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Paint Branch Unitarian Universalist Church

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Love is Born Again

Presented by Rev. Diane Teichert, with Celinda Marsh, Worship Associate, the Choir and Chalice Dancers

The first verse of the familiar carol we just sang is from the original song and poem by 19th century British poet Christina Rossetti. Her subsequent three verses go on to tell about the birth and worship of the baby who she calls Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ. Her fifth and final stanza is the most familiar, “What can I give Him, poor as I am? If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb; If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part; Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.”

A 20th century British Unitarian minister, Andrew Storey, now deceased, wrote our verses two and three. They echo the tone of her fifth verse, but leave out the orthodoxy and romance of the Christmas story. His is a re-casting that works for 21st century Unitarian Universalists, I think. It helps us make meaning of the Christmas story for our own lives. It conveys a universalist message that leaves no one out, that includes every person no matter how lowly, and proclaims that warmth and hope are available to all. That love can be born again, and again.

“In this world of pain, where our hearts are open, love is born again.”

It is when our hearts are open that love is born again. That’s the simple truth of this song. And the simple appeal of Christmas is, as we also sang, “Once more, child and mother weave their magic spell, touching hearts with wonder words can never tell.”

Yes, for many of us, there is magic, wonder, something enthralling about Christmas.  Mere words cannot tell it, and it is captured more in candlelight, than in gifts, parties, or anything material associated with the season. That’s why, later in the service, with the house lights dimmed, we will pass a flame from person to person, candle to candle, started by the dancers moving to graceful notes of a song that has been sung many times here before, “Now the world is getting brighter, one candle at a time.”

But listen to that line in the carol again. “In this world of pain, where our hearts are open… “ Why did he add “of pain”? Why not just write, “In this world, where our hearts are open, love is born again.” ?

I want to suggest to you that it is pain that opens our hearts, that’s why. If the world were always lovely and kind, would our hearts be so open? What opens our hearts? A lot of times, it’s pain.

Just yesterday, as I sat down to write this sermon, on my phone, in my email, and in news feeds, there were messages of pain. The pain of sorrow – someone’s elderly cousin had died, yet another in a string of deaths for the family to face. The pain of anger – someone was upset about a church matter. The pain of loneliness – someone has no one to be with for Christmas. The pain of oppression – news reports that in our financial crisis, unemployment is growing among African Americans at a greater rate than for other Americans. The pain of violence – 30 people died in a suicide bombing in Syria.

In this world of pain, our hearts open up to each other, to healing, to hope – usually in that order – and love is born again.

The pain of incarceration – yesterday I also read – not in my email – a handwritten on loose-leaf paper eight page letter from an inmate at a Maryland corrections institute. He has not told me about his conviction, but only that he got caught up Ronald Reagan’s tougher drug and crime laws, was imprisoned at the age of 17, that his sentence is for life, and that he is in solitary confinement until April 14, 2013, for physically protesting the racism in the prison. 

He also told me that the day on which I finally got around to answering his first letter happened to be his 40th birthday. Thank you! He exclaimed. (I did the math. He’s been in jail for 23 years).

Where does he find hope? Would this message speak to him? In his world of pain, are hearts open, is love born again? If our message of love cannot speak to the man in prison, to the woman whose child was killed in Syria, to someone who has been unemployed too long to qualify for that extension Congress finally passed this week… then our message is too small!

But our message is NOT too small! Our good news is hope?

Where does my prison correspondent find hope?

Actually, he does with his solitary time what I love – long – to do with mine:  he meditates, he studies world religions, he reads on revolutionary theories and… I really identify with all that, but this is what really spoke to me in his letter… “I love,” he wrote, “talking about social issues, and how communities can and will aide to raise up my people.” I love to do that too! My heart opened up to him.

But we are so different. He is only 40. He is a Black man. In jail. For life.  Solitary confinement. I’m nearly twenty years his senior. A white woman, comfortably situated, surrounded this week by people who love me and I them. I may not feel “free” exactly, but I enjoy many freedoms, and some privileges because of my race and class.

Still, my heart opened up to him.  Our experiences in this world of pain differ, but our passion for justice is shared. Was love born again?

Whose world of pain opens your heart? The message of Christmas is for all.

For some of us, our hearts are more open to the pain in other people’s lives than to the pain in our own. We naturally minister to or mentor others. We help them find the hope in their situation. But toward ourselves we can be cold, or dismissive. “Buck up,” we say to ourselves. That’s no way for love to be born again. We must open our hearts even to ourselves, and to our own pain.

“In this world of pain, where our hearts are open, love is born again.”

The enduring message of Christmas is that the love is unconditional and for everyone. It’s for the lowliest among us, the ones in pain, the ones in prisons of whatever kind, for whatever reason. Everyone is included and no one is forgotten.

I want to end with the words of hope, written by another man in prison, who is only 36 and has been incarcerated for nearly two decades, in North Carolina. He is a member of the worldwide Unitarian Universalist congregation called the Church of the Larger Fellowship, which does its ministry by mail and Internet for people who cannot attend a church, and includes so many people in prison that they have a Prison Chaplain on staff. 

Daniel A. Green’s article “Hope: the Theology of Despair” was published in the CLF November newsletter.

At one point he writes, “The one trait that most criminals share is hopelessness… Hopelessness is the root of all deviant behavior. Hopelessness tells us that the future is bleak, that all we have is the present moment…it is the broken link that keeps us from even considering that we are larger than this moment, larger than these bodies, larger than our cultural and national identities It cuts us off from the recognition that humanity, with all its accomplishments and failures, is embodied in each person.”

But, he concludes by saying, “Hope, to me, is the mental, emotional and spiritual equivalent of that ineffable force that holds the universe together, and which has given the universe the ability to look upon itself through our eyes, and marvel at the breadth of its diverse and infinite beauty. Hope is not merely an attitude. It is our birthright.”

It’s a world of pain. To truly marvel at the breadth of its diverse and infinite beauty, our hearts must be open to the pain, for it is there. It is in the heart broken open, that love is born again.

Let there be, in this world of pain, broken hearts open to each other, to healing, and to hope so that love may be born again, and again, and again.

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Paint Branch Unitarian Universalist Church • 3215 Powder Mill Road • Adelphi, Maryland 20783-1097
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