Remembering Rainbows

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Community Eucharist

The written version of the sermon is here:  

Every once in a while, when you walk into a dark church with lots of woodwork, if you look carefully, you’ll see touches of color. Especially the gothic influences in Victorian church architecture loved to edge church ceiling beams with bright red or blue or yellow. From a distance, it just highlights the wood, but closer, it almost looks like a rainbow. We have lingering influences of that practice on the vertical posts that form the altar screen for the Memorial Chapel, where you can see little red and blue stars in the dark wood. Bill Minifie used the same idea when he designed and made our lectern platform and rails a few years ago, adding the little touches of red, gold, and blue.

I think the splash of color on dark wood is probably intended as decoration, pure and simple, but I also like that it can symbolize more. Especially when it’s almost hidden, like a secret to be found or a joke to be stumbled upon.

If church ceilings are sometimes intended to remind us of an inverted ship, like the ark, like the vessel that carries us safely through this life. (The central part of the church is still called the nave, from the Latin navis, reminding us of this.) And so, if the ceiling reminds us of a ship, why can’t the splashes of color on wooden beams remind us of rainbows?

The first Sunday of Lent—and especially this year–is a good day for thinking about rainbows.

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.

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. In response to the Devil’s temptations, each time, Jesus responds with scripture. Jesus remembers scripture, and memory protects him from temptation.

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 wrote 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–or unexpected colors that can remind us of rainbows– 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 the color in the world, even though we may forget about it, the colors are there.
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 Spirit. Amen.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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