To the Church in Exile,
Greetings in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Today’s meditation is from Jeff Van Duzer:
Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come closer to me.” And they came closer. He said, “I am your brother, Joseph, who you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life.… So it was not you who sent me here but God…. You shall settle in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and your children’s children, as well as your flocks, your herds and all that you have. I will provide for you there.… And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him.
David Brooks wrote in a recent op-ed: “Some disasters, like hurricanes and earthquakes, can bring people together, but if history is any judge, pandemics generally drive them apart.” Fear drives out compassion. Anxiety draws us inward. And in shame we turn away from those in need. Citing Dorothy Ann Pettit, Brooks notes “that the 1918 flu pandemic [a massive pandemic that killed over 650,000 Americans] contributed to a kind of spiritual torpor afterward. People emerged from it physically and spiritually fatigued. The flu … had a sobering and disillusioning effect on the national spirit.”
But this is not always so. “The first Christians, who saw themselves as the household of God in their cities, did not flee the plagues. They stayed, and they served. In his book The Rise of Christianity, sociologist Rodney Stark develops a statistical argument that this commitment to providing meaningful care to people stricken by the plague was, all by itself, a major contributor to the growth of the church in the first centuries of the common era.”
Our Old Testament lectionary text is the near finale of the Joseph story. I suspect you know the background. As a young man, full of himself and the obvious favorite of his father, Joseph was attacked by his brothers and sold into slavery. In slavery he advanced to positions of authority only to be falsely accused of rape and thrown in prison. He languished in prison for years before being plucked out by Pharaoh to interpret a dream. From there, Joseph earned Pharaoh’s favor and gradually became the second most powerful person in all of Egypt. As Joseph describes “God has made me a father to Pharaoh, and Lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt.”
In this story, there was not a worldwide pandemic but there was functionally a worldwide famine. Joseph’s father sends his brothers to Egypt to buy food. It seems that under Joseph’s leadership only Egypt had set food aside in anticipation of the lengthy drought.
Joseph’s brothers arrive anticipating nothing more than a transaction. They come with money and hope to buy grain on whatever terms it is available and return with food to their land. They meet Joseph but do not recognize him. It seems, however, that Joseph immediately recognizes his brothers and after some back and forth he reveals his identity to them. This was not good news for his brothers. His “brothers could not answer him, so dismayed were they at his presence.”
So now what? It seems that Joseph has three options. First, revenge. This is kind of a “karma.” Everything “comes full circle.” His brothers sold him into slavery and had him thrown into jail. Now it’s Joseph’s turn. Lock them up and throw away the key. Give them what they deserve. Fair is fair.
Perhaps somewhat more generously, Joseph could’ve dealt with them as they expected. He would go through with the transaction. At the right price he would sell them the grain they were looking for and send them on their way.
But Joseph chooses a third option – one almost beyond our comprehension. He falls on his brothers embracing them and weeping with joy. He insists that they not buy his grain but rather relocate (given that he knows that famine will go on for five more years) to his land nearby so that he can ensure their well-being. It is a reaction beyond explanation. A reaction of compassion. A reaction that is more interested in restoring relationships than in getting even. A reaction of love.
How could this possibly have happened? I think the text offers three hints. First, Joseph sees the men before him as his brothers – not as his adversaries or even as trading partners. He recognizes his essential co-identity with them. Second, he sees God’s hand as superseding the machinations of his brothers. As Joseph tells his brothers elsewhere, “what you intended for harm God intended for good.” He attributes his current position to the grace of God.
And finally, Joseph understands his meeting with his brothers in the context of God’s grander plans. “God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to keep alive for you many survivors.” God had promised Abraham to make him the father of many nations. In the face of the famine this promise was under threat. Joseph recognized that by feeding his family and providing for their ongoing needs he was playing a part in a bigger story – a story that started before him and would go on beyond him.
As the coronavirus spreads fear and anxiety across our community, we may well experience what David Brooks referred to. Our compassion may grow cold, and our instincts may be to close in on ourselves. We may seek our own protection and let others take care of themselves as best they can.
But I hope not. I hope that we, like Joseph, will see in others members of our family – our church family, our neighborhood family, our city family – not strangers who must fend for themselves but our sisters and brothers. Like Joseph, I hope that we will be able to see in our own good fortune God’s grace to us. And finally, I hope that we will be able to see that God has put us in a place like this at a time like this because we have a role to play in God’s grand narrative, God’s grand plan to redeem the world. May we, like the first century Christians, give God glory by reaching out in compassion and care to those around us.
Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer. We pray for your protection for ourselves and for our loved ones. But we also pray for the grace that will move us beyond fear to love and compassion for those in our communities who are struggling. Remind us that our lives belong to you, that you hold us in your hands. Remind us that the gifts we enjoy are truly gifts and not things that we have earned through our own hard work or right living. And remind us that you have made us for a purpose – that we have a role to play in your grand redemption narrative. May we give you glory as we love and care for those around us. Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer. Amen
Peace in Christ,
Jeff Van Duzer
To the Church in Exile,