Sermon preached February 22, 2015
Texts: Genesis 9:8-17; Mark 1:9-15
The Carpenters, “The Rainbow Connection” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PYuE2roIkH0
You were expecting maybe a green frog singing? I had considered it, but green is the liturgical color for the Epiphany season, the church season that ended this week. We are now into Lenten purple and a green frog, well…. I guess you might say it’s not always easy being green.
Why are there so many songs about rainbows? Well, there are not really all that many: “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” – Judy Garland; Elvis Presley, “Pocketful of Rainbows; The Rolling Stones, “She’s a Rainbow;” and then, of course, “The Rainbow Connection” which has been done by Kermit the Frog, Willie Nelson, Sarah McLachlan, and the Carpenters.
Even if there are not all that many songs about rainbows, the rainbow is a powerful symbol. James Baldwin used the rainbow image to title a book of essays about the African-American experience in America and the struggle for equality, The Fire Next Time. “God gave Noah the rainbow sign. No more water, the fire next time.” Jesse Jackson used the rainbow image in his political work. “The Rainbow Coalition” was his effort to bring together struggling persons from all racial-ethnic backgrounds to help the country work better for all. GLBT persons have used the image of the rainbow as a way to symbolize their struggle for recognition, inclusion and equality.
The power of the rainbow symbol is ancient. It is found in the old story of Noah. Following a flood which wiped out all creation, except Noah, his family and the animals on the ark, God puts in the sky a sign of God’s covenant with all humanity, a rainbow. The story is retold every time we pray the prayer over the waters of baptism. In the days of Noah you saved those on the ark through water. After the flood you set in the clouds a rainbow.
The portrayal of God in this story is intriguing. God here inspires a certain fondness and a certain terror. God sees. God sees the great wickedness of humankind (6:5). “And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart” (6:6). God sees and God feels, these are rather endearing qualities. Then God acts in a way that God later regrets. God blots out humankind with a flood, except for Noah and Noah’s family. This is the part of God that is a little terrifying. But then God decides that this kind of thing should never happen again. Just to make sure, God puts a sticky note in the sky to remind Godself, a rainbow sticky note. God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” God needs some reminders. When God sees the rainbow, God will remember. This is also a kind of endearing quality for God.
I like what Adam Hamilton does with the Noah story in his book Making Sense of the Bible. Hamilton does not think the story is a literal history of an event, though it may have been inspired by terribly flooding that people experienced centuries ago. Yet the story speaks truth he says. “How this story still speaks of God’s grief over the violence we human beings commit against one another, sometimes in God’s name!” (204) The story also conveys “God’s love and concern for animals” (205)
God sees. God sees pain and hurt and destruction, and it grieves God. God sees into our world more deeply and widely than we might sometimes like to see. It is not easy to look at some of the brutality in our world. God also sees more widely and deeply the promise of the human project. There is something in us worth preserving and working with. God sees widely and deeply and we are invited to see with the eyes of God. Paul prays for the Ephesian Christians that God might give them “a spirit of wisdom” that “the eyes of your heart” might be enlightened. Eugene Peterson in The Message renders Paul’s prayer as a prayer that God might “make you intelligent and discerning in knowing him personally, your eyes focused and clear” (Ephesians 1). God invites us to see with the eyes of our heart, to have eyes that are focused and clear, perhaps eyes that see a little like God.
In Mark’s gospel, we read of the temptation of Jesus. Unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark never indicates the nature of Jesus temptation, only that he was tempted. Jesus temptation follows immediately from his baptism, where he is called “beloved” by God. It immediately precedes the beginning of his ministry on the heels of John the Baptist’s arrest. Perhaps the temptation of Jesus was to narrow his vision, not to see fully what it meant to live God’s belovedness. Perhaps the temptation of Jesus was to narrow his vision, giving into fear in the face of John’s arrest instead of beginning his own ministry. It is tempting not to see some of the hurt and pain of the world. It is tempting not to see ourselves as beloved of God, because then we might have to do something about that hurt and pain. It is tempting to life in a cocoon out of fear.
God sees more deeply and more widely and invites us to see with eyes cleansed in the waters of baptism. God invites us to see with the eyes of our hearts the hurt and pain in the world, even when it grieves our hearts. This week my heart has been grieved deeply. Friday I officiated at the funeral of a thirteen year old boy who took his life because of the pain of being bullied. Saturday I officiated at the funeral of a forty-six year old whose parents are both alive to grieve the loss of a son – death out of time. Being with others in the midst of hurt and grief is part of my calling, and I pray that I can feel with hurting people and be strong enough to be of help. I pray that I can find words that might bring a bit of God’s healing. I pray that where there are no words, I can be strong enough just to be present and convey God’s care. I pray that God will continue to give me the strength to see hurt and pain near and far with the eyes of my heart, to walk with it, to do what I can to bring some healing. And I pray that this church can be a place of hope and healing in our community and world.
God invites us to see with the eyes of our hearts the hurt and pain in the world, even when it grieves our hearts. God also invites us to see that we can do something to make the world more just, more beautiful, more compassionate, more caring. Rainbows are powerful not just as a reminder that God has not given up on the human project, but they are powerful symbols of that project itself, a project in which we can participate – a project of caring for creation, caring for each other, of forming inclusive communities - beautiful in their rich variety, of creating beauty, of doing justice, of fostering peace and reconciliation.
We are invited to see more deeply and widely, and in the coming weeks in Lent we are going to explore what it is God might see in the midst of some of the difficulties and challenges of life. We are going to be asking where is God and what does God see. Here is where we are going: Where is God and what does God see when there seems no way forward? Where is God and what does God see when we feel let down? Where is God and what does God see when we mess up? Where is God and what does God see when people die? Where is God and what does God see when we are on the roller coaster of life?
We are going to explore these questions not just theologically, though there will be theological thinking happening. I can’t help but think theologically with you. We are exploring these questions so that we can grow in wisdom, so that the eyes of our hearts can be enlightened, so that we can see with eyes focused and clear, so that we can resist the temptations to narrow vision. This is meant to be a transformational journey, not just a transformation in our thinking, but in our hearts and in our living. These are all connected.
Perhaps something of my hope for this Lenten series is captured in words written by Rabbi Harold Kushner in his book Who Needs God?
In a world without God, there would be no more inspiring goal for our lives than self-interest, amassing as many of the good things of life as we could grab. There would be neither room nor reason for tenderness, generosity, helpfulness…. A world without God would be a flat, monochromatic world, a world without color or texture, a world in which all days would be the same…. A world without God would be a world in which gravity pulled us down and there was no counterforce to lift us up, to cleanse us if we had sullied ourselves when we stumbled and fell, and assure us that we are worthy of a second chance. And worst of all, in a world without God, we would be all alone – no one to help us when we had to do something hard, no one to forgive us when we had disappointed ourselves, no one to replenish us when we had come to the point of using ourselves up, and no one to promise us that, even when it was over, it will not be over…. Who needs God in a world that could be so beautiful and so holy, in a life that could be so full of meaning and satisfaction, if we only opened our eyes and knew where to look? Where is this God who can help us make the world beautiful and holy? We want to find that God and see what that God sees.
Why are there so many songs about rainbows? There are, because rainbows really do help us make connections, connections between loving and dreaming, between God and our human lives which sometimes seem so mired in muck. Rainbows seem to be an invitation from God to see more deeply, dream more imaginatively, think more creatively, and live more beautifully. This Lent we are going to see if we can find rainbows even in some dark places, see if we can see what God sees. This Lent we are praying that the eyes of our hearts be enlightened, that our eyes may be focused and clear, and that our lives may be changed. Amen.