It’s a pretty great year to be a Canadian. Our country, despite now being officially 150 years old, looks like one of the most modern nations in the world – a place known as being somewhere that difference is accepted, where rights are protected. Don’t take my word for it – you have only to look at the way all that admiration for Canada has seeped into popular culture. When Hollywood is looking for a safe harbour – we are now it. In latest X-men movie, Canada was the land of tolerance and protection – the destination, in that case, for children with special powers. In a zombie movie not too long ago, Canada – in that case, a very Newfoundland-looking Nova Scotia – was the place where people took refuge. In The Handmaid’s Tale – based on the book by Canadian writer Margaret Atwood – Canada is the coveted land, where one of the lead characters arrives after being wrongly imprisoned, only to be greeted by a refugee worker who welcomes her, handing her clothing and a health card. It is all a bit on the nose, but we get the message: Canada is trending. As country, we have aged well – especially from the outside looking in.
It is important to celebrate those accomplishments, and the nation that has been built over these past 150 years. One that has managed to balance individual rights and freedoms with a landmark document now envied by many countries. One that continues to be seen as a peacemaker, as a welcomed landing spot, with a population known for being peaceful and friendly. In many ways – and most recently with our national response to the refugees in Syria – we have embodied what Jesus talks about in our gospel this morning: whoever welcomes you welcomes me. That is, whoever welcomes the stranger honours the gospel. Whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones – none of these will lose their reward. Indeed, we have been rewarded: we live in relative safety, in arguably the most stable country in the world, where the law of the land declares we are free to believe what we want, say what we feel, and love whom we want. When we travel outside our borders, we should all feel pretty good about that.
But perhaps we got to this place because Canadians have always tended to self-deprecation – to the “yes, but….” We are not a nation of over-zealous flag wavers, except maybe when it comes to Olympic hockey. Maybe it’s the ever-changing weather, which has taught us to not get too comfortable with the way things are, and always to be prepared for change. Yes, it can be sunny in April, but there can be snow forecast for the weekend. Often I think that’s the secret Canadian sauce – this humility, knowing we aren’t perfect, that we still have work to do, understanding that truly great nations adapt and adjust and work with their neighbors. Certainly, that fits in with the gospel, which places us in the world as it is, and not as we want it to be, and tells us to keep working to fix it – to keep handing out those cups of water until there are no little ones lined up to receive them. Except we know that line will never be empty; there will always be one more little one. The gospel does not have an expiry date. The 150thyear is just one more point in time.
And let’s talk about that 150th year, which reveals one of our national failings. This anniversary marks the day a document was signed, but it fails to consider the 15,000 years before, when there were Canadians here, living and building a society. If we are truly to accept our own history, we have to acknowledge the shadows in it. If you are an indigenous Canadian, the notion of 150 years is offensive. So, let’s be very clear what we are celebrating –this yes, but .… Yes, it is a historic Canada Day, but it is still only one point in time. And on the way to that point came some of the more shameful parts of our national history. Our country has been guilty of the same terrible acts for which we judge others. That is the other side of the welcome that we have become famous for. It is why, when European newspapers write about our treatment of indigenous Canadians, it makes for such a shocking read – this is not the Canada they see from the outside. Surely, not us?
I am sure the disciples thought the same, when Jesus gave them his instructions on carrying out the gospel and receiving and accepting welcome. It sounds almost easy – who wouldn’t rather a society of open doors rather than closed ones? But history teaches us – indeed, events in the world today show us – how quickly long-opened doors can close when we are not watching. Even here, there are worrying signs – a rise in the last couple of years of hate crimes against certain groups, in particular Muslim Canadians. That is a virus that in the right conditions could easily grow, if we are not vigilant.
But isn’t that what our national anthem is really saying, when we talk about standing on guard for Canada? It really refers to all of us, not only those who wear the uniform on our nation’s behalf. We are all called to stand on guard for the principles that we most admire about our country, and to stand on guard against the threats of intolerance that may do harm to it. We must not just be ready with the cup of water, as Jesus says, but we must protect the well from which the water comes.
On Friday, before Saturday’s party, a controversy occurred on Parliament Hill. A group of Indigenous Canadians had set up a ceremonial teepee, a symbol of presence, a reminder that this was not their 150th year in this land. But they were in the way of the stage and the cameras, and what followed, in true Canadian fashion, was a negotiation and a compromise. The teepee was moved to the side, still visible, but not blocking the cameras; and visitors – including the Prime Minister, were welcomed inside. This will not, of course, bring clean water to First Nations communities, or erase the pain of residential schools, but it is a sign that we are learning that the best way forward is not to erase the past, but to face it. Not to avoid the strangers, but to welcome them. We are all, at one time or another, the little one in need of a cup of water. The gospel envisions a society where that need would always be met. Yes, we have done better than most. But, we have a nation yet to be built. To be a people in progress – who can protect what is good and work to fix what is still wrong – is the very definition of the gospel. That is worth celebrating.