Mystery, Mystery, Love is a Riddle and a Mystery

Mary Oliver is a poet who is well known by Unitarian Universalists for her focus on nature: very often, on its quiet occurrences: industrious hummingbirds, motionless ponds, “lean owls / hunkering with their lamp-eyes.” But just recently, she has come out with a new collection of poems, entitled Felicity, and the subject is one that she has rarely explored in her other books, but here, it’s given the full treatment: love. “I know someone,” she writes,

… who kisses the way
 a flower opens, but more rapidly.
Flowers are sweet. They have
short, beatific lives. They offer
much pleasure. There is
nothing in the world that can be said
against them.
Sad, isn’t it, that all they can kiss
is the air.
Yes, yes! We are the lucky ones.

In another poem, she writes:

Not anyone who says, “I’m going to be
careful and smart in matters of love,”
who says, “I’m going to choose slowly,”
but only those lovers who didn’t choose at all
but were, as it were, chosen
by something invisible and powerful and uncontrollable
and beautiful and possibly even
only those know what I’m talking about
in this talking about love.

Love is a Mystery, one of the greatest of our lives. We can talk about it, but no amount of talk can take you into the experience of it, in the same way that talk about water will never quench your thirst. And yet we want to talk about it, we want to write poems about it, because it is a Great Mystery whose existence gives us hope and we want to hold that close to our hearts.

“When someone loves you,” says Billy, age 4, “the way they say your name is different. You just know that your name is safe in their mouth.”

“When my grandmother got arthritis, “says Rebecca, age 8, “she couldn’t bend over and paint her toenails anymore. So my grandfather does it for her all the time, even when his hands got arthritis too. That’s love.”

And then there’s Jessica, age 9. “You really shouldn’t say ‘I love you’ unless you mean it. But if you do mean it, you should say it a lot. People forget.”

And that’s right. People do forget. So today, we want to remember.

However, a sermon that tries to remember fully the fullness of love never ends, there are never enough words, so, with everything going on in our nation and world right now, I want to touch on the curious comment that Mary Oliver makes when she speaks of lovers

by something invisible and powerful and uncontrollable
and beautiful and possibly even

In other words, love as a force of transgression. Love which flows wherever it wills and does not respect what society says about who should be with whom. Love which is essentially free and essentially queer and crosses borders of race and class and ethnicity and ability and politics and doesn’t care what your particular set of plumbing happens to be. Love that has political ramifications.

William Shakespeare spoke of this in his play Romeo and Juliet:

Two households, both alike in dignity
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents’ strife.

Romeo is the son of Montague, Juliet is the daughter of Capulet, and since the two houses are at war with each other, it is completely and utterly unsuitable for Romeo and Juliet to kiss each other the way flowers kiss, but they do, they are “star-cross’d,” they are chosen.

And yes, it is terrible to think of the tragedy of their death, but we cannot forget two things here: one is their love’s political legacy: the parent’s strife dissolved, strife that had seemed completely justifiable and completely permanent but no, it was just temporary foolishness. The other thing to remember is that when people are chosen by the sort of love that unites things the world says ought to stay separate, often the result is not tragedy but comedy. In the realm of Shakespeare, this means not Romeo and Juliet but A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In this very different play, frustrated people go away from the city into the forest and there, fairy power hilariously confuses everything, and exactly because of that, the initial frustrations are resolved, the right people find each other, and it’s not death but a wedding that closes the action out.

Two things to know: transgressive love can but need not end in tragedy. And, by uniting things that “ought” to stay separated, love becomes a political power for healing.

So, imagine something with me. Republican and Democrat are a current version of Montague vs. Capulet. So what if two of today’s powerfully partisan pundits happened to be

by something invisible and powerful and uncontrollable
and beautiful and possibly even

Say, Ann Coulter and Rachel Maddow. United by the power of Romeo-and-Juliet love. What would that look like? I mean, the partisan mindset is practically impenetrable by reason. Just consider the nature of Congress during the Obama years. It’s like the Republicans and Democrats live in completely different universes (exemplified by the recent Senate vote to reject a ban on selling guns to people on the terrorist watch list, and Democrats go HUH?????) But, what if key standard bearers from opposite camps came together through Romeo-and-Juliet love? How would what they preach change?

What if it was Rush Limbaugh and Oprah Winfrey? Oprah feeling deeply that her name is safe in Rush’s mouth, because it’s true love?

You bet I’m being silly. But I’m also calling us to honor the Mystery of love, which cannot be controlled and goes where it will and brings together the kinds of things that the world says should stay separate and apart. I’m also calling us to expand our imagination about what’s possible. When things are feeling fatally stuck, and nothing that’s in our control seems to make any difference, that doesn’t mean the Mystery is out of tricks.

Love cannot be controlled, but it can be invited. This is something that psychologist Arthur Aron has shown through his research. Essentially, it goes like this: Two strangers meeting for the first time sit face to face and answer a series of increasingly personal questions—36 of them to be more precise. Then they stare silently into each other’s eyes for four minutes. This was a real study, and six months later, the two participants got married. They invited Dr. Aron’s entire lab to the celebration.

Now hold on to this, as we bring to mind yet another current version of Montague and Capulet: Fear mongers like Donald Trump, and the Islamic State (or ISIS and ISIL, or Daesh). What’s particularly tragic about this set up is who’s caught in the middle: Muslims and Syrian refugees. Muslims and Syrian refugees who are targets of the foulest hatred. I have heard and seen terrible terrible things, and maybe you too. Nevada Assemblywoman Michele Fiore (Republican)–calling for her state to bar refugees from Syria and saying that she is ready to travel to Paris to shoot Syrian refugees herself. “I’m OK with putting them down, blacking them out, just put a piece of brass in their ocular cavity and end their miserable life. I’m good with that.” That’s what she said.

But what if Fiore and Trump and all those crazies actually sat down with a Muslim or a Syrian refugee and asked Dr. Aron’s 36 questions and then just gazed in their eyes for 4 minutes. What then?

I’ll never forget a meeting which gathered folks concerned by yet another Capulet-Montague feud, namely Palestinians vs. Israelites. A man talked about the good work he was doing. He would invite individual Palestinians and Israelites to his home for a shared meal, and the only thing he asked is for folks to bring pictures of their families and where they lived. Dinner was just about getting to know each other as human beings, and while explicit political conversation was absent, love was growing in the room and therefore the dinner WAS political, it was a force for social change, it was a force for breaking down partisanship and uniting hearts and minds.

Love is bigger than sex. Love is bigger than romance. Love is a sacred Mystery. Love can succeed when all our rational, calculated efforts fail.

A long time ago, a man whose very birth was rumored to have been the result of unsuitable and inappropriate love—although others have tried very hard to sweep it under the rug and reframe it as a miraculous “Virgin birth”—once spoke of the kind of love which unites things that the world wants to keep apart. It’s recorded in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke in the Christian scriptures. Jesus is comparing what he calls the Kingdom of Heaven to a mustard seed. From small beginnings, it grows into something big and it grows all over. That’s pretty much what we get from the parable, and on the surface this sounds rather uninteresting. But when you are reading scripture, please, don’t stay on the surface. Dig a little deeper.  If you do that and understand more of Jesus’ historical context, you’ll learn that the people he was talking to were oppressed peasants, and they wanted Jesus to compare the kingdom to something more bold, something more triumphant, something that would represent the complete destruction of the Romans and the advent of their long-awaited social and political freedom. But Jesus didn’t give them that. He gave them a mustard plant, low-lying, scrubby, weedy.

Jaws dropped when he said it, also because Jewish religious law dictated that the mustard plant was unclean. Jewish gardens of the time followed the religious injunction that different kinds of plants should never mix and need to stay separate from each other. But you know what would happen if a mustard plant got in there? It would grow and spread like a wild weed, mix itself up into everything, become the thing in common that all the different plants would share. Jewish religious law didn’t like mustard seeds. Too bad, said Jesus. Mustard seeds reveal how the Kingdom of Heaven works. It’s a love which overcomes all differences, a love which reconciles all who are separated, a love which is always already here and now among us, a power just waiting to be recognized in this very moment!

Unitarian Universalists, let’s get out there and throw mustard seed all over the place. We aren’t necessarily talking instant change, bold and triumphant. Just mix things up that usually stay separate. Just one example: really get to know someone who is Muslim. Look them in the eye, and be seen by them in turn. Share a meal. Share pictures. Let transgressive love move in your life. Doesn’t have to be about sex and romance. But it will be about the garden of your life becoming less ordered and more rich. It will be about feeling that your name is safe in another’s mouth.

I have been in despair recently. These past several weeks have been so troubling. Paris; the Planned Parenthood shooting; the San Bernardino shooting; the inane and cruel things that have been said about Syrian refugees and Muslims; the racist thing said by a Supreme Court Justice about the ability of African Americans to succeed in higher education—his thought that they should attend “less advanced schools”–; and then this factoid: no less than 35% of Republicans say that Donald Trump is their man.

These are worrisome times.

But something that Bill Clinton once said has been helping me. He said, “Follow the trend lines not the headlines.” The headlines are one thing, minutely sensitive to extremes. But the trend lines track a more enduring reality and tell us where things are really going.

Follow the trend lines. And what I know is that, in the largest scheme of things, the trend line is love. Mustard seed love spreads and grows like a wild weed. Romeo-and-Juliet-love happens and the ancient grudge between Montague and Capulet crumbles.

Love happens, and it is a Great Mystery.

Yes, yes! We are the lucky ones.