Sermon copyright (c) 2023 Dan Harper. Delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. The sermon text may contain typographical errors. The sermon as preached included a significant amount of improvisation. The poems were read by Carol Martin, worship associate.
There are those who find sleep to be a waste of time. Sometimes these are the same people who find night to be wasteful or fearful or something to be avoided. They may be the people who say that dreams are delusions and snares. The only good time, so they say, is the day time, the time of bright sunshine, and at night we turn on all the lights so that it looks like daytime. Day time is the good time, the pragmatic work time, the time for getting things done and working towards your goals.
But where do your goals come from? The least of our goals come from the pragmatic work time. These are the incremental goals: we make a thousand dollars and next we want to make ten thousand dollars, then a hundred thousand dollars, then a million dollars. It all seems very grand, but what does it mean?
In the time of the ancient Hebrew prophet named Joel, the nation of Israel had fallen on hard times, and they longed for a time when “the threshing floors shall be full of grain, the vats shall overflow with wine and oil” — the ancient equivalent of having a million dollars. But simply to have an abundance of physical pleasures was not enough, said Joel; beyond that, God would pour down God’s spirit upon all the people, and…
“Your children will prophesy.
Your elders will dream dreams,
and your young people will see visions.”
Dreams and visions…like the Langston Hughes poem “Dream Variations”…
To fling my arms wide
In some place of the sun,
To whirl and to dance
Till the white day is done.
Then rest at cool evening
Beneath a tall tree
While night comes on gently,
Dark like me—
That is my dream!
To fling my arms wide
In the face of the sun,
Dance! Whirl! Whirl!
Till the quick day is done.
Rest at pale evening . . .
A tall, slim tree . . .
Night coming tenderly
Black like me.
Langston Hughes praises rest and night and dreaming in his poem, and he adds something of vital interest to those of us in the United States: he connects these things to race and racism. Western culture has traditionally thought of darkness and night and sleep as being less than brightness and daylight and wakefulness. Beginning in the fifteenth century or so, Western culture went further and began equating skin color with things like daylight and darkness. Westerners started saying that people with darker skin colors were like darkness, night, and sleep. This meant (so they said) that darker skin colors were not as good as light skin colors, which were like daylight and wakefulness. Westerners started calling Africa the ”dark continent,” and this meant several things: that Africa was populated by people with black skin, that Africa was a dangerous “heart of darkness,” that Africa was not as enlightened as Europe, that Europe had the right to send its soldiers and warships to “enlighten” Africa.
Langston Hughes turns this Western imagery upside down. Night is gentle and tender, he says, and then goes on to say that night is “black like me.” This one short poem challenges a metaphor that many in the West carry around inside ourselves: the metaphor that night and darkness and blackness are somehow bad, while day and light and whiteness are somehow good. Langston Hughes makes us ask ourselves: Why set up a hierarchy like that? Why not allow day and night to be equally good? And furthermore…why not allow White people and Black people (and all other skin colors) to be equal?
Which brings us to a poem by Emily Dickinson…
Sleep is supposed to be
By souls of sanity
The shutting of the eye.
Sleep is the station grand
Down which, on either hand
The hosts of witness stand!
Morn is supposed to be
By people of degree
The breaking of the Day.
Morning has not occurred!
That shall Aurora be —
East of Eternity —
One with the banner gay —
One in the red array —
That is the break of Day!
Now the stereotype is that every time Emily Dickinson writes about “sleep,” she is actually writing about death. Therefore, many people will simply assum this is a poem about death, and leave it at that. But you can’t reduce Emily Dickinson’s poetry to a single simple logical explanation. There is more to this poem than meets the eye.
Emily Dickinson tells us what “Sleep is supposed to be,” a mere mechanical “shutting of the eye.” But, she says, sleep is more than that: sleep is the “station grand / Where a host of witnesses stand.” Emily Dickinson knew the Hebrew Bible well, so it’s reasonable to hear echoes of the Bible in her poems. I think I hear echoes of the prophet Joel when he prophesied about how the elders will dreams dreams, and the children will prophesy, and the young people will have visions: a host of witnesses dreaming and making prophecies for the future. Sleep is more than the mechanics of shutting your eyes; day break is more than the sun rising. First come the dreams and visions. After that, we act on those dreams and visions. Day cannot exist without night. Night cannot exist without day.
Emily Dickinson wrote this poem during the Civil War. With that in mind, we might say this is, in fact, a poem about death: the death of the many soldiers who died in that brutal war. But I also hear this as Emily Dickinson’s statement of hope for the future. When the Civil War ended in a victory for the North, when there was a victory over the forces wanting to maintain slavery, then would the dreams and visions for racial justice begin to be fulfilled. Well, here we are, a century and a half later, still trying to complete the work of the Civil War — still trying to bring complete equality and freedom to all people. Emily Dickinson’s poem is still topical.
Perhaps we will always be striving for the perfect future that never quite arrives. Yet it is the dreams and visions that keep us moving towards that perfect future — it is sleep in the sense of the “station grand” surrounded by a host of witnesses that will bring us those dreams and visions of a perfect future.
Which brings us to the third poem, by James Weldon Johnson, titled “Mother Night.” The range of his writing was unusually broad: he wrote lyrics of hit Broadway songs, and published a well-received novel, three books of poetry, a non-fiction book, political essays, and finally perhaps the best American autobiography of the twentieth century. At the end of his autobiography, he gives a summary of his religious outlook, which makes him sound very much like a Unitarian. With that in mind, here is his poem, “Mother Night”…
Eternities before the first-born day,
Or ere the first sun fledged his wings of flame,
Calm Night, the everlasting and the same,
A brooding mother over chaos lay.
And whirling suns shall blaze and then decay,
Shall run their fiery courses and then claim
The haven of the darkness whence they came;
Back to Nirvanic peace shall grope their way.
So when my feeble sun of life burns out,
And sounded is the hour for my long sleep,
I shall, full weary of the feverish light,
Welcome the darkness without fear or doubt,
And heavy-lidded, I shall softly creep
Into the quiet bosom of the Night.
Now this is indeed a poem that equates sleep with death. But the poem says: death is not something fear; it’s something to be welcomed when the time is right. Now it was perhaps easier for him to say that when his time to die came along, he would, “full weary of the feverish light,” welcome the night of death. He wrote this poem when he was 51, by which age he had already lived a very full life: first African American to pass the Florida bar exam, hit songwriter on Broadway, successful poet and novelist, U.S. consul to Nicaragua during a revolution, and the first executive secretary of the National association for the Advancement of Colored People. If, like James Johnson, you’ve had a successful life full of major accomplishments, I think it’s easier to say that you might “welcome the darkness without fear or doubt.”
Yet there’s more going on here than the poet saying, “Hey, I’ve had a good run, when it comes time to die, I’ll be ready.” He makes a theological point: out of the chaos of darkness came the universe. (Today we might talk about the Big Bang, but that’s a scientific theory that wasn’t developed until after James Weldon Johnson died.) From the primordial Night came blazing suns, and from blazing suns came planets and life and eventually human beings. And at the end of time, human beings, planets, stars, will all return to primordial Night. From stardust we have come, and to stardust we shall return. If this is what we really believe, we too will “welcome the darkness without fear or doubt.” James Weldon Johnson is telling us that each human life is of utmost significance precisely because it participates in the great drama of the universe, from the Big Bang to the ultimate end of everything when entropy finally takes over. You may or may not agree with him, but you can see how such an attitude might reconcile him to death: like Socrates, he is a poetic rationalist who understands death as a long night of perfect sleep; not something to be feared, but something to be desired, when the time comes.
Each of these three poems tells us different things about sleep. Langston Hughes upends the old Western notions that nighttime and sleep are bad, that blackness is bad and whiteness is good, that dreams should be ignored: instead, he says that night and darkness and blackness and dreaming and sleep are things we should value. Emily Dickinson tells us that sleep need not be the mere shutting of the eye, for when we are guided by a host of witnesses it can guide us to a hopeful future. And finally, by placing our brief human lives in the context of the lifespan of the universe, James Weldon Johnson tells us that sleep is not something we need to fear.
On this day when we lose an hour of sleep, I hope I’ve convinced you that sleep is good. Sleep is more than merely good, it is cosmically good, it connects us with human striving for justice and with the life of stars and the universe. With that in mind, I think I’ll take a nap this afternoon to make up for the hour of sleep I lost last night.