I know I have told you parts of this story before- but I have since learned a few other facts about it and I want to share them with you. In 1939 Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg were working on a musical score for an upcoming movie. Five minutes into the movie the main character fails to get her Aunt, Uncle and the farm hands to listen to an unpleasant story involving her beloved dog. Her Aunt replies in annoyance, “Dorothy, find yourself a place where you won’t get into any trouble.” Which prompts Dorothy to break out into a song about leaving the black and white dull world of Kansas. This song was originally cut from the movie because it “slowed it down” but Judy Garland’s vocal coach convinced the movie producers to keep it in since Ms. Garland had been working so hard to sing it. And a good thing too because Over The Rainbow was ranked the number one song of the 20th century by the Recording Industry Association of America. But here is what I have learned since. Arlen, whose name was originally Hyman Arluck was the son of Lithuanian Jewish immigrants and his father was a Chazzan- a musician trained to sing the Scriptures and prayers- like a cantor in some Christian traditions. Yip Harburg’s real name was Isidore Hochberg and his parents were yiddish- speaking Orthodox Jews from Russia. Both men had a very firm sense of the immigrant experience. The song Over The Rainbow has come to symbolize the feelings that many Jews would have had as they struggled in Europe and then struggled as immigrants in new worlds. They hoped that some day they could overcome this struggle and fly to a place full of promise and comfort. I also suspect that given their religious upbringing both men knew our scripture passage very well, they knew that a rainbow was indeed a sign of promise and hope. A sign of God’s covenant that goodness and peace would preside over all the earth. But this is just one short part in the very complicated story of Noah.
Since Sunday School many of us have heard the story or sung the songs. That Noah built this incredible ark, that rains started coming and that the animals came 2×2, you got your green alligators and long neck geese kinda songs. After 40 days the crow and then dove are released and eventually evidence of land is found. We tend to think that the story of the rainbow is a beautiful conclusion to this story- and in someways it is- God does indeed make a promise that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood. But the Sunday school lessons never go beyond this. They don’t tell us that Noah had a drinking problem or that Noah curses his son Ham and his descendants into slavery. And it is that line that many white nationalists still use to claim that God not only supports but demands racism. While the rainbow is a symbol of God’s covenant and hope, the story derails very quickly afterwards and it appears that the use of a flood as a reset button- didn’t really work. The wickedness of humankind, which is the language God uses early in Genesis to determine that a flood was necessary, rears it’s ugly head soon after God makes a covenant never again to harm humanity.
The thing about covenants is that they are a two way commitment. God promises this so long as we do or don’t do that. This is why we need to mark Lent- a season that is not about giving up something you shouldn’t be doing or eating in the first place, but a season to acknowledge that we aren’t very good at holding up our end of the covenant. The sole role of the prophets was to point out where leaders and communities were either upholding or undermining the covenant. For us, Jesus on the cross is the final covenant- the promise that God’s grace and salvation is for all. All the earth is reconciled to God once and for all. The problem is that we still struggle to create a world where dreams really do come true and storm clouds are far away and trouble melts like lemon drops.
Along with hearts, rainbows as a sign of appreciation and hope have appeared in many a window over these nearly 12 months. They represent signs of hope that all is not lost and healing will come- we can see it on the horizon. The rainbow is used as a sign of inclusion and welcome. It is a symbol of peace. And so it should be a symbol for all of these things. There is an incredible beauty to a rainbow, especially when it is normally preceded by dark clouds and pounding rain. The problem is that rainbows vanish quickly and we then go about our daily routines and back to our bad habits. I know this sounds pessimistic. So I turned to work by, Rev Marjory McPherson who reminds us what the symbol of the rainbow really is, “The rainbow is set in the sky after the flood, not as a sign for humanity but as a reminder for God, in order that when God sees it, God will remember not to let the flood water destroy life again. So it is not primarily a reminder for us, but rather a sign that reassures us that God remembers us, remembers that even though we will go wrong, that the waters will not again overwhelm the earth for God can see the rainbow.”
This anthropomorphizing of God doesn’t totally sit with me- but I do appreciate this idea that God needs reminding- like writing something down on a sticky note and pasting it where God will see it. After all the passage does say, “When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant.” The idea that the rainbow is to reassure us not remind us is helpful. We have faced a pandemic head on. We acknowledge that there is suffering beyond our comprehension in this world. But we can be reassured that God is suffering with us- and you know why, because God went to the cross for us.
We have begun the season of Lent. At our Ash Wednesday meditation I said that this is a time to prepare ourselves for the paschal mystery. This preparation for Easter starts with acknowledging our need for repentance. We have to acknowledge that the story doesn’t end with the rainbow- we have to uphold our end of the covenant. We also acknowledge the forgiveness proclaimed in and through the gospel of Jesus Christ so that immigrants are not marginalized, so that little girls don’t need to dream about a place beyond their black and white world, so that all of creation can be reassured that God is with us, whether we have faced a terrible storm and can see the rainbow on the horizon, are still wandering in the wilderness or looking into an empty tomb. Amen