Joseph: Queer Coded and Empire Aligned

A sermon by Rev. Laurel Dykstra (no pronouns or they/them) delivered at St. Clement Anglican Church, North Vancouver, August 2023.
Genesis 45:1-15
Matthew 15:21-28
In “ordinary time” or the season after Pentecost the Gospel and the Hebrew bible readings are allowed to unfold in the order that they are given to us and to me the
summer feels like lazily reading two novels each a chapter at a time.
This week I think the most compelling characters are the Joseph and the Canaanite woman. I suspect that you have heard and you will hear excellent and thoughtful sermons about the Canaanite woman. So I have I decided to preach the sermon I think that you are less likely to hear.
Joseph’s story is one of the most detailed in scripture taking up 1/3 of Genesis
We talked last week about type stories, the story of Joseph is a court tale: a Jewish protagonist hero rises to favored status in a foreign court. Once elevated, the hero has the opportunity to save their family or people because of access to imperial power.
In today’s reading Joseph, second in command to Pharoah, reveals his identity to his brothers who he has not seen since they sold him into slavery decades ago.
So a little recap of his biography which you may remember parts of from Sunday School or the musical Joseph and the amazing technicolor dream coat.

Joseph is the great grandson of Abraham and Sarah, one of 12 sons and one daughter of Jacob (the mama’s boy whose name means liar or trickster) by two official wives and two enslaved women.
Joseph is Jacob’s 12th child, first of his mother Rachel and father’s favorite,
his father gives him a special coat
Joseph tells his family about dreams of power and domination
Joseph’s jealous brothers fake his death and sell him into slavery.
He is sold to an Egyptian official
When he refuses sexual advances wife of the household she accuses him of assault and he lands in jail
His dream interpretation fuels a rise to power
Saves his family/people during a time of famine
Bringing them to live in Egypt
So all this is a rather long story of how the people of Canaan came to be enslaved in Egypt.

Joseph as Queer-coded

So far you haven’t heard anything you are unlikely to hear from anyone else, that ends now.
Joseph is the most Queer Coded or Gender non-conforming character in the bible.
The first time we hear about Joseph by name he is seventeen years old. A man by the standard of the time yet he is referred to as a boy.
Torah scholar Gregg Drinkwater notes that the medieval rabbis’ explanation–although Joseph was indeed a man “he behaved like a boy,
penciling his eyes,
curling his hair
and lifting his heel”

Joseph is frequently associated with men described as eunuchs (who functioned as a third gender) -the official Potiphar, a baker and a wine steward.
When sexually harassed by Potiphar’s wife Joseph’s beauty is described using exactly the same language as for his mother Rachel, “graceful and beautiful”
Joseph is a young man with opportunity for a heterosexual encounter who does not take advantage of it. -is he chaste or uninterested?
Joseph’s grandsons are “born on his knees”. This could signify that he adoption or surrogacy But it also refers to the physical role of the midwife and to presence at birth -which men did not typically attend
When his father Jacob (the smooth man who made a mean lentil stew and sewed him a special outfit) is dying he bestows on Joseph “blessings of the womb and breast.”
And then there is that coat: Jacob makes Joseph a ketonet passim translated variously -coat of many colours, special tunic, ornate robe, cloak with long sleeves, Often a note says the meaning of the Hebrew is unclear. Seldom do the commentaries indicate that the phrase appears elsewhere
In 2 Samuel 13 the rape of king David’s daughter Tamar, Tamar wears a ketonet passim. scholars conclude that a ketonet passim was
Worn by royalty
Too long to be worn for manual labour
But 2 Sam then 13:18 says of the ketonet passim “for that is how the virgin daughters of kings were clothed in those times”
Peterson Toscano who studies gender and scripture, reminds us how we typically refer to the virgin daughters of kings And calls what Joseph wears a “princess dress.” An interpretation that he uses to explain the brothers’ hatred for Joseph and the way that their rage is focused -stripping him and destroying the garment.
Each of these examples is unusual but taken all together show that Joseph at minimum ambiguous in his gender expression and perhaps sexuality.

Joseph as empire aligned

Scripture included diverse time periods, types of literature, and points of view but according to biblical scholars like Walter Brueggemann and Wes Howard Brook most fall into two fundamentally opposed worldviews
Brueggemann calls them Royal Consciousness and Prophetic Imagination
Howard Brook calls them the Religion of Empire and the Religion of Creation
-Herod/John Baptist
-some would say that in today’s gospel Jesus represents empire and the Canaaanite woman the prophetic
Joseph is firmly situated in the Royal or Empire trajectory.
The animosity between Joseph and his brothers does not begin with the garment. Genesis 37 begins with Joseph and the brothers who were born to enslaved women, tending sheep. Usually the translation says Joseph was helping his brothers shepherd. But an equally valid interpretation of the preposition is that Joseph was shepherding his (older -and possibly lower status) brothers. That Jacob has set up Joseph as manager. And he brings back a bad report.
Next Jacob gives Joseph this garment that indicates royalty and is designed in such a way as to prevent manual labour. Then Joseph tells his older brothers that he has repeated dreams that they and even their parents will bow down to him. -can you see how this might have been a bit hard to take?
Joseph rises to be second in command -first in the house of the captain of the guard and then to the Pharoah himself, who (like Joseph’s father) dresses him in royal garments.
And gives him his second chariot. Chariots were a sign of military power, rank, and honor. -a runner goes before Josephs chariot commanding the population to bow before him
Joseph is the key figure when the idea of scarcity is introduced to the abundance of Genesis, he sets up supply cities for food. (in direct contrast to the Exodus -where Hebrews slaves build supply cities, and anyone who tries to hoard manna is cursed) -Enslaved without anyone he considers to be “his people” Joseph is almost an anti-Moses
Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt as essentially climate refugees he engages in elaborate manipulation, accusing them of spying, taking one brother hostage, framing the others for theft and literally enacting his dream of being bowed down to.
When famine comes Joseph exploits the Egyptians’ desperation, buying Egyptian and Hebrews wealth, animals, land, and them as slaves in exchange for food.
Repeatedly God’s people are offered the choice between the land of Canaan and that of empire. Joseph who consistently interprets events according to “an imperial sense of the ‘divine order’” that favors the powerful, delivers his family and his people to the dominant empire in the narrative.

So what’s your point?

on pride Sunday in a progressive congregation with a large LGBTQ2S+ membership You might hear a sermon about Joseph and the princess dress, queer resistance and joy. You could hear a sermon about Joseph as empire aligned in a church with a particular social and economic justice focus. But as I said at the start, I think this is the sermon you are least likely to hear elsewhere
Here are the key points that I hope you leave with:
trauma and violence in families is real and has lasting impact
diverse genders and sexual expressions have existed through history and in our religious tradition
most of the time we are faced not with tidy stories with a moral but with complex people who have experienced and who perpetrate harm

Keep looking for people showing you parts of themselves you might not expect
And together let us keep on choosing abundance and community over scarcity and empire.

Art by Avery Arden

Blessing of the Bicycles

On May 31, Salal + Cedar celebrated on of our most anticipated and colourful traditions together with Open Way Community Church. Half a dozen people gathered for a service that included words from mystic Hildegard of Bingen, “Just as the wheel encloses within itself without limitation, and it exceeds everything.” and from the prophet Ezekiel, “I saw a wheel on the earth beside the living creatures, one for each of the four of them. As for the appearance of the wheels and their construction: their appearance was like the gleaming of beryl; and the four had the same form, their construction being something like a wheel within a wheel. When they moved, they moved in any of the four directions without veering as they moved. Their rims were tall and awesome.”
At our new location in the Cedar Cottage neighbourhood almost every passing cyclist, many of them families, stopped for snacks, conversation, prayers, and tune-ups from our excellent mechanic Agnes.
In the words of our intercessory prayer that day: Creating God, We give thanks for all those who cycle, scooter, wheel, walk, bus, or carpool as a way to be mindful of and care for your creation, and for those who travel this way because it is what they can afford, we ask you to bless them and keep them safe. Amen.

Feast of Fools

Salal + Cedar community gathers for worship on Saturday afternoon rather than Sunday morning. This year the calendar offered us the opportunity to reflect on the tradition of the Holy Fool as we celebrated Palm Sunday, The Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem -or street theatre that makes a joke of all our messianic, redemptive violence expectations- on April Fools’ Day.
This mash-up of readings and art highlights some themes that hopefully keep us from taking ourselves too seriously as we cram ourselves into the the clown car of holy week.

The theme of this art work, JESTER, developed from my earlier drawings and paintings of the Dream of Jacob. I wanted to give the feelings of dreams and imagination a visual form, apart from a traditional representation of the Dream of Jacob. I wanted to include in this the spiritual theme of the fool or jester, which is seen in many traditions. It reflects on the scriptural passage “God has chosen what the world holds foolish so as to embarrass the wise.” -John August Swanson

Within Christianity there is a strange subset of the prophet called the Holy Fool – a figure who defies social conditions in bizarre ways, provoking deep reflection, challenging social sensibilities and cultural assumptions, exposing what lie beneath. -Ashe Van Steenwyk

Jesus Ben Joseph fit right in, preaching to the poor, the prostitutes, the scum, scratching his lice and calling himself the son of God—and the ultimate absurdity, God’s only son strung up and executed with the other criminals: a royal diadem made from a branch of thorns, his only public mourners a few outcast women with nothing left to lose. Then, to cap it off, Christ the original fool is decently clothed in purple, his crown traded for one of gold, he is restored to the head of his Church, and the transformation is complete.
But what consequences, when the jester assumes the throne? Someone must take his place in the hall, lest the people forget that the essence of Christianity is humility, not magnificence, that in weakness lies our strength. -Laurie King

In pondering a few words for this occasion, I happened on Paul’s First Letter to the Church at Corinth….”We are fools on Christ’s account” (1 Cor. 4:10). In a modest fashion, I have sought membership in this company of fools….Through over 39 months in prison, through long fasts and bouts of solitary confinement, through two indictments while in jail, I have been reckoned a fool, by pharaohs and friends alike…. Let no one find our foolishness puzzling. It is as simple as honoring the 5th commandment, and rejecting official legitimations of murder. It is obedience to the truth and compassion of Christ; or recognizing no enemy in the world….It is as simple as respecting the planet as common property, as common gift and heritage. That is the idiot vision – that is the summons and task. For that, as Paul promised, one risks becoming the world’s refuse, the scum of all (1 Cor. 4:13)…. [T]he fools will never abandon hope, nor cease to live it.
-Phil Berrigan pre-sentencing statement (1976)

When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, “The Lord needs them.” And he will send them immediately.’ This took place to fulfil what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,
‘Tell the daughter of Zion,
Look, your king is coming to you,
   humble, and mounted on a donkey,
     and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’
The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting,
‘Hosanna to the Son of David!
   Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!’
When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, ‘Who is this?’ The crowds were saying, ‘This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.’
-Matthew 21:1-11

Unsung Saints

While reading Matthew’s gospel recently, my eyes teared up when I came across “but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs”” (Matthew 19:14).
I realized that the images from my research work for Indian Residential Schools Resolution Canada had not gone away.  The discoveries of unmarked graves rekindled the vicarious trauma of those images.  I’m not Indigenous, still, one cannot escape the realization that the triumvirate of empire, colonialism and racism made unwilling martyrs out of thousands of Indigenous children and their families.  I use the term “martyr in its original meaning as “witness”, as they were witness and victims of government sanctioned cruelty just like the early martyrs of ancient Rome.  But unlike the ancient martyrs, these saints remain unsung.  But now, some light shines in the darkness.
Among the many making cracks in the colonial armour, allowing light to enter our consciousness three come to mind:  Alanis Obomsawin, Abenaki filmmaker and activist, who work sheds light on discrimination and injustice, but also on Indigenous strength and resistance; Dr. Cindy Blackstock of the Gitxsan First Nation, works fiercely and tirelessly for the rights of current Indigenous children; and, Sleydo (Molly Wickham), an Indigenous spokesperson for the Wet’suwet’en land defenders and their allies, who struggle to preserve the health of Wet’suwet’en natural ecosystems for future generations, Indigenous and non-Indigenous.
These three living saints are numbered among the innumerable unsung saints who have struggled against the injustice of empires from time immemorial.  Let’s begin to remember and celebrate Unsung Saints, and by our own actions amplify the light.

Art and writing by Rev. Dr. Victoria Marie

Justice By Annoyance

18th Sunday after Pentecost Proper 24(29)
Luke 18:1-8

By Caitlin Reilley Beck

I know another story about praying, persistence, not losing heart and an unjust judge. It is happening here, on Coast Salish territory, and it is still happening.
For many years now, work has been happening on Burnaby Mountain to twin the Trans Mountain pipeline in order to increase the amount of bitumen it can transport from the Tarsands in Alberta to the coast to be shipped out in tankers internationally. But this pipeline was built on stolen land – that is on unceded indigenous territory and without the free, prior, informed consent of all those nations whose lives and territory are affected by its presence. The expansion would be going through this same territory and has also failed, multiple times now, to meet the bar set by the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples of obtaining from all the indigenous nations their free, prior and informed consent for it to proceed. Free – that is not coerced or pressured in any way, but a decision made knowing there is another option available; prior – a decision made before plans are drawn up and trees are cut down and giant machines have begun work; and informed – given all the relevant information and an honest account of the impacts and intentions of those involved. This is the standard for consent which must be given and in the context of such an unbalanced relationship of power between indigenous and settler governments and peoples, the onus is on settlers to ensure this standard is met.

Instead, the federal government, the Alberta government and oil companies have sought to push the project forward. But they have met fierce resistance – both in repeated, successful court challenges by First Nations and grass roots, direct action led by indigenous people from across Turtle Island and others who have heeded their calls for support. This resistance is deeply rooted in prayer and the connections that exist between all parts of creation – human and more than human.

But this story also has an unjust judge. In March of 2018, BC Supreme Court Justice Kenneth Affleck granted an injunction to Trans Mountain to prevent blockades and other forms of protesting which water protectors had been using in order to slow or stop work on the twinning of the pipeline.

Since then, over 200 people have been arrested for violating this injunction and seeking to stop work on the Trans Mountain Expansion. Many people involved in the resistance to TMX have taken part in repeated demonstrations, direct actions and prayer vigils. There is a constant, persistent presence on Burnaby Mountain in the form of Kwekwecnewtxw or the Watch House. It was built in 2018, by indigenous water protectors, just before the injunction came into effect, and is part of a Coast Salish tradition of Watch Houses. It is a structure from which they watch for enemies on their territory in an effort to protect their communities from danger. The TMX is connected to some of the deadliest threats to indigenous and non-indigenous communities – colonialism, resource extraction and climate change are all at play in this case. Once again, indigenous people are leading the resistance to threats that impact all of us – and for this reason, settlers must follow their lead.

This Watch House and those connected to it are constantly praying – singing songs, conducting ceremonies, providing hospitality, sitting in silence – all these things happen regularly at the Watch House. This is persistence embodied.

Many of the people who have been arrested on Burnaby Mountain resisting the pipeline expansion are my friends and many have gone before Judge Affleck for breaking the injunction he granted. As time goes on, punishments for violating the injunction are becoming increasingly harsh. They include serious fines, hours of community service and jail time.

This experience of persistent prayer and demanding justice has given me new insight into the parable of the persistent widow and the unjust judge. I used to find her annoying, in fact it sounded to me like she had basically annoyed this judge into giving her what she wanted and it didn’t sound like what I imagined justice to be. Since spending time on Burnaby Mountain, at the Watch House and previously at Camp Cloud, I have learned more about what kind of justice could have motivated the persistent widow in this Gospel reading. It turns out that being persistent and most likely also annoying to some – I imagine including Judge Affleck – is more than warranted at times when Justice demands it; when the answer to our prayers is a sense that we are called to act, to speak up and use our voices and bodies to protect what is vulnerable and valuable in this world.

Caitlin Reilley Beck is one of Salal + Cedar’s Wardens. They are a fat, queer, genderqueer settler who lives on stolen Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-waututh land, but is originally from Ottawa in Algonquin territory. Caitlin’s ancestors are from all over Europe, but include French Huguenots, Polish Jews and Irish Catholics. Caitlin is currently the Camp Director for Queerest and Dearest, an intergenerational camp for LGBTQIA2S+ Christian people and their families.

Wild Lectionary, a weekly reflection on land, creation and environmental justice themes in the texts of the revised common lectionary, is curated by Laurel Dykstra, gathering priest of? Salal + Cedar?, Coast Salish Territories.

A Visit to Holy Cross

By Atsumi Nakao
The visit of Rev. Laurel on March 27 started with a bit of stir. Our beloved musician Seira had to be absent on the day, and we were seeking an alternative way to deliver beautiful music to welcome Rev. Laurel. Then Laurel offered a song without printed lyrics or music. I sensed that Laurel must be a person who has so much up their sleeve. That turned out to be true.

Rev. Laurel brought us two guests: Salal and Cedar in a jar. We decorated our church with Salal at our wedding last year August, yet we were not aware of the Indigenous meaning of them. Decolonization starts in a way we center the value and view of how indigenous people steward this beautiful land. I thus really appreciated that Laurel shared such a deep meaning of Salal and Cedar.

Rev. Laurel started the sermon by acknowledging our history, resilience and faith in the face of racism then, I wondered, what value and view we can offer as a community. I have always been healed and empowered when I encounter Indigenous people’s spirituality and culture, and I have been blessed by the warmth and kindness of this community. As Covid restrictions are loosening and our church is opening to the neighbourhood, maybe it is a good time to think about how we can walk the way of Jesus in our own ways.

Speaking of the culture, Rev. Laurel joined our Japanese language class after church. We learned numbers and had a number bingo game together. It was a pure joy that we shared the time.

One of the things we kept talking about after the church was how Rev. Laurel had done a queer reading of the prodigal son, which was a huge takeaway point so I would like to share the story here (You can watch Laurel’s sermon here as well.) Before Sunday, I thought the father was the God figure and the prodigal son was celebrated because he had repented. Rev. Laurel said their father is not good because he is not as macho as he is supposed to be. Father embraces his son and kisses him, almost like a mother. Then I thought, what would be the masculinity that could encompass this loving, forgiving nature.

I am not a Japanese Canadian descent whose family immigrated to Canada before the war, but a new immigrant who just arrived here six years ago. As I researched the history of the Holy Cross, I realized there is a resonance with this story.

The previous Holy Cross church was confiscated and sold by brothers and sisters who shared the same faith. Japanese Canadians lost the cultural and social hub when they returned — this distraction deeply impacted their lives. However, we gather here today as we are gifted this St. Peter’s church by the same sisters and brothers. As Rev. Laurel preached, the “failed” father, prodigal brother and everyone is welcome to the feast. We can always come back together at the same table to celebrate this gift of abundant opportunities.

God’s Subversive Economy

On Sunday our friend and beloved community member Vikki Marie was in hospital after cancer surgery on her lungs. Laurel stood in for the Reverend Doctor at her Roman Catholic Women Church community Our Lady of Guadalupe Tonantzin. We are posting Laurel’s homily notes here because they relate to our community conversations on alternative economics.

In our lectionary offerings today the Epistle (1 Corinthians 15:45-49), as is often the case (or at least I think so) is a bit of an outlier, it doesn’t fit with the rest of the theme.
But it is this beautiful reflection on Adam and Jesus and consequently what it means to be human.
It’s about Adam -before this being was separated into two genders
The passage reminds us that Adam, comes from earth, soil, the land
indeed the Hebrew word Adam shares a root with Adamah the word for earth
So it’s a bit of a word play like human humus
And Adam only becomes animate through the Breath or Spirit of God
So it is a reminder that we too are earth and wind, land that breathes and acts

The rest of the lectionary readings have a more unified theme which I would call  
Doing the Unexpected to Subvert Power (it’s actually a bit of a biblical mandate)
In the Hebrew bible reading (1 Samuel 26) In the transition of kingship from Saul and David
David has the opportunity to have Saul killed, but he doesn’t do it
He has the power over his enemy but he does not use it (in recognition of another power)

In the Psalm (103) we are reminded that God does not deal with us by counting up our wrongs but rather with pardon, kindness, compassion, redemption, and mercy
Again doing the unexpected, refraining from using destructive power

Now in the gospel (Luke 6:27-38) Jesus teaches the disciples about how to respond to enemies
love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,
bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.To the person who strikes you on one cheek,
offer the other one as well,
and from the person who takes your cloak,
do not withhold even your tunic

Walter Wink has done some work on understanding those passages in terms of nonviolent resistance to political systems that are very much about the way the kingdom movement, the Jesus community, could do the unexpected to subvert power in occupied Palestine

(and I should say very clearly that turning the other cheek is NOT instruction for situations of intimate partner violence, this passage has been misused for a long time to perpetuate harm against women and others in abusive situations)

So what if we apply that theme, this biblical mandate: ‘do the unexpected to subvert power’ to our own lives
Think for a moment,
What are the opportunities that each of us have to ‘do the unexpected to subvert power’ or to recognize a different kind of power?

To close I want to draw attention to one aspect of this passage that we tend not to think about. These few verses of Luke are told almost completely in the language of economics:
Everyone who begs
Your goods
What credit, What credit
What credit
Expect nothing in return
Give and it will be given to you

In my own circles and pastoral relationships I connected this week with four different low-income households that are hugely impacted by debit: student loan debit, child care debit, and credit card debit.
Now most of us don’t have enemies striking our faces, or demanding our cloaks but I think most of us have experience with economics, lending, and debit.
And this kind of radical economics is in fact the pervasive theme of the Gospels. God’s Kingdom (which by the way was Jesus’ core message) could for all its economic references easily be called God’s Subversive Economy. –another example of doing the unexpected to subvert power.
I wonder how things would be different if we prayed the kingdom prayer, the divine economy prayer that Jesus taught us saying: “forgive us our debts as we forgive those who debt against us?”
How would things be different for each of those families in debt if this were a core shared value?
What if as Christians our economic relationships were a key way that we applied the biblical principle of doing the unexpected to subvert power?
What if Church institutions lent, expecting nothing in return.

And so my friends, you breathing earth, you living land let these wonderings be our prayer in the coming days. Amen.