A Sermon delivered to Orange City United Methodist Church in Orange City, FL. Date: August 1, 2021.
Scripture Text: Genesis 37:9-36
A video of this sermon can be watched here
The journey of life is often fraught with difficult times of transition, change, and in some cases deep suffering. There are times that test us, define us, and give us cause for reflection. Indeed, I daresay no one can say that they haven’t at some point had to deal with and endure a moment or moments of calamity and uncertainty. Moments when life seems unbearable, when every path forward seems blocked, and our narrative journey seemingly has no happy ending. And yet, while difficult, such experiences define and mark us eternally, signally a transformation from the people we once were to the people we are now. Such are the stories of our lives, the transformational times, which help explain who we are, why we are here, and, perhaps, what we’re heading toward. Simply put, each one of us has had to endure trying times, or are currently undergoing trying times, to get to where we are today. Without a doubt each of us carry times that we wished we had not had, moments in time so difficult, so trying, so burdensome, that the mere reflection on them causes us to shutter. Such is the paradox of life—to be haunted by that which makes us who we are. Maybe when we think back, we wonder, how did we ever endure and made it through? Maybe we wonder about what power led us past those foggy and terrifying instances of physical, mental, and/or spiritual hardship? Or perhaps you’re still searching, lost within those deep places of ambiguity, wondering what to make of a life that just feels like endless pain and confusion.
Our passage today explores the person and experience of Joseph, but in a very particular way. I’m sure most of us are familiar with the story of Joseph. The favorite son of Jacob, who received the now famous robe of many colors by his father. And it was this same love and admiration that caused Joseph’s brothers to become jealous of him. In fact, his brothers hated him, for Joseph often dreamed dreams with images suggesting his brothers would bow down to him. Joseph of course didn’t have the sense to just keep those dreams and thoughts to himself, instead he freely shared them either not knowing (or maybe knowing) how his brothers would react. Eventually, Joseph’s brothers grew sick of his favoritism and incessant dreaming and decided to get rid of him. They first contemplated murder, but instead settled on throwing him into a pit, an empty well, and selling him to the first available traders. From there the story continues with a successful stint as an overseer of a house, then a false accusation of rape, prison time, dreams, an audience with Pharaoh and his rise to power, and finally a family reunion. Joseph’s story is the classic rags to riches tale, which culminates with a happy ending of hugs, tears, and forgiveness. A father and son are reunited, a family is reconciled, and Joseph becomes a powerful and righteous ruler. With so much good will to go around, I think it’s easy to forget how it all started. And I’m not talking about the naïve boy running around with a beautiful robe from his father. Joseph’s journey, the one that would forever change him, began with a journey into a pit.
There’s something about Joseph’s journey that I find instantly relatable. Perhaps not in the literal sense, my family has never thrown me into a pit or tried to sell me to merchants. But, there’s something here I neglected to see until right recently. Before, I read this story through the lens of Sunday School lessons and intense familiarity. As a result, I saw Joseph in two ways. First being the young man and bright-eyed dreamer wearing a robe of many colors, the favorite and spoiled son. Second, I saw him as the powerful ruler, the wise and righteous man who saved Egypt and forgave his brothers. But this time I saw him in a different way. The Joseph I saw wasn’t the young boy or the powerful ruler. This time I encountered the Joseph trapped in the pit. This is the Joseph who is neither here nor there, no longer the boy and not yet the ruler. This Joseph is the one who suffers.
I can’t help but wonder how Joseph felt as he was thrown into that pit. The confusion and terror he must have felt during that moment. In an instant, seemingly without warning, everything was taken from him. The colorful robe, a gift of love from his father, was now gone. His brothers had betrayed him, ripping him away from those he loved and who loved him. And to think just moments earlier Joseph had gone looking for his brothers at the request of his father. The harshness and hatred of his brothers caught the young and naïve Joseph by surprise. And now, without his consent, his entire life was sent into the unknown. By falling into the pit, Joseph had crossed an important boundary, a threshold, one that would forever define him. Surely, it wasn’t a threshold he had planned on crossing before. But sometimes, it’s not up to us what thresholds we do or do not cross. For Joseph, his life took an unexpected turn toward a terrifying unknown. The pit, a place of holding as Joseph’s brothers debated his fate, became his existence. There, as he listened to his brothers talk about whether to kill or sell him, Joseph encountered the in-between. Balanced precariously between life and death, Joseph’s liminal journey began.
Let’s pause for a bit to talk about this word “liminal.” Liminal is a term you’re probably not very familiar with. The term itself first used in the early 20th century to help explain the process of religious rituals and rites of initiates. Without getting too technical, liminal or liminality was used to characterize the middle part of a ritual. That is the point where one is neither an initiate or initiated. According to Victor Turner, a well-known mid-twentieth century anthropologist who helped to popularize liminality, between a ritual’s beginning and ending is a hard to identify point where those participating are “neither here nor there; they are betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention, and ceremonial.” By participating in a ritual or ceremony, one crosses a threshold, a barrier, and enters into an unknown and indeterminate space. Ritualistically speaking, liminality marks the passage between start and finish, when we’re neither who we were before nor who we will be at the end. Outside of the ritual context, liminality is a way to characterize the experience of an in-between transitional state where things are no longer familiar, we’re heading into unknown territory, and we’re unsure what awaits us in the future. And it’s a concept I’ve found fascinating over the past few years, as I think it helpfully explains many of the personal and communal experiences that mark and define our lives. Liminality offers a way to frame personal and social transitions that are difficult and hard for us to understand. And it’s particularly useful for giving us some means of perspective for times of personal uncertainty and suffering.
With liminality in mind, Joseph’s experience of “the pit” becomes all the more critical for us to explore and consider. For Joseph’s pit wasn’t simply an empty well, a hole in the ground. No, this pit was no ordinary hole. It represents something fundamentally more difficult and problematic and scarier. The pit was and is a place of personal crisis, a place of doubt and confusion, a place lacking meaning. In the pit, Joseph lost the certainty that he had before as his world was flipped upside down and inside out. Again, Joseph here has crossed a threshold and at that point his life hangs in the balance, his own personal purgatory of being neither here nor there. For in a manner of speaking, the person who wore that robe of many colors was no more. The young dreamer, the pride of his father, that person no longer existed. The pit, this liminal place, had changed, was changing him in ways he couldn’t anticipate or plan for. And it was doing so without as much as consulting and asking him if he was ready to embark this liminal journey. In Joseph’s case, his brothers had made the decision for him. They stripped him of his robe and threw him into the pit. It’s very unlikely that Joseph would’ve made this decision on his own. For who would willingly choose suffering? Who would choose to enter the pit?
Unfortunately, Joseph’s pit is something all too familiar. It isn’t confined to just Joseph’s story and experience. For like Joseph, many of us have had to endure times of personal crisis and uncertainty, perhaps you’re doing so now. The pit is a place we know well, intimately so, as it never lacks for occupants. You see, the pit has many names. There’s the pit of personal crisis and calamity, the pit of sickness and poor health, the pit of poverty, the pit of depression and deteriorating mental health, the pit of injustice, the pit of racism, the pit of confusion. The names go on and on. But one thing is for certain; the pit is a place of suffering. And like what happened to Joseph, it can come upon suddenly with little warning, no time to prepare, and in an instant all that we know and understand can change. All that we are, all the things and people and experiences we felt were important can be called into question. And that’s the thing about the pit of suffering, it confuses and perplexes us. For there’s nothing about suffering that makes sense, in fact, life in the pit is a senseless experience as meaning, purpose, and clarity fall away. Can you imagine what Joseph felt in that moment? In that very moment as Joseph’s own brothers, his family, threw him away and sold him as if he were nothing? How does someone carry on after that or find any meaning and purpose with which to endure and live?
And like Joseph, the steady ground of meaning and purpose we were standing upon can fall away at any moment. At any point in time, we too might find ourselves thrown into a place, position, or state in life that doesn’t make sense, has no meaning, and has no direction. The pit isn’t just part of a story from long ago. It isn’t just an interesting detail in the life of a famous biblical character. No, the pit is real. It was real for Joseph and it is real for us. The pit exists in a variety of forms and experiences, ones we can amply describe as liminal in nature. And while we may not fully grasp or understand such times, naming the experience can go a long way in helping us rediscover hope. The hope that such times do not last forever. The hope that confusion will cease, distress will pass, and suffering will end.
For Joseph, the pit didn’t end that day when he was sold and carried off. Liminal experiences, especially those that involve suffering, can stay with us for a long time. The physical pit only marked a threshold, a point in time he had crossed. The liminal pit, the pit of suffering, I’m sure lingered long after, defining his life in ways we can’t possibly begin to understand. Indeed, Joseph’s own suffering would continue through false accusations, a period in jail, and the last memories of his brothers’ betrayal and hatred. How confusing life must have felt for him? But Joseph carried on, changed, endured this period of transition as he transformed into Joseph the ruler. But despite all his success and power, Joseph’s liminality didn’t end until he was finally reconciled with his family. The tears he shed would be both ones of joy and ones of relief. His time in the pit of suffering was at an end. His lifetime journey through liminality had reached its conclusion. And the person who emerged on the other side of that was vastly different from the young man who wore that robe of many colors.
Our own experiences may feel the same way. Like Joseph, you may have lived through, or currently living within, your own liminal experience. You may even be able to identify a moment in time, the crossing of a threshold, when everything seemingly changed. And at that threshold you were thrown into a place of unknowns that haunts you to this day. Because that threshold changed you, caused you to question things, to ask that fundamental question of “Why?” Surely, it’s a question Joseph asked the day he was thrown into that pit. “Why must I suffer?” “Why must I hurt?” “Why is life so hard?” Truly, I do not have any answers to these questions, questions that you may be asking right now at this very moment as you struggle within the pit of suffering. Liminal times, like the pit of suffering, frustrate us with their lack of clarity and vision. We feel that we’re being changed somehow, but into who or what we don’t know. All we know is this, that beyond liminality, from out of the pit, hope awaits us. For the liminal journey isn’t about remaining forever neither here nor there. The liminal journey is about the crossing of another threshold, one that restores us and re-incorporates us back into life as a “new being.”
You see, liminality isn’t just about suffering and forever remaining in-between. How depressing it would be to assume that liminality must last forever. That there is no relief from our pain. No hope to cling to. No end to the journey. The liminal journey is one where we finally find our way out of the pit of suffering. Transition and uncertainty were never meant to last forever. Suffering has a conclusion. Liminality isn’t just the pit of suffering. Liminality is also a place of hope. In Joseph’s life, that moment of hope emerged with the tears he shared with his brothers and father. His liminal experience, his pit, concluded at the place of hope and love. One that he was able to share with his own family, who also had suffered. Joseph wasn’t alone in his suffering. His brothers had to live with the guilt of harming and selling their brother. They had to live every day with lies they told their father Jacob, who too suffered with the grief of a lost son. One threshold event had forever changed their lives, changed them as people. And yet, as their lives re-converged, the liminality they shared created a unique bond, one created by suffering but not defined by it. Suddenly, as they wept with joy, each understood the other pains with an intimacy rarely achieved. Their bonds deepened and their understanding of one another grew because of their shared experience. And as they emerged from their liminal experiences, a new community of understanding formed. One built on mutual understanding, hope, and the love they discovered in one another. Their liminal journeys ended in reconciliation and community, not isolation, guilt, or retribution. Their pits of suffering became embraces of joy.
We rarely suffer alone. Unbeknownst to us is that the pit of suffering has many occupants. Many today are enduring their own bouts of liminal experiences as they seek to navigate their way out of the pit. Countless numbers hope against hope that peace awaits them somewhere in the future. My friends, liminal journeys were never meant to be undertaken alone. Ritually speaking, liminality always implied community. One emerged from a ritual experience, such as a rite of initiation, with new bonds, new understandings, new friendships, and a renewed sense of meaning and clarity found in community. You see, liminality isn’t about individual suffering and hardship, it’s about helping others navigate their experiences, being with one another, and building the bonds of friendship and love so that we might help others find their way out of the pit. And by doing so, we continually strengthen our own community, creating a community of the new out of the sufferings of the old. The thing I find fascinating, and even comforting, about liminality is this connection to community. The liminal journey is one that may begin alone, but it doesn’t end alone. The liminal journey brings with it many tears, tears of pain and tears of joy. But ultimately these are shared tears birthed within the loving embrace of another.
For those in liminal spaces and places, it can often feel like life will never get back to normal. And in a sense, it never will. The thing about liminality and life in the pit is that it forever changes us. Suffering, and hardship, and confusion changes us in ways we can’t possibly begin to imagine. Joseph never returned again to become that young man with the robe of many colors. That individual was long gone. But that’s not to say that new possibilities and opportunities won’t emerge later. Liminality can be a space of hope whereby new and beautiful connections might be established. The pit of suffering itself transformed into a place of faith. How so? Because we’re never truly alone. Never for one instance was Joseph alone in that pit. Yahweh God never left Joseph. And though I’m sure he questioned, doubted, and debated God over his fate, Joseph came to rely on God more and more. His faith was able to carry him through. His faith helped navigate the treacherous waters of the unknown and the in-between when life and death hung in the balance. That’s the message I want to convey to you today. You are not alone. I can’t know what pit of suffering you may have experienced or are currently experiencing. But you are not alone. As with Joseph, God remains forever with you by your side. And that love manifests in a special way through the embrace and care of a community of people who understand your pain, your confusion, your anxiety, your insecurity. Hope remains. New opportunities await you. Love never fails.
My friends, my challenge to you today is this. Will you be the community for those who need a helping hand, for those looking for a way out of the pit? Will you help build the bonds for friendship and fellowship for those who are suffering? Because while God is always with us through the liminal journey, we may need a helpful reminder by a friend of the hope and love always there, always present, always accessible to us. Joseph’s story, his experience of the pit, is a helpful reminder that life doesn’t always go according to plan, that there will be periods of pain and hardship, that experience can become mired with confusion and anxiety. But the key here is this, such times need not feel forever hopeless. By the actions we take with one another, by being-with one another, by sharing-with one another, we can create a better life with one another. Liminality necessitates community. The pit of suffering necessitates a response of love on our part. Love necessitates the living and eternal presence of God.
Photo by Valentin Lacoste on Unsplash
2 thoughts on “Joseph’s Liminality and the Pit of Suffering”
This is a wonderful example of taking a hermeneutic of liminality to a Biblical narrative. Thank you, Jonathan!
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Thanks Tim! Glad you liked it!