In this current moment, despair feels natural: but we are only partway through a story, and the ending has not yet been written. (Listen.)
Young Joseph had it all. He was his father’s favourite, a spoiled brat. He was given a beautiful coat with long sleeves: because no one expected him to do any real work, anything which required him to roll his sleeves up. He had vivid dreams which showed he would one day be top of the heap, and he had God-given interpretive gifts. He was on the wide road to success, power, affirmation, acclaim.
But then this: His dreams of domination offended his family. His father rebuked him, and his brothers hated him so much that they could barely speak to him. In fact, they plotted to kill him. They threw him down a dry well and would have left him to rot—until they saw slave traders heading their way. So they decided to make a quick buck, instead. They hauled him up and sold him into slavery, and Joseph was taken to Egypt. After a brief rise, he was falsely accused of rape and thrown into a dungeon; and there he languished for years. Even his former cellmate forgot him.
Let us pause here in the middle of his story. For here we are, in the middle of a story of our own. A novel coronavirus is tearing around the world, destroying lives, wreaking havoc, and causing immense suffering and pain. We are back in shutdown, and most of us are struggling to juggle some combination of work, study, isolation and family. The economy is in freefall; the climate is changing; the future is uncertain. We’re exhausted, anxious, afraid; the world around us looks very dark; we risk falling into despair.
I wonder how Joseph felt in the middle of his story? Rebuked by his father, treated brutally by his brothers, abandoned by everyone, imprisoned indefinitely in a foreign land, his life seemed to be over. Once, he was his father’s favourite. Now, nobody cared if he lived or died. He was a failure, a loser, a victim. What did he have to hope for?
Nothing, that is, except the God who was working through history, and working within him, all along. I say this because we know how Joseph’s story goes. It could have ended with his death in prison, but it was redeemed. Because—spoiler alert—he was eventually released. Then he interpreted Pharaoh’s dreams; advised Pharaoh’s government; and saved a region from starvation. He forgave his brothers, and became the first person in recorded history to forgive. He was reunited with his father and his family once again, and this family became Israel: the world’s blessing.
Against all odds, Joseph went from dungeon to top dog; from abandonment to reconnection; from spoiled brat to gracious initiator of forgiveness. Which all goes to show that, in the middle of a story, we never know how things will turn out. If God is travelling with us, and God always is, then we must hold onto hope.
In the current moment, despair feels like a reasonable response. But for people travelling with God, it’s not really an option. For despair denies that God is at work even in the darkest of times; despair denies that the future can be changed; and the story of Israel, in which Joseph’s story is a part, rejects despair. Again and again, Israel’s story shows that no hatred is too powerful, no pit too deep, no slavery too confining, no dungeon too dark, to obliterate all hope.
We do not know what the future holds, and the hatred, the pit, the slavery and the dungeon may in fact be part of a bigger story: a story of violence and slavery and exile and famine, in which spoiled brats and alienated families and jealous siblings and vicious brothers are forged into a nation of blessing. ‘Weeping may endure for a night,’ sings the Psalmist, ‘but joy comes in the morning’: and this is Israel’s song.
Notice what I am not saying here. I am not saying that I am optimistic about our current situation; nor am I saying that we should simply sit back because things will turn out fine. In his commencement speech to Wesleyan University (1993), Cornell West said this: ‘Optimism is a notion that there’s sufficient evidence that would allow us to infer that if we keep doing what we’re doing, things will get better. I don’t believe that. I’m a prisoner of hope.’
Like Dr West, I am not optimistic. I do not believe that a return to business as usual, if it even becomes possible, will lead to anything other than destruction. Instead, I hold onto hope. Plunged as we are in the pit of coronavirus, enslaved by money, culture and fear, heading for the dungeon of climate collapse, we can focus on dark walls and dripping slime. We can identify as powerless victims; we can obsess over what we have lost; we can give up and languish away; we can delude ourselves that things are just fine: but these are all roads to despair. And our invitation is to become prisoners not of despair, but of hope.
And so as people who are formed by Israel’s story, we are called to trust that God is at work, even if we see no evidence of this. We are called to believe that the future is open and that endings can be changed. We are called to faithful courageous generative action; we are called to be forged into a blessing.
How, then, shall we live? How shall we be prisoners of hope?
Each of us will have different answers to this, and our answers will shift and change. But for me, being a prisoner of hope means rejecting the chains of despair. It means getting out of bed in the morning and taking the nourishment I need: exercise, prayer, meditation on the Scriptures, breakfast and a spot of poetry. It means noticing when I am spiralling into the pit, recognizing and working through anxiety and fear, and letting God haul me back up towards trust.
Being a prisoner of hope means trying to live like Jesus. It means loving family, friends, and people very different from me, and working to connect with them: by phone, by Zoom, by handwritten note, by community involvement. It means making time for struggling people, vulnerable people, and listening to their stories, and sharing their joys and grief and fear.
Being a prisoner of hope means hoeing the row God has given me: being a pastor, reflecting on the intersection of Word and culture, preaching, praying and doing what I can to build up a faith community. It means encouraging others as they hoe their own rows, whatever those rows may be.
Being a prisoner of hope means showing, through word and deed, that I trust in God’s willingness to use struggling, flawed and vulnerable people to bless and heal this world. And it means pointing to our ultimate foolish hope, that suffering and even death hold no terror for us: for ‘God is with us, we are not alone, and death shall have no dominion.’
Like Joseph, we are faced with pit and dungeon: COVID-19 and climate collapse; anxiety and apathy; discouragement and despair. And, like Joseph, we are enslaved by a brutal economy; by family, culture or fear. Things are grim. But we are only partway through our story, and the ending has not yet been written.
So with all the foolishness of faith, let us not despair. Instead, let us declare that, even and especially in these dark times, all is not hopeless, we are not helpless, and the world will yield to love’s rule. Let us be prisoners of hope, active, engaged, faithful, courageous; and, like Joseph and his family, so flawed and yet so familiar, let us be forged into a blessing. Amen. Ω
A reflection on Genesis 37ff given to Sanctuary on 9 August July 2020 (Year A Proper 14) © Alison Sampson, 2020. Image credit: Photo by Ahmed Hasan on Unsplash. ‘All is not hopeless … love’s rule’ adapts lines from a prayer by Janet Morley found in All Desires Known. (3rd edition). Harrisburg, PA/New York, NY: Morehouse, 1988, 1992, 2006, p 121.
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