The Seventh Sunday after Epiphany, Year C, St. Augustine’s Chapel, Vanderbilt

“I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt” (Gen. 45:4).

It’s so easy to mistake our true situation, isn’t it? Easy to think that things are of one sort when they really are another. We can think that the field of action before us has certain contours, a definite topography that demands certain things from us, and we respond as moral actors accordingly. Then suddenly we discover that things are not as they appeared to be! We thought that it was about one thing and it turned out to be about another. There may be shock at discovering the actual moral landscape, the true lay of the land, but there may also be grace in recognizing where we really are.

Our first reading today is a case in point. It’s a dramatic moment: the high official of the Egyptian Pharaoh, with whom the sons of Jacob have been negotiating, reveals himself as their brother Joseph, whom they had sold into slavery years before. His brothers thought he was long gone, so far in the rear view mirror that they quite likely had given over any guilt they might have felt in the past about him. They thought this situation was about one thing, but it turned out to be about another. It seems like they are being unjustly put upon, victims themselves; but suddenly the topography has changed. They thought they were dealing with a tyrant, someone who was about to destroy them mistakenly for theft; but it turns out that the whole interaction is really about the earlier crime.

Or is it? We might very well think, as no doubt the sons of Jacob thought, that the moral landscape had suddenly turned to fratricidal vengeance, but this is not the case. Remember what Joseph tells his brothers, Do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves… God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God” (Gen. 45:5, 7-8). The field of action is different from what the brothers thought. The topography is strange and unexpected, and the place is set not for vengeance but for forgiveness.

In fact, neither Joseph nor his brothers are the principal moral actors in this story. God is the chief actor here. The sudden reversal of things doesn’t depend on mere mistaken identity, but on the providential action of God. What is at work is God’s purpose, to preserve a remnant and to gather survivors. Joseph’s words not only sum up the reality of his story, but express the underlying narrative of Genesis, a rescue operation if there ever was one.

From the story of Adam and Eve, through the Flood and the call of Abraham, God’s intention is to form a People and through them to heal the old, old wounds of human sin. Joseph’s life is preserved against all odds in order to bring the People of God to Egypt and to preserve their lives. Joseph is raised up and placed in power so that he can minister and play the role required by God. A discerning eye can see that the drama is not about him, but about the action of God.

The ancient Church’s instinct about the Joseph story was that it was a foreshadowing of Jesus’ story: the mighty narrative of death and resurrection. In many ways this pattern is woven into both stories. Joseph is betrayed, cast into the pit, and sold into slavery. In like fashion Jesus is handed over by those closest to him, betrayed himself; he too “taking the form of a slave” (Phil. 2:7) as St. Paul writes. Joseph’s life is preserved so that others may be saved: a prefiguring of Jesus’ death and resurrection which means new life for others.

He too was not recognized after he was raised from the dead: a feature common not only to the Joseph story but to all the resurrection stories as well. In those narratives we find the sudden recognition that changes the whole moral landscape for the disciples. They were in need of forgiveness but incapable of giving it to themselves. The Risen Christ himself returned from the dead to stand among them and pronounce the words of peace. Once again, God was the chief actor. The disciples thought it was all about them and their loss but it turned out to be all about God and what God could do to change the landscape around them.

Our liturgy today gives us an opportunity to join in this ancient drama of death and resurrection. Here today we have the opportunity to see things differently, recognizing the reality around us. Our confirmands are showing us the way. Things are not as they appear to be. “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Lk. 6:27-28), as it says in our Gospel. That’s the true field of action that lies before us. We think we know what’s going on but that’s not the case. God is powerful in our lives, acting even when we’re not aware of it; bringing life out of death, and giving us grace to see where we really are.

  • The Rt. Rev’d John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee