Marilyn Nelson
March 1999

Thus Far By Faith

        Thomas Chapel C.M.E., Hickman, Kentucky

I. Sermon in the Cotton Field
Philippians 2:12b-15a

His heart’s upwelling of its own accord
slackens the reins, stopping the plow mid-row
beside a sea of furrows, as the word
whirling within takes shape: Whoa, brothers, whoa.
One mule cranes questioningly; the other nips
his neck, ears back. They bray against the hitch
which matches them. And Uncle Warren wraps
his arms around the sky and starts to preach.

Beloved, stop your grumbling. Be the stars
what give a twisted generation light.
That’s what the book say. But old Satan roars
louder, sometimes, than master. He say, Hate
the whip-hand and the yoke: Why be a fool?
The Lord Hisself were tempted, Brother Mule

II. Sermon in the Woodlot
1 Corinthians 9:24-27

The Lord Himself was tested, Brother Mule,
but y’all would try the patience of a saint.
There’s only a few more loads of lumber to haul;
Git up, there! You know Master don’t know no cain’t.
The Book say, run so as to win the crown
imperishable. That mean man must grunt
and sweat from first light 'til the sun sink down,
same as a mule. We can run lightfoot with praise
or toting a croaker sack of dead-weight sins around.

Come on now, git.
                                The wagon creaks and sways,
a mockingbird trills from a branch almost overhead.
Uncle Warren nods to a quietly working slave
whose bare brown back is criss-crossed with black and red.
The mules meander into sunshine, leaving the wood.

III. Sermon in the Ruined Garden
James 2:14-18

A mule meanders into sunshine from the wood
near Sally’s garden. Almost nothing left
after the locust tides of the bereft
swept north. Some die for truth; some died for food.
Uncle Warren plucks a few choice stalks of grass,
chirrups and holds it in an outstretched hand.
The mule flinches just out of reach, to stand
flat-eared, tail flickering, willful as an ass.
Uncle Warren says, Uh-huh: You think you smart.
Well, don’t hee-haw to me about how faith
helped you survive the deluge. Save your breath.
Show me. Faith without works ain’t worth a fart.
People is hungry. Act out your faith now
by hitching your thanks for God’s love to my plow.

IV. Meditation over the Washtub
Exodus 19:4-6a

Oh, I’m hitching my love for Jesus to my plow;
Aunt Sally hums thanksgiving to her Lord,
pausing occasionally to wipe her brow,
scrubbing wet, soapy darks on the washboard.
The clean whites undulate against a breeze
scented with hyacinth and simmering greens.
So this is freedom: the peace of hours like these,
and wages, now, for every house she cleans.
Her singing starts as silence, then her throat
fills with a bubble of expanding praise.
A deeper silence underlies each note:
a lifting mystery, the sky of grace.
Aunt Sally sings, Yes, Jesus is my friend.
Hosannas rise like incense on the wind.

V. Palm Sunday, 1866
1 Peter 2:22-24

Make our hosannas incense on the wind;
may we wave palms of welcome
. . . Listening
from the colored pew, Aunt Sally nods amen.
From beside her, T.T., bored and fidgeting,
chases his rubber ball into the aisle.
The front pew kneels at the communion rail,
heads bowed. Aunt Sally, reaching for the child,
bumps into Captain Randall. He goes pale
with cursing rage, jumps up, and knocks her down.
In the hush that follows, the minister proclaims,
Coloreds aren’t welcome here, from this day on.
T.T.’s blue eyes meet hers, sharing her shame.
The colored worshippers, silent and grim,
file out as the organist strikes up a hymn.

VI. Good Friday Prayer
Psalm 51

Defy him! Tear his organ off! Strike him
with righteous lightning! Make the devil pay!
Uncle Warren paces, has paced since Sunday,
wrestling with demons and with cherubim,
reaching for heaven, balancing on hell’s rim.
Life’s promise seems to him a vast array
of shit and more shit, followed by decay.
Now, on Friday evening, he kneels to pray a psalm,
remembering His unearned suffering,
and how he said, Forgive them. Poor, poor fools.
The spade of prayer cuts stone, untaps a spring
of clear compassion. Uncle Warren feels
God present again. Help ME do no wrong.
The others? Well, it’s like preaching to mules

VII. Easter Sermon, 1866
Acts 10:40-43

Others might think it’s like preaching to mules
to preach to dark-faced people who sign X
laboriously. They listen on cotton bales
as Uncle Warren reads from the book of Acts.
A rose-gold dawnlight streams in through the chinks
and roosters halleloo the sun’s return.
In a makeshift church reeking with familiar stinks,
field hands, bricklayers, and domestics yearn
toward Jesus.
                        Well, sir, like the gospels say,
only a handful saw the risen Lord:
What was true in them days still holds true today.
Be a witness. Pull the plow and sow His word.
Come harvest you’ll have love you can give away,
and a heart that wells up of its own accord.

The Fields of Praise: New and Selected Poems, LSU,1997.