Longfellow, Belafonte and the dream of peace on earth at Christmas

It is VERY unusual for me to manuscript a sermon these days. Usually, I only do so if the sermon’s going to be translated. My style borders on folksy with occasional gospel-preaching ramp-ups, neither of which is well served by tightly managed wording or the temptation to glance down at the paper on the lectern.

This Sunday, words were so hard to find that I did manuscript–coincidentally on a very rare Sunday when our faithful videographer of the past several months was not able to be present.

I interspersed the sermon with verses from Henry Wordsworth Longfellow’s poem “I heard the bells on Christmas day,” better sung by Harry Belafonte in this link, hence the chords embedded in the sermon.

 

   D                  A7sus

I heard the bells on Christmas day

       D            Em7     A

Their old familiar carols play

     D                  Bm

And mild and sweet the words repeat

    D                   A7      D

Of peace on Earth good will to men

 

   D                  A7sus

I thought how as the day had come

       D            Em7     A

The belfries of all Christendom

     D                  Bm

Had rolled along the unbroken song

    D                   A7      D

Of peace on Earth good will to men

 

 

Two weeks ago, I went to the Khadafy Washington Foundation breakfast, an organization that shows up as soon as people in Oakland are killed, to comfort the families and to reduce the likelihood of reprisal. In attendance was the father of the fifteen-year-old girl shot with her sixteen-year-old best friend in Brookfield in east Oakland. The ink from his memorial tattoo was still fresh.

 

On Friday, Oakland saw its 122nd murder of 2012. And then the whole nation froze as we heard the story of those little babies being killed by a man with a machine gun. As our facilities coordinator Allen Foster and I walked down the street on Friday, a random man stopped us in the street and wailed, “Have you heard what they’ve done to our babies?”

 

 

 

 

 

   D                  A7sus

And in despair I bowed my head

       D            Em7     A

“There is no peace on Earth,” I said

     D                  Bm

“For hate is strong and mocks the song

    D                   A7      D

Of peace on Earth good will to men.”

 

 

Too many of us in this room know the impact of violence. We have lost loved ones in an instant of gunfire. We have known the feel of fist to face. We have seen the aftermath for the families of victim and perpetrator. It is hard enough to find a way to put one foot in front of the other to deal with our own burden. And when it is multiplied by thousands of people, it is overwhelming. Here we are on Joy Sunday, and it is easy to be in despair.

 

When Henry Wordsworth Longfellow wrote this poem, it was in the midst of the Civil War. His wife had tragically died, and then his son fell on the battlefield. We are not exaggerating when we say this community is a battlefield, but America has known mass tragedy before. In fact, he added these verses to cry out to God about the brutality that was normal in those days and affected everyone in the country:

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Longfellow cried out to God as that man on the street cried out to Allen and me on Friday—how can this be? And how dare we speak of hope, peace, and joy in this season?

 

   D                  A7sus

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep

       D            Em7     A

God is not dead nor doth he sleep

     D                  Bm

The wrong shall fail, the right prevail

    D                   A7      D

With peace on Earth good will to men

 

 

My favorite version of this song is sung by Harry Belafonte, a brilliant singer, a son of immigrants, a man who knew what it meant to experience hurt for simply existing and even moreso for standing on the side of God during the civil rights movement. As I listen to a man like Harry Belafonte (one of my father’s favorite singers) sing this song, I am reminded of the core of this season. In the midst of violence 2,000 years ago, the prince of peace was born. In the midst of violence today, he is born again. He doesn’t wait for things to get better. He comes to make things better. He is born in us so we can cope with the violence, and so that we can make things better. He is born to bring us together.

 

The psalmist says “Weeping may tarry for a night, but joy comes in the morning.” Project Darries celebrates the too-short life of Darries every year at this time, because this is the 7th anniversary of his death as well as very near to his birthday. And at the end of the annual gathering with testimonies and song and food and weeping and praying for our children, they bring out a cake and we all sing, “Happy birthday to ya!”

 

The opposite of violence is not just nonviolence. The opposite of violence is not even just peace. The opposite of violence is joy. It is creativity, it is vitality, it is a community coming alive in the face of all efforts to destroy us.

 

Weeping may tarry for a night, but joy comes in the morning. Caesar may reign and may seek to turn us against each other, but the prince of peace is arriving to bring us together. We have reason to ache, but we have reason to celebrate, also. Our God of abundance offers comfort and strength and a means of healing this broken world. Longfellow didn’t know the song Happy Birthday To Ya, but he reminds us that because we follow the prince of peace, the wrong shall fail, the right prevail, and he leaves us with this final vision he had for America in the midst of the civil war and also for us today:

 

   D                  A7sus

Till, ringing, singing on its way

       D            Em7     A

The world resolved from night to day

     D                  Bm

A voice a chime a chant sublime

    D                   A7      D

Of peace on Earth good will to men

 

Comments (3)

  1. Shannon Swain

    Sandhya-

    This sermon–and the inclusion of one of my favorite Christmas songs (I, too, am a Belafonte fan–I think his is one of my very favorite male voices)–knocked me out! You inspire me so much, in so many ways. Thanks!

    Love,

    Shannon Swain (Not sure if you remember me–we met at an LCC women’s Christmas party some years back) You may know my kids–Dallas and Kuranda Morgan??

  2. Sandhya (Post author)

    Shannon, I LOVE your kids! And I totally remember you!!! Thanks so much. I really appreciate it. And it’s always a joy to connect with a fellow Belafonte fan. 🙂 (I taught my neices in India the version of “We are from the fire” that he sings on the Muppet Show, and there may be nothing cuter on earth than them singing it.)

  3. Lani Bain Stoner

    Thanks….Ahhhhhhmen….

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