This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2009 Daniel Harper.
The first reading was the poem “The Weary Blues” by Langston Hughes. This poem is not included here due to copyright restrictions.
The second reading was the poem by Langston Hughes, titled “The Ballad Of The Landlord” This poem is not included here due to copyright restrictions.
Sermon — “The Weary Blues”
This is Black History Month, and in three sermons this month I proposed to speak to you about three different Black poets; more specifically, about three American poets of African descent. Last week, I spoke about James Weldon Johnson; and this week I would like to speak about Langston Hughes.
If you were here last week, you heard me say that poets make the world; and I meant that in a broad sense of poetry, where poets make language and language makes our world. This is not some supernatural magic trick; rather it is a statement about the basic being of the universe. There is a fundamental connection between language — between what we speak and hear and write and read — a connection between language, and the very core of That Which Is.
I want to be careful to tell you exactly what I mean by a poem. A poem is not just something that sits there on the page, and you read it, or your high school English teacher makes you read it, and that’s the end of it. A poem is language that is meant to change you, and maybe change the world around you. A few poems are meant to be looked at, like paintings, but mostly you have to say poems aloud for them to change you, or change the world around you; and if you can chant them or intone them or sing them, sometimes that increases their power.
I’d even say that poetry and music are much the same thing; — two points on a continuum that stretches from ordinary conversation to the most abstract music. It is not always clear to me where the spoken word ends, and music begins. What is clear to me is the power of poetry, and music, to change us; more specifically, the power of poetry and music to heal us, to heal our souls, to heal our selves.
But how does this happen? How is it that poetry heals and changes us? This is why I want to speak with you this morning about the poems of Langston Hughes. More than most poets, his poetry is musical. More than most poets, his poetry has the power to heal and change and transform. And his poetry has helped me to understand a little bit of how it is that music transforms and heals us.
Just before the sermon, I read one of Langston Hughes’s best-known poems, “The Ballad of the Landlord.” This is a poem that tells a story, which goes something like this:
Here’s a man (or is it a woman?) who lives in a run-down old house. This house is some place in the United States, and it’s sixty or seventy years ago, and the landlord appears to me to be white. At least he acts like a white person of sixty or seventy years ago; because he has an African American tenant, he doesn’t bother fixing the roof, or fixing the broken-down steps that lead up to the front door of the old run-down house.
The landlord has stopped by to collect the rent. The tenant reminds him about all that’s wrong with the house. The landlord doesn’t pay any attention. The tenant gets increasingly frustrated, and finally says, I’m not going to pay you any rent, and if you keep talking so high and mighty, why I’ll sock you one. But the landlord is white, and doesn’t stand for being threatened by black folk. The landlord calls the cops, who arrest the tenant. The tenant is charged and convicted of assault, and sent to jail.
Through this whole poem, we know the landlord is in the wrong. We know that the tenant’s anger is justified, and we’re rooting for the tenant. When we get to the end of the poem, when the full force of the law is used to perpetuate injustice, we share in the anger of that tenant, and we know we have to work to correct that kind of injustice in the world. Even though this is just a made-up story, we hear the ring of truth in it — for all good poems are true; truth is what makes them good poems. We hear the ring of truth, and we hear as well a call to heal and change a world in which such injustice can exist.
When we address injustice in the world, we are healing the world. That’s what this poem does; and that reveals to us a connection between poetry and religion, since religion is also supposed to heal the world. This is a significant point for us religious liberals, because we tend to dismiss the fact that healing is a central part of religion. Too much of religion is obsessed with faith healing, miraculous cures where some father God makes it all better without much effort on our part. We are right to dismiss such kinds of religious healing. Yet we cannot dismiss the fact that healing is central to religion. Part of the purpose of religion is to heal the world; part of the purpose of religion is to heal our souls when we are damaged by the injustice of the world.
When I say “healing,” I don’t necessarily mean sitting there passively and waiting for some healing energy to do its work. The story of the tenant and the landlord force us to confront an ethical problem: the full power of the law and the police can be used to cause injustice. Once you start chewing over that ethical problem, it’s hard to simply sit there and enjoy the beauty of the poem. We find that the poem calls us to do something. How does this poem heal and change the world? — the poem calls us to rouse ourselves and heal the world by correcting injustice.
It is very good that poetry heals and changes the world, and I know that will help heal me in the long run, but sometimes I need some more personal healing. It’s fine and noble to say that I’m going to go out and heal the world, but sometimes life has got me down so that I don’t have the energy to do that. What then? Forget the world for a moment — how is poetry going to heal me?
To answer that, I’d like to speak about the blues. “The Ballad of the Landlord” makes us want to heal the world, but another poem by Langston Hughes, “The Weary Blues,” describes to us how to heal our own souls.
And what are the blues? The African American humanist theologian Anthony Pinn is one of those who has pointed out that the blues are a form of musical expression through which “enslaved Africans wrestled with existential questions forced by the absurdity of slavery.” Pinn tells us: “Through this music, they sought to make sense of the world and provide a framework for life. Within the spirituals, the manner in which traditional religious doctrine dominated this rationale for life is apparent. However,… there were other forms of musical expression that did not embrace the basic doctrine of the Christian church, or other traditional forms of religious expression.”
Now Anthony Pinn is a theologian, which means that he is somewhat caught up in the theory. What I have found is that when you put his theory in practice, you find that the blues can be a legitimate form of religious expression; some blues songs are a kind of humanist hymn. They provide serious answers to religious and existential questions. When you’re singing the blues, if you have trouble in mind, you don’t call on God to solve all your troubles — you laugh to keep from crying; you go down by the riverside and rock those blues away; and you know that somehow the sun’s gonna shine on you someday — these are humanist hymns because you don’t call on God to fix your problems for you. In the poem “The Weary Blues,” there is no God who comes down to solve the problems of the unnamed musician who is singing and playing the piano; there is no God to come and take away the pain of living. The musician plays and sings, and that heals him, a little. He is not completely healed; but at least he can sleep that night. So it is that the blues have a healing power.
None of this rules out traditional religious music as healing music. Traditional religious music that calls on God can heal the soul, too. But sometimes religious music pretends to heal, when it really doesn’t heal. Religious music, and religion itself, pretends to heal when it merely distracts us with God and deadens us to the pain and anguish we experience in the here and now; and by deadening us, the pain appears to go away, but we don’t actually heal. The same is sometimes true of the blues: sometimes the blues pretend to heal us, but instead distract us with a catchy melody and a danceable beat, serving merely to deaden us to the pain we’re in.
When the pain we feel is deadened, but nothing else happens, that is false healing. Rather than deadening pain, the blues give us enough distance so that we can feel the pain without becoming overwhelmed by it; herein lies the power of the blues. The music and the poetry of the words channel the pain into something constructive rather than destructive. True healing allows us to regain strength and wholeness. The poetry of the blues allows us to regain strength and wholeness: it is musical poetry that has the power to heal us and change us.
Of course that is also the purpose of these Sunday morning worship services. We come here to be healed, we come here to feel we can be made whole. And how do we do this? We do this with words and with poetry and with musical poetry. We have conversations together; we listen to the spoken word; we listen to poetry and scripture that is read aloud; we sing songs together. You may have a conversation on a Sunday morning after church where someone says something to you that somehow changes you for the better; just a small thing, just a small change for the better; but that small change may do more to heal you than all the sermon and poetry and songs during the worship service; and in that sense, that conversation is a kind of poetry (for you, at that time). I have never heard a sermon that is poetry the way Langston Hughes writes poetry, but I have heard sermons that in a specific time and place healed my soul, and for that moment there were better poetry than anything Hughes ever wrote.
Poetry has power in it; it has the power to heal us. What we try to do here on Sunday morning is kind of poetry. We create a time and a place where words and poetry and music can heal and change us. We get through the pain of living, we get through the anger at injustice, and in doing so we aim to hold onto our dreams.
We aim to hold on to our dreams. It’s not a good idea to defer dreams for too long, because deferred dreams can turn into anger — and once you get mired in anger and pain, you wind up deferring your dreams. There’s an awful lot of pain and anger that comes with living. When you think of all the injustice that exists in the world, how can we possibly get rid of all the anger? When sadness enters our souls, how can we possibly get rid of all the pain? I don’t think it’s possible to get rid of all the anger and pain — the world is too full of anger and pain — but we can be sure the anger and pain doesn’t hold us down.
So it is that healing from pain and anger requires us to hold onto our dreams. We have to get through the pain that life can bring; that doesn’t mean we have to get rid of pain, we just have to get through it. We have to get through the anger; that doesn’t mean we have to get rid of it, we just have to get through it.
Langston Hughes wrote a poem called “Dream-Dust” that goes like this:
Gather out of star-dust
And splinters of hail
One handful of dream-dust
Not for sale.
Poetry collects from life the earth-dust, the cloud-dust, the storm-dust, the splinters of hail, and distills these elements of life into dream-dust. In this way, poetry helps us hold onto our dreams.
If you come to church regularly, you have heard me say that religious scriptures are a kind of poetry; religious scriptures at their best distill the elements of life and make dreams out of them. Holding on to dreams is one of the things we do in our religious communities; it’s one of the things we try to do here each Sunday. We collect the elements of life — the joys and sorrows, the pain and the joy — and we take an hour or so each week to distill dreams out of our lives. Some of the dreams are personal — your dreams, my dreams. Some of the dreams belong to us all, like the dream of an earth made fair and all her people one. Our religious community is based on poetry, both the poetry of ancient religious scriptures and contemporary poetry like that of Langston Hughes. We come here to hold onto dreams, keeping them safe until they can become reality.
All too often our dreams get deferred. For African Americans, the dream of true equality has been deferred too long; indeed, for too many racial and ethnic minorities, the dream of equality has been deferred for too long. Sometimes the world around us seems to conspire to keep our dreams from becoming a reality. When that happens, we have to do something that allows us to hold on to our dreams. Like that old dream of earth made fair and all her people one — we have been dreaming that dream from more than two thousand years, and while sometimes we seem to make some progress towards it, that dream has not yet become our reality. Yet we keep that dream bright and untarnished. So it is that poetry, and communities founded on poetry, helps us to hold on to our dreams.
How is it that poetry heals and changes us? Poetry heals us and changes us by calling to rouse ourselves and go out and heal the world by correcting injustice. Poetry heals us and changes us by allowing us to get through the pain of living, to get through the anger at injustice. Poetry heals us and changes us by helping us to hold onto our dreams, and keep them bright and untarnished. Communities that are founded on poetry, like our church community, do the same thing: in communities like this one, we are healed and changed by healing the world; we are healed by having a place to deal with personal pain and heartache; we are healed and changed by the dreams that we hold together.
And when we are healed and changed, we might just find that we have renewed strength to go out and help to heal the world.