Sunday, March 04, 2012

Rainbows and Reminders

The Temptations of Christ, San Marco, Venice

A sermon for the First Sunday in Lent, February 26, 2012.  The lectionary readings are Genesis 9:8-17, Psalm 25:1-9 , 1 Peter 3:18-22, and Mark 1:9-15.

Early last fall, I remember a morning at coffee hour when a parishioner came toward me, holding a post card.  She did not look happy.  I noticed that it was the postcard we had used to hand to people on the street at one of the DC Pride events a while back.  By using the postcard, with a listing of our worship services and the website address, we hoped we could invite people into our parish life, with all of its welcome and inclusion and mission and learning and faithfulness and fun.  I saw the parishioner’s face and assumed the worst.  I assumed she thought we shouldn’t have been at the Pride event, or shouldn’t have been so obviously evangelical.  But, as is often the case, I was wrong.  “Where is this window?” she asked, pointing to the cover photograph of the postcard.  It’s a great photograph by Ron Ross of our rainbow stained glass window.  The person told me she had looked everywhere and hadn’t been able to find it, so she imagined maybe the window had been covered up over the years. 

It turns out, it’s not covered up. It’s just hard to see.  It’s right up there. When you leave the altar rail after communion or after church today, look up toward the ceiling on the pulpit (or gospel) side of the church. Up high, in there is a small clerestory window, and on sunny days, when you look at it, you’ll see the brightest rainbow you can imagine.  I’m glad we have a rainbow, for several reasons.

The rainbow serves as a reminder, as we hear in today’s reading from Genesis. God promises Noah and his family never again to destroy the earth with water. The bow in the sky, of light arcing through the mist of the water, only recently dried up, that trick of water and light becomes a sign and symbol of God’s word, God’s promise, and God’s covenant.

The rainbow serves as a reminder, pointing to something in the past, but it also serves as encouragement, pointing a way forward. Even if we can’t see the end, even if the end of the rainbow shifts as we move along, it still urges us to look, to dream, and to imagine what lies ahead. It encourages us to trust where God leads. The rainbow is a good image for our beginning of a new season of Lent.

A contemporary hymn writer captures the tone of this season as he sings,

This is the day for new beginnings.
Time to remember and move on.
Time to believe what love is bringing;
laying to rest the pain that’s gone.
[This is a Day of New Beginnings, by Brian Wren]

A “time to remember and move on.” It’s the rainbow, again. Remembering and moving on. Both are central to the spiritual life and the season of Lent itself can help us to remember and to move on.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is baptized. A voice is heard from heaven saying, “You are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And before the water even dries or the voice of God fades away, Jesus is led by the Spirit into the wilderness. Into the desert, he goes for 40 days and there he comes face to face with all kinds of temptations. Does that not sound a whole lot like the life we live? At some point we all probably know that phenomenon of one minute, knowing we are God’s beloved (we can feel it, we don’t doubt it, everything is going right), but then in what seems like all too after, we find ourselves surrounded by temptation. There are all kinds of temptations, but most of them are symptomatic, nagging, sorts of things. Perhaps the greatest temptation is more subtle—it has to do with forgetting. In the midst of temptation, we can forget who we are, and momentarily, we can forget who God is.

“Remembering” is so much a part of our faith tradition. Over and over, again, scripture says, “Remember!”

Remember this day on which you came out of Egypt.
Remember the covenant I made with your ancestors.
Remember not the former things.
Remember the devotion of your youth.
Remember the law.
Remember those in prison.
Remember, I am with you always.
Remember me when you come into your kingdom.

In Mark’s version of the temptation story, we’re not told how exactly how Jesus was tempted, or really how he faced down the temptation. But we know that he survived it alongside the wild beasts, and he even felt the presence of God’s holy angels.

Matthew and Luke both give us more details about Jesus’ temptations. They say that when the devil suggests that Jesus ignore hunger, listen to his stomach, and turn stone into bread; Jesus remembers. “It is written,” he says to the devil, “‘Man shall not live by bread alone.’” The devil shows Jesus the kingdoms of the worlds and suggests to Jesus they could be his for the taking, but again, Jesus remembers the first commandment, that God alone is Lord of Heaven and Earth. God’s will be done. And then when the devil tries to get Jesus to jump off the tower of the temple and summon up angels to carry him to the ground, Jesus again remembers scripture.
But he also remembers more than scripture. Jesus remembers who he is, he remembers his baptism and that he is a child of God. He remembers whose he is, that God is watching, is waiting and is even now, aware and present and offering his love.

Martin Luther writes that he sometimes fought off the devil by shouting at him, “I am baptized.” That’s what we do when we make the sign of the cross, and when we dip our finger in holy water and place a little on our foreheads: we are reminding ourselves that we are baptized, that we are loved, and that God is in charge. In the same way, when we see a rainbow, we can recall the covenant God has made—that God will always take care of us and that God is with us. We have not only the old covenant (God’s promises to the people of Israel), but we also have the New Covenant, God’s promise in Jesus Christ sealed and shared with us in the sacrament of bread and wine. Memory keeps these signs and sacraments close by us. Even though we can’t always see it, even though we may forget about it, our little stained glass window with the rainbow is there. If you look closely, you’ll see in that window the words, “Round our restlessness, His Rest.” [It’s from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem, “Rhyme of the Duchess.”  Just across from it is another Barrett Browning quotation from the same poem, “God’s greatness flows round our incompleteness.”]

Baptism, Holy Communion, symbols of faith help us to remember. But God also gives us other “memory helps.” Spiritual disciplines like prayer, meditative reading, fasting, keeping a journal, studying, hospitality, almost any activity that is given over to God, and that allows us to give ourselves over to God can be a spiritual discipline. Practiced-- that is done over and over again-- spiritual disciplines remind us of God. They remind us of our reliance on God, of our need for God, of our connection with God.

In the days ahead, as we practice spiritual disciplines, as we notice the symbols of the season, perhaps giving some things up and taking on other things, may God sharpen our memory and make us alert and awake to temptation, that we might remember the covenant God has made with us. May God strengthen us in the face of every temptation.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

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