Hope is the Thing with Feathers
“Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,
And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.
I’ve heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.”
Emily Dickenson’s Hope is the thing with feathers is poetry at its best. It both affirms and causes us to see in a new light some aspect of the human condition. It has imagery that is both evocative and imminently relatable.
Hope is a little bird inside our soul, that sings a tune that has no words yet who’s tune we all have heard.
Yet do not mistake the sweetness and softness of hope for weakness. Hope is a thing that endures through the storms and gales of life. Through the strangest seas and most powerful storms, hope abides through all the turmoil of life.
Dickenson tells us that Hope provides, yet it does not ask of us. It gives but does not take, provides but does not demand. This is perhaps my one quibble with Ms. Dickenson’s description of Hope. For hope does demand something of us- not something tangible, but something deliberate. Hope demands a choice. I believe we must choose to hope.
Of the three great virtues that the Apostle Paul describes, Hope, Faith and Love, Faith is often thrust upon us, a reflection of God’s faithfulness for us that we have in different measures at throughout our lives. Love, for its part, is a multivalent jumble of odd feelings, actions, and expectations that sometimes happens to us and sometimes we fall into. Hope, however, is a choice we must continue to make.
Our readings today are expressions of this hope; our first reading is selections from psalm 91. The psalms are our poetry and song collection in the bible; memorably, it includes a vision of God protecting us as an eagle protects her young; one of the great images of care and protection in the Bible. The modern song it inspired, “On Eagles’ Wings”, is one of the most beloved hymns of the late 20th century, often sung at funerals, accompanying many through their deepest valleys of grief.
We must note that this psalm is poetic more than a theological treatise to be taken literally; we all know of people who live in the shelter of the most high, who abide in the shadow of the Almighty, yet still suffer the pains and troubles of life. Some of them are in this room right now. One of them is in our second reading
Yet the hope of God’s protection, God’s wings covering us as an eagle protects her young in the nest continues to drive them – to drive us -- forward and onward through the hard times of life.
This hope is the same hope that Jeremiah displays in our second reading. We met Jeremiah last week while he was singing the blues. This week in our reading he does not weep; it is not that he is out of tears, but rather that his hope abides in him alongside his grief and his sadness.
Although our second reading might seem a little arcane at first, I promise the story is one we can relate to.
In it, Jeremiah has been imprisoned in the palace for his singing of the blues, for telling the truth about the corruption in government and religion and God’s upcoming judgement against the Kingdom of Judah. Jeremiah became a scapegoat for King Zedekiah as things were not going well; the Babylonians had attacked and placed the city of Jerusalem under siege.
It doesn’t take a rocket surgeon to realize that wars, especially wars of conquest, are very tumultuous. Especially when it comes to legal contracts, and especially especially when it comes to land ownership. After all, if an invading soldier wants your farm, what army will you stop him with to prevent him from stealing it? If you have the right paperwork, is there any guarantee that the next government will honor it?
Most folks, not even the rocket surgeons, would think that in the middle of an invasion would be a terrible time to buy some land. But as I mentioned last week, although Jeremiah sings the blues, it does not mean that he has given up.
Instead, he knows that although judgement and immediate pessimism is appropriate, Jeremiah is able to see beyond the immediate storms that assail them to a farther shore, a distant horizon where the sun shines brightly. As our passage ends, “thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.”
Jeremiah chooses hope. In additions, he chooses for this hope to not be a private, hidden thing, known only to his soul. He chooses for his hope to be expressed publicly; “in the presence of all the Judeans who were sitting in the court of the guard.”
This is not the naiveté of someone who believes everything will be easy and peaceful; he harbors no illusions about the immediate fate of the city and his nation. Jeremiah knows that they will fall.
But he also knows that our immediate circumstances do not dictate our ultimate destiny. Indeed, Jeremiah asks that the deeds and legal documents be stored carefully in earthenware jars, so that they may last for a long time. Jeremiah knows that there will be pain and sadness and suffering on the road. We know he knows this because he has sung about them, bared his soul to the world about the immediate fate of his beloved people as he told the truth and sang the blues.
Yet, even in the midst of that stormy weather forecast, there is something else there. Hope, the thing with feathers. The thing that keeps him warm in the times of deepest gale and storm.
As we prepare for our moment of silent prayer and reflection, I will leave us with this poem; “It’s a long way”, by William Stanley Braithwaite. This poem reads like something Jeremiah could have written himself, thinking about the storm clouds coming forth, for his people, the suffering and work that will happen in the future, yet in the distance, remembering always the sun, shining in the horizon.
It’s a Long Way
William Stanley Braithwaite
It’s a long way the sea-winds blow
Over the sea-plains blue,—
But longer far has my heart to go
Before its dreams come true.
It’s work we must, and love we must,
And do the best we may,
And take the hope of dreams in trust
It’s a long way the sea-winds blow—
But somewhere lies a shore—
Thus down the tide of Time shall ﬂow
My dreams forevermore