In Preschool Chapel this week, I leapt right into a lesson on Lent, preoccupied with the challenge of explaining self-examination and repentance to two, three, and four-year-olds. Involved in what I was saying, I was not attuned to the seemingly random comments that kept popping up from the pews. “My,” I thought, “the children sure are having a hard time settling down today. They are usually such good listeners.” I tried to tune out their soft, amazed voices, more determined than ever to capture their attention with the messy, black ashes that I was using to draw a picture. It wasn’t until I’d finished my story that I heard what they had been saying the whole time, “Look, Miss Rev. Anne, there’s a rainbow on you! A rainbow!” I had never noticed before that, when the sun shines just the right way through our stained-glass windows, a rainbow appears on the right front side of the church—indeed, right where I was standing. Preoccupied with ashes and sin, I had a rainbow dancing across my face and arm, and only the children could see it.
The story of the flood in Genesis is not a happy tale. I don’t care how violent and wicked the earth was, I don’t like the idea of a Creator God who wads up his creation and destroys it, like a petulant child dissatisfied with his drawing. I don’t like to imagine whole cities of flawed human beings gasping for breath underneath the muddy floodwaters while only Noah’s family bobs safely away on the ark. I roll my eyes at a God who shoots out painful lightning arrows with a mighty bow to zap us, even if that God has decided to hang up the bow on a celestial hook. The flood story usually makes me uncomfortable with God, despairing of human nature, and focused on sin and punishment. When I think about the flood story, I enter into a gray world of pouring rain, a real “Ash Wednesday world” of human depravity and divine judgment. It might be a good idea for us, though, on this first Sunday of Lent, to put aside our discomfort and indignation to join the Preschool children in concentrating on the rainbow for a change.
When I think of rainbows, I think of laughing children standing outside in the backyard on a lazy summer afternoon and squirting the garden hose at just the right angle to make a rainbow appear over the grass, like a magic trick. Like love itself, rainbows are happy, if ephemeral things. If we try to catch them, they turn to damp mist in our hands, and if we try to point them out to others, they slide away behind a sunbeam. Rainbows are a fitting sign of a covenant with a Creator who is inextricably intertwined and immanently present in the world, yet always just beyond our grasp and our vision. In today’s reading, God promises Noah to love and to sustain the world for all eternity, tenderly reaching out in life-giving mercy—not just to Noah’s righteous family, to the ancient Israelite nation, or even to sentient human beings—but softly enveloping all the creatures of the earth, seas, and sky. So involved is God within the world that the rainbow will appear in every cloud and before every storm, not merely for our benefit, but as a constant thought, a whispered “remember” to an ever-present and observant God. In the rainbow, the covenant of the Holy One shimmers, almost invisible, within every drop of water, for those searching with open eyes. It can shine on us, even when we are holding ashes in our hands.
The amazing thing about the covenant with Noah, marked by the rainbow, is indeed that it is a covenant that is binding only on God. The other Biblical covenants, given to Abraham and to the children of Israel, demand obedient responses from the human side of the bargain. But in this covenant with Noah, God accepts that “the human heart is evil from youth,” and God promises never to react again with violence against the creation. It doesn’t matter what terrible things we do, or what good things we fail to do, God voluntarily restrains God’s own power and freedom to destroy. It is as if we have a God who, out of love for Creation, emptied himself to become a slave, suffering and even dying for the world that he has made …as if we have a God who could become flesh and walk into the wilderness of our world to feel hunger and thirst and fear and to be tempted by Evil … as if we have a God willing go so far as to die as a condemned criminal on a Cross. We Christians like to point fingers at the “angry Old Testament God,” but the God who spoke in the rainbow is the same loving, merciful God that we Christians see in Jesus Christ. The shining rainbows that magically appear before our eyes are like the nail marks and spear marks in the flesh of the risen Christ—painful wounds and gashes of love and mercy bleeding light into the sky from the heart of a faithful and self-limiting God.
Why does it matter to us, you might ask, what kind of emotions we ascribe to God, to a God who is obviously more than any of our human labels? In the 21st century, do we really still need this story of a God who gets angry and feels remorse and makes loving promises like a human parent? I believe that we do. For what we believe about God has a direct relationship to what we believe about ourselves and our world. Just as we project human emotions onto God, we pull down divine judgments onto ourselves and our neighbors. If God destroys and punishes, we are encouraged to do the same. The Christians who claimed that the flooding from Hurricane Katrina was divine judgment on the citizens of New Orleans for their iniquity were like me in preschool chapel—so caught up in sin and guilt that they forgot about the rainbows. On the other hand, if our God takes risks in loving creation, so must we. As David Lose writes, “If God, who alone has the right to despair, judge, or destroy, surrenders [that right], might not we who have tasted this mercy look upon all persons and all things as inherently worthwhile, that is, as those things that God has called worthy?”
I recently heard author Diana Butler Bass talking online about her most recent book, Christianity After Religion, and she was naming some of the things in the last decade that have turned Americans off of Church: the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, the nasty in-fighting of Episcopalians over Bishop Gene Robinson’s election, the violence of the Muslim terrorists on September 11 …. Unlike God, in our actions and reactions, we have both given up on ourselves because of our sinfulness and we have been unwilling to see and respond in love to the worth and dignity of every human being. We Christians have earned the reputation described in a new Lenten hymn: “we often sing that you are our delight, then we go shouting words that sting, we bicker and we fight. Oppressing others for our gain, we put our interests first. We overlook our neighbor’s pain while praying here in church.” In other words, we hold up ashes, while rainbows dance across our foreheads.
This first week in Lent, I invite all of us to remember the rainbows: not as cheery signs pointing to a pot of gold at the end, but as self-inflicted wounds in the heart of God, inviting us to live lives of forgiveness, mercy, and self-giving love.