Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, “As for me, I am establishing my covenant
with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the
birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the
ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a
flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.”
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 said to Noah, “This is the sign of
the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.”
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And
just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit
descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved;
with you I am well pleased.” And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He
was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the
angels waited on him.
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and
Somewhere over the rainbow way up high
There's a land that I heard of once in a lullaby
Somewhere over the rainbow skies are blue
And the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true
Someday I'll wish upon a star
And wake up where the clouds are far
Where troubles melt like lemon drops
Away above the chimney tops
That's where you'll find me
Somewhere over the rainbow bluebirds fly
Birds fly over the rainbow.
Why then, oh, why can't I?
Life is a journey. There is always a starting place and a destination and stuff happens between here and there. What we make of life is what we make of the stuff that happens. And, of course, the context of our journey means everything.
Dorothy was a sad teenager who sang about a land that she had heard of once in a lullaby. When lost, she goes on a journey to find her way back home. She meets interesting characters. She overcomes great obstacles, and then, finds out that she had what it takes to get home all the time – the ruby slippers. And what did she learn? When asked this question by the Tin Woodsman, she said, “If I ever go looking for my heart's desire again, I won't look any further than my own back yard. Because if it isn't there, I never really lost it to begin with! Is that right?”
The Christian year is a journey, as well. It begins with Advent, then Christmas, then Epiphany. Now we find ourselves in the first Sunday of the Season of Lent, which, in itself, is a journey – a journey of forty days. Now where else have we heard that number? Ah yes, it rained for forty days and forty nights. Jesus was in the Wilderness forty days. And the people of Israel wandered for 40 years. So, forty is a good, long time to go on a journey.
As I read these scriptures this time around the sun, I am struck by the powerful messages inherent in each one. Both passages tell something important about who God is for us and how God is present with us. Take the Genesis story. Here is an account of how people understand their relationship with God unfolding amidst the reality of injustice and suffering. God promises God’s protection and presence. As a sign of this promise, this covenant, God places a bow in the sky. A bow is also a weapon of war, but, in this case, it is a rainbow – a physical, observable sign of the end of the storm. It is understood as God’s promise, God’s commitment that God is with us and will be with us through every trial, every circumstance, every challenge. That is the bottom line. It is the heart of the matter. We do not need to be distracted by the questions of why God would destroy civilization or be concerned with why the unicorns or dinosaurs were not on the Ark. The story is myth, and myth is not logical, it is symbol. But the rainbow, while it is a symbol, as well, conveys to us the beauty of inclusion, acceptance, and hope. We are all welcome in a rainbow community.
The gospel lesson is also about the heart of the matter. This story, in a few lines, relates Jesus as baptized, blessed, tested, and launched in his ministry to tell the world of God’s love and presence with us always. “The Realm of God is at hand.” The journey of Jesus, whether it is confined to the forty days in the wilderness or the three years of ministry that led to the cross, is a sign or symbol for us who are called to walk on the Jesus Way. This time of Lent is one way we make sense of this message. I believe we can all identify with the value of time set aside to listen and reflect on our lives. It may not be forty days for us, but even short times of prayer, quiet, intentional spiritual practice, fasting, the foregoing of some food or activity to mark this time – any of this – can help us be aware of God’s presence and our own role, our own place, in the community of faithful people.
“There was once a poor, G-d fearing Jew who lived in the city of Prague. One night he dreamt that he should journey to Vienna. There, at the base of a bridge leading to the King's palace, he would find a buried treasure.
Night after night the dream recurred until, leaving his family behind, he traveled to Vienna to claim his fortune. The bridge, however, was heavily guarded. The watchful eyes of the King's soldiers afforded little opportunity to retrieve the treasure. Every day the poor Jew spent hours pacing back and forth across the bridge waiting for his chance.
After two weeks’ time one of the guards grabbed him by the lapels of his coat and demanded gruffly, "Jew! What are you plotting? Why do you keep returning to this place day after, day?" Frustrated and anxious, he blurted out the story of his dream. When he finished, the soldier, who had been containing his mirth, broke into uncontrollable laughter.
The poor Jew looked on in astonishment, not knowing what to make of the man's attitude. Finally, the King's guard caught his breath. He stopped laughing long enough to say, "What a foolish Jew you are believing in dreams. Why, if I let my life be guided by visions, I would be well on my way to the city of Prague. For just last night I dreamt that a poor Jew in that city has, buried in his cellar, a treasure which awaits discovery."
The poor Jew returned home. He dug in his cellar and found the treasure.” (Hassidic Story)
After the journey of Jesus into the wilderness, after he has confronted all the different directions for his life and chosen the most faithful path, he comes back to society and announces: The time is right! The Realm of God is near! Turn your lives to receive this Good News! And then he goes about living his life in a way that shows others – shows us – what is meant by the Good News and the Realm of God.
It is not rocket science. We have heard the Good News described to us in varied and wonderful ways. We are loved. We are precious in God’s sight. We are the light of the world. No one is abandoned, left out, excluded. God is saying, “No matter who you are and what you have done, no matter where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome in my presence, in my essence.”
So, I wonder, what keeps us from accepting this announcement? This gift? This promise? Is it that we, like Groucho Marx, would never want to belong to a club that would accept us as a member? And a variation of that attitude is the belief that we have to earn God’s acceptance. We have to be good enough, faithful enough, smart enough, pure enough, courageous enough, work for justice enough, give enough money, help enough people, think enough clean thoughts, and, conversely, never think unclean thoughts. Someone once said, “I believe in God. It is grace I find unbelievable.”
Have you ever been on a labyrinth? It is a spiritual practice, a holy walk. It is a journey of sorts. Kind of a strange one, in that it does not take very long and it ends up with you arriving back where you started. As you walk on the labyrinth you are invited to be present to each step, to see the boundaries or lines beside you as guides, to turn and turn again without a concern about where you are on the journey. It is almost a surprise when you end up in the middle of the labyrinth, even a sort of disappointment that the arriving is over so soon. And then the walk back along the same path, yet it is not the same because, as the philosopher says, “we never step in the same river twice.” We are always on the journey. We make meaning out of what happens between then and now, between now and then.
We use words to describe the indescribable. God is one of those words. Another set of words that cannot capture the truth of its appellation is Kingdom of God, or Kingdom of Heaven, or Realm of God, or Dominion of God. These are words that fall far short of describing the reality of what Jesus was announcing was near. But, being human, we use words.
I believe God is inseparable from God’s Realm or whatever words we use to describe what Jesus announced as near. And, I believe this reality of God is with us now, not then, here, not there. The somewhere over the rainbow idea is attractive in a romantic, nostalgic kind of way, but I do not think it serves us well as a faith community. Maybe that is what Samuel Beckett was getting at in his play, “Waiting for Godot.” If we act as though life depends on our being faithful waiters for God to show up then we waste our talents and miss our opportunities for God is present here and God’s in breaking, transforming, justice making Spirit is at work here and now, in you and in me, and in us.
There is a pastoral challenge inherent in this theology. If God’s Realm is present here and now, how do we make sense of suffering? How do we deal with a young man killing 17 people in a high school in Parkland, Florida? Or hundreds of thousands of refugees in Syria, Bangladesh, South Sudan, and Democratic Republic of Congo? Or racial discrimination, sexual assault and abuse, or the devaluing of human lives and family bonds in the immigration crisis, or confront the capitalist philosophy that allows us to destroy our environment because there is money to be made, and on and on? How do we not become overwhelmed, not become complacent, not become cynical, not become apathetic, not become numb when we listen to real life tragedies around our homes and around the world?
I went to a movie showing of Big Sonia this past week with my daughter Robin. Sonia Warshawski is a 92 year old survivor of the Nazi Death Camps in the Holocaust. She has devoted a large part of her older adult life to telling others about her experience, of losing most of her family and seeing her mother marched to the gas chambers. She is not a Pollyanna and, unlike Corrie Ten Boom, a Christian prisoner of the Nazis, Sonia does not forgive the Nazis for their mass murder of 6 million Jews. But she does look injustice in the eye and call it what it is. And she does speak to the heart of the matter in saying that love must replace hate or the hate will destroy us. Her witness to high school students and prison convicts elicits the same response, that her words offer hope that we can live better lives and help create a better world.
Jesus lived an authentic life infused with the vision that God is with us now and that we are called to be awake to this reality even as we deal with suffering and injustice. We are on a journey with God and, like the lines of the labyrinth, God guides our steps toward hope and justice. We do not need to sing about a place over the rainbow because we are already in the place where God has promised to protect us and care for us. Right here, right now, we are under the rainbow of God’s love. Amen.