An illustrated version of this sermon is available online at:
far as I can remember, I never had the obsession with dinosaurs that
young children (young boys, especially) often develop. Though both of
my sons did.
But I did have obsessions of my own as I was growing up. They were almost always historical, too.
I had a fascination with Presidents, and could name all of them
by the time I was in the third grade (and by the time Lyndon B. Johnson
was in the White House). I also remember having an obsession with the
assassination of Abraham Lincoln, of all things—and I read (and
re-read) Jim Bishop’s The Day Lincoln Was Shot countless times, and
just about had it memorized, I suppose.
remember, from an early age, developing an intense interest with all
things related to the sinking of the RMS Titanic.
In this, of course, I was not alone.
The sinking of the Titanic ranks as one of those historical
events which even people not usually interested in history find
intriguing. The first book I read on the subject was, quite frankly,
the best: Walter Lord’s 1953 work, A Night to Remember, a gripping,
hour-by-hour account of the events surrounding the sinking of that
fabled ocean liner. It was another book that I would go back to, and
read again and again.
It could be that A Night to Remember
instilled in me the novel idea that history—written history,
especially—could actually be interesting; that history was not about
dry and detached names and dates and long-forgotten episodes—but was,
rather, about the story, the drama, the pathos, the strange
coincidences and unintended consequences and puzzling connections that
have made our human voyage through life so darned interesting.
was also from A Night to Remember that I learned that really good
history books don’t just make our human story come alive and edify and
enlighten us—but they get made into movies, too. And that’s a really
big deal, and certainly something to strive for.
I was fascinated
with the film version of A Night to Remember, and watched it every time
I could (though back in the pre-video, pre-digital age which now allows
us to watch anything we might want to watch whenever we darned want to
watch it, you might see a film you liked two or three times a year on
television, if you were lucky).
In my opinion, the 1958
British film, A Night to Remember starring Kenneth More as Second
Officer Lightoller remains the best of the Titanic films, though I also
liked the 1953 Twentieth Century Fox film starring Clifton Webb and
Barbara Stanwyck titled (just) Titanic. (Apparently, they were going to
call that film Nearer My God to Thee, but decided on [just] Titanic so
that people wouldn’t think it was some kind of religious movie or
But, of course, neither 1953’s Titanic nor A Night to
Remember was the first of the Titanic films: that “honor” belongs to a
short, silent film released just a month after the disaster titled
Saved from the Titanic, which starred an actual Titanic survivor. A
couple of months later, in the summer of 1912, a somewhat longer and
more grandiose German film was made about the sinking called In Nacht
Und Eis (In Night and Ice), which featured dramatic scenes of events
like a riot in the Café Parisienne on-board the ship, and flames
shooting out of the funnels, and other things that didn’t happen.
its dramatic liberties pale in comparison to a later German film,
titled (also) (just) Titanic, which was released by Dr. Goebbels and
the Nazi Ministry of Propaganda in 1943 to demonstrate the incompetence
and arrogance and stupidity of the British who were doing a pretty good
job around then of demonstrating (in real life) the incompetence and
stupidity and arrogance of Nazi Germany. In rewriting history to
show German supremacy, First Officer Murdoch was replaced by a
fictitious German Officer named Peterson, who is, of course, the sole
voice of reason on what has become an Anglo-Saxon ship of fools.
course, more recent years have had their share of Titanic hoopla. In
1996, there was a totally forgettable television mini-series called
(you guessed it) Titanic, starring George C. Scott as Captain Smith,
which one critic called “193 minutes of missed opportunity… [which]
wheels out every myth and semi-myth ever told about the Titanic.” If
you missed it, you didn’t miss much.
The next year, 1997, there was
Broadway musical—Titanic: The Musical— which won five Tony awards,
including Best Musical of the Season. I’ve never seen it, or
heard the album, though a song called “Dressed In Your Pyjamas in the
Grand Salon” sounds… different… And at least the original cast
recording doesn’t feature Celine Dion.
Which brings us to the most
recent Titanic epic—and an epic it is: James Cameron’s Titanic (what
else?), released in 1997, the most expensive film ever made up to that
time (a budget of $200 million!)—the highest grossing film ever at the
time ($ 1.8 billion! still the second highest grossing film
ever)—nominated for a record-tying 14 Academy Awards!—winner of a
record-tying 11!—soon to be re-released in 3-D in honor of the 100th
anniversary of the Titanic’s sinking! It is a movie which sweats
exclamation points! And, in my “humble” opinion, it is perhaps
the most over-rated film of all time (though, I confess, it did make me
All of this just goes to show that the Titanic—its history,
myth, drama, pathos, tragedy, humanity—has never lost its hold on the
Now, we are approaching the 100th anniversary
of the great ship’ssinking—on, perhaps appropriately, April 15 (I
wonder if that’s why the Internal Revenue Service chose that date for
everyone to file taxes? Probably not. But it does make one wonder.) So
over the next few weeks, get ready for a full array of Titanic-related
stories in newspapers, and television, and radio, and online. And, of
course, today, in church.
The Titanic has not only fascinated us
through the years. It has inspired us. And enraged us. And made us
think. And ponder. And see connections, with our own lives, and life in
general, and the life of world. And its meaning.
Or, as a headline in the satirical journal The Onion once read, “World’s Largest Metaphor Hits Iceberg”.
in 1943, at the height of the Second World War, the evil Dr. Goebbels
seized upon the Titanic as a metaphor for something he detested. He
wasn’t alone. Nor was he the first. The Sunday right after the
disaster, the Bishop of Winchester preached in St. Mary’s Church at
Southampton, where the Titanic had been launched, and spoke about
lessons that could be drawn from the tragedy. “When,” the bishop asked,
“has such a mighty lesson against our confidence and trust in power,
machinery, and money been shot through the nation?” Then,
prophetically, he added, “The Titanic, name and thing, will stand as a
monument and warning to human presumption.”
The fatal danger of
hubris—that’s the lesson usually drawn from the tragedy of the Titanic.
“God himself could not sink this ship,” one of the seamen is said to
have exclaimed, shortly before the voyage began. Famous and tragic last
History is littered by words like these—words of
over-confidence and arrogance and puffed up pride which pretend to have
everything figured out; which claim to have instituted the perfect
human system, which no powers of heaven or earth could even challenge.
of those days, not so long ago, when it looked as though our economic
system was sailing across smooth waters, unchallenged,
impregnable—skippered by self-proclaimed “masters of the universe”—with
all of us going along blithely for the ride. Heading straight toward
the iceberg through waters of unbridled speculation and credit default
swaps and incomprehensible financial derivatives. All of which nearly
took the whole ship under.
These are some of the lessons the sad
story of the Titanic teaches: Pay attention too the warnings. Pay
attention to that which you don’t see. Don’t always trust the so-called
“experts”. Think for yourself. Question authority.
Of course, the
second week in April in 2012 will bring us another 100th anniversary,
this one a little closer to home. The same week the Titanic sailed,
Fenway Park opened in Boston. Back in the late 1990s, when I was the
driver of a sightseeing trolley, cruising over the streets of Boston,
whenever we made the turn from Newberry Street onto Mass. Ave, I would
call my patrons’ attention to the lights of Fenway in the distance,
ring the trolley’s bell, and point out; “Fenway Park: home of the 1919
World Champion Boston Red Sox!” Then I’d add that Fenway opened the
same week in 1912 that the Titanic sailed—implying, of course, a sort
of unhappy and tragic parallel between the two. This was before 2004,
and 2007, of course—it had been 80 years since the Red Sox had won a
World Series, and you all remember how impatient we were all getting.
So, in a way, we thought of the Titanic and Fenway as tragic failures,
But while it was too late for the Titanic, the same was not true of Fenway and the Red Sox. As Maya Angelou once wrote:
History, despite its wrenching pain
Cannot be unlived, but if faced
With courage, need not be lived again.
History can be redeemed—through hard work and heroism and humility.
Titanic reminds us to pay attention to how we’re acting, because
someone might be watching—or even if no particular person is, then
history might be. The epic of the Titanic offers the whole amazing
panoply of human be-ing—from the best to the worst: from the dedication
of Rosalie and Isidore Strauss, the wealthy couple who decided to go
down together; to the dignity of Benjamin Guggenheim and his valet,
changed into evening clothes for the occasion. “We’ve dressed in our
best,” Guggenheim said, “and we are prepared to go down like
We remember both the heroes and the villains, and we choose, in all that we do, which side of the line we stand on.
are so many lessons the epic of the Titanic offers. It has become a
sort of Rorschach test for how we view the modern age.
the greatest tragedy of the Titanic, of course, was the matter of
lifeboats. There just weren’t enough to save everyone—at most, just
over half of those on board could be saved; as it turned out, of 2200
passengers and crew, just over 700 were rescued.
Then there was the
unfair class distinctions that were made to determine who was allowed
into the lifeboats. Whether deliberate or not there were twice as many
first class men allowed into the boats as third class children. Of 29
first and second class children all except one were saved. Of 76 third
class children only 23—few than one-third-- were saved. There were only
4 deaths out of 143 first class women-- and 3 of those were by choice,
wives who chose to remain with their husbands. Fifteen of 93 second
class women lost their lives, compared to 81 of 179 third class women.
If you were down in third class, apparently, you were considered not as
“important”, more “expendable” than those on the higher decks.
And often, you paid for this distinction with your life.
such a tragedy happen in our own day and time? Do such distinctions of
class—of money and position and prestige—still determine who is to be
saved, and who is to founder? I’m not sure, but perhaps so. To the
extent that such attitudes still prevail among us in today's world,
then we have not learned the Titanic’s lessons, and that is perhaps its
greatest tragedy. As Richard Fewkes has written: “We only have one…
planet to share and we will all sink or survive together or not at all.
The privatized first class cabins at the top are only as safe as the
steerage cabins on the lower decks.”
Remembering the sinking of
the Titanic can become a parable for us, perhaps even as we face this
greatest journey in the story of our human race, the very choice of the
survival or demise of the human race on planet earth. Will we choose a
"life-boat" ethics with the privileged few in the life boats and the
masses going down with the ship and perishing? Or will we choose a more
just and human ethic in which all of us-- first, second and third class
alike-- passengers all together on the same ship, this spaceship earth
as Adlai Stevenson put it. Those at the top may delude themselves
that what happens don below is no concern of theirs. But there are
others who realize that the survival of all depends upon everyone
working together to patch up the leaks, to mend quarrels, and to save
the ship of state. To save it we must learn to share our resources,
protect our environment, curb our selfishness, and learn tolerance and
mutual respect for one another.
These are but some of the lessons that the Titanic teaches. But
remember: lessons taught are not the same as lessons learned. History
teaches. But it is up to us to live our lives in the light of what
we have learned from history.
So, in this 100th anniversary
year, may we remember the Titanic and learn its lessons well. If we do,
then the deaths of those 1500 precious souls ill not have been in vain,
but can help us to write yet a shining page or two in this, our great