Good metaphors, poetry, and art are things I find myself reaching for these days. In addition to taking time to lament and grieve, I am seeking hope. But I do not want the hope that turns out to be a mirage in the desert; I want the deep hope that comes with faith in a loving God.
This summer and fall, my congregation is hearing from much of the biblical books of Genesis and Exodus on Sunday mornings. There is a lot of ground to cover there so we read it semi-continuously. The story of Joseph spans 14 chapters, but only showed up for two Sundays. I did not preach on those passages, but before I made that decision, I did do some reading. I concluded that the Joseph narrative may be a helpful metaphor for our time.
The Joseph narrative is quite different from what comes before it (stories about his grandparents Abraham and Sarah and father Jacob) and what follows (Moses, Miriam, Aaron and the Exodus). Unlike those stories, where God shows up for dinner in the form of angels or provides rams to be sacrificed or sends wrestling partners or talks from a burning bush, God shows up in a variety of hidden ways. Maybe because of this, no places get names or markers. It isn’t that God is not at work and present. But it is not until almost the very end chapter 50, the last chapter in Genesis, that we read Joseph’s words to his brothers
“Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.” (50:19-20)
Now let me be clear that I do not think these verses give permission to abuse one another, or do harm, as Joseph’s brothers did when they sold him to the Ishmaelites. Nor do I think we have no human agency, that we should just sit back and let God work. Finally, I in no way believe God somehow orchestrated the pandemic. What I do believe is that, as God has done in the past, God can redeem this moment.
A family member of mine is fond of saying, “I would rather read history than live through it.” I concur. But since we are living through this moment, I need to believe that something redeemable is in it or will be present on the other side for society, for my personal life, and yes for the larger church.
The Joseph Narrative might serve as a metaphor for the church right now. It is a bridge of sorts. How did the Hebrew People, Joseph’s family, get from Canaan to Egypt? How will the church move from who and what we were pre-pandemic to what we will be in the future? I do not think we are going to experience a bunch of theophanies like Abraham and Sarah and Jacob. Further, it might be that we will recognize the Holy Spirit at work only in hindsight.
One reason I love the Joseph narrative for our time is that from beginning to end, the thread holding this narrative together is the dream. Oh, how we need dreams and dreamers now. Joseph’s first dreams start off his narrative. He interprets dreams throughout his life. In the end, his dreams serve to make sure generations of people have enough food. We need people who are dreamers and visionaries right now. They might be scientists who bring scientific reasoning with them. They might be teachers at every grade level. They might be entrepreneurs. They might be you.
The other reason the Joseph narrative is helpful to me is because of what comes at the end—the food and the set-up for the next narrative arc. Actual human beings are fed in Egypt. This is not the first or last time that masses of people are fed in the bible. But it does not reign down from heaven in Genesis. Again, God is hidden, working in the background for the benefit of embodied people.
Finally, the Joseph narrative sets up the Exodus, the defining story of liberation in the Hebrew Bible. In other words, the Joseph narrative serves as a bridge, not between two stories that are the same, but between two stories that are quite different. Of course, the Exodus out of Egypt has some echoes of the narrative of the matriarchs and patriarchs of early Genesis chapters. But with the deliverance through the Red Sea and the time in the wilderness, God is doing something quite new.
My hope, which somedays I can hold onto more than others, is that the church, congregations, denominations, and the larger ecumenical community, will look different on the other side of the pandemic. I am not entirely sure what I hope for specifically. And with that newness and transformation, I hope and trust that some things I am familiar with will continue. Life and ministry are full of uncertainty right now. In the midst of that uncertainty, I am trusting in a God of abundance. I trust that God is redeeming this time.
Gracious and holy God, give us diligence to seek you, wisdom to perceive you, and patience to wait for you. Grant us, O God, a mind to meditate on you; eyes to behold you; ears to listen for your word; a heart to love you; and a life to proclaim you; through the power of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen. (ELW, 76))