Some of you will doubtless recall the Latin phrase, annus horribilis, made famous by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth in 1992. In that year, the marriages of two of her sons, Prince Charles and Prince Andrew, definitively hit the rocks after years of rumors, and a fire gutted 115 rooms of her beloved Windsor Castle.
Whether the year 2020 will be remembered as horrible I will not debate. This year still has another four months and I sure don’t want to tempt fate. For many, however, it has already been a year of relentless and devastating loss, horrible by any scale. Even for those who have escaped the worst aspects of the year — the illnesses and deaths of friends and family, economic losses and high anxiety over the future of their families, social and political unrest — we have all felt the metaphorical shaking of the earth beneath our feet.
Today, as I write this pastoral letter, we are waiting to see what will become of two massive tropical storms (or, maybe, hurricanes) which, as of this moment, are still heading toward Louisiana. The meteorologists on TV keep saying this is an “unprecedented” event. I keep hoping that we can put that word back on he shelf for awhile, because it has definitely gotten overworked this year.
The Sunday Lectionary is now taking us into the Exodus narrative, and I’m getting a little worried that after the plague of novel corona virus and the floods and winds of hurricane season we are in for locusts and frogs next. Something can have “precedents” and still be horrible.
Sunday I’ll be preaching on Exodus again (Ex. 3:1-15), but today, I’d like to briefly call to mind a passage from Psalm 105, which is the Psalm in this week’s Lectionary. This Psalm recounts events familiar from Genesis and Exodus, and includes one of my favorite passages in the whole Bible. The passage is about Joseph (whose story you’ll remember from my sermon a couple of weeks ago).
Joseph’s brothers, out of envy and jealousy, sold him into slavery. He was taken down to Egypt where he was kept in chains. The passage from Psalm 105: 17-18, in the sixteenth century Coverdale translation of the old Book of Common Prayer reads:
“[God] sent a man before them, even Joseph, who was sold to be a bond-servant; Whose feet they hurt in the stocks: the iron entered into his soul.”
This is pure poetry, of course. But it is something else too. It is testament to what can happen in the midst of the very worst conditions.
“The iron entered into his soul.” A man betrayed and sold into slavery by those closest to him, exiled from his homeland, slapped into iron chains: all that conspired to harm him turns out to make him stronger. It is as though his brothers, unintended and unforeseen, set up an IV drip that fed the strength of iron directly into his backbone. He looked through the horrible time he endured, and instead of allowing it either to weaken him or turn him vengeful, he used it to grow, to mature, to become human enough to be merciful.
I love this text. And I am utterly captivated by Joseph’s response to all that happened to him in an “unprecedented” annus horribilis.
It isn’t what happens to us, but what we make of what happens, that matters most.
Mother Nature, as Thomas Friedman said earlier this year is just chemistry, biology and physics, and nature doesn’t care what happens. The engine that drives her is natural selection, that’s all. But, if Joseph is to be believed, the God who created nature and who can peek around history’s corners has a way of placing us where we can do the most good in this world, if we will. And we too always have the same opportunity that Joseph had when “the iron entered into his soul.”