Joseph’s Bones and 150 years of Ministry

There is a legend: When Israel walked through the walls of water on dry ground and escaped from the Egyptian army, when they found freedom from their oppressors, it was not Moses’ staff that separated the sea. So say the rabbis. Moses was there. Moses lead the people to freedom. But it wasn’t Moses’ staff that parted the waters. The sea parted for Joseph’s bones.

The book of Exodus tells us that Moses’ escaping people carried Joseph’s bones back to the land of his ancestors. Joseph’s story ends with a return home, an end to the sojourn. And God repays Joseph’s faithfulness measure for measure. God uses Joseph’s bones. The waters recognize Joseph’s faith, Joseph’s sacrifice. The waters recognize Joseph’s bones, and the waters make way for Joseph’s people to come home. Joseph’s faithfulness saves his people.

I share the legend with you because our story from Genesis this morning is just a taste of the Joseph saga. It helps to know the end, because the beginning is so painful. Today Joseph reveals his identity to his brothers. He has to tell them twice. “I am Joseph. I am your brother Joseph.” You can understand why they would be dismayed.

The last time they saw Joseph, they tricked him, trapped him, and sold him into slavery in Egypt. They sent Joseph away, far across that Red Sea. They sold their brother, and told their father he was dead.

Joseph had been the beloved youngest son. He was a bit of a dreamer. And his father gave him that famous fabulous coat. The coat with the long tails. The coat with many colors.

We have just begun contemplating scenes for our proposed new windows with some artists, but I confess I already have a favorite. We are planning to replace most of the stained glass over there in our chapel, as part of the capital campaign. We are hoping to commission new sacred art featuring people of color. Our current windows don’t reflect the diversity of our congregation, and those prominent, outdated, and frankly unoriginal windows in the chapel seem a good place to start. Those windows were ordered from a catalog 70 years ago, and the don’t reflect our sense of our congregation now.

The current thinking is to design three windows for the chapel featuring biblical scenes, and to feature people of color as the characters (which would be closer to accurate than having a bunch of white Northern Europeans in the roles). One of the scenes we are contemplating is Joseph dancing in that technicolor coat. How beautiful would that scene look in stained glass? A rainbow looks fabulous when the light shines through, the glass studio tells us.

Modern Biblical scholars explain that while Joseph’s dreaming may have been an issue, the coat probably was also a problem for Joseph’s brothers. A coat with long sleeves, as the most literal translation of the Hebrew has it, such a coat was traditionally a woman’s garment. Joseph’s beloved coat transgressed the roles of gender.

The ancient rabbis would tend to agree. Those rabbis wonder about Joseph’s gender identity and sexuality, to put our words in their mouths. The rabbis wonder, why is it that this young man flees from Potipher, his eventual master’s beautiful wife, when she makes her advances on him? How could a young guy turn down a beautiful woman? Joseph is a bit of a queer character. The ancient rabbis and modern scholars raise these questions for a reason. If the scholars and the rabbis are right, it was more than jealousy that motivated Joseph’s brother to sell him, to send him away. Joseph’s brothers were ashamed. Their sibling just didn’t fit with their worldview. They cast him out, counted him for dead. And so we arrive to today’s story, and the brothers are dismayed. They have encountered Joseph once again, in an unexpected place of power. History has been kind to Joseph, kinder than his siblings were in their own day.

History is a funny thing. Today we are celebrating 150 years as a parish. We have reached a big milestone, the sesquicentennial. I say that word just because it it fun to say: sesquicentennial. Our brewers’ guild has been brewing for tonight’s big party. The English brown that they’ve produced is being called the “sesquicentenni-ale.” Peter Tcoukaleff came up with that one.

150 years is a big milestone. We have a great deal to celebrate, a century and a half of mission and ministry. We also have dreams to celebrate. We are looking toward the future together. We are making investments, in our building, in our staff, in a vision of a welcoming and diverse community, seeking to walk in the way of Jesus and reveal Christ’s reconciling love in our city, our nation, and our world. But to celebrate our past, to plot our future course, we also have to know and name the parts of our history that, like the story of Joseph’s brothers, may cause us some dismay.

There is a difficult irony to the pews you are sitting in. They are almost as old as the parish itself, and they were some of the first free pews in Missouri. The first rector of Holy Communion did not want to build a church only for those who could afford to rent pews. This was to be a free church, open to all. Some of this welcome is in our DNA.

But the pews weren’t for everyone, not at first. For the first half of our history, we were a segregated church. That same first rector, Dr. Robert, served in the Confederate army. Those pews are not located where the church was originally planted. In 1938, the rector and vestry decided to uproot. The original building still stands today, at the corner of Washington and Leffingwell, near downtown. Today the former Holy Communion hosts an African American congregation, Jamison Memorial CME. In 1938, when Holy Communion laid a cornerstone here at Jackson and Delmar, our congregation was segregated. The new population moving in near the old church was Black. The white families were moving west. Our church followed.

It’s important that we know and we name that history. Glossing over serves no one. The politics, the economics, the history and the theology that motivated the segregation of the church must be named if we are to overcome their influence. For half the life of our church, our congregation participated in the widespread practice of the day. White folks and people of color didn’t eat together, they didn’t sit together, and they didn’t pray together. This church, like most white churches of the day, taught that separation as divinely ordained.

But thank God, something changed. The same rector who led the congregation to University City, leaving behind our original church also presided over the integration of our worship. University City, partly through the work of parishioners at Holy Communion, became one of the most diverse municipalities in our region. Some of the first Black parishioners who bravely joined Holy Communion are still members today. Some of the white families who worship with us today watched other white families leave over the integration. For just about half of our history Holy Communion has been an increasingly intentional diverse congregation, in the midst of a region that is still unjustly segregated. And it hasn’t been easy. There have been sacrifices.

God has been doing something new at Holy Communion, for almost half of our history. God has been challenging us to dismantle a theology and practice of racism. In more recent years God has invited us to push back against misogyny. This was one of the first congregations in our region to welcome women into ordained ministry, to hire a woman priest. We have been invited by God to work against homophobia, and transphobia. This congregation has chosen to stand with those our society marks as suspect, the people our nation disenfranchises, our world tries to push away.

Holy Communion today believes our mission involves us in the return of the exiles, the welcoming of refugees, the inclusion of all God’s beloved people, black and white, LGBTQ+ and allies, able-bodied and differently-abled, young, old, not-so-young, not-so-old, women, men, ALL are welcome, All are beloved, All are included. All are loved by the God who creates us. If you have been pushed out of another church, you are welcome here. We hope you encounter a taste of God’s love here.

We have to name this work as holy work, because our history tells us, it has taken work to get here. There have been many fraught moments. Parishioners have left our church over one decision or another. Blessedly, sometimes those same folks made their way back, but not always. The work of inclusion, of becoming a diverse community wasn’t easy, and it isn’t easy. It takes patient listening. Sometimes the work means learning to keep our mouths closed. Sometimes it means learning to speak up, to tell a difficult truth. Together we’ve marched. We’ve held hands. We’ve prayed. The work of building a diverse and welcoming community, seeking to follow Jesus, that work hasn’t been easy. It won’t be easy in the years ahead.

This week another denomination is holding a much-watched meeting here in St. Louis. The United Methodist Church is gathering downtown to debate the future of LGBTQ+ people in their leadership. I have close friends who have a lot at stake. I have friends who are openly gay, married, and waiting to be ordained. I have Methodist pastor friends for whom I have stepped in to perform same-gender weddings. These pastors desperately want to offer that hospitality in their own churches. The United Methodists need your prayers this week, and as they go forward.

A few years ago, when the Episcopal Church was in the midst of our own difficulties moving toward fuller LGBTQ+ inclusion, the theologian and former archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams warned about a particular potential we had for sin, for missing the mark as we had this global debate. Archbishop Rowan wrote that humans have a capacity to believe we can say to one another “I have no need of you.” We can believe and even speak that falsehood. But Christians, theologically know it is false. As Christians, we can never truly say, “I have no need of you.” In God’s story, those words are so often proved untrue.

Josephs’ brothers discover as much in today’s story. That young dreamer, that young queer child whose coat they stole and ruined, that young man who they sold away, Joseph, their brother becomes their salvation. Joseph’s dreams were counted as a blessing in Egypt. Joseph’s dreams prepared Egypt for the famine, and so he has more than enough to share with his hungry siblings. The brother they counted as worthless. The brother they sold away, the one to whom they said, “We have no need of you,” that brother becomes saves his family from starvation.

And legend has it, the story doesn’t end there. Joseph’s bones lead his people back home. Joseph’s faithfulness, the unlikely faithfulness of the one who didn’t fit the gender norms, Joseph’s faithfulness reunites, rescues, and redeems his people. When God looks on Israel’s people, God chooses to see not the betrayal of the brothers. God sees Joseph’s faith. God uses Joseph’s dreams. God pushes back those waters to make room for Joseph’s people.

I confess, I love the Joseph story. I want to put Joseph in stained glass. We’ll see. The building committee and vestry still need to see sketches and designs. We still need to raise some money. But I would love to walk into church and see that rainbow coat refracting through the window, shining as a reminder that God is with us, with all of us.

Every time someone counts us out God is with us. Every time we push back, God is with us. Every time we choose to worship with people who look a bit different, who have survived a different experience of race. Every time we stand before our siblings with dismay, and ask forgiveness. Every time we pray together, people of every color, gender expression, orientation, ability and age. Every time we choose to welcome someone who is different, to listen to their story, to count them as our neighbor. That is what Jesus’ radical worldview: “love your enemies” is all about, learning to count the supposed other as a member of the same body. Every time we march together, eat together, cry together, laugh together, God is with us.

Holy Communion, God has had a stake in our history. God took a church that welcomed some and through the faith and perseverance of persistent souls, God made us into a welcoming and diverse community. God has a stake in our history, and God has dreams for our future. God is with us. God uses the bones of the faithful to work miracles, to set people free.

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

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