Today’s Old Testament reading at Holy Communion is taken from the long Joseph cycle that forms the climax of Genesis. Years before, Joseph’s older brothers have trafficked him into slavery in Egypt. For years since, they have allowed their father to believe that his son was killed by a lion, to exist in a fog of bereavement for a child he could not even lay out and wash clean and lay to rest. They have saved their own skin, at the cost of a gnawing away at their very souls.
Meanwhile, by a convoluted route of misfortune and chance, Joseph is now second only to Pharaoh, and administering grain in the middle of a global famine. His brothers, slowly starving, travel down to Egypt in hope of salvation, and Joseph recognises his betrayers. And to begin with, perhaps to buy himself some time, he plays a game, of exercising control over them as they had done over him. This goes on for some time, the brothers even now, in crisis, unable or unwilling to come clean to their father.
The situation only moves on when Joseph gets to the point when he is no longer able to keep control, even the pretence of control. He breaks down, in private, in front of his brothers. It is messy. Tears, snot, the works. As painful for them, albeit for different reasons, as for him.
And then he invites them to enter-into the place of not being in control. Yes, he instructs them to come closer; but he has no idea what they will do. The last time they came close, they threw him in a dry cistern to leave him to die. And the brothers respond, stepping out of control, not knowing whether Joseph will take his revenge.
Instead, Joseph declares that God sent him ahead of them, to preserve life. God, the eternal child, who has no need for control, but chooses in every circumstance to work for the preservation of life, in order that, though it might not be flourishing in the present moment, life might flourish again.
Our almost-fifteen-year-old son went to school today, for only the fifth time this calendar year. He has not engaged with online learning; this is as much as he has been able to face. He is one of the over 30,000 children who were going to school before the pandemic, who have felt unable to return during it. School have been brilliantly supportive. But we, his parents, have a legal responsibility to get him to school, and we are entirely unable to get him up in the mornings. He is exercising the only control he can, in the face of the chaos of a pandemic in which school has been disrupted by whole cohorts being required to self-isolate over and over again.
Young children have no need to be in control, unless some trauma forces it upon them. But adolescents seem to have a need to take control, of some aspect of their life, if only in order to learn that none of us are in control, however hard we pretend. And we can pretend to ourselves for years, a lifetime even.
It is a necessary step, from dependence to interdependence. The breakdown of our attempts to be in control, the point at which we might discover that God is present in our lives, all our lives, for the preservation of life. This is the reason why this moment comes as we build to the climax of Genesis, for it is the end point of our beginning.
In the long-term, he will be fine. And in the words of Julian of Norwich, ‘All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.’ For now, we get to bear witness to a goodness he cannot see, and resist our own temptations to take back control, that we too might know God preserving our lives.