Two summers ago members of our congregation quickly designed, created and hung a rainbow banner on the outside of our sanctuary entrance as a sign of concern and solidarity with persons jolted by the mass killing in Orlando, Florida, most from the gay and lesbian community. I was at Iona at the time with a group from the congregation and we, in turn, made a rainbow cross to display in the Abbey at that sacred site.
Upon my return I had the chance to witness the response to our rainbow banner. Persons brought friends to take “selfies,” messages of thanks were left at the office and a gay couple, both ministers from Upstate New York, sought me out to tell their story and to extend their appreciation for our public witness.
That rainbow banner was a sign of care, an expression of support and a stubborn witness to the love of God. No level of violence will defeat us, no act of terror will separate us, no level of hate will tear us away from the love of God and each other.
Today’s scripture and sermon are about the power of God to withstand tragedy and to hold on to life. Today is about a firm foundation within the mercy and love of God.
It is a powerful, wonderful image. On the edges of a storm a rainbow can appear in the clouds. For all of human history signs in the heavens have been associated with God or the gods. Eclipses, unusual star formations, rainbows all carry heavenly messages. A special star told of the birth of Jesus and the rainbow, as we read in Genesis, is a sign of God’s fidelity. This Genesis reading comes after the great flood. Scared and anxious people are told that when the rainbow appears in the sky, God is reminded of God’s own faithfulness; never again shall a flood cover the earth. This touches the broader message that God intends kindness not cruelty.
Sometimes we want to pin everything on God or entertain the notion that God micro manages every detail of every life so that illness means punishment and health implies faithfulness. Kate Bowler, a young Duke Divinity professor and cancer patient, has created quite the national buzz this year in her commentary about cancer, struggle and faith. The title of her new book tips us off to her message: “Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved.” In the appendix of this book she provides lists of things helpful to say and not helpful to say to a person in the midst of a tragedy “Everything happens for a reason” is number 5 on the don’t say list. She explains: “I’ve had hundreds of people tell me the reason for my cancer. Because of my sin. Because of my unfaithfulness. Because God is fair. Because God is unfair. Because of my aversion to Brussels sprouts.” (p. 170) Yet, as she explores throughout her book, if God sent the cancer or if there is a good reason for it, then God is either incredibly cruel or indifferent. The God she knows is caring and kind, not cruel or indifferent.
Yes, tragedy strikes. Floods happen. But that is not the end of the story. God is present as refuge and strength as the psalmist announces and the rainbow reminds both God and us.
Jesus leaned on the mercy of God. Our gospel lesson is the rapid, nearly breathless telling of the opening of Jesus’ public life. In six verses (not chapters) Jesus is introduced, baptized, tempted in wilderness; John is arrested and Jesus delivers his first sermon. Mark does not waste any time or any words. Within that rapid account what struck me this week is the description of his forty days of time out. Following his baptism Mark explains that the Spirit drove Jesus to the wilderness where he was “tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” Beasts and angels.
Beasts and angels. I know something about that. My sense is that you do as well. The beasts. At our Wednesday study these beasts were named: cancer, anxiety, violence, addiction. One participant later wrote back: loneliness is a particularly tough beast. These beasts are real. Sometimes we even use the imagery of an animal when speaking of struggle as if there is “a wolf at the door.” The beast is at the door. By Wednesday night we were confronted with the haunting beast of poor mental health coupled with a semi-automatic weapon as, once again, students and teachers were gunned down at school. It is so overwhelming that we are tempted to turn away. The beast is so powerful that denial is a frequent response. And then we have the beast called the NRA and their political pawns who provide the justification of lax and irresponsible gun laws. When it comes to national policy it appears that we love our guns more than our children. It is a nasty reality; the beast is at the door.
Jesus was tempted by Satan and confronted the beasts. The bad news of the day is that people of faith will be tempted. The tough news is that people of faith do not hide out in safe places but they go into the wilderness to confront the beasts. We can confront the beasts because we are blessed with angels. Now, don’t get all “Hallmarky” on me. I am not talking about smiling cherubs and kind spirits with wings that dot the front of greeting cards. Sure, there is nothing wrong with having some fun with such images and Christian art for centuries has put the ethereal of “a message from God” into the physical form of a gentle winged creature. But, for me, angels tend to be in the form of flesh and blood – real people. Other times the angel comes in the form of their words – frequently words written on a page. At times an angel appears in the form of the beauty of a mountain or shoreline or the wonder of the night sky. An angel is simply a message from God and since such messages tend to be fast and fleeting, we give them wings.
Earlier this week a faithful member of our congregation explained how hard the last months had been, what will all the health scares and thoughts of death. She said that one point of great comfort and strength is to glance at the photo of Edith Leech on her refrigerator. Edith was one of the great ones of our congregation; she died back in 2013. For our friend, the memory of Edith is still an angel that helps her face the beast.
Most of my angels are also of flesh and bones. Recently a member was very kind and complemented me on my supposed bravery for speaking out on a certain moral issue. I hadn’t really thought about it in those terms for I know that you are standing with me and that is simply what we Presbyterians do. Our member was kind and generous but I needed to explain that I do what I do because you do what you do. We are angels for one another.
One of our adult classes is reading a collection of sermons by Martin Luther King, Jr. It is a great read and, for all of us who are more familiar with the short clips of his most famous speeches, working through full sermons is a real treat. In a sermon entitled “Antidotes for Fear” King writes of a wonderful encounter with Mother Pollard, an angel in his life in 1956. Here is his description:
On a particular Monday evening, following a tension-packed week that included being arrested and receiving numerous threatening phone calls, I spoke at a mass meeting. I attempted to convey an overt impression of strength and courage, although I was inwardly depressed and fear-stricken. At the end of the meeting, Mother Pollard came to the front of the church and said, “Come here, son.” I immediately went to her and hugged her affectionately. “Something is wrong with you,” she said. “You didn’t talk straight tonight.” Seeking further to disguise my fears, I retorted, “Oh, no, Mother Pollard nothing is wrong. I am feeling as fine as ever. But her insight was discerning. “Now you can’t fool me,” she said. I knows something is wrong. Is it that we ain’t doing things to please you? Or is it that the white folks is bothering you?” Before I could respond, she looked directly into my eyes and said, “I don told you that we is with you all the way.” Then her face became radiant and she said in words of quiet certainty, “But even if we ain’t with you, God’s gonna take care of you.” As she spoke these consoling words, everything in me quivered and quickened with the pulsing tremor of raw energy.” (Strength to Love, p. 130)
Fear and Mother Pollard. Beasts and angels. “And the angels waited on him.” Dear friends, face the beasts …………. and welcome the angels.