Here they are – Joseph’s brothers. They didn’t like Joseph very much. They beat him up, threw him in a pit, and sold him into slavery. And here they are – starving from famine – their families starving from famine – they come to beg food from an Egyptian official, and the Egyptian official leans in, says, “Come closer.” And says –
“I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into slavery.”
They are standing at a threshold.
Everything that has come before – their whole life – it is now fully present in this moment. In the blinking of an eye, their world has turned – everything is at stake – and God only knows what happens next.
But let’s rewind a bit – and remember how we got here.
Joseph is one of twelve brothers – the sons of Jacob – whose families will become the twelve tribes of Israel. They are the children of four women – Jacob’s two wives and two maidservants – Leah, Rachel, Zilpah, and Bilah. Joseph is the favorite son of the favorite wife. And he knows it. Jacob lavishes gifts on Joseph – including a fine coat. And Joseph struts and preens. Joseph has dreams that he shares with his brothers – dreams in which he inevitably rises up, as they bow down.
Joseph’s brothers don’t like him much. And we see that at its worst in the first Scripture this morning. Joseph goes into the fields looking for his brothers. They see their chance – some want to outright kill him. Slightly calmer minds prevail – and instead, they just beat him and throw him in a pit – and when a band of Ishmaelite traders pass by – they sell Joseph into slavery. They then smear sheep’s blood on his coat, and go home and tell their father that Joseph has died a tragic death. And their father is crushed.
Meanwhile, the Ishmaelites sell Joseph to an Egyptian overlord. That doesn’t go well, and Joseph ends up in prison – stripped of all he has... except that his dreams continue. It turns out he has a gift for interpreting dreams. And, it turns out that Pharaoh has been having dreams. Word of this dreamer in prison reaches Pharaoh, and Joseph is hauled out of prison – brought before Pharaoh. Pharaoh tells Joseph his dreams, and Joseph interprets: “Mighty Pharaoh, what your dreams mean is that there will be 7 years of good crops, followed by 7 years of famine. You need to prepare now for the famine that will surely come.”
Pharaoh is convinced, and puts Joseph in charge of everything. Sure enough, there are 7 years of good crops – Joseph leads Egypt in a strict discipline of stockpiling enough to withstand a famine. And sure enough, there are then 7 years of famine. And Joseph – who was beaten by his brothers and sold into slavery and left to rot in prison – Joseph is put in charge of ... Egypt. He is second only to Pharaoh, administering the well-being of the nation.
But meanwhile, back in Canaan, things are not going as well for Joseph’s brothers and their families – so they head to Egypt – to beg for help. And they are let into the presence of the one official who has the power to help – but after all these years, they don’t recognize who this Egyptian really is.
And before this morning’s Scripture, Joseph does toy with them a bit – tests them to see if they are still as contemptible as before. He plants a silver cup in one of the grain bags he gives them, and one brother is accused of theft – the one who is now their father’s favorite. But when tested, another brother offers to give himself – his life – in place of his brother’s. Maybe they have changed. At the very least, they’ve passed the test.
But in this morning’s moment, they don’t know that. All they know is that the most powerful man in Egypt is standing before them – with the power and the right to claim their lives, and the Egyptian official leans in, says, “Come closer.” And says –
“I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into slavery.”
They are standing at a threshold.
I don’t know what to call this particular threshold – the threshold of this particular moment. There’s a little bit of all the thresholds that we’ve been talking about.
If you think back to last week, this is certainly a threshold of woe. Everything that has happened here has resulted from gross imbalances of power. The brothers had brute power to throw Joseph in a pit and sell him into slavery. Now, the tables have turned, and Joseph has all the power – including the power of revenge, the power over their lives. Will Joseph let that go? Will he relinquish that power? His brothers are now laid low before him – they are the ones who are hungry. Think of how much Joseph is going to need to let go of for them to be filled.
They stand at the threshold of trouble. Will they walk toward it? They are now face-to-face with each other. They can feel and hear each other’s pain. Will Joseph walk into this open wound? Will he walk toward the trouble that is his family – all the years of pain, mistrust, violence, contempt, slavery, prison, guilt – the raw woundedness of his life?
And his brothers, if they survive this moment, their next threshold will involve going home to tell their father what they have done – how they lied when they said Joseph had an unfortunate action. Joseph is actually alive, and here’s what we did. Will they walk toward that trouble?
They are experiencing all this in the threshold of their bodies. That moment – when Joseph lets out a loud wail – the halls of the house of Pharaoh quake. What Joseph’s brothers did to him they did to his body – they beat him; they threw his body in a pit, and they sold him as if his body was a piece of property – and the trauma of all that lives on in his body – and it all comes out in this wild, unhinged lament.
As the story goes on – somewhat miraculously – we watch them move into and through the threshold of forgiveness. None of them deserves what happens next. Joseph says it again – “I’m your brother, whom you sold into Egypt.” He tells some truth. But then, instead of vengeance, Joseph embraces them. They stand in the life they have lived up until now – the truth of it laid bare – and they experience... grace – the chance to step through into a world filled with love, possibility, and hope.
We see them enter together into the threshold of belonging: all this brokenness – a family ripped apart by envy and striving and violence – somehow making their way – after all these years to this moment of healing – a moment where they might begin to put the pieces back together. Once again they find belonging in each other – this family – part of the family of God. After all this, Joseph embraces his brothers, and weeps with them, and then Scripture says, “After that, they all talked together.”
All of these thresholds converge in this one moment. In each threshold, an experience is coming to an end, and a new experience is opening up. In each threshold, we stand in this moment of change, of uncertainty, of not knowing what happens next. And in each threshold, what we find is... God – still and always – present with us. As we cross through each threshold what we find is God waiting for us on the other side.
Joseph puts words to this. Don’t be distressed, brothers. I can see it now. All that we have done to each other – look at where God has brought us. You may have intended to harm me – and you did – but what God did out of all that was save life – mine, the lives of all the people who aren’t starving in Egypt, and now yours. God sent me here for this moment so that your lives might be saved. As Joseph says a few chapters later when they’re looking back on all this, “What you intended for evil, God intended for good.”
This is what we call God’s providence. It’s not that God specifically intends every specific thing that happens to us. That would put the blame on God for so much of our own mess – for so much that is our own responsibility. What it means is that in every bit of our lives – including the mess, including the uncertainty, including all the not-knowing – God is always there – at work – intending good. At every threshold, God is present moving the whole world toward good – toward healing, toward forgiveness, toward belonging, toward love.
Thresholds are about change – the dynamic reality of life that every new moment is different than the last. To be human is to live in the midst of change – at the threshold of every new moment – and to find life there.
In his book To Bless the Space Between Us, Irish poet John O’Donohue describes the complexity of thresholds. Sometimes a threshold emerges over time – as winter ripens into spring. And sometimes change arrives out of nowhere. “We find ourselves crossing some threshold we had never anticipated.” O’Donohue writes, “To acknowledge and cross a new threshold is always a challenge. It demands courage and also a sense of trust in whatever is emerging... we stand on completely strange ground, and a new course of life has to be embraced. Everything that was once so steady, so reliable, must now find a new way of unfolding.”
And, in that unfolding, we are never alone. In O’Donohue’s Celtic sensibility, we are surrounded by a God who inhabits and is present in all creation. I love how he says it: “That we are here is a huge affirmation; somehow life needed us and wanted us to be.... No threshold need be a threat, but rather an invitation and a promise. Whatever comes, the great sacrament of life will remain faithful to us, blessing us always with visible signs of invisible grace.”
In their moment, Joseph’s brothers’ threshold likely felt like a precipice. Like the ground beneath them had fallen away. And from a deep wellspring of grace, Joseph says, “Come closer – through the threshold of this moment – Is my Father well? Go, bring him here – so that we might be family again.”
When I was a teenager – an Irish preacher came to town – Rev. Dr. Maurice Boyd. He came to dinner at the house, and preached a series of evening services at our Methodist church at something we call a revival. I remember his kindness and his grace, and this one thing he said. He was preaching from a Psalm, and he offered his own translation of this one verse: “My God, in God’s lovingkindness, will meet me at every corner.” He was talking about something that Methodists call prevenient grace – the grace that goes before us – the grace that is waiting there for us – in every moment of our lives – ready for us before we even walk into the room. For more than 35 years, I’ve held on to that – I’ve said it softly under my breath – before walking into a hospital room; when starting a new job, or leaving a community I love; in those moments, in the morning twilight of yet another day when illness or death are nearer than I would prefer:
“My God in her lovingkindness will meet me at every corner.”
It’s not too much of a stretch to say that every moment of our lives is a threshold – some more stark than others – as we enter into the new bit of life that God is opening up to us in this day. In every moment, at every threshold, what we find is God – waiting for us – at every corner – with love, and forgiveness, and healing, and belonging, and life.
© 2022 Scott Clark
 See Alphonetta Wines, Commentary on Working Preacher, at https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/seventh-sunday-after-epiphany-3/commentary-on-genesis-453-11-15  See John O’Donohue, To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings (New York; Convergent Books, 2008).
Photo credit Robert Lukeman, used with permission via Unsplash