Posted by: owizblog | September 22, 2012

World Made Strange Sermon UCB 14 August 2011

Genesis 45:1-15


Some people boast they’ve been thrown out of some excellent parties. I’m actually quite happy to boast that I was once thrown out of a Bible study.  It was at university. We were all immature back then, in that room; seventies teenagers had the luxury of staying immature far longer than teenagers today, whom we have thrown into a bear-pit of a world of our generation’s making, and who turn into admirable human beings nonetheless.

The subject was the story of Joseph, but not, as with this morning’s reading, the end of it. Rather, it was the beginning of the story, Joseph’s being favoured, and given the coat of many colours, and his brothers’ jealousy, that we were looking at, and in particular that astonishing bit that gets skimmed over so often, in which Joseph is recounting his dream to his eleven brothers; “We were in a field binding sheaves, and my sheaf rose on end an your sheaves gathered round and bowed low to my sheaf.” His brothers didn’t like that one at all – it barely needs interpretation, does it?

His next, bombastic dream leads his father to have a word in his ear: “Listen, I have had another dream. The sun, the moon and eleven stars were bowing down to me…” As a lecturer of ours used to say about another of the Old Testament’s “difficult” characters, “He clearly hadn’t read Dale Carnegie’s book How To Win Friends And Influence People.”

But at this point in our very immature Bible Study, before I’d had a chance to say anything, there was an interjection, then another. “I think that this passage highlights Joseph’s faith, his belief in the future that God had prepared for him!” “Yes, and his brothers’ lack of faith, because they were thinking so much of themselves, that they couldn’t see God’s purpose for Joseph…” “It teaches us that we must have faith in God…” And several more pious and vapid interventions of the same sort.

My fuse has, I hope lengthened over the years, but, heated by all this pious twaddle, I was quickly coming to the boil. To my own astonishment, I heard myself say “Well I think that Joseph here is a complete prat, who is totally up himself. And I think that this whole story is about how it takes his being sold into slavery, jailed on trumped-up charges, forgotten about in prison, then, after helping someone there, being forgotten about again – I think it takes all that to make a half-decent human being out of him.” And much more to the same effect.

Even as I spoke, I realized I wasn’t going to be coming back to this group again…

We were immature, and I was as immature as the rest of them, but do you know, I actually think I had that one right. In fact, I’m surer of that now than I was then, partly because my own life, in that respect like Joseph’s, has taken me so far from where I began, and has inevitably made of me a very different person to the person I was then.



It was the Greek philosopher Heraclitus who seems first to have enunciated the thought that you can’t step twice into the same river. What he actually says, as Plato quotes him, is “It is always new waters that flow onto those who step into the same rivers” or, more literally and poetically, “different and different waters…” Later Greek thought would distil Heraclitus’ philosophy into two words: panta ‘rei, “everything flows…”

panta rhei 2

Flux. Everything flows. You can’t step into the same river twice. You can’t paddle in the same bay twice.

I go to Ettrick Bay, and you’d think that it hadn’t changed much since I paddled in it in the sixties– and the atmosphere’s the same, and it all looks the same. Show any of us a painting, and we’d recognize Ettrick Bay. Yet – yet again – it isn’t the same bay that was there in 1961. It isn’t the same Port, the same Rothesay, the same Bute. I watch the Waverley come in to Rothesay, I go down the Port,  and walk or drive along Shore Road, and I’m seeing what’s actually there overlaid with strange, transparent pictures from my childhood. And you who have lived here far longer than I, and whose memories stretch back unbroken, not like the disconnected holiday memories of a child, will see changes, and be able to measure and understand them.

And yet, I’ll bet (well, Ministers aren’t supposed to bet, but there’s no money involved, so I will bet!) that there’s an enormous amount about this place that you feel, as do I, is virtually unchanging, and that that’s very comforting to you, as to me.


There must have been people, in London especially, but also in other big English cities, who wondered last week how places they had known all their lives, where they’d lived out their routine, day by day, and felt reasonably safe even at night, had become so strange, so alien and terrifying. One such – and his will, I would imagine, be a face we’ll all long remember – was that of Mr. Maurice Reeves, the eighty year old gentleman whose family furniture store was burned to the ground last Monday.  The business had a hundred and forty-four years of trading history in the area, and the shop had survived another time when the world had gone mad, during the Blitz, and we all, I would imagine, saw the old gentleman’s dignified, bemused commentary on the strangeness of the world he found himself in, that Tuesday morning, as he surveyed the damage.

Croydon Morning After

You can stay in the same place for the whole of your life, but you never stay in the same place. That’s what Heraclitus meant. “Everything moves, and nothing stays still, and you cannot step twice into the same stream” is another of Plato’s quotes of him. Heraclitus was from Ephesus, and you wonder just how much change there was in the city during his lifetime. Interestingly, we probably know Ephesus best from a period five and a half centuries later in its history, and from the New Testament. Paul was caught up in a riot there…


What’s familiar to us is intensely comforting. Views, landmarks, townscapes, people, buildings. To move beyond the familiar is, in the trite but useful cliché, to “move out of one’s comfort zone.”

But there are experiences, and all of us will have had some of these, which move us violently out of our “comfort zone” and into the deeply unfamiliar and threatening, no matter that we step not an inch beyond the territory we know, no matter that we are surrounded by familiar things and people in a familiar place. Anxiety will do this. So will depression. So will grief. A change in our circumstances, a piece of news or information that changes how we understand our lives and our histories, something from the past, something coming in, unseeable for the moment, from the future.

There are things that link these huge human experiences of destabilization. One is that familiar things are made strange. I can’t remember much about the funeral of my mother’s aunt, who was virtually a grandmother to me. But I do remember sitting in the funeral car in disbelief that the traffic was still flowing, that the sun was shining, that there were people about their business, that the world hadn’t stopped. The everyday, familiar world of Rhyl, where I’d grown up, was so strange and unfamiliar to me that day, that its very familiarity was an affront. It felt as though some cruel Las Vegas billionaire had built a copy of my home town out there in the Nevada desert, and somehow faked even the climate, and that that was what we were driving through.

Magritte Painting Window

“It’s not real!” Have you ever found yourself saying that? “It’s not real!” And its close cousin “This can’t be happening?” I can only imagine how many people were saying that, as the riots exploded all around them, in familiar places suddenly made strange, last week.

Our Old Testament reading is about someone whose world went mad. Joseph, we know, in the great story which, in literary terms, some scholars have described as “the first novel”, did have to leave his home, did find himself propelled through all kinds of real and terrifying unfamiliarity, with no landmarks at all, from the sudden murderous jealousy of his brothers, which in the instant they laid hands on him made the world seem mad, as though all its rules and reason had been suspended, to his sale to the Midianite slavers, to his attempted seduction and then framing by Potiphar’s sex-crazed and deeply damaged wife, to his languishing in prison, to the hope that his helping Pharaoh’s imprisoned butler, and the man’s subsequent restoration, must have generated in him, to the fading of hope, and to the moment when the man actually did remember, and the world turned upside down yet again.

All of that we know from Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, if not from Sunday School! But this morning’s reading comes just exactly at the point at which something really weird happens. Present familiarity is invaded by something deeply familiar from the past. Joseph’s brothers stand before the Second Man in the Kingdom, and don’t recognize him. But he recognizes them.

And there’s nothing that could possibly measure more accurately or graphically the distance travelled by Joseph. The past overlays the present, but it’s the present that’s real. Everything is flux. Standing in one river, he holds up the picture of another against the landscape.  The same river, yet not. That’s the equivalent of what he does. His brothers’ faces are years older than when last he saw them, but how he last saw them is a part of how he’s seeing them now. Everything is flux. And yet – and this is what he says to his brothers, when at last, unable to control himself any longer, he sends the Egyptians out, and reveals to his brothers who he really is. And something astonishing happens.



Don’t worry, he tells them, about the other things that you will absolutely certainly be remembering now! Don’t worry about what you did to me – none of which I’m brushing under the carpet, by the way, because it’s crucial that I don’t. Don’t worry about what you were, then, because I am also remembering what I was then, and how I was then. I am different now, and things are different, and it turns out that the way things have changed is profoundly, providentially, good. Then, the way things were, you need to understand in terms of now, of this moment, when you find me in a position to save our whole family. All is flux, but God is in it. You can’t stand in the same river twice, and you can’t go back to how things were, but with God that’s all right, because we are defined by where God is taking us, and what God is going to make of us, not by what we were, back then. You aren’t defined by what you were, or what you did to me.


And I’m not defined by what I was, back then, the unpleasant little prat who was so full of himself. I may have been right about my dreams, but in truth, I hadn’t a clue about what they meant. I had to find that out the hard way.

That’s how faith works. That’s also how forgiveness, something very closely related to faith, works. Forgiveness is about not letting someone who has hurt us, really hurt us, in ways that have made a difference to our lives, be defined by what they did to us. Not holding them to the nasty, unpleasant, hurtful past, for which they are responsible. It doesn’t mean letting people off, it doesn’t mean denying what they did, or what it meant. Forgiveness means setting people free from something undeniably real, that defined them and us then, so that it doesn’t define them now. Why do it? Because it sets us free, too. It means that we aren’t defined by those things any more, either.

Not everyone, by any manner of means, who rioted in England last week, was someone hurt or damaged by what society had done to them, by the lack of opportunity, the lack of a real stake in society, the hopelessness that really does exist in big areas of western society – including in places in our Scottish cities, which, conspicuously, didn’t riot. Not everyone was rioting because of unforgiven pain turned to mad, reckless anger. But some people were. And, horribly,  they became the people who hurt others, who terrified, injured, even killed people. By clinging to their hurt and letting their anger and frustration be vented in horrible, hurtful, despicable ways, they became people in need of forgiveness. Not that, for a moment, they shouldn’t be punished appropriately. Of course they should, not least for their own sakes, to say nothing of the people they hurt and traumatized so badly. But what happens if, in years to come, they become people who are defined for the rest of their existence by what they did one night in a riot? What if our society can do no better than to brand them, to hold them to what they did, for the rest of their lives? Some of them will never change. But what if it’s made impossible for any of them to?

no way back


“Breaking the cycle” has become a platitude, and something of a “bleeding heart” platitude, to boot.

But “breaking the cycle” is exactly what God does. Maybe people should think twice before branding God a “bleeding heart”? Because God’s love is tough, definitively realistic, and not in any way naive. It has something to do with death on a cross.

In a world in which violence begets violence, God’s entry into the world, in Jesus Christ, draws the violence onto itself. In a world in which people hold each other to the histories of the bad things they’ve done, because they won’t forgive, because they won’t set each other free from their shared past, and so can never be free themselves, Jesus Christ hangs on the cross, and says “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do…” The story of Joseph, back in the Old Testament, prepares us to recognize the shape of that huge event, God’s forgiveness, breaking the cycle, when it happens in the New.

It’s a world made strange. A present actually deeply unfamiliar, the more so because it’s overlain with memories, all strong, but not all helpful. Living in the past can actually feel like living in the present. But it isn’t. And ultimately, that’s the choice. Living in the past, with our security in memories we cling to, or living in the present, and open to the future – because this is where God has brought us, this is where we are meant to be, and that’s where we’re going.

And forgiveness is God’s setting-us-free, to do just that…

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