This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.
(Genesis 9:12-13 NRSV)
Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.
...And now, faith hope and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”
(1 Corinthians 13:8-9,13 NRSV)
Not all signs are created equal.
For the past couple of days, we’ve been taking road trips through DownEast Maine, doing what New Englanders call “leaf peeping.” Just for the record, the leaves remaining on the trees were almost neon in their intensity and brilliance, but due to the gale force winds prevailing for most of the last week, lots of trees were already almost bare. We went as far north as Eastport, where we could look out at Canada (just think: last year we could actually get in) and as far south as Seal Harbor (yes, there were seals to be seen). There were definitely more bright leaves and more spectacular hillside displays further to the south. But the autumn colors weren’t the most memorable aspect of the road trips...it was the signs. I’ve never seen so many signs: road signs, political signs, warning signs, advertising signs, etc., etc., etc.
Some of the signs were actually helpful: “All traffic must exit left” - clear enough, though a bit frustrating, since we wanted to go to the right. Lots and lots of the signs we saw were political endorsements, which is to be expected less than a month from Election Day; some were politely political, and some were shamefully and embarrassingly mean-spirited. A number of the signs we saw were no doubt true, but not yet timely: “Bridge freezes before road!” - eminently forgettable on a sunny 66 degree afternoon. A few of the signs were an attempt at humor: “High and Mighty” read one, in big print; the subtext, in small print, told the tale: “CBD for Sale.” Some of the signs were contradictory in nature: where “OPEN” flags fluttered deceptively in the breeze, there were often more truthful homemade signs stuck to the doors: “Closed for the Season” or “See You in 2021” was their message. One sign was just plain old puzzling: “Organic Firewood” it proudly proclaimed. (I googled it. There is such a thing, apparently, though I still don’t get the point. Perhaps the smoke from organic firewood is less toxic to the environment.) All in all, the natural beauty of the great outdoors was its own sign: the purple mountains’ majesty, the glittering of sunlight on ocean bays and rocky streams, the dark green depths of the firs and spruces - it all spoke wordlessly of God’s continuing work of creation, signing to me the reassurance that God is very much present in this present moment, no matter what else might trouble or even dismay us.
Last, but not least, was the sign of the date: yesterday’s road trip was part of our anniversary celebration (yes, we went to church first). On Sunday, October 11, 1987, at 3pm, Doug and I were married in the Duke Chapel; yesterday was our 33rd anniversary. Any long marriage is a sign of God’s grace. Fear not; I’m fully aware that there are Centenarians who’ve been married twice as long as we have - and thus, married for as long as I’ve been alive (!!!) - nonetheless, 33 years is a pretty good chunk of any adult lifetime. When we’d been married a only couple of years, I decided to do an informal survey of couples in the congregation I then served who were past the 50 year mark. “To what do you attribute your lengthy marriage?” I asked them. I got some astounding replies, but my favorite answer came from Miss Charlotte, a woman in her late eighties who declared, “If you want to stay married for a long time, you’ve got to realize that there’ll likely be a couple of rough decades in there.” Yikes! Decades, I thought; decades? Really? A couple of them? And then she said some hopeful words, “Of course, it helps a lot if you’re at least as nice to your spouse as you would be to a stranger on the street.” Truth. Nothing but the truth. But not the whole truth, which was what she spoke next: “Marriage is hard work, but it’s worthwhile work. Try to remember that it is God who does the heavy lifting. Marriage is not just the work of two people; it is the work of God in those two people.”
God bless you, Miss Charlotte; you gave a whole sermon in three sentences, and it’s a sermon I’ve never forgotten. Which is why I believe (let me repeat): Any long marriage is a sign of God’s grace.
Because I’ve done literally hundreds of weddings, the words of our marriage ritual are burned into my brain. “These rings are the outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace, signifying to us the union between Jesus Christ and his Church.” The marriage of two Christians is meant to be a sign to us, and to the world, that Jesus is still at work in his bride, the Church; he hasn’t lost patience with us yet, hasn’t given up on us. Jesus has shown an astounding amount of patience with his Church, which is why we’re called to show patience with each other, especially with the other to whom we are married...because it’s a sign. A sign that God loves us still, and calls us still to love one another.
Maybe you’re married; maybe you are no longer married; maybe you are single, always have been, and hope to remain so. No matter; whatever your station in life, you’re not off the hook here. Nobody is. We’re all “on the hook” when it comes
to signing God’s love for the world, to the world. We say it at the end of every service of marriage; it’s right there in the benediction. First, the pastor
blesses the couple; then the pastor gives this dismissal to the people: “Bear witness to the love of God in this world, so those to whom love is a stranger will find in you generous friends.” We who understand and intend ourselves as followers of Christ, we are the sign of God’s love. The world doesn’t need any more contradictory, deceptive, or confusing signs; there are plenty of those out there already. What the world needs now is more clear signage of God’s great love. We are the sign of that love, friends. Let’s not forget it.
We will walk with each other,
We will walk hand in hand.
We will walk with each other,
We will walk hand in hand.
And together we’ll spread the news
That God is in our land.
And they’ll know we are Christians by our love,
By our love.
Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love.
(#2223, The Faith We Sing)
Lord Jesus Christ, you gave your life to show God’s love for this broken world. Help us to live our lives to show your love to the world. In your name we pray. Amen.
Pastor Susan Pate Greenwood