Our Lenten theme is “Cleaning House, Finding Hope.” We’ve been talking for some weeks now about cleaning house—literally cleaning the clutter in our living spaces, as well as metaphorically cleaning house in our souls, clearing away the busyness and spiritual clutter so that we can draw closer to God on our faith journeys. So we’ve thought a lot about cleaning house. But what about finding hope? It’s not just some trinket or slip of paper that we come across when we’re cleaning. Oh, here it is. But when we get our spiritual house in order, we may be reminded of what’s really important. And hope is a part of that.
When we clean house in our souls, we examine the fears that hold us back from giving ourselves wholeheartedly to God. We remind ourselves that love, justice, faith, hope, patience, and courage are all values and disciplines deserving of our attention.
When I started to take in how truly serious the whole climate change situation is, I was working at the Sightline Institute, an environmental think tank. I asked my boss, a very bright, chipper fellow named Alan, how he had any hope in the face of all our climate challenges. What allowed him to get out of bed every morning and come into work upbeat and smiling? Why wasn’t he depressed to the point of despair? He said that he found hope in all the good people taking action on climate change. He found hope in their commitment to this enormous issue that will not be solved in any of our lifetimes. He had hope because he wasn’t alone in doing this work, and with so many of us pulling in the right direction, change for the better was possible.
Hope is a verb. The people that my boss found hopeful were all living into the future by doing everything they knew how to research the science around climate change, to act on the data, to reduce their own carbon footprints, to educate and report on this topic, to live into a vision of making things better. They all knew they would never be able to check it off their to-do lists. It will outlast us all. But by facing the reality and taking action, they could live in hope.
Vaclav Havel, the former president of the Czech Republic, wrote, “Either we have hope within us or we don’t: it is a dimension of the soul. Hope is an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed.”
Notice that hope is not a guarantee. Hope is about taking action, working for something, because it is the right thing to do, not because it will win. Hear again these words from our reading in Romans:
For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. (Romans 8:24-25.)
We hope for what we cannot even see—can only dream of. We believe in a God who makes a way out of no way. We trust. We work faithfully toward that goal. We have patience, even through generations.
You may have noticed that hope is a word that invites many partners. When we speak of hope, we also end up speaking about faithfulness, love, patience, justice, trust, belief, courage, commitment. We may also speak of the shadow side of hope, which is despair. So hope does not work alone. It is a companion to all these other qualities as part of a spiritual discipline. As part of being in relationship with God. As part of putting our spiritual house in order so that we remember that we are part of God’s bigger picture.
Hope is not the same as optimism. Optimism is passive. It is not a verb. Hope is a noun, but it’s also a verb. Hope is active, action. God is a noun, but I also think of God as a verb, because God is on the move, acting in the world. We show up to God with hope, and faith, and love, and compassion—and sometimes despair. That’s just honest. We bring it all to God and practice the spiritual discipline of living with hope, even when the outcome is unseen.
Hope saves us. Without hope, we give in to that despair. We let ourselves become overwhelmed, and we stop trying. The Other Side (whoever that is at any given time) wants us to be without hope. U.S. right-wing extremists want us to believe that the future is hopeless, that we should all arm ourselves and stop trusting each other, build walls, oppress and exclude people who aren’t just like them.
Russia would like Ukraine to give up hope, to just roll over and let itself be annexed to Russia. But those pesky Ukrainians keep fighting back. It turns out that, for them, “hope” is a fighting word. Volodymyr Zelenskyy refuses to give up hope. He keeps badgering NATO, the US, and any country that will listen, to send help. He refuses to sit down and be quiet. He refuses to run away. He refuses to give up, even if it costs him his life. Because he has hope. He can’t see the ending, but he can see the next step ahead, and so he takes that next step: asking for resources, demanding assistance, staying alive one more day, preaching courage and inspiration to his people, showing them by his example the way to model resistance to tyranny. Hope may be the primary thing keeping people alive right now in Mariupol and Kyiv.
What we are seeing here is an example of hope as a discipline of faithfulness and justice. It isn’t easy. It may not be as simple as being “the thing with feathers—/ that perches in the soul,” as Emily Dickinson writes. It may be the thing that keeps a desperate people putting one foot in front of the other to get through today, and tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that. Many people are dying. We’re hearing now of mass graves. But some will get through. That’s where the hope is.
In this country in recent years, we have been experiencing a time of reckoning with our white supremacist culture that has done its darnedest to make people of color live without hope. Our culture has enslaved, oppressed, killed Black people for centuries, and it has become so normal that especially white people have been taught not to even see it. But Black people and their allies have continued to live in hope, to work for justice, to create opportunities, even if they themselves don’t benefit or live to see the results.
In his poem “Let America Be America Again,” Langston Hughes writes:
O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.
You can hear the aspirational hope in those words, even as he notes the reality that
(There's never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”) (https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/147907/let-america-be-america-again)
We certainly still have work to do to become the America that Langston Hughes yearns for. And yet, sometimes we do get to see progress. Perhaps you heard Sen. Cory Booker to Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson at the Senate Judiciary hearing, where she is being vetted as the nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court. Booker talked about all the immigrants, all the oppressed minorities through our history who have loved America for that dream of equality and opportunity, even as they experienced brutal working conditions and racism. They held out hope that we could someday live into that dream. He said the Chinese immigrants built the railroads, experienced egregious discrimination, but they still believed in the dream of America. They said, “America, you may not love me yet, but I’m gonna make you live up to your promise.” And they loved America anyway. Booker said to Ketanji Brown Jackson: “You are here because of that kind of love. And no one’s gonna take that away from you.”
For Booker to see Jackson nominated to the highest court in this land, he says, “I am not letting anyone in the Senate take away my joy…. Don’t worry, my sister. Don’t worry. God has got you. And how do I know that? Because I know what it’s taken for you to sit in that seat.” Booker said one of his cousins had to come sit behind Jackson in the hearings because she wanted to have Jackson’s back. This was her way of doing what she could to live into her hope with action and love. To bear witness to this incredible moment of hope. There are so many hopes riding on confirmation of Ketanji Brown Jackson for the US Supreme Court. So many hopes. For centuries.
This is just one small part of the centuries-long struggle against racism in this country. Cory Booker shared that his hero is Harriet Tubman. “The sky was full of stars. But she found one that was a harbinger of hope for better days. Not just for her and those people that were enslaved. But a harbinger of hope for this country, and she never gave up on America.”
We live as a people of hope. We face the realities of our day—climate change, racism, homophobia, war, oppression—and we say, “Nevertheless.” We clean our spiritual houses and rediscover our priorities as children of God. We dust them off and put them in the middle of the house, to guide us to that as-yet unseen hoped-for day of God’s realm. We put our hope in God. And we show up every day, living actively into that hope with all its companions: love, justice, courage, faith, trust, belief. With our work for a just, compassionate world, may we be a harbinger of hope to all we meet. Amen.