In June of 2011, the Rev. Lorenza Andrade Smith sold her car, sold her house, and sold almost all her worldly possessions and made a vow of poverty. Taking a leave of absence from her congregation, she joined the homeless; living on the streets, sharing their lives.
The Rev. Andrade Smith speaks about hope. “In Scripture, hope is interlaced between the words faith and love. Faith in Christ and in his Resurrection gives me hope; the belief that God is with me; the belief that God is with us; the belief that God is with you. That God is faithful even though we are unfaithful. That’s my hope in my life, in the nation’s life, in the world’s life.”
As I listen to this young woman, I find myself wondering: “Who do I know that lives with this kind of hope?” I know many determined, entitled, willful people; worried and anxious and angry people. People deeply rooted and truly grounded in a profound faith in the hope of God? Not so many.
Most folks I know move fast: competing, accumulating, defending; managing our anxiety with exercise or alcohol or a full calendar. We find it next to impossible to sit still for any significant length of time; to have ourselves on our hands. Sitting alone without our electronics, with nothing to distract us, we notice a gnawing ache within; the sense of ourselves cut off; missing out on what really matters.
We may not realize what presents itself to us in moments like these is the absence of hope; not our desires, not our wishes, but God’s hope, deep and true.
Uncomfortable, we hurry off to find a screen somewhere or some surround sound. Jerome Berryman calls it the attraction of distraction. And my friends, we are dangerously close to distracting ourselves to death. Multitasking, hurrying, never really being exactly where we are; our distractions distance us from God. We cut ourselves off from the energy of hope that only God provides; the energy necessary for any real transformation; the energy that quickens all of life.
And still, we refuse to acknowledge the truth underneath it all. For we know we do not live as all that God creates us to be. And we die just a little each and every day. This distance, this dying, this distraction we call sin. For sin lives as anything and everything about our living – individually and corporately – that frustrates the hope of God.
God asks a great deal of us; calls us to discern the ways of faith and hope and love. We prefer not to discuss our shortcomings.
In his sermon “Whatever became of sin?” Fred Craddock writes:
“I don’t hear much about sin anymore. And I don’t know why. We still have violence and greed and infidelity; and lying and stealing and oppression of the poor. We still have inequity in so many things. We still have violation of family life.
So what happened? Is it just we don’t call it sin anymore? Or are we just used to it?”
Our Lenten pilgrimage begins today with the palms of Palm Sunday last burned to dust. Lent ends with the flame of a bright new fire on the eve of Easter. Tonight, a priest marks our foreheads with an ashy cross, saying “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
We long to turn away; for life’s ashes haunt us. Darkness and cold and death have power; power we cannot control. We do not wish to acknowledge the hopelessness within; the ashy wake of our sin.
The prophet Joel serves as a compelling guide to our Lenten journey. He speaks to God’s people, despairing and in need. A devouring plague of locusts have devastated Israel’s crops; leaving God’s people anxious, hungry, and afraid.
Rumors begin to circulate: about God’s absence, God’s ineffectiveness, God’s irrelevance. Some even question God’s existence. Can we imagine how deeply the hopeless disregard of God’s people pains God?
A good prophet stands up amidst the ashes and clarifies who God is and how God acts. Joel uses the impending catastrophe to remind Israel of the dailyness of their life with God. How they treat one another, how the widow and the orphan fare, how they handle themselves in business; what they say and do, all the things they have done to rip the fabric of community, all the things they have left undone to heal the fabric of community, all the ways they have broken the hope and the heart of God.
This is their sin. And God holds them accountable for all of it, the prophet says. For all of it.
Suddenly, their individual and accumulated decisions sit in the stark light of God’s judgment. Joel offers a prescription: nothing less than a corporate ritual of anguish. No one, not a priest, not a child, not even a honeymooning couple, stand exempt. Nothing less that sackcloth and ashes for all of God’s people; fasting and prayer for all of them. Nothing less than tears for all of them.
And Joel means real tears. Not the tears of the “professional apology” we have grown accustomed to, when people in powerful places get caught crossing the line. Joel means the tears born of the pain that Israel’s sin has etched upon the heart of God; the hot tears of Israel’s hope that God will be faithful, even though Israel has not been faithful.
Repentance for sin, says the prophet, is Israel’s pathway to hope. For repentance marks a turning; our desire to bridge the separateness; to acknowledge the part we play in our own emptiness, to recover the sacred covenant of relationship.
True repentance calls us to choose differently. We learn to still ourselves, to allow God to be God, to create in our hearts a home where the hope of God dwells. To repent of our sin, to turn and return to God, reveals to us a world beyond our imagining. “Hope opens something in the human heart”; the possibilities of faith and hope and love, in which God’s creation lives and moves and has being.
Truth be told, our lives will always be a mixed bag: never exactly right, never completely pure, never fully true. And yet, God’ promise of hope never fails those who draw near in penitence and faith. God’s hope does not disappoint.
Hear The Reverend Andrade Smith again:
“It’s this empowerment we find in hope that allows us to move forward in strength and in endurance; to live day by day. For many of us out in the streets, it’s not only a day by day thing, and not even an hour by hour thing, but sometimes step by step. I always have to remember that hope; and every step I take does not disappoint. There’s just a faith and a love that permeates from hope.”
“The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit; a broken and a contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” (Psalm 51:18)