Stuff Happens

Isabel Wilkerson, author of Caste, opens her book with the recollection of a old black and white photo of Germany in the 1930s, a rather famous photo taken at a Hamburg shipyard in 1936.

The photo is of some hundred shipyard workers lined up facing the sun, and offering the heil Hitler salute with rigid right arms held outstretched in honor to Der Fuhrer.

However, if one looks carefully at this picture, in the upper right, one sees a man who does not salute.  His arms are folded.  It is one lone man standing against the tide, the onslaught about to engulf all of Europe in abject terror.  He had a premonition of a horror the others missed or refused to acknowledge.

Though he had joined the Nazi party early on, he had come to know that they would bring disaster and heartache.  He, an Aryan, was in love with a Jewish woman.  He had come to see the Nazi propaganda machine as a fount of lies and slander against the Jewish people.  She and her friends were nothing like what Hitler and their ilk portrayed. So, there he stood, alone, grim-faced, refusing to bow to the lie.[1]

A flood was about to engulf his nation, and among the many, only he saw the disaster.  He was among the few in that boatyard who saw the Nazi tsunami approach the shore before it struck with the full force of the Nuremberg Laws – laws modeled on the US Jim Crow laws, stripping away the last vestiges of a proud and vibrant civil society.  One lone shipwright knew that his nation would come to no good end under Hitler, when this Nazi stuff happened.

One lone man, not unlike those patriotic Republicans, who voted for conviction of the former president.  Yes, insurrection and sedition – treason is definitely bad “stuff” happening. 

It is said that Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.  Try a Trump scorned.  He has declared war on every single member of Congress who had not supported him in his second impeachment trial.  If you backed McConnell, you’d better be looking over your shoulder.  That is the message.

Our nation is now awash in a flood of hate and vengeance unlike any since the Civil War.  QAnon lies drench great masses of Americans submerging us in a conspiracy of lies and fantasies beyond all bounds of logic.

Republicans are presently drowning in the frightening political flood waters of Trumpism.  Old values and verities are swept away in the chaos engulfing that tribe.  What about deficits?  What about “law and order?”   What about truth?  What about decency and humility?  What about small but effective government?  All sacrificed on the altar of expediency and in base subservience to one man.

The Grand Old Party of my parents has become a shark feeding frenzy.  My mother, who was the founding president of the Women’s Republican Club of Signal Hill, would have been aghast to see her party be submerged under an obsequious tidal wave of a cult owing fealty to one broken man. 

Mom, stuff happens, even in your Grand Old Party of Lincoln.

“We did not send him there to vote his conscience, we did not send him there to do the right thing, whatever he said he was doing,” Dave Ball, the chairman of the Washington County Republican Party in Pennsylvania, said of Toomey’s vote to convict Trump”[2]

No room for dissent, any more than in the old Soviet Politburo under Stalin.  Censure and expulsion are now threatened against any Republican siding with Mitch McConnell following his speech in the well of the Senate following the vote on the possible conviction of Trump.  To stand up, it will take a woman, a man, of the same courage as that of a lone worker in a Hamburg shipyard in 1936.  Ask yourself: would you have had the courage of that solitary man?

Any standing against this idolatrous cult, this base worship of one man will be swept away.  My parents and their friends would not have, did not, survive such a political onslaught washing over their conservative values and loyalties, their years of working in precinct politics.  My mom would have been heartsick had she lived to see this unsightly end.

In our lesson from Genesis, the reader comes out the other side of this biblical Flood.  Noah and his family and all the critters scamper down the gangplank and the sun is shining.  And bright in the sky is that rainbow.  Sign of God’s covenant, God’s promise never to do that again – no matter how badly we behave.  Yes, it’s all bright flowers, butterflies and rainbows.

Not so fast, I protest.  As one young girl asked her mother about Noah and the ark, “What about all the animals?  They didn’t do anything.”   As Jesus asks, concerning those piously excusing God for a terrible tragedy, “Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them – do you think they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?  No, I tell you…”[3]  Sin and repentance are a different discussion. 

Personally, I find this narrative highly problematic.   Like Job arguing against God about unfairness, I protest.  I want an accounting. “What about all the animals?  They didn’t do anything.”  Jesus refuses to blame all disaster, natural or otherwise, on human sin.  Sorry, Pat Robertson – gays and lesbians did not cause 9/11.  (Now, the Sixth Great Extinction is entirely another matter – we have culpability, and that’s a different sermon.) 

Scholars now know that this Flood story was a Hebrew adaption of a much older Babylonian story of another flood, centuries earlier.  In fact, those looking for a historical antecedent think this narrative might have had its origins in the immense catastrophe when ocean rise caused the Mediterranean Sea to surge past the Bosporus straights to flood into the area we now know as the Black Sea.  This, some ten thousand years prior to the telling of our story. 

Within a just a few, brief, horrendous days raging waters swept away hundreds of thousands.  Livestock and all.  This is the sort of catastrophe that would have been sealed in memory passed down for generations upon generations by the descendants of those who survived.  Yes, and what about the animals?  They didn’t do anything bad to God.

Whatever the origin, however we attempt to tidy up this calamity, sometimes bad stuff happens.  Stuff happens.  It’s that simple.  Stuff happens.  Actually, some order it.

Paired in our readings with Noah’s disembarkion from the ark is Mark’s narrative of Jesus’ baptism.  Jesus is drawn from the waters to receive God’s blessing, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.’ And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.  He was in the wilderness forty days…’The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’”

You are my son.  You are my daughter.  Those words that every Christian should hear as they emerge from the baptismal waters, sprinkled or submerged therein.  You are my beloved.  With you, I am well pleased.

Repent – put on a new mind.  Time to wrap your mind around a new fact – in the deepest sense, the real alternative fact – God is doing a new thing.  Time to think outside the box and recalculate where your life’s going.  Lent is a time of recalculation.  Stuff happens, and the choices you make, make all the difference.  They tell us, they tell you, who you are and whom you serve. 

One writer surmised that, in fact, we ought to think of Lent as being without end.  Repentance and renewal are always in order.  We are consigned to walk in a wilderness lasting not forty days, but for the duration.  Surviving this journey has nothing to do with giving up chocolate or coffee or T-bone steaks or whatever.  Actually, God can’t do much with the little bit of chocolate you might abstain from this Lent.

But God can do A WHOLE LOT with a renewed and refocused heart, an amendment of foolish ways.  That is material God can definitely work with.  If you traverse this wilderness with lasting values and purpose, you are not a wanderer but a pilgrim.  You know the destination – the Beloved Community. 

In Texas this week, we had two hearts which God might have put to good use.  A heart of compassion and a me-first heart, a heart of après moi le dèluge – after me the flood – attributed to King Luis the XV of France.  This, the ultimate nihilistic expression of indifference to “stuff’ happening.

We saw the heart of heartless indifference in full display in Texas this week as Ted Cruz and his family hightailed it out of the frozen clines of that state for the warmth of tropical Mexico, at a first-class resort.  With heat and electricity.

Meanwhile, another former politician of a different heart chose an alternate path.  He remained in that baren wasteland of death, frozen waterlines and no heat.  Beto O’Rourke stayed behind to host a virtual event for seniors, helping them locate aid and assisting others suffering in their deep-freeze state.

‘Yes, the “Eyes of Texas are Upon You,” Ted.  And, also those of the Houston police authorities who, in the worst emergency in a century, were summoned to make sure your departure went smoothly at the airport.  Not that they might have other things to do,  Well, at least almost smoothly, except for those pesky photographers who caught you skedaddling out of Dodge after the frigid “stuff” had hit the fan.  No forty days in the wilderness, frozen or otherwise, for our boy.

“On Wednesday, many first responders, civic leaders and concerned citizens from all over the country struggled to aid the people of Texas during their ongoing crisis, caused in part by an imperfect and isolationist electrical grid and in part by a storm that many scientists have identified as yet another example of fatal extreme weather caused by climate change.  Meanwhile the Lone Star State’s most famous senator – that climate-change denying, isolationism-preaching, self-proclaimed true patriot —tweeted his concerns” [4]

“You know the guy, that guy of many disaster films…”that guy.  The weaselly, duplicitous tough-talking middle management type villain who sets bad things (stuff) in motion, or completely denies they are happening until it is far too late.  The guy who likes to be front and center when all is going well, but as soon as the going gets tough does everything he can to take care of himself.”[5]  As one billboard put it, “Texas froze. Ted fled.”  Leadership, for sure.

Our baptism is to initiate us into a community where the ethic is a heart renewed, a heart attuned to the needs of “the least of these.”  A heart immersed in the notion of solidarity.  A heart so prepared, that when the flood does come, as surely as it will, she is ready with a raft and life preserver, food and clean drinking water.  For others.  She will not be the first hot-footing it out of town.  And if flight becomes necessary, she will take as many as possible with her.

Yes, two things the writer of the Flood story did get right.  First, the flood will come — or in this case, ice – a frozen flood.  Second, it requires of us our duty.  Is that duty only to ourselves?  Or is it, in solidarity – God’s solidarity – to be with our companions amidst the raging waters? 

Ted made one answer.  Beto, another.  Beto’s answer is the sort that will get us through forty days in a winter wilderness, in any wilderness. 

“What about the animals?”  Enlightened hearts will realize a duty to the entire natural world.  As St. Francis has taught us, everything is connected.

I remember bringing to Jonathan’s room late one night some supplies needed for a project due the next day.  I still can’t figure how it was that his teachers always seemed to wait until the very last minute to assign these projects – late at night when almost all the stores were closed – but that’s an educational problem to be solved at another time.  Anyway, as he sat on the floor with poster board and pictures, glue and scissors scattered about, a very large wolf spider scurried away from it all, towards the door.

Jonathan immediately went into freak-out mode, hopping around, all the while shouting, “SPIDER.  SPIDER.”

When I told him that this spider was just one of God’s little, beloved creatures, he responded, “Yeah, the kind that will kill you.”

Actually, fact is, these might be deadly to a cricket, but not to a young boy late with his homework.

What about the animals?  They didn’t do anything.  Even to the tardy and the procrastinators. 

In our church, before baptism, the congregation, joins together in remembering their baptismal covenant, which in part affirms:

“Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?…Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?…Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?…”  The hoped-for pledge being, “Yes.”

An informed and repentant heart would also include a healthy respect and gratitude for the natural order, even wolf spiders.  (Yes, I confess, I do squash the spiders in the shower for my wife when she freaks out about them.  Lord, have mercy). I know, they didn’t do anything.

Yes, the story does end with butterflies, blue skies and rainbows.  That’s God’s doing in the “time that shall surely be, when the earth shall be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea.”[6]  In the meantime.  In the meantime, it’s up to us to pilot the life rafts, throw out the preservers.  Warm and nourish the survivors.  Feed the animals in a stinking ark, and pray for bluer skies and some rainbows for all of God’s children – in “the time that shall surely be.”  What did you think you were baptized for, anyway?  Amen.

[1] Isabel Wilkerson, Caste (New York: Random House, 2021), p. xv.

[2] Travis Wilkerson, “Republicans Have Emerged From The Capitol Insurrection United Against Democracy,” HuffPost, February 17, 2021.

[3] Luke 13:4,5.  New RSV.

[4] Mary McNamara, “Cruz flies right into villain mode,” Los Angeles Times, February 19, 2020, p. E-1, 4.

[5] Op. cit.

[6] The Hymnal 1982, No. 534, The Church Pension Fund (Episcopal Church), 1982.

Stuff Happens”

The Rev. Dr. John C. Forney

February 21, 2021, Lent 1

Genesis 9:8-17; Psalm 25; 1 Peter 3:18-22;
Mark 1:9-13

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