Posted by: owizblog | February 23, 2013

Whalebone Ship Models, Imprisonment, Liberation and Forgiveness: Sermon 11 Sept 2005

11 Sept 2005 Genesis 50:15-21 Romans 14:1-12 Matthew 18:21-35

Today is the fourth anniversary of the World Trade Centre atrocity; something we’ve already learned to speak of as two numbers, three digits – nine/eleven. It isn’t the way we usually speak of diary dates – month first, then day – but I suspect that it’s partly out of respect for the fact that this was an atrocity directed in the first instance against Americans, despite its being also for many countries still the biggest loss of life they have suffered in a terrorist incident, that we don’t usually quibble, but call it 9/11.

We knew that day that the whole world was changing as we looked at out TV screens. And now we know something of the extent to which it has. Some of us were touched very directly, closely tied to people who were physically close to what happened that day. Some of us have been directly affected by events which are a clear spin-off from 9/11. Perhaps because for a long time many of the images of that day haven’t been shown on television, just some stock clips, most of us haven’t had a chance to revisit the full shock of the event, as we felt it, as it was unfolding in real time.

And perhaps we’ve begun to feel that, however shocking 9/11 was, we’ve managed to build it into our understanding of how the world works.

But there will be people who haven’t. Especially people who suffered direct and personal loss from it.

There are things we “get over” – sometimes very big things in life. And there are other things we only ever “come to terms with” – and sometimes not even that. And truth to tell, “getting over” certain things can be a very bad thing to do.

They’re in the Transport Museum now, but I’ve always loved the huge collection of model ships that were, for many years housed in the Art Galleries in Glasgow. Some of them are models built to show clients of the big yards what their liners were going to look like; some of them were built by apprentices to allow them to show and develop their skills. There’s a vast model of H.M.S.Hood, which was for two decades the symbol of British naval might, and which exploded so spectacularly and tragically in late May 1941 in her battle with the Bismarck, leaving only three survivors; and there’s that weird, essentially circular royal yacht built for the Tzar of All the Russias, looking for all the world like a version of the Waverley which had decided to go in for sumo wrestling. I think that this may have been the yacht on which George V was entertained by his cousin Nicholas, unable to go ashore because of “unstable conditions within the Russian Empire”. Some of the models of cargo vessels, and liners – not “cruise ships”, but real liners, taking people from A to B, not from A to A via interminable shows and buffets, are a reminder of how the world has changed in fifty years. And then there are the puffers, and the other little boats which brought the Clyde to life up to four or five decades ago, and which represent a whole intricate coastal economy now gone.

But as striking, and as poignant, as are some of the things these models evoke, there is nothing more arresting, for me, anyway, than the models carved by Napoleonic prisoners out of the mutton bones they found in their soup, or the bits and pieces of whalebone that came their way. I find that when I look at these beautiful, exquisite models, with the incredible detail they contain, and the superb proportions judged by eye without reference to a plan, I find myself thinking of lost years, even decades, in the lives of real people, just like me, far from home with nothing to do.

So they took what was to hand, and shaped it, and filled it with meaning. The other models in the Transport Museum are about young lads starting on their careers, apprentices learning their skills, or skilled craftsmen advertising the capabilities of a whole shipyard to prospective customers – or maybe enshrining in a stunning model the boast that their yard built the stunning reality of the real thing.

But the prisoners’ models are things in themselves – evidence that human creativity is something that goes on over boring, meaningless months and years, in the aftermath of a great disaster, a lost battle, a failed war.

Things don’t stand still. When something awful happens to us, something unbearably painful, something crushing and terrible, at first we feel that time does stand still. That nothing moves. “Suspended animation” is a phrase I’ve heard so many people use at times like that. But what’s almost harder to bear is the sudden sense that actually, all around us, things are moving on. Things haven’t just stopped. And then we get the awful, lonely feeling that we’re the only people who aren’t moving on. For us, nothing changes – and we don’t want things to change. Because change means dilution, means covering over, things that we still want to feel in full strength.

I can still feel the horror of the realization that many people in New York wanted to rebuild straight away on the site of the World Trade Centre – because it was “prime real estate”. “Life must go on” And so must moneymaking.

The story of Joseph is one of the most subtle in scripture. It’s the story of how stories can work, how the flow of our stories can take us from a place where something means one thing, to a place where it means something quite different.

At the beginning of the story, Joseph’s brothers are a bunch of macho, aggressive hooligans. But Joseph himself is an arrogant, stuck-up, prissy, holier-than-though little prig, with no end of belief in his own importance. I’ve said before how dangerous it is to read the Bible through pious, religious spectacles. I remember a Bible study when I was a student at which several people were holding forth about Joseph’s being special, chosen by God, and his brothers showing lack of faith in God in not accepting this and grovelling at his feet. I found myself saying that I thought that at the beginning of his story, Joseph was an insufferable little prat, and that I could well understand why his brothers wanted to beat him up a bit, and sell him into slavery. I never got asked back to that group. But I’m sure I was right. The story of Joseph begins with Joseph absolutely sure that he is, in himself, as a young man with no achievements, fit to have his parents, let alone his brothers, bow down before him. He is, quite frankly, sickening.

And that this pompous twit, so sure of himself, and so adept at being his parents’ favourite, should be the one to find himself hauled off by a bunch of slave-traders, and should then find that the genuine gifts that he has let him rise just high enough in Potiphar’s service to be framed by an unscrupulous nymphomaniac, and thrown into prison, where the application of still other gifts that he has are connected with the freeing of an influential and highly-placed man – who promptly forgets all about him; all of these things would have qualified someone much nicer than Joseph for a Glasgow Herald “Nae Luck” award. But Joseph isn’t nice. Or wasn’t.

And the strange thing about Joseph’s story is that when his hour comes – when Pharaoh begins having disturbing dreams, and Pharaoh’s butler finally remembers about him, and he gets dragged up from the cells, made moderately respectable and brought in as a consultant – it turns out that he has changed. If the seven thin cows and seven wind-blasted stalks of wheat mean seven years of famine, asks Pharaoh, what should we do? And when Joseph says “Well , if it was me, I’d appoint a Grain Czar, and let him stash food away now, while there are still seven good years…” It’s obvious that he isn’t thinking of a job made for him. But Pharaoh is.

And seven plus years of administering Egypt, added to all those years of slavery, calumny, imprisonment, have changed Joseph, by giving him a story. A life-story which is totally different to anything he could have imagined, when he was interpreting his own dreams of his brothers’ wheatsheaves bowing down to his wheatsheaf.

What he thought that meant was that he was something wonderful, and far better than them. What they thought it meant was that he was so far up himsef that they couldn’t live with him, and weren’t particularly concerned whether that meant he lived or died.

But time has gone on. And a lot of it – the years in prison, the years of slavery – is the kind of thing that we think of as “time wasted”. But that’s what brought Joseph and his brothers, the visier of Egypt and the half-starved tribesmen, to a point where this meeting is possible. And where forgiveness is possible.

And forgiveness is possible, not because the original hurt has stopped hurting. Not because it’s possible to tell the story of all that’s happened and leave the original hurt out. But because the things that have happened since have given the new hurt a new meaning. Because God – and this is how the Joseph story understands things – because God has brought new meaning out of something that in and of itself was just wrong. And still is.

These things should not have happened. But they did. And God – it turns out – has set them in a context, a vastly wider context, which actually changes their meaning. And which makes it possible for them to be forgiven.

But you have to arrive at this point in order to see it. This is the point at which all the brothers, Joseph too, can let go of the past by accepting it. And that’s terribly important. By accepting it.

Forgiveness doesn’t mean “Forget it!” Forgiveness doesn’t mean “Let’s
not talk about it!” Forgiveness means “What happened is now part of a bigger story, and it’s a story that has changed us all. Who you were is not necessarily who, or all of who, you are. And I accept that.”

It’s no surprise to me that so many Ministers are fans of Blue Peter. And in particular, the “makeups” – the slots in which Valerie Singleton, and Lesley Judd, and Katie Hill, and Konnie Huq, have taught two – near enough three – generations of children to make all sorts of things out of a washing-up liquid bottle, paperclips and sticky-back plastic. It isn’t just that it’s been an absolute Godsend for over forty years when it comes to children’s addresses. It’s because it’s such a superb model of the way God works in our lives. With what’s to hand. With the unlikeliest materials. With the stuff that we think of as waste, rubbish.

The story of Joseph is precisely the story of God’s taking the most terminally unpromising raw materials, and building them into something which transforms them utterly. And the point at which forgiveness becomes possible in the story of Joseph and his brothers is precisely the point at which they see what’s happened.

But of course, it has to have happened first.

There’s a profundity here.

God’s forgiveness is always God’s willingness and ability to break the circle. God’s forgiveness is also his willingness to build out of the most unpromising materials.

Our capacity to forgive is a recognition, on some level, that God has done this. That moral reality is, requires, this.

The whole point of the story of the Unforgiving Servant is that he doesn’t see the possibilities that forgiveness has created, for him to be different.

In Jesus Christ, we do…


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