DETROIT, Mich. – How many Bible readers knew that Jacob gave Joseph a princess dress, not a coat of many colors? At least that was the interpretation that Annanda Barclay gave in her sermon to those gathered at the More Light Presbyterian’s National Celebration Worship Service.
The worship service was held June 15 at Fort Street Presbyterian Church in Detroit, as part of the many activities surrounding the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s 221st General Assembly.
Barclay’s Scripture readings for her sermon “Cry Out in Love” came from Genesis 45:1-15 and Matthew 15:12-28.
She spoke of compassion, how “we learn compassion because it is a life-long lesson. It breathes outside our decent and orderly frameworks and resides in the messiness of everyday life.”
She continued by asking “How much of God is truly good? How much of Jesus is truly good? How much of the Holy Spirit is truly good, without compassion? What is compassion, if not another embodied form of grace?”
Speaking of the Genesis story, Barclay referred to “our beloved Joseph, who seemed to embody the very essence of compassion …. Throughout the Biblical narrative, compassion seems to be inextricably tied to ‘the other.’”
If anyone knew what it was like to be “other,” it was Joseph, she said.
Joseph’s father “loved him so much that he made him a gown, which when we read 2 Samuel we learn that the gown is also a princess dress,” she said. “The same garment,” she emphasized as she waved her multicolored, knitted scarf.
The knitted scarves are given by MLP to General Assembly commissioners and observers for them to wear as a sign of their support for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer issues.
“Now could you imagine Joseph in his princess gown, prophesying, dreaming dreams,” said Barclay, “Not only was he loved most by their father, but dreams that one day his entire family will bow to him. … It probably was not easy growing up around Joseph. It helps us to realize their humanity in spite of their acts of hate.”
The story continues that Joseph’s brothers grabbed him one day, threw him into a pit, and then sold him into slavery. They dipped his “gown” into animal’s blood, so they could tell their father Joseph was dead.
But, said Barclay, once the brothers “showed their daddy the symbolic blood on Joseph’s princess gown, the brothers began to realize their indifference to Joseph’s welfare is what truly ‘othered’ them from their father. The text says, the Daddy, Israel, cried out in grief for days because he loved his son.”
She continued, saying that sometimes, “I think we get so caught up in what we think is best, that it isn’t until we witness the pain of those we love, that we begin to question ourselves and our actions. Maybe, maybe, if the brothers had a compassionate heart toward the other, they could begin to see that Joseph could not help that his father loved him so. Joseph had no control. He was not the true source of their pain.”
When reading the text, Barclay said a question kept “popping up” in her mind: “How many times?” Her litany of questions included
- “How many times must we as individual Christians and as members of an institutional body commit acts that deny the humanity of the other, before we become aware of our sin?
- “How many Josephs, how much of creation, has to be placed in a dark, hollow pit, cut off from life-giving compassion and love until we get it?
- “How many times do we act like Joseph’s brother Reuben and disagree to the harm being done to others, but are too scared to speak up and act to stop the oppression and the suffering?
- “How many Josephs have watched us wash our hands like Pontius Pilate so we can sell them off like Joseph’s band of brothers so we don’t have to confront their reality of oppression and marginalization?
- “How many?”
“When we lack compassion for the other, we divorce them from the life-giving love and affirmation of the church and a church family, and we do this for an impressively cheap, easy and hollow gospel that is clothed in the short-lived profit of self-satisfaction and preservation,” she said.
Joseph’s brothers had already “othered” him, she said, making it easier to see Joseph as someone who “needed to be controlled, a person who was easily expendable, a person who when taken out of the picture will enable the family to function in a seemingly healthy and traditional manner … Joseph, the youngest son of Israel, the boy who wore a princess gown and dreamed dreams, was transformed in his brothers point of view from a living breathing human being, to a single problematic issue. LGBTQ people and allies, do you know something about that?” she asked with a grin.
Barclay said that it is never the right answer to look at a demographic of people as a singular issue. “Just like the brothers saw Joseph as a singular problem to be eradicated, so we as the church sometimes get so distracted by what we think is the source of our pain … only to overlook the huge web of oppression and evil that captures us all and keeps us bound,” she said.
Compassion, Barclay said, is not a single issue. “We must remember and hold on to that truth, especially this week at General Assembly because the ‘other’ bears the face of God. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people are not a single issue.”
When this worship service was held at the beginning of the week-long assembly, one of the biggest issues facing it was same-sex marriage. More Light Presbyterians and other pro LGBTQ organizations had worked hard for months to get the issue considered by and then passed by the GA.
Barclay agreed that marriage was important, but, she also spoke of other LGBTQ issues that need to be addressed:
- “Yes, marriage is important, but also is the horrible rate of queer poverty.
- “Yes, marriage is important, but so is healthcare, which especially impacts those who identify as trans- and gender-queer.
- “Yes, marriage is important, but so is racism, which is still ingrained in the LGBTQ movement and the church. Look around you all. Look around,” she said to the mostly white crowd.
- “Yes, marriage is important, but so are the needs of the persons who are differently abled.
- “Yes, marriage is important, but queer youth and adult suicides have not decreased.
- “Yes, marriage is important and it must pass, but ask me how long I could go on with this list of LGBTQ issues?”
“A person or people group are not single issue problems,” she said, “In part, that is why compassion for the other can be so difficult, isn’t it?”
Barclay said that if “we want to participate in mending the church and our world, if we really want to hold fast to this discipleship to who we call Jesus the Christ, we can’t get rid of or be done with a singular issue such as marriage and then expect it all to be well.”
She continued, “Let us learn from Joseph’s band of brothers and expand our understanding of compassion, so that we may indeed represent Christ to one another in our multifaceted identities. So as we move forward working toward marriage equality this week and beyond, may we also advocate for anti-racism. As we have the church recognize our partnerships, may we not settle for the church’s blessing of a partnership that is shackled to poverty. As we bring about the kingdom on earth as it is in heaven, may we not settle for trans-or gender-queer people to struggle because they cannot afford medical care.”
Blessing the scarves
Following the sermon, a “blessing of the scarves” was held. Each person was offered a scarf, if they didn’t already have one as they entered the worship service. During the time of blessing, the Rev. Robin White asked each person to hold or lift up their scarf.
The blessing read in part:
“We bless these scarves, a multi-colored witness, created by people from across the country; young and old, men and women, both rich and poor, with faces reflecting a variety of ethnicities, yet hearts unified into one heart, reflecting God’s love for all God’s children.
“We bless the spirited hands that held the needles, rhythmically in motion, creating these rainbow symbols … rings binding our hearts …
“Finally, we bless all who wear these story-filled scarves. May these colorful mantles encourage loving and respectful conversations.
“May the dialogue foster relationships, refreshing the peace, purity and unity of our church.
“May the rainbows rings draped over our shoulders, be reminders of the yearning for the PCUSA to recognize that love is love and that God already blesses the marriage covenant loving couples make.
“May those of us who wear these wraps as we journey through this week, feel the ever-present love and grace of God wrapped around us. May we, in turn, become a blessing to everyone we encounter along the way.”