After the Rainbow

Sep 11, 2022

3 1-1

After the Rainbow

A sermon by Rev. Aaron Fulp-Eickstaedt at Immanuel Presbyterian Church, McLean VA

After the Rainbow

A sermon by Rev. Aaron Fulp-Eickstaedt

At Immanuel Presbyterian Church, McLean VA

On September 11th, 2022

Genesis 9:8-17

As we turn to our scripture passage for today, I invite you to think about what you know about the tale of Noah in the book of Genesis.  It’s a bit of a troubling story considering that it portrays God as so angry that God is willing to wipe out all the inhabitants of the world, save for one righteous man and his family, and a mating pair of every animal species on earth.  The story goes like this.  God is displeased with human beings, but Noah finds favor in God’s sight. God tells Noah to build a great big boat, an ark, and to bring his family, and all those animals aboard, and then it rains for forty days and forty nights without stopping.  They drift on the waters for 150 days after that until the waters recede enough that the ark comes to rest on Mount Ararat.  Sometime after that, a dove that Noah sends out to find land returns with and olive leaf in its beak, and that’s when he knows the coast is clear.  The ark is unloaded, Noah sets up an altar to God, makes a sacrifice, and then God blesses Noah and his sons.  God gives them some instructions (be fruitful and multiply, eat any animal you want (just not with its blood), and if you shed human blood, you’ll pay with your own blood).   And that’s where our passage for today picks up, with God establishing a covenant with Noah and humanity and all living things, a promise marked by a rainbow, to never again destroy the earth with water.  Listen for God’s word to us:

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.’

The word of God for the people of God.  Thanks be to God.  Let us pray:  May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer.  And may the gospel be more to us than mere words.  May the Holy Spirit produce in us strong conviction.  Amen.

I believe it was the great 20th century theologian Kermit the Frog who first posed the question:

Why are there so many songs about rainbows
And what’s on the other side?

Then answered it by singing, while strumming his banjo in his swamp:
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

Kermit, like those who first recorded today’s scripture passage, knows that there is something captivating, magical, even divine about rainbows.  We can understand the scientific explanation for their appearance all we want.  We can know the way refraction works to bend light through rain drops, acting like a prism to reveal colors across a spectrum—and still be enchanted by them and see them as a sort of a sign.  If we took a survey of those of you in the pews, or those of you watching at home, I’d be willing to bet that the majority of you have a story connected to seeing a rainbow in your own life.

I have more than I can count on one hand. I think of the rainbow that appeared over Church of the Pilgrims in a cloudless sky the day I conducted the wedding of Brian Wilhour and Christian Edel.  Or Lee and Paulette, how about the rainbow that materialized above the river in St. Augustine, not long after Abi and Travis Manning said their vows in a marriage ceremony that happened a week after a hurricane blew through and not long before another hurricane was to come.  Then there was the double rainbow that showed up at the first family reunion my family had after my first cousin Kathy died of breast cancer before she even turned 50 years old.

If you’ve followed what happened after the death of Queen Elizabeth in the U.K. this week, first of all you know that she died a Presbyterian, which I find really interesting.  I think she was predestined to be one of us.  But seriously, if you followed what happened after the death of Queen Elizabeth this week, you may have seen images of the rainbow that appeared over Windsor Castle as the flag was lowered to half-mast.  It was there just a few minutes, and then just like that, it was gone.  I could go on, but you get my drift.  Isn’t it interesting how rainbows seem to show up in moments when we make or need to be reminded of promises, and the promises of God.

For all of the ugliness of the story of Noah and the flood—and trust me, we don’t want to think too hard about its portrayal of God—I appreciate the way the rainbow has evolved as a sign of promise and hope in the aftermath of stormy times—and how it is that image that seems to endure throughout history and in popular culture.

I think of Kermit’s question.  Do rainbows have nothing to hide?  Are they really only illusions?  Or are they invitations into the mystery of divine and human love, starting again, and the importance of covenants and connection and commitment and inclusion in a world where rain and pain and disappointments inevitably come?

If so, if rainbows are more than just illusions, but invitations into covenant commitment, then it’s worth thinking about what we do after the rainbow.  What do we do after the rainbow reminds us that hope endures, after the flood waters recede, after the person we thought we could never live without passes on and somehow life continues.  What do we do after the pandemic becomes endemic and we start afresh (even if we’re still wearing masks in worship for a while).  You see, rainbows, while they are intended to remind us of the enduring nature of covenants, are nonetheless themselves ephemeral.  They come and they go.  They appear and they disappear.

Which is why I find it so fitting that the white stole I wear most often for weddings and memorial services and baptisms, which has now been worn so often that it has become frayed, has a rainbow across it—with the word JOY on one side and a cross on the other.  How appropriate it is to see the rainbow in such liminal moments!   Now, depending on the wedding, the people making their vows may not have endured much loss and disappointment in their lives, at least not to that point.  Depending on the memorial service, the death may seem more or less tragic and untimely.  Given that most baptisms that we do in the Presbyterian church are for infants, the ones getting baptized are not likely to have been through much trauma yet.  But part of what it means to be human is that we are not invulnerable to such things as pain and loss.  Flood come on an individual or communal or national or global scale.

The people who first started to tell the story of Noah and the flood and the rainbow were trying to make sense of this.  Given the archeological record of the ancient Near East, and the fact that a number of different communities in and around it developed literature relating to a huge flood, all at around the same period of time, it seems clear that some sort of region-wide cataclysmic event happened.  While the ancient Israelites attributed it to God’s wrath, they did point to the bow in the sky as a sign of hope and promise and starting again.  Whenever it appeared, even briefly, they were called to remember the enduring nature—not of floods, not of disappointments, not of loss—but of God’s covenant love.

So let me return again to the question—what do we do, not just after the flood or the pandemic or the tragic loss, but after the rainbow?

I think the larger narrative of scripture suggests three things.

Number 1, we remember that after the rainbow, life will continue to be life (with all of its ups and downs, its triumphs and tragedies) and human beings—get this—human beings will continue to be human beings (in all of their glory and all of their imperfection, in all of their capacity to delight us and in all of their ability to let us down).  After the rainbow, after the fresh start, human beings continue to be human beings and life continues to be life.  I hate to break that to all of us.

But that’s the testimony of scripture, beginning immediately after today’s passage from Genesis.  In the very next section, Noah, who modern psychologists might say was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after watching his whole world get destroyed and having to spend six months on a relatively small ship filled with a bunch of noisy and smelly animals, creates the first vineyard and then he gets into the wine.  He drinks himself into a stupor and falls asleep in his tent, uncovered.  And then he gets angry at the son who happens to notice that and point it out to his brothers.

What could be more human than that?  As the larger narrative of scripture unfolds, we get treated to stories of dysfunctional families, and tyrannical leaders, and the poor going hungry, and nations going to war, and human beings being inhumane.  The rainbow doesn’t make sin and death and disease disappear; it doesn’t make humans any less human.  It just appears as an occasional reminder from God that sin and death and evil don’t get the last word—love does.

Which is why it is good thing that rainbows show up at weddings, and baptisms, and memorial services—and around other liminal moments in life.  Because the truth of the matter in all human relationships, is that no one is perfect (not us, not them, not the new person or the old one, not this spouse or that spouse).

Last Sunday, I had the beautiful privilege of being with my mom and dad as together my family celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary.  My mom had just gotten home from a brief trip to the hospital.  She was in the bed and couldn’t really get up without assistance.  As we gathered together in their bedroom, my dad played the song that they danced to at their wedding.  When I Fall in Love, It Will Be Forever.  It was beautiful.  And, as their son, I can tell you that neither one of those two individuals, as much as I love them (Mom and Dad, I know you’re listening), are perfect.  Which means that in every situation involving human relationships, we need grace.  The truth of the matter when we commit our lives to one another and to God is that we do not become infallible, so we need mercy.  And the truth of the matter when it comes to death, whenever it arrives for us or those we love, is that it means that something has indeed come to an end.  Death has a power.  But the rainbow reminds us that all is not lost—there is life somehow on the other side for us and for those who leave us or those we leave.

Number 2, Because life will continue to be life and human beings will be human beings, we need to shift our mentality from Never Forget to Always Remember.  It is not lost on me that today is September 11th, which starting in 2001, became not just a date on a calendar but a yearly recollection of our vulnerability as a nation and the capacity that hate has to twist hearts.  Every 9/11 since, there is someone who will say Never, Never, Never Forget.  And I appreciate that impulse, I do.

But there are times when it seems to be a way of reinflaming hostility and making sure the scar never fully heals over the wound.  A colleague of mine, on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, preached about how the Israelites were called in the Ten Commandments to remember that they were slaves in Egypt, not as a way of making them hate the Egyptians all over again, but as the impetus to remember to care for others who were strangers and foreigners in their own land.

What if, instead of thinking and saying never forget, never forget how we were harmed (nationally, communally, individually), we began to reframe it as Always Remember?  Always remember the love and sacrifice of those who went into buildings to save lives.  Always remember the ways we came together as a nation, even if only briefly.  Always remember what it felt like to be that vulnerable, so that we can help the vulnerable.  Not Never Forget, but Always Remember.

Which brings us to my third point.  After the rainbow, not only do we realize that life will continue to be life and human beings will continue to be human beings, and not only do we do well to reframe from Never Forget to Always Remember, but number 3, we also need to hold on to the truth that after the rainbow, we have work to do.

We have work to do after the rainbow.  Work to continue to bring people into this sanctuary and the life of the church, to help them re-engage or to engage for the first time.  We have work to do post-rainbow, to reach out to people who are on the outside looking in and to welcome them.

We have work to do.  Which takes me back to right where I started with Kermit the Frog and the last verse of that song that he sings in his swamp:

Have you been half asleep, and have you heard voices?
I’ve heard them calling my name
Is this the sweet sound that calls the young sailors?
The voice might be one and the same
I’ve heard it too many times to ignore it
It’s something that I’m supposed to be
Someday we’ll find it, the rainbow connection
The lovers, the dreamers, and me

 What if we did that, after the rainbow?  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

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