they would land in the arms of the ghost, although occasionally they came in too hot and went flying into the bushes nearby. That’s what the flickering LED rings were for!

Treat bags ready for the zipline

The first trick-or-treater was their four-year-old neighbour – a mystic of the highest order. For when he received his treat bag and was prompted by his mother’s gentle, “What do we say?” he responded not with “Thank you” but a wordless shriek of pure delight.

Yes, I thought, as we all bent in half with laughter. That is what we say. That is what we say when we realize that human beings, who can be so very innovative in cruelty, will also occasionally sit down together to plan and experiment and spare no expense to make sure that Halloween still works in a global pandemic, because we will be damned if children in our community have to miss such a magical night.

That is what we say at the beginning of life, when the relationship with the mystical is much simpler, because magic infuses every part of our lives and all things, both good and bad, are possible – from Santa to monsters under the bed. It’s only as we age that our minds and hearts fill up with words and rhetorical equations, and while in so many situations this is quite useful and fun and indeed very precious to God it also does not function to impress or flummox or fool the Beloved, who will love us no more or less for how poetic or intellectually adept we can be.

We are allowed, we are free, to be as children.

That’s why I love this prayer which my Sufi Muslim friends say: “La illahah illallah.” “There is no God but God.” God is our Source and our End, Alpha and Omega, Beloved and Lover, and many principalities and powers will attempt to jostle for position but nothing can replace God.

As the 12th century Persian poet Attar of Nishapur says,

“Look carefully!

This world, that world, are all God!  

There is nothing other than God,

and if there was, even that is also God!”  

“La illahah illallah.”

God is God, and God is Love. And if God is Love, then of course there is no God but Love, and that is the closest we adults can come to remembering the wisdom of children.

And oh wasn’t it wonderful to be so close, so intimate: welcoming children right up to our doorsteps, laughing barefaced across a table, singing shoulder to shoulder with those known and unknown to us, or being buried within one another’s arms?

Wasn’t it wonderful to love like a child shrieking wordlessly, throwing herself into a hug with abandon, rather than in this still somewhat abstract manner – in the way my hairstylist, who once ended our appointments with a hug, now stands before me and hugs herself instead; in the way we still press our palms together to offer peace, rather than touching; in the way we murmur “I love you” into the phone or a Zoom window, rather than into someone’s ear as we embrace?

Isn’t it wonderful when Love is so concrete?

Some days, I am filled entirely with “La illahah illallah,” filled entirely with wordless Love which is one and besides which is no other.

And some days I resonate more with the words of Chinese-Canadian writer Kai Cheng Thom, who includes the following poem in her beautiful book I Hope We Choose Love:  

what does it mean to be loved by a thing that cannot see you?

how does it feel to love a thing that you cannot see?  

Most of the time I’d say the human struggle of faith is with the latter half of the poem: How does it feel to love a thing that you cannot see? But over the last year and a half, I think a lot of people have been asking, “What does it mean to be loved by a thing that does not seem to see us here, suffering? For surely if it could see us, it would put a stop to all of this.”

Jesus and the disciples are in Jerusalem, so close to his own grand and wordless revelation of Love and, on the Cross, his own confrontation of this lonelier truth of Kai’s poem. And weaving his way through the high-minded debates and exchanges with scholars and sages and rank on rank the host of elitist clergy, he finds a scribe who asks a deceptively simple question – and perhaps indeed that question itself is also Kai’s question, slightly re-worded. What does it mean to be loved by a thing that we cannot see?

Here, in the holy city, before betrayal and denial and torture and abandonment, Jesus says to this young scribe, “To be loved by a thing that we cannot see is to admit that we do not exist outside of it – indeed, nothing exists outside of it. And if nothing exists outside of it, then we should act entirely within that orientation. And so if God is Love, we must love, for we are all one.”

As adults we often yearn for the so-called simplicity of childhood. But childhood is still deeply confusing, and likewise Love has always been this confusing, and the Truth is often this elusive, and there are as many ways to live the commandment of Love as there are those of us who live on this planet. While everything has been mostly upside-down over the last nineteen months, perhaps that part actually did stay constant: that divine Love at times feels alternately as heavy and warm as the winter woolen blanket on my bed, and at other times as high and cold and thin as mountain air. And for many of us, and especially transwomen of colour like Kai Cheng Thom, human love and safety feel just as uncertain as health has felt for us over the course of the last year and a half.

what does it mean to be loved by a thing that cannot see you?

Sometimes divine Love feels like the only thing we can really count on, and sometimes we feel foolish even thinking that.

how does it feel to love a thing that you cannot see?

I have sung songs of praise and whirled and embraced and danced alongside my friends and thought I would split like a ripe tomato with the juicy abundance of God’s love…and I have scrabbled about with ragged fingernails in the dark trying to find the smallest crumb of God to hold up to the light as an act of silent worship, and have ended up only with filthy palms and an aching jaw from the gnashing of my teeth.

We all have.

And yet.

Love is greater.

Greater than fear, greater than hate, greater than optimism, greater than cynicism, greater than confusion, greater even than hope.

Love is a wordless shriek of delight. Love is a sigh too deep for words.

“La illahah illallah.”

There is no God but God, and there is no commandment but Love, and Love is God and that is why the two clauses are wed.

As Kai Cheng Thom says, “It may be hard to believe in. It will be harder to live. I hope we choose it anyway.” 

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