Where do you locate yourself in the story?
Last week, I talked about the longevity of the Bible. These stories have been passed down for thousands of years. These stories have endured, because they still have something to teach us. This morning, I want to talk about the Bible’s relevance. These stories can still speak to us today, can still bring wisdom even in a very different time. This morning, I want to ask: where do you find yourself in the story?
I find great hope for myself in Jesus’ movement in Peter. This is the leader on whom Jesus says the whole movement rests. He is the rock, and yet the Gospels describe him in such difficult light. I identify with Peter, because I know what it is to doubt. I know what it is to feel like I’m sinking. I know what it feels like to need Jesus to drag me back into the boat. I’m grateful for Peter, because if that guy can make it, anyone can. But this morning I want to talk about Joseph.
Learning to read myself in Joseph: Representation Matters
In seminary this story of Joseph was broken open for me, in a way that, frankly, changed my relationship to the Bible. In Joseph I learned to find myself in the story in a new way.
I grew up in a church that was not all that different from Holy Communion. I grew up surrounded by images of the saints, of the disciples, of Jesus, all depicted as white folks. I grew up in a relatively feminist congregation, so I would hear stories of women saints, mostly white women. Many of them married to the guys.
And I grew up a queer kid. I use that term in the modern, reclaimed sense. I am a member of the LGBTQ+ community. Today I am happily married to my husband. But who I loved, who I was attracted to, made me different, made me not the norm, not like the examples that were held up around me.
Heck, when I was growing up I remember distinctly the night Ellen Degeneres’ character came out on her TV sitcom. I closed the door of the room to watch. It was the first time I knew that a main character on a TV show came out as gay. The show was cancelled just a few episodes later.
Representation matters, and there wasn’t a great deal of positive LGBTQ+ representation where I grew up. Certainly not in church.
The case for a “Queer” Joseph
Fast forward to seminary. I was taking a class on Midrash, rabbinical commentary on the Hebrew Scriptures. I was reading stories and explanations written by rabbis, some of the work close to two thousand years old. I read a rabbi describing Joseph as quote “flouncing around the town square.” I read another rabbi who talked about Joseph’s feminine features. There was more than a hint of a joke in the rabbis language the rabbis used for Joseph around gender.
Then I read a more modern scholar talking about Joseph’s robe, what Andrew Loyd Weber called the “technicolor dreamcoat.” (A 1970s reference if I’ve ever heard one). It turned out that the Hebrew word used to describe this coat was really hard to translate. It only appeared in scripture in one other place, to describe a luxurious robe given by King David to his daughter. One commentator has called it, “a princess dress.” If you read it that way, this story takes on a whole new meaning. Did Jacob give Joseph a “princess dress?”
Reading these ancient rabbis and modern commentators together something broke open for me in the character of Joseph. Suddenly I wondered “What if Joseph grew up feeling different? What if Joseph wasn’t a ‘man’s man?’ IF Joseph was alive today, might Joseph identify as gay, or bi, or trans or queer?
Now it’s a tricky project to try and pry open a three thousand year old closet. We do not think about gender and sexuality the way the ancient people of Israel did. The word “homosexuality” doesn’t actually appear in the Bible, it doesn’t. If an English translation of the Bible uses “homosexuality,” they are interpreting a Greek or Hebrew word, and there’s usually has a great deal more going on in the original language. If it’s true for orientation, even more so for gender identity. Our labels for gender and sexuality have shifted. So I can’t tell you definitively Joseph was “gay.” I can’t tell you if he was “trans.” I can tell you for thousands of years there are folks who have wondered.
I can tell you that suddenly I found a character whose experience, read this way, spoke to my experience. Think about it. What if Joseph’s brother’s weren’t just jealous? What if they were embarrassed, by the 17 year old boy running around in a princess dress? It might better explain the violence they contemplate and commit. Our labels are new, but gender and sexual diversity are ancient, homophobia and transphobia are as old as the Bible.
Finding yourself means you can Find others: LGBTQ+ Allies and Extravagant Love
Finding myself, finding the LGBTQ+ community in the story this way, also lets me locate others. I know a significant number of folks who have chosen Holy Communion not because they themselves were LGBTQ+ because they were looking for a church that gave them room to respond to their LGBTQ+ family members and friends with love. There’s a place for you in the story too. Let’s turn to Jacob. What if young Joseph asked Jacob for a princess dress? And what if Jacob said yes? What if Jacob responded with affirming and lavish love? Again, it would explain the brothers’ being so scandalized.
But more than that. We get the sense that Joseph knows love deep down. Joseph has been loved deeply. Joseph has been loved extravagantly. I wonder if that love, if that security in identity, is how Joseph goes on to survive, to thrive, even after the brothers’ betrayal. Joseph survives the brothers’ betrayal, and goes on the have an incredibly successful career. Joseph is confident, at times shockingly confident, and I wonder how much that confidence comes from the love Joseph received from Jacob.
Those of you who are parents of LGBTQ+ children, those of you who are family members of queer folk, hear this. You can choose to love your LGBTQ+ family members extravagantly. You can love them into a fuller sense of themselves. It might just be the Biblical thing to do, to respond to your child coming out with extravagant love. And that love might just be YOUR salvation.
Your Salvation might be at stake
It might indeed be YOUR salvation. You see, at the end of this story the Ishmaelite caravan carries Joseph off. It’s a tragedy. The brothers go to tell Jacob that Joseph is dead. They carry the bloody dress they’ve stripped from their sibling. But even in the betrayal, there is a clue that something bigger is afoot for God. Notice what the Ishmaelites are carrying, and from where they are carrying it. Our translation talks about “resin.” There’s an older word. This caravan carrying Joseph, is also carrying balm from Gilead, to make the wounded whole.
Even the worst tragedies, even the worst stories, can bring healing, can bring wholeness.
In the end, Joseph saves the whole family. Joseph salvages God’s plan for God’s people. You see Joseph rises to the position as Pharaoh’s steward. And when famine strikes, Joseph ensures the people of Israel have a place to go. The children of Abraham, the children of Isaac, the children of Israel survive because of Joseph.
Finding yourself in the story is an established tradition.
Where do you find yourself in the story? For me, Joseph was where I first found an invitation to maybe see someone who loved like I did, who knew what it was to be teased like I was, Joseph was one of the places I found myself in God’s story. And for me it mattered.
The late theologian James Cone invited black folks to similarly read themselves into the stories of the Bible. Not in the margins, but right in the center. God does the work of salvation, Cone noticed, through those that the wider society has counted out.
I mean, if a bunch of European descended Americans can make stained glass windows like Holy Communion’s portraying Jesus as if he was white, surely there is room for others of us to locate ourselves in Scripture as well.
Joseph’s story was important for me, because when you find yourself in scripture, suddenly these aren’t just stories told thousands of years ago. When you can find yourself in the Bible, you begin to wonder what more God has in store for you in this life. You dare to wonder what extravagant love might accomplish even today. Where do you find yourself in the story?