Speak to our hearts and strengthen our wills O God that we may love and serve you today and always. Amen
On this, the first Sunday morning of Lent, the readings all speak to covenant….to a pledge or some sort of promise. From the Hebrew scripture in Genesis we receive the covenant of the rainbow, the oldest of all of covenants in the Bible. And in the 25th Psalm there is resounding joy in the covenant of salvation: “To you my God, I lift up my soul. Oh my God in you I trust. For you are the God of my salvation.” Then in today’s Epistle we again hear the story of the flood, but now it’s interpreted as the covenant of baptism and that leads us to Mark’s Gospel of Jesus being baptized by John in the Jordan river. Baptism — the ultimate covenant — one of Christianity’s two greatest sacraments.
A few months ago, on a drizzly, lightly raining evening, I was on my way home from dinner at Adelynrood, the retreat center not far from here, when I was arrested by a spectacular sight in the sky. A triple rainbow… that arced the entire landscape—a full 180 degrees beginning and ending on the firmament of the salt marches that stretched out toward Plum Island. Maybe some of you remember it? It was really quite spectacular. Cars had pulled over and were lining both sides of the road and their occupants stood outside taking pictures of that remarkable sight. The next day people were still talking about the beauty they had seen in the sky and Facebook was full of pictures posted by people from all around the region.
Over the centuries, rainbows have become more than just beautiful sights, they are important symbols of the covenant of God’s unconditional love — and they speak to us, on some level of our being, even if we do not believe in the historical, spiritual or archetypical truth of the flood story and even if we profess to not being a Christian. Whether we believe any of that or not, rainbows appearing as the rains ebb and stop, with the water droplets catching the sun’s rays, causing gorgeous color to be spread across the sky, often have a profound effect on people. They can speck to some deep place in us. I frequently notice a shift in peoples’ attitudes, a raising of spirits and an awareness that something awesome has and is happening.
And, indeed, we learn from this morning’s reading that something awesome did happen in Noah’s life. The flood story, and its culmination in the image of the rainbow, symbolizing God’s love for God’s people, is a fitting opening for the beginning of Lent and for today, Episcopal Relief and Development Sunday in a year with so many huge weather related disasters. The flood, sent as a result of God’s dissatisfaction with humankind’s behavior, with humankind’s wickedness and sinful ways – we are told comes close to causing total annihilation of humanity.
But God, out of God’s mercy, concedes and through God’s love, humanity is saved and can start again. And…God…makes…a …covenant, gives the promise, that the Earth will never be destroyed that way again – and in so doing, God becomes the protector — a protector who has a stake in the success of the game, no longer only the observing creator. And the covenant was unilateral, something very important to note and something I had never really paid attention to until I studied this story…God was committed to the covenant but humankind was not; no strings were attached by God to the covenant – no matter what humankind did or didn’t do, God would stand by God’s promise—to love us unconditionally. And we are witnesses that this covenant is still solid, is still in place, despite our continued destructive behavior, our continued sinfulness
This covenant, symbolized by the bow in the sky, found a flesh and blood expression for us in the person of Jesus Christ. God in God’s mercy became incarnate as a human. And that human….died a horrid death on the cross for our salvation as a result of that covenant—that love—and defeated death through the resurrection and went on to send us an advocate, the Holy Spirit to be with us always.
Lent, is a very solemn time in our church year, set aside by Christians as a time to prepare for Easter because despite all of our efforts, we fall into sin and consort with the powers of darkness, over and over again. Recognizing and admitting that is an important step in the working out of our salvation in Jesus Christ. But we try to not stop there. Once we have recognized our sin as individuals and as a human family we must look up and see that God has tossed us a flesh and blood life raft – Christ our Lord. If we can grab hold of him and let him take our sins from us, we become free to live and move in new ways.
And those are the central themes of Lent: recognition of our sin, and a desire and willingness to let those sins go and – to — be — taken — from — us — by — One who is mightier over them than we are. Taken by the One who was named by God in the waters of his baptism as the “Beloved”. I believe he was named that not just because God loved him so dearly, and not only because at Jesus’s core he is Love, but because the Trinity operates only out of the inter-relationship of Love among the Three in One.
During Lent as we walk with Jesus toward Jerusalem, we take the time to intentionally think about how we have sinned — sinned individually and as part of a larger group, as a part of humanity. I submit to you that this Lent that reflection must include deep and purposeful reflection on the continued proliferation of guns in our society, and I mean all types of guns, and on the violent use of those guns throughout our life — for as members of a society where thousands of our brothers and sisters are murdered by guns each year we each own a part of that great evil. May our reflections inspire us to action to follow the Prince of Peace as we respond to this epidemic of gun violence in the U.S.A. In our own community the interfaith clergy association of NBPT has not lost sight of this need over the past months and has and is working together and with our elected officials to find real and meaningful ways of addressing this blight in our society. Martha and I will keep you aware of the outcomes of our efforts.
During Lent we engage in practices that help us pay better attention to our deeper hungers and desires and to acknowledge them. – We don’t engage in those practices, practices of giving up those things we love, or by taking on new and additional practices and activities, in order to punish ourselves for those sins; but rather, so we can let go of the darkness…..repent….and join together with gratitude for the covenant of the rainbow…. ultimately culminating in joyful celebration on Easter Sunday.
And so, as we move through Lent, toward the joy and beauty of Easter when we renew our baptismal covenant, we can hold the image of a beautiful rainbow in our hearts filling us with the knowledge that God has promised unconditional love and salvation through that love made manifest in Jesus Christ…….
Several weeks ago, Martha reminded us in her sermon that baptism is not a holy zap that magically transforms life, but rather, that it is the starting point for a lifelong partnership with God. AND IT IS THROUGH THAT partnership we join God’s unilateral covenant with our own. And we know that through God’s grace even when we break our covenant (and as sinners we inevitably will) we know that Christ can be trusted completely with any sin we have ever committed and as we pray in our confession, for the evil done on our behalf. And we know that we can be healed from the entrenched patterns of sin that handicap our lives…. and with that healing there is room for increased light and life and love. As the writer of our second lesson, from the First Letter of Peter, points out, all human sin is swallowed up by the embrace of Christ.
Every time we see the spectacular beauty of the rainbow, may these assurances come rushing back to us and may we say Thanks be to God!