Samhain. All Hallows’ Eve. Dia de los Muertos.
These are just a few of the religious/cultural observances dotting the planet at this time of year. Here in the northern hemisphere, they mark harvests, the turning of the seasons, and the shortening days as summer gives way to autumn, and autumn brings hints of winter.
In multiple ways, these various festivals and rituals mark liminal moments, whether between light and dark or the living and the dead. Some would say that the “veil” between this world and the next is the thinnest right now, on this very day and especially tonight. What usually remains unseen might actually appear, show up, or even pay a visit.
I started thinking about what counts as “observable” and “tangible” after reading an opinion piece in the New York Times by Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli. He recounted some of the most profound mysteries of the Universe that seem to reside stubbornly beyond our understanding, like so-called “black holes”; these gravity wells scattered throughout the Universe consume both light and matter, defying some of the key laws of physics on which so much modern science actually depends.
What kind of account do we give of things we cannot see? How, Rovelli asks, do we learn about the parts of the Universe we cannot observe?
These sound like theological questions, all those religious quandaries human beings have faced for millennia. What can we know and how do we speak about the God we cannot see?
I certainly won’t pretend to answer a question like that in any definitive way, but I have become convinced of at least this much: we make the profound mystery of God visible with love.
I know how quaint that sounds, even rather pedestrian. But I am increasingly persuaded of just how crucial and urgent it is for people of faith all over the world to remember and live such truth: we make the presence of God visible with love.
This is surely why love itself is the “great commandment”—in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, nearly every one of the world’s religious and spiritual traditions.
This past Sunday, many Christians heard from Matthew’s account of the Gospel when religious leaders tried to test Jesus with this very question of which religious commandment is the greatest. Matthew’s Jesus responds with the classic answer from his own tradition: to love God and to love our neighbors (Matthew 22:35-40).
My Midwestern DNA always tempts me to suppose that this “great” commandment means being nice or polite. Of course the world would be a better place if more people were committed to standard niceties and politeness, but that’s not the love of the Gospel.
When Luke narrates this same summary of the law—loving God and loving our neighbors—Luke’s Jesus immediately tells the parable of the “good Samaritan.” He does this to clarify exactly who counts as a “neighbor.”
That parable carries a punch only by remembering that Judeans never would have referred to Samaritans as “good.” They were marginalized, despised, and treated as outcasts. And yet, the Samaritan in that parable is the only one who acts like a “good neighbor” should—with compassion, and empathy, and love.
When Jesus talks about love, I try to set aside whatever I think being nice looks like and focus instead on what love looks like for those who are the most different from me. Just as important (as the parable from Luke’s Jesus makes plain): what it means to receive love from those who are most different from me—whoever those “Samaritans” might be.
That kind of love—the unexpected and even scandalous—is the kind of love that makes God’s presence visible; it’s the kind of love that remakes this world of hatred and violence into a world of peace with justice and thriving for all.
This is the road Presiding Bishop Michael Curry has been urging The Episcopal Church to travel for some time now—not the road of standard-issue tolerance or civility (as welcome as those might be) but rather the road of love.
This is not an easy road to travel; Jesus traveled it at the cost of nothing less than everything. Loving people into healing and wholeness; loving enemies into friends; loving strangers into family—these are costly endeavors as they disrupt and interrupt social systems of power and domination.
More bluntly put, there are powerful institutional forces in this world that aim to keep us from making God visible in the way we love, which makes this road of love all the more vital for our shared traveling.
Biblical writers turned often to that image of a road to describe love itself as a movement of transformation. Over the last few months, the Sunday lectionary in many of our churches gave us, for example, the classic stories that frame ancient Israel’s history: Abraham traveling to a new land, the sojourn of the Israelites as slaves in Egypt, their liberation from slavery, and of course their pilgrimage toward the Promised Land.
This past Sunday, we heard a particularly poignant moment from those stories. God takes Moses up a mountain once again but this time to show him the land that he will not be entering (Deuteronomy 34:1-12).
This is the Moses called by God when he was still an infant; protected by God in the Nile River; tutored by God as he grew up in Pharaoh’s own household; the same Moses purged and purified in the wilderness, the same Moses who leads God’s people out of slavery and to whom God delivers the law.
This is the Moses who will not cross over into the Promised Land.
Back in 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr., borrowed from this poignant story to talk about his own life and the movement toward freedom he had been helping to lead.
While speaking in Memphis that year, knowing that his life was in serious danger, and on the very night before he was killed, King said this: “I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But I’ve been to the mountaintop.
“God has allowed me to go up to the mountain,” he said. “And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight,” he said, “that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.”
I find both of these stories, about Moses and about King, not only poignant but also deeply reassuring. God is not calling any of us to finish the Great Work of repairing the world (we can’t) but only to remain faithful on the healing road, and to do so with love.
Episcopalians began worship this past Sunday by praying that God would increase in us the gifts of “faith, hope, and charity”—that Prayer Book language of charity is what St. Paul meant by “love,” especially in the thirteenth chapter of his first letter to the Corinthians.
If I speak in languages I’ve never studied, he says, that’s never as interesting as love. If I have the powers of a prophet and extraordinary knowledge, love is actually far more powerful. Even moving mountains, Paul says, is not nearly as impressive as love.
Faith and hope are vital, of course, Paul says, but love matters above all else because it makes the very presence of God tangible, touchable, and visible. As King famously observed (and more relevant today than ever), “hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
A world of unrelenting violence cannot see God; so let’s make the God of peace visible with love.
A world of debilitating hatred cannot see God; so let’s make the God of justice visible with love.
A wounded world has so much trouble seeing God; so let’s make the God of healing visible with love.
God is not asking any of us to mend the world; we can’t do that, not fully.
But we can make the mending presence of God visible with love, and God is calling us to do that.
There’s no time to waste.