Sunday, March 2, 2008


a homily by the Rev Dr Tim W Jensen
delivered at the First Parish Church in Portland, Maine
Sunday March 2nd, 2008

Why ARE there so many songs about Rainbows, and what’s on the other side? Kermit the Frog and I certainly can’t be the only ones to wonder about such a curious phenomenon. Songwriter Paul Williams assures us that “rainbows are visions, but only illusions; and rainbows have nothing to hide.” But some of us -- the lovers, the dreamers -- simply know that there’s got to be more to a rainbow than meets the eye.

Maybe not exactly a pot of gold, or an imaginary land “where troubles melt like lemon drops away above the chimney tops.”

But something magical, something golden and dreamy which takes away the harsh contrasts and gray shadows we so often encounter in our daily living, and instead illuminates all life in a bright explosion of brilliant color.

For those of you who have been following along for the past month, the larger theme today in this informal series we’ve been presenting during Lent here at First Parish is “The goal of world community, with peace, liberty, and justice for all.” It’s a beautiful vison, but talk about a utopian dream! It almost sounds like something out of a comic book, rather than anything we could ever hope to achieve in real life.

And yet there it is, in black and white. Peace, Liberty, and Justice for everyone throughout the world. Now there’s a community anyone could be proud to be a member of. In a very real sense, it is a vision of the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth. Not somewhere over the rainbow, but right here...someday...with God’s help and through our own devotion, commitment, and hard work.

Before Jackie told me that our specific theme today was going to be “Over the Rainbow,” my working title for this homily was “New Wine, Sour Grapes, and a Raisin in the Sun.” The image of New Wine, of course, comes directly from the New Testament, specifically in the fifth chapter of Luke’s Gospel, where Jesus

[36] ...told them this parable: "No one tears a patch from a new garment and sews it on an old one. If he does, he will have torn the new garment, and the patch from the new will not match the old. [37] And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the new wine will burst the skins, the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. [38] No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins. [39] And no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for he says, 'The old is better.' "

And then later on in the book of Acts, this same author Luke again mentions New Wine in connection with the events of Pentecost... when the Spirit poured out into the assembled disciples and they all began to speak in tongues, while out in the street all of the foreigners passing by suddenly began to hear the Good News about “the Wonderful Works of God” in their own native languages. Luke writes “And all were amazed and troubled, saying ‘What is the meaning of this?’ But others, mocking them, said ‘these fellows have been filled with new wine.’“

This metaphor of New Wine can stand for a lot of things: for the Kingdom of Heaven, or the outpouring of the Holy Spirit into the world; or simply the spirit of change and innovation, and a visionary utopian dream of a new and better tomorrow. But all these things share some of the same qualities -- that feeling of being carried away, of feeling “ecstatic” and “standing outside of oneself.” And then there are the puzzled, even mocking remarks of those who just don’t “get it,” and of course, the perennial need for fresh content to find new and appropriate forms of expression, rather than trying to make do with the containers of the past.

But the part that I like best is verse 39: “and no one, after drinking the old wine wants the new, for he says, ‘the old is better.’” It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the old wine; it’s just that they’re not making it any more of it, and it’s not going to last forever. It’s natural to grow accustomed to the familiar taste of the once-new wine we grew up and grew old with. But if we want there to be enough to go around, if we want everyone to be able to have, not just a taste, but an overflowing cup, then each generation is not only entitled to create its own vintage, it’s also required to.

This brings us to the part about the sour grapes, which also comes from Scripture (although I suspect at least some of you may have thought it might be from a Longfellow poem)...And specifically, from the 18th chapter of the Book of Ezekiel, where it is written: “Why is this proverb still repeated in the land of Israel, that the parents have eaten sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge?” The prophet goes on to say (and I’m cutting and editing and paraphrasing rather freely here, since Ezekiel tends to get a little long-winded)

As I live, saith the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used in the land of Israel. Behold, All Souls are mine; the souls of the parents and the souls of the children, and [only] the soul that sins shall die. But if one be just, and does what is lawful and right...and has not spoiled any by violence, [and] has given bread to the hungry, and covered the naked with a garment, [and] walked in my ordinances, and kept my judgments to deal truly; they are just, [and] shall surely live.... Therefore I will judge you...every one according to your ways....Cast away from you all your transgressions, whereby you have [turned away], and make for yourself a new heart and a new spirit.... For I have no pleasure in the death of any that die, saith the Lord God. Turn yourselves around and live.

The thing I like best about this passage is that it is such a solid and classical statement both of the doctrine of Universal Salvation, and also the old Unitarian ideas of Self-Culture and Salvation by Character. “Behold, All Souls are Mine. Make for yourself a new heart and a new spirit....for I have no pleasure in the death of any....” And I especially love the image with which it begins: the parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.

Obviously, who we become as adults depends a great deal upon the way we were brought up as children, and especially the values with we are raised. But our tastes and our choices should not be dictated solely by the experiences of our parents. Ultimately, we all need to be free to choose our own way, and to make our own decisions and to dream our own dreams, because to do otherwise leads to death. It’s not just the way it should be. It’s the way it HAS to be. The bitterness of the past must be left behind if we are to discover the sweetness of the fresh fruit that is both our destiny and our birthright.

Which brings us in turn to a raisin in the sun. Not the famous stage play by Lorraine Hansberry, but the line from the Langston Hughes poem from which the play takes its title:

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore --
And then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over--
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

It’s not enough just to be free to dream big dreams. One also needs to have the opportunity to pursue them. And this is what separates mere fantasy and wishful thinking from the visionary power of imagination to to see the things that others do not, and to inspire people into taking those first tentative steps towards making that vision real. I think this is why I personally have always been so fond of that passage from Walden, which I now seem to quote at every opportunity: “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.” Because lets face it: dreaming is the easy part. It’s the hard, hands-on work of grounding our dreams in the good, solid earth that makes the real difference between fulfillment and disappointment.

Which brings us back at last to the end of the rainbow. When I was in college, there was a very popular poster called “Building a Rainbow,” which basically consisted of hundreds and hundreds of tiny workers with ropes and cranes and scaffolding and even little helicopters erecting a half-constructed rainbow -- bringing together the different segments of color one-at-a-time and assembling them peice-by-peice in an arc across the sky. And if this were one of those new high-tech 21st century churches with multi-media high-definition Power Point capability I might even have been able to show you a picture of this poster, but instead I’m afraid you’re just going to have to use your imaginations (which I’m sure will work just fine).

But one of the things I always liked about this poster was the contrast between the scale and the color and the elegant simplicity of the rainbow itself, and the bustle and busy-ness of the workers who are assembling it. As I said, there are hundreds, possibly even thousands of them (because I never bothered to try to count them all), all of them scurrying about, each doing their specific task, while cooperating with their fellow workers, and coordinating all of the aspects of the job according to one great master plan.

Individually they are dwarfed by the enormity of their undertaking.

But together, they are also getting it done.

One brilliant segment at a time....