Back in the beginning of this congregation’s ministry, we published an anti-slavery newspaper called The Independent, with a circulation of 15,000 – a very impressive number for that time. The Independent was notable for all kinds of reasons, one of which was that it published the poems of a woman named Emily Dickinson, and thus helped to spread her renown. I’ve always loved the idea that the Belle of Amherst became known and loved by Americans, at least in part because of Broadway.
Dickinson famously wrote: “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.”
When I imagine that “little bird” of which Dickinson wrote, I automatically think of the starlings and the sparrows of my Indiana childhood. I might even imagine the colorful and aggressive blue jays or cardinals that I still enjoy watching. But when I think of hope and birds and bird songs, I never ever think of a pigeon.
I’ve had a long and complicated relationship with New York City pigeons. It all began about 25 years ago when the largest pigeon I had ever seen made a target out of me while I was walking under a Broadway theater marquee. It was so forceful that knocked the glasses right off my face! And ever since then, I have regarded them as the enemy.
My war with the pigeons reached its nadir some years ago when we moved from our small, dark, first floor apartment on 85th Street to a larger one further uptown. This new apartment had windows on three sides and so I was very hopeful that we would, at last, have some sunlight. We didn’t have much. But every afternoon, out on the fire escape, there was about an hour of sunshine. And that inspired me. So just as soon as that first spring arrived, I filled several planters with the brightest, reddest impatiens I could find. And every time I walked into the kitchen and looked out the window, I had this deep feeling of satisfaction. I loved my flowers. But I wasn’t the only one who did. The pigeons loved them too. They loved to eat them. They liked to sit in a row on the railing of the fire escape and stare at them, cooing loudly. And then one day, to my horror, I discovered a pigeon actually roosting in my flowers. I chased it away. Every day, I chased all of them away. But every day those pigeons returned. They were persistent, muscular, determined.
Finally, one of my neighbors told me about bird spikes – those little plastic spikes mounted on your window ledges that would not kill the pigeons, but would certainly discourage them from landing. Soon every window ledge in our apartment looked like the Berlin Wall. I had conquered them or so I thought. But those pigeons were persistent, muscular, determined. They found other places to land, still near enough to our windows for me to see their looks of what appeared to be disdain; still close enough for me to hear their constant cooing. They never let me forget that they were there.
“Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul, and sings the tune--without the words, and never stops at all…” But sometimes, when life has been hard enough; when we have been disappointed enough, when we are frightened enough, hope’s song can be as annoying as the cooing of a pigeon.
Sometimes I feel like that about Advent. It is a season of hope. And every year, we sing the songs of longing and hear the stories of promise. And every year, about January 2, when the comfort and joy have worn thin, we wake up to find that the world is little changed – and neither are we. “Peace on earth, good will to all” is a song that simply reminds us of what we do not have. It’s maddening, like the cooing of a pigeon.
The book of Isaiah is actually three books, written over a period of years. The second part of the book of Isaiah, which begins with the 40th chapter, was written to people bereft of hope because their land had been conquered, their cities burned, and their best and brightest forced into exile in Babylon. We actually sing about those suffering people during Advent: “O come, o come Emanuel and ransom captive Israel that mourns in lowly exile here.”
But eventually, these people learned to live in and with the pain. It became their new normal. Oh sure, they had fleeting thoughts of a restored country and going home, but they couldn’t dwell on it because that kind of hope was a emotional luxury they didn’t believe they could afford.
But one day the prophet, who had been railing against their sin, changed his tune. Instead of harangues about what a mess they had made for themselves, he started preaching hope. And he said to those beaten down people: “A voice cries out: "In (this) wilderness (you) prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert (of your lives and society) a highway for our God. Every valley (of despair) shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill (of adversity) shall be made low; the uneven ground (of prejudice) shall become level, and the rough places (of inequality) a plain. Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, (why? - because) the mouth of the LORD has spoken."
Now I suspect that not everyone was glad to hear that message. After so many years of disappointment and pain, those folks knew how to live without promise. They had learned, like we have learned – like we are learning, that cynicism does not disappoint us. You can count on cynicism. But hope – raw, unabashed hope, well that seems a lot risker.
Years ago, Alan Paton, wrote a marvelous book entitled Cry, the Beloved Country, a heart-breaking tale of the systemic, ingrained, government-sanctioned racism known as South African apartheid. Paton was invited to give a series of lectures at Harvard’s Memorial Church. At the end of the final lecture, Peter Gomes, the late minister of that church, recalled that the questions from the audience came fast and furious. He remembers one exchange in particular, and here I quote Gomes: “A Cambridge lady, one of those whom the poet e.e. cummings once described as living in “furnished souls,” rose to her feet and asked, “Given all that you have said and we have heard, are you optimistic about your beloved country?” Paton paused, scowled, and said, “Madam, I am not optimistic, but I remain hopeful.” He did not expand upon his distinction between optimism and hope, but, Gomes concludes, “… there is a useful distinction to be made.”
And never, it seems to me, is that distinction more important than it is during Advent. And never, it seems to me, is that distinction more important than it is in America in 2017. Optimism is what advertisers sell us at this time of year. Optimism is about ignoring the gathering clouds of gloom. But hope is something far more substantial. And our hope as Christian people is anchored in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, and in the promises of God.
Hope is “the thing with feathers that perches in the soul…” But it’s not a delicate little bird, easily frightened away. Hope is a New York City pigeon – persistent, determined, muscular, cooing at us even when we do not want to hear her song, reminding us that where we are today is not where we shall end. The exiles will return. There will be justice and equity for the poor of the earth. Black lives will matter. Female lives will be respected. Transgender lives will be embraced. Peace will reign. For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.