Saturday, February 25, 2023

The Rainbow Sign - a sermon for Lent

Did you know that some communities are trying to ban public displays of the rainbow flag? {I don't want to guess how many of those also fly the 'thin blue line' or want to fly the so-called Christian flag. If you were to ask me, the last thing Jesus needs is a flag. But I do feel differently about the rainbow flag. Read on.]

The Rainbow Sign -A Sermon for Lent 1 preached two years ago (2021) around this time at the United Church of Cookeville (UCC)

As I prepare to preach my topic, The Rainbow Sign, my notes say I need a short disclaimer about church hurt. (Add your own story of church hurt, here).

So, you want to start a fight with a fundamentalist? 

Tell them that the Noah story, as depicted in Genesis, is not a perfect fact. Suggest that, perhaps, the story of the flood is mere myth or parable, or at the very least an exaggerated rendering of a lost legend, or tell them that the earth really is more than 4 billion years old, then we might be ready to rumble.

Taking this further, we could also suggest, that while the science behind a young earth and global flood are sketchy, that is not all. 

We can hit this difficult text harder, by reminding folks that any God who would destroy the entire human race, save one family, with a dramatic weather event, that this monstrous mercy might not be appropriate for Sunday school singalongs, might not even reveal the good God we have come to know as love in our lives, in the wisdom found in other parts of the world’s sacred scriptures, in the person of Jesus. 

In recent years of floods and wildfires, of hurricanes and tornadoes, of even this week of ice storms and snowstorms, it’s more than a little problematic, perhaps even cruel, to suggest that God controls the weather as some kind of disciplinary mechanism against our communities. Just last spring, when describing to someone how close in proximity that the March tornado came to my house, that someone suggested that my house was spared, because I was “right with the Lord.” 

Really? And the folks who died in the tornado, our God had it out for them? I must rebuke this way of thinking.

Yet this idea that God controls the weather, that Noah’s Ark is strictly reliable as history, these are taken by so many as unquestioning articles of faith. Which might make me a really, really bad preacher, for my lack of faith in these epic events and their standard-issue interpretations. 

But perhaps Noah’s Ark is a parable about loving the earth and respecting the creation. Interpreted today in light of climate change, we can see how the human wickedness of unchecked greed and pollution and progress are contributing to melting ice caps and rising sea levels. 

We will never know for certain if God destroyed all creation by water as depicted in Genesis, to teach us a lesson about our own evil. But with the evidence and knowledge we have now, we can interpret the Biblical flood as a cautionary tale. We do know that we have it within our collective power to at least mitigate future floods by changing our way of life.

As controversial as debates about the factuality of Genesis or the theology of meteorology might be, today’s text ends with an unendingly hopeful and yet even still controversial image. The Rainbow Sign. In these few verses that we read today, the covenant between God and creatures and creation has been restored. The rainbow recommends a future bright and light. 

Fast forward to 20th Century pop culture and the rainbow remains a compelling image in song, from Judy Garland’s “Over The Rainbow” in The Wizard of Oz to Kermit and the Muppets and “The Rainbow Connection.” The rainbow redeems even the gloomiest rainstorms of moods, so much as to create the cynical reminder that life isn’t only rainbows and unicorns. To which I like to reply, some rainbows and unicorns would be nice. 

In 1984, when civil rights leader, the Reverend Jesse Jackson ran for President, he did so under the banner of the Rainbow Coalition. Jackson spoke, “Our flag is red, white and blue, but our nation is a rainbow - red, yellow, brown, black and white - and we're all precious in God's sight. 

Jackson continued, “America is not like a blanket - one piece of unbroken cloth, the same color, the same texture, the same size. America is more like a quilt - many patches, many pieces, many colors, many sizes, all woven and held together by a common thread. 

The white, the Hispanic, the black, the Arab, the Jew, the woman, the native American, the small farmer, the businessperson, the environmentalist, the peace activist, the young, the old, the lesbian, the gay and the disabled make up the American quilt.”

Now, I am guessing you also understand why even the rainbow itself, as a symbol, causes controversy for us now. The same conservative Christians who spend millions to build larger-than-life Ark replicas, they also accuse the LGBTQetc community of stealing the rainbow from Noah, to celebrate it on our flags. And what beautiful flags they are.

In the late 1970s, Gilbert Baker is credited with the first Rainbow Flag to be used as a symbol for Gay Pride. Baker reflected,

“In 1978, when I thought of creating a flag for the gay movement there was no other international symbol for us than the pink triangle, which the Nazis used to identify homosexuals in concentration camps. 

I almost instantly thought of using the rainbow. To me, it was the only thing that could really express our diversity, beauty and our joy.”

In 2014, I was given this rainbow scarf by the More Light Presbyterians, when we went to the PCUSA General Assembly in my former home of Detroit, Michigan, to advocate for and achieve marriage equality in our denomination, one year before the Supreme Court decision to make equal marriage the law of our land. This came just a few years after we relaxed our ordination standards, removing the requirement that our pastors must either be married heterosexuals or chaste outside of marriage. 

Those of you who know your United Church of Christ history might mention to the Presbyterians, that we were late to the party. Bill Johnson was the first openly gay minister to be ordained in a historic protestant denomination. He received his ordination through the United Church of Christ back in 1972. 49 years ago.

The UCC passed an equal marriage resolution in 2005, which included this language:

“Let us explore our faith in relation to these issues: the meaning of Christian marriage, the blessing of unions among same-sex couples, the honoring of diverse expressions of loving and caring human relationships, being guided in all things by the love of Jesus. Above all, may these conversations be ventured in humility and prayer.”

Today, in addition to the UCC and PCUSA, other mainline Christian churches where we are likely to see same gender marriages widely affirmed include the Evangelical Lutheran Church, and the Disciples of Christ.

Despite so much progress for the LGBTQetc community in many churches and in our culture at large, instances of significant pushback, even hatred and homophobia and discrimination, occur every day. 

Each year, the Human Rights Campaign monitors what it calls “the slate of hate” in Tennessee and other states. Just this year, our state is trying to prevent transgender students from participating in high school and middle school sports. Just last year, Governor Bill Lee signed a controversial measure that would let religious adoption agencies deny service to same-sex couples. 

During Pride Month the last few years, President Trump prevented the United States embassy in places like Israel, Germany, Brazil and Latvia from flying the rainbow flag as a sign of solidarity with the LGBTQetc community. 

Many churches that fly the rainbow flag or have rainbow banners announcing their generous welcome for the LGBTQetc community have been victims of hate-speech vandalism, something strongly on the rise since 2016.

Queer Christian writer John Russell Stanger sees Lent as a time to take the ways that the world has humiliated us, in all our variety and diversity, and how the world has derided our dedication to said diversity, Stanger suggests, with Jesus, we can take all that and flip it around, all the way to the Palm Sunday parade, all the way to the cross, all the way to resurrection. Stanger writes, 

“This Lent, reflect on the places you’ve internalized shame because other people have feared all that you’re bringing to the parade of life. And then ask yourself, what if I was proud of what others would seek to humiliate me for?” So for this Lent, let us give up shame. For this Lent, let us give up those negative internal messages imposed by society to make us feel less than.

Another adjacent sermon might help us unpack the so-called bully passages to see how the Bibe has been incorrectly weaponized against the queer community, that will have to wait for another time. Yet remember: God made us in all this beauty and diversity. God made us for this rainbow sign. No need to be ashamed of the people that God made us to be. Let me say it with some playfulness and much conviction, it can all be the same rainbow sign. 

The rainbow mentioned by God to Noah in Genesis, but also the rainbow that Judy Garland and Kermit the Frog sang about. The same rainbow sign. The rainbow that the Reverend Jesse Jackson called a coalition and spoke so eloquently about when he was running for President. The same rainbow sign. The flag made by Gilbert Baker and many others from the 1978 pride parade decorations committee and the flag that still flies today in so many places, even at so many UCC churches. It’s the same rainbow sign. 

The rainbow covenant read strictly reminds us that God will never destroy the world by water again. A new rainbow covenant suggests that Christians of conscience will share solidarity with the LGBTQetc community and wave the rainbow flag proudly and say “no hate in our state,” undoing generations of church hurt and theological malpractice. 

It’s the same rainbow sign. Because this rainbow is for hope and love and inclusion for all of God’s children. That is the new rainbow sign but also the same old rainbow sign. The same, beautiful, multicolored rainbow for our world of multiple beauties, like each of you. May it be so. Amen.  

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