For more than ten years, sometime in the month of May, at our 9:15 liturgy, I have said a word or two to our graduating seniors. This year I will not have that chance. Worship is now online, and the seniors are heading into a very uncertain time ahead. Some colleges and universities will open. Some are saying they will open six weeks later than usual. Some will conduct classes online. Some will not open. All of this means that this year’s graduating seniors are coming to terms with the nature of life earlier than most of us have had to. As that great theologian John Lennon once said, "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans."
“Making plans” went out the window the day Adam and Eve got tossed out of the Garden of Eden. And in the midst of this pandemic we have come to know like never before the truth of Lennon’s perceptiveness. Perhaps the chaos, confusion, and cloudiness of graduating in the middle of a pandemic is also the occasion for some clarity. You are the class that knows better than other classes that have gone before you–while you are designing one future, something else might be in store.
A story comes to mind out of the deep recesses of Israel’s past. It’s a story about someone named Joseph who is sold into Egyptian slavery by his brothers. But in Egypt, he takes a "sad song and makes it better." Eventually Joseph is given responsibility for of all of Pharaoh’s public works. The next thing you know, there is a great famine in the land. And who turns up in Egypt looking for food but, Joseph’s brothers who had tried to kill him, and then sold him into slavery?
They don’t recognize the Egyptian official who holds their lives in his hands, as none other than little brother Joseph. This is the very same kid brother they tried to eliminate years ago. When they realize that this great official standing before them is none other than little brother Joseph whom they had so terribly wronged, they are beside themselves. Will this be pay back time, when Joseph gets revenge on his big brothers?
Joseph puts them at ease and tells them that although they deserve revenge, he is going to bless them and provide food for them. And then Joseph puts everything in true perspective. Looking back on all that has happened, all the twists and turns, and weird events and strange coincidences, all the anguish and betrayal, Joseph says, “You meant this for evil. But God meant this for good. You didn’t send me here. God sent me.”
Joseph can perceive that there is more going on here than meets the eye. There is another actor at work in this story. Along with Joseph and his brothers, there is another character busy here. And without this character, you cannot truly perceive what is going on in the story. God is at work. And if you miss God, you’ve missed the whole thing. God has been busy, making meaning in this story. Therefore, Joseph can declare: “You meant this for evil, but God meant this for good.”
Our graduates are heading out into a world that tells us that life is either what we make of it or what has been handed us. Either I am the sum of my choices or I am the sum of my genetic heritage. But the story of Joseph says there is another actor. Or, more properly, there is an author. Our lives may not be only our stories. More is going on. There is more meaning here than the meaning that we make. There is an unseen author working to accomplish more than we can perceive.
The truth is that in spite of everything, God is at work making things right and that’s what this story is principally about. It is only secondarily about Joseph or his brothers or Pharaoh.
St. Augustine once said that when you look back over your life, the steps you have taken can first appear like chicken tracks in the mud, little chicken tracks going this way and that in the muddy chicken yard, without direction. But through the eyes of faith, sometimes those seemingly purposeless tracks take on a pattern, a direction. Through the eyes of faith, we can see that they are going somewhere. They suggest the hand of God. And it is then that you realize that the life you’re living, the meaning that you mean, is not all that there is.
In our lives, we are busy meaning this for own purposes, or for our own ambition, but God is busy meaning this for something more. God is busy meaning this for good.
From Joseph’s perspective, the year facing our graduates, as uncertain and fraught as it is, raises the question, “What is God going to be doing with you come September?”
Pandemic or prosperity, God is working out God’s purpose and you are part of God’s redemption of the world. Can you see the role you play? Will God’s saving care be plainly seen in you as it is in Joseph?
In an odd way, COVID-19 has helped us see that the life we live is not by any means our own.