The Rainbow Connection, a sermon to begin Lent

Genesis 9:8-17
Mark 1:9-15

In some ways it’s an odd way to begin Lent, with a rainbow.  I think of Lent as sort of drab, colorless, a time of ashes and mourning, of barren wilderness.  In our worship space we’ve chosen a monochromatic pallet as we prepared the scroll.  And yet the lectionary calls out God’s rainbow promise on this first Sunday.  A covenant with all creation and all generations.  And the skies break open with promise too in the Gospel text and proclaim God’s love and a new beginning, God’s kingdom.  This is how Lent begins.  With joy.I read in a blog this week that giving up Facebook for Lent is “so 2009.”  It’s true, I was not being original at all when I decided that that is what I will give up in Lent 2012.  I have tried other fasts in the past – last year I tried to give up coffee and failed miserably…I don’t think I lasted a week.  And I think part of the problem was that I didn’t think about a way to use the fast in a creative and generative way – that would renew and refresh – it just left me longing for caffeine.  This year, I decided to use that longing for connection that I often find in Facebook to make a real and physical connection to my friends.  I issued and invitation for addresses and I am making cards and propping up the failing postal service by sending them the old-fashioned way.  When I pulled out glue and scissors and paper this week it was not with a mournful or longing heart but with joy.  There is not much I like more than sticking things together to make pictures.  In fact,  I love to make things, yet rarely take time to do so.

God makes and sends her own kind of message in chapter 9 of Genesis.  The God who has just cause devastation on a global scale, looks at her children, paints the sky with a bow and pronounces covenant.  Now, if you listened carefully – or maybe you heard it even if you didn’t’ listen carefully, because whoever wrote this really hits you over the head with it – you might have heard the repetition again and again and again and again of certain words and phrases.  Almost verbatim we heard over and over: covenant – seven times we hear the word covenant – all of creation, never again.  And what is the sign?  A bow in the clouds.

Anyone who has taken 4th grade science or seen the cover of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon knows that a rainbow is just light reflected through a prism.  But it’s also an image that has captured our imaginations in a way that is almost unequaled.  Kermit the Frog strummed his banjo in 1979 and sang:

Why are there so many songs about rainbows?

And what’s on the other side?

Rainbows are visions but only illusions,

and rainbows have nothing to hide.

So we’ve been told and some choose to believe it.

I know they’re wrong, wait and see.

Someday we’ll find it, the rainbow connection,

the lovers, the dreamers and me

It’s the power of the rainbow – the way we can’t help but stare in awe and take a picture or comment on it to passersby – that the genesis writer knew to be true.

The power of a story like this is that it continues to capture imagination and truth even now.  God captured the connection and promise in light and color.

The world is not all light and joy, of course.  We heard a promise that God would never again send a flood and yet a year ago we were watching images of swaths of the Japanese coastline being eaten up by earthquake and tsunami.  Before that the broken levies in New Orleans, before that Indonesia. To say nothing of earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes and ice storms.  Disasters happen.  People die.  There is much to mourn.  There is, indeed, much for which to repent, as we think of how human impact on the environment may have led to some of the ‘natural’ disasters of late.

But God’s promise to us still stands.  There is something else that God repeats in this story.  And it has to do with remembering.  God says, “When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant that God has made with every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.”  Maybe you noticed.  God doesn’t say, “when the bow is in the clouds, you will remember.”  Although we do.  God says, “I will remember.”

Walter Brueggeman talks about the flood changing God.  I think we often consider God static and unchanging, but after the experience of the flood, Brueggeman says, God’s mind was changed.  He says, “The flood has effected no change in humankind.”  In others words, here God has tried this method of trying to fix humanity, and yet people are still people, making the same bad and destructive choices.  And I challenge you to go home and read the verses right after this story for a weird and not-often quoted example of brokenness in family and relationship.  Noah may have been upright and righteous, but his family had problems too.

“But,” Brueggeman goes on, “it [the flood] has effected an irreversible change in God, who now will approach his creation with an unlimited patience and forbearance. To be sure, God has been committed to his creation from the beginning. But this narrative traces a new decision on the part of God. Now the commitment is intensified. For the first time, it is marked by grief, the hurt of betrayal. It is now clear that such a commitment on God’s part is costly. The Godworld relation is not simply that of strong God and needy world. Now it is a tortured relation between a grieved God and a resistant world. And of the two, the real changes are in God.” * (Brueggeman, Genesis. 1982)

When Joe and I got married, like most people who get married, we exchanged wedding bands.  I don’t think we actually said anything when we gave each other our rings during our wedding, but when I perform a wedding ceremony I usually invite the couple so say something like, “This ring is a sign of my unending love for you.”  That commitment we made to each other was signified in this little piece of metal, and we’ve now been apart seven months, but I only have to look at my ring, or feel it on my finger to remember the commitment we’ve made to each other.

That’s just to one other person. God swept her rainbow across the sky with a promise to Noah, Noah’s family, all people, all animals, the earth, everything.  And every time is appears, we can be reminded and tell the story of God’s love again, of God’s ‘unlimited patience and forbearance.’

My first year in Seattle, Joe and I went to the Sasquatch music festival at the Gorge Amphitheater.  The weather was insane.  I mean really insane: hot, cold, hail, rain, blazing sun, wind.  There might even have been funnel clouds poking down out of the sky.  I found a Seattle PI article that said. “It was as if a scowling Zeus, the weather god, were hurling lightning and flinging hail at hapless concertgoers.”  While we were watching the performer Matishayu a giant rainbow broke out on the sky.  It was one of those really bright ones that just makes everything stop and the Gorge is gorgeous to begin with, but add those low hanging clouds and the sun breaking through, and everything is land and sky and the brilliance of the rainbow.  Wow.

Now, let me tell you about this Matisyahu. He is an orthodox Jewish (white) rapper and reggae artist, who can beat-box like nobody’s business and who weaves themes from his faith into his music.  He stopped his set when that rainbow came out and he remembered God’s covenant to tens of thousands of gathered hippies and hipsters and we were rapt.  He told that story and everyone listened – and they should because the promise is for them – for all of us.  God’s signature, clear as anything right there in the sky over the Gorge.

God entered into a covenant relationship with humanity, with the earth and with all of creation.  If that was, as Brueggeman says, an intensity of the commitment that God has to creation, then with Jesus, God intensifies the commitment still further.  Jesus was a renewal of the covenant promise.  Here, God says, I’ll remind you.  It seems like we need to have this conversation again.  Let’s turn it up a notch.  I place myself in him.  Listen to him, the one I love, the one who brings me joy.  He has a message for you and it is Good News.  A new version of the Bible that I’ve been using lately is the Common English Bible.  In Mark 1:15, this translation reads, “Now is the time!  Here comes God’s kingdom!  Change your hearts and lives and trust this good news!”

“Live the covenant life.  Trust it.  Trust me!”  God is not bent on destruction but connection – connection to humanity and to creation.  And that good news was there all along, there before Jesus and embodied in him.

And so, in the midst of the world in which we live, full as it is with the flood of war and destruction and disaster, we begin Lent with hope and a promise.  My Lenten commitment is going to be to personal connections to the people in my life and the joy of creativity.  As Matisyahu says in his recent song “One Day,” “keep on movin’ though the waters stay ragin’.”  God’s movement is for us, what is our movement for God?

The theme for this season, as we read it above me, is “Where do I sign?”  The hymn ‘The love of God’ sings ‘The love of God is greater far/than tongue or pen can ever tell” and later, “To write the love of God above/ Would drain the ocean dry;/Nor could the scroll contain the whole,/ Though stretched from sky to sky.”  The rainbow stretched across the sky cannot contain God’s love but it is a sign of it. God has signed on with humanity an everlasting commitment.  Lent is a time when we think about the kinds of commitments we make to God.  Many people make a specific commitment to a spiritual practice during Lent, but maybe that’s asking too much.  Maybe this moment will be a time for you to become more mindful of God’s presence, maybe it will be a time to renew the covenant you made at your baptism, maybe it will be a simple commitment to accept the promise that God has made to you.

If you would like to ‘sign on’ to accepting God’s promise to you or if you want to mark a promise to God and self for the Lenten season, I invite to you sign your name on the wall here.  There are markers.  Children, too.  If you can write your name and want to say yes to God’s love for you, come on up.  This is as close as we will ever get to an alter call in this congregation.  We are always being asked to sign up for, sign onto or sign for things but how many of those petitions or contacts or mailing lists promise unlimited patience and unconditional acceptance.  Song 81 in Sing the Journey is a simple melody inviting God to set her seal upon our hearts.  We’ll sing that together in repetition and as we do, you are invited.  Come write your name with God’s!