Canada: Not the Promised Land – But a Land Full of Promise – a sermon in celebration of Canada

Readings for Canada Day weekend: Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Psalm 72:1-8a; Matthew 5:43-48

Listen to the sermon here

“A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number and there became a great nation, mighty and populous.”  So, mighty and so populous that some of our ancestors wandered all the way to Northern Ireland. As a child in Belfast a long time ago, longer than I care to remember, so long  ago that life was very different than it is now. Life in Belfast during the sixties was simple. We didn’t have much. Life was simple and basic and so many of the things that we take for granted, simply didn’t exist back then.  Looking back on it now, I suppose you could say that we were poor. The truth is, we may indeed have been poor but I never knew it. Back then “the troubles” were reigniting in Northern Ireland as protestants and Roman Catholics began to slip back into their old violent ways. Looking back, I realize that the poverty and violence of Belfast in the 1960’s made it a tough place to raise a family. So, it makes sense that my family would leave Belfast as what today we would call refugees, fleeing both economic hardships as well as the threat of violence. But as a child in neither knew nor understood the realities of our migration. Nevertheless, arriving in Canada was just like arriving in the “Promised Land.”

On this Canada Day weekend, I can still vividly remember my first full day in Canada, even though it happened so very long ago. My Mother, my brother, and I arrived at the old Malton Airport. I don’t have any actual memories of walking across the tarmac, but legend has it that it was snowing on what should have been a spring day.  I do have memories of my very first car-ride. I can still see the massive 1957 Plymoth.  It was the first car my family ever owned and it had these huge fins at the back that were taller than I was at the time. The back seat was positively enormous and riding back there, I was thoroughly convince that my Dad had struck it rich in Canada. 

We pulled into the parking lot of the tallest building I had ever seen and Dad announced that we were home.  He pointed out a balcony way up on the fourth floor and said that this was our flat.Then we climbed aboard an elevator. I had never been in an elevator before and I was amazed at the skill with which my father took charge of the controls. When the door magically slide open, we walked down a long hallway to arrive at our front door.  I can still see the gold numbers on the door, “407”. We must be rich indeed, if we had good on our front door. I could hardly believe my eyes when Dad opened the door.  I remember the shiny wood floors, the brand new furniture, and the big TV set.

 As we toured the rest of the apartment, I simply couldn’t speak. This new home looked nothing like the homes I was used to.  What’s more inside the kitchen stood a sparkling white refrigerator. I had never seen such a thing. All I remember is that this refrigerator had magic powers that allowed us to keep food cold. Visions of ice-cream must have danced through my head.  Just imagine the marvelous ability to be able to keep ice-cream in your very own kitchen. No more walking to the corner shop or waiting for the ice-cream man to pass by.Ice-cream right there as cold as you like in your very own home. It blew my tiny little mind!

You can’t imagine how rich I though we had become. Especially when off we went on my very first trip to a grocery store.  A grocery store, not a shop or a market, but a grocery store in Canada, is a very magical place.  I can still remember playing with my brother on the magic entrance to the grocery store.  We had never before seen automatic doors and we were delighted to step over and over again on the magic mat that caused the doors to open. Then there was the big cart that people in Canada used to pile all their groceries in.   People in Canada bought so much food that they needed a cart to carry it all out to their cars so that they could fill their marvelous refrigerators up to the brim. It must have blown my Mom’s mind to think that she would no longer have to shop every day, but could actually shop once a week because we had a fridge to store everything in.

I have this vague memory of standing in front of boxes and boxes of cereal. I had never seen so many boxes of cereal.  So much choice.  I remember choosing a box with a bear on the package…it was a cartoon bear… but it was a bear, I couldn’t wait to see a real bear.  Canada, I thought must be full of bears. Perhaps the sugar pops, would make me strong enough to stand in front of a bear? I remember watching a square box of ice-cream travel down a magic counter and later watching as it was loaded into the massive boot of our massive car, and finally as it was placed in our very own freezer. Chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry ice-cream came out of that box. It was delicious.  I remember several times, sneaking into the kitchen and opening up the fridge and then peering into the freezer to see if any of the ice-cream was leaking out of the box. Wonder of wonders, in Canada people are so rich that they can keep ice-cream for days and days and days in their very own homes.  Canada is just like I imagined heaven to be. Canada was, to that little girl that I was way back then, Heaven here on earth.

Canada is an amazing land. I am not the first refugee, and I certainly won’t be the last refugee to discover that Canada is more lovely than the Promised Land of any wandering migrants dreams. The wealth of our land surpasses the wildest dreams of most of the people on this planet. We have been richly blessed. Listen to the words of Deuteronomy, they might just as well have been written for us:  “For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron and from whose hills you may mine copper.  You shall eat your fill and bless the Lord your God for the good land that God has given you.”

Welcome to the promised land!  Look around you.   Rejoice and be glad for God has been gracious to you. Praise God for the bounty, which God has laid before us. Don’t let it be said of you, “that none of them was found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner”.  Let it be said that, “we shall eat our fill and bless our God for the good land that God has given us. Take care that you do not forget God.  When we have eaten our fill and have built fine houses and live in them, and when our wealth has multiplied, our silver and our gold is multiplied, and all that we have is multiplied, then do not exalt yourself, forgetting God, who brought us out of the great and terrible wilderness.” Do not let us say to ourselves, “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.” But remember God, for it is God who gives you power to get wealth, so that God may confirm God’s covenant that God swore to our ancestors, as God is doing today.”

Alas, like our ancestors, we too are like wandering Arameans,  for just like every other immigrant who ever came upon the beauty of a land not their own, we did not wander into an empty land. We are migrants, settlers, colonizers. Looking around this room, I think it is safe to say that, regardless of whether it was us our or our ancestors, our people, our tribe, took this land from the indigenous in habitants of this land. Our ancestors may have believed that they had a god-given right to this land. But the texts we revere as sacred cannot disguise the reality of the crimes that were committed when our forbearers took this land from the peoples and nations that had inhabited this land for centuries before any Europeans every dreamed that Turtle Island existed.  We are setters in this land, descendants of colonizers, our wealth came and continues to come at great cost to the indigenous peoples of this land that we love.

We come from a long tradition that looks back upon our ancestors as wandering Arameans who when they arrived at what they believed to be their Promised Land, they believed that their god was providing them with all the blessings they needed to thrive as a nation. The reality is that those wandering Arameans were settlers and colonizers in the land of Canaan. The Canaanites lost their land to the Israelites and the tragedy of colonization still reverberates down to this very day as Israelis and Palestinians fight over the blessings of the Promised Land.

As the celebrations of “Canada 150” fade, perhaps we can turn our attention to the many blessings of this land. Perhaps we can finally begin to move beyond the sins of our fathers and mothers, and set aside our own sins of omission. Perhaps we can begin to hear the words of the One we profess to follow and learn to love one another in ways that do not put one another into categories of native and non-native, indigenous and settler, colonizer and colonized, neighbour and enemy, but rather sisters and brothers in a land rich with promise.  We have relied for too long on the ravages of our past which trained us well to be colonizers. Surely, it is time for us to set aside our childish ways, and look not to the tribalism of our past but rather to the sense of blessedness that called upon our ancestors to remember that we have been blessed to be a blessing.  Surely, we can begin the next 150 years by finding ways to be a blessing to our sisters and brothers who have suffered the perils of colonization. If Canada is to grow out of our childish churlish ways, we will need to learn from our indigenous sisters and brothers so that together we can cherish this land where the abundance of the earth provides so much promise that all who live here can find peace together.

Canada is not the Promised Land given to us by God so that we can gather up all the milk and honey. Canada is a land filled with promise; a land of nations of indigenous peoples and settlers have many blessings to share with the world. Before the promise of Canada can be realized, it is time for us to clean-up the mess of “Canada 150” by atoning for the sins of our mothers and fathers as well as our sins of omission. We can do that by ensuring that our all our sisters and brothers have access to the milk and honey.  We can do that by learning from our indigenous sisters and brothers how to live in harmony with the land, how to respect the blessings of Turtle Island, how to share the blessings in ways that ensure that this great land continues to thrive.  We can do that by repairing the damage that has been done while ensuring that every child feels as richly blessed as we do. Only when everyone of us is free to embrace with dignity the promise of this great land will we truly begin to embrace the blessedness that abounds all around us in ways that will be a blessing to the world.

 May we all learn to look beyond “Canada 150”, so that together we can see our blessedness not as our own, but as god-given so that we might be a blessing to others. We have been richly blessed.  And, to those to whom much has been given, much is expected. We have been blessed to be a blessing. The party is over, let the clean-up begin. Set your minds upon the ways in which you might embrace your blessings so as to be a blessing to others. Let it be so. Amen.

“Canada 150” Spitting in the Face of Indigenous Sisters and Brothers – a sermon in preparation for the celebrations

Readings:  Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Acts 2:44-46; Matthew 5:21-26

Listen to the sermon here

According to the anonymous gospel storyteller that we call Matthew, Jesus said, “But I tell you that everyone who is angry with sister or brother is subject to judgment; anyone who says to sister or brother, ‘I spit in your face!’ will be subject to the Sanhedrin; and anyone who vilifies them with name-calling will be subject to the fires of Gehenna.”

“Gehenna” a valley outside of Jerusalem where people burned their garbage. Gehenna a filthy stinking kind of place where, in the heat of the day, fires consumed the trash of the city. Gehenna a loathsome place that looms large in our collective imaginations as the mythical hell that haunts our culture, tormenting so us with nightmares of our own making.

“Anyone who says to sister or brother, “I spit in your face!’ will be subject to the Sanhedrin” – the Sanhedrin – the people’s court – a place where society judges our actions, “anyone who vilifies” a sister or brother, with name-calling bill be subject to the fires of Gehenna.”

What is this doing in the Bible? Where is the Good News? Why did our ancestors in the faith preserve this particular piece of storytelling? “Anyone who says to a sister or brother, ‘I spit in your face!’ will be subject to the fires of Gehenna.”? What is the anonymous gospel storyteller that we call Matthew trying to tell us? “If you bring your gift to the altar and there remember that your sister or brother has a grudge against you, leave your gift there at the altar. Go to be reconciled to them, and then come and offer your gift. Lose no time in settling with your opponents—do so while still on the way to the courthouse with them. Otherwise your opponents may hand you over to the judge, and the judge hand you over to the bailiff, who will through you into prison. I warn you, you won’t get out until you have paid the last penny.”

I suspect that the anonymous gospel storyteller, that we call Matthew, knew a great deal about the kind of disputes that may have inspired Jesus to want to cast members of his own tribe upon the dung-heap of his society.  Remember, Jesus own people were colonizers in the land of Palestine. Colonizers all too often resort to spitting, both metaphorically and quite literally in the eyes of the people that they are colonizing. So, I can well imagine the kinds of disputes that would have been rampant in a land of Palestine that had been colonized over and over again. Jesus’ own tribe, the Jewish people, had colonized the Canaanites. In Jesus’ day, the first inhabitants along with the Jewish colonizers were in turn colonized by the Romans. Inter-tribal disputes were a dime, or should I say, a shekel a dozen. I can well imagine that there was a lot of spitting going on.

Land claims; we here in Canada suffer under the delusion that we are the only ones who must deal with complications over who owns the land. But this kind of tribal turmoil has been going on since long before the Hebrews wandered off into the wilderness of the desert and found themselves dreaming of a Promised Land. One person’s promised land is another person’s home. It seems to me that the only way to justify driving a fellow human-being off their homeland is to dehumanize them. Human history is filled with examples of one group of humans moving in on another group of humans and it usually begins with one human deciding that the other human is less of a human than they are. Colonizers, by definition, dehumanize the colonized. Dehumanizing others, inspires the kind of contempt that allows some of us to spit in the faces of others of us.

First century Palestine, like 21st century Palestine afforded all sorts of people the opportunity to spit in the faces of all sorts of people. When you scratch the surface of all the spitting you can usually discover some sort of dispute over land. We humans suffer from the original sin of believing that we can actually own the land; as if the land is ours and ours alone. And yet, every tribe in every land, has an innate sense that the land comes to us as pure gift from the Creator of the land. This Creator of land, however our particular tribe imagines this Creator, is the ONE we look to as the ultimate owner of the land. But we humans have this ugly snake that lives deep down inside us, that fills our heads with delusions of grandeur, that deceive us into believing that we and we alone are the ones who are wise enough to occupy a particular place in a particular time. Oh, we humans are very adept at dressing up our naked aggression, but there hasn’t been a fig leaf made that can disguise our hubris. And so, we spit in the face of those who reflect our nakedness back to us.

This particular allegory of Jesus insisting that such contempt will lead us all to the rotting, smoldering, garage heap that haunts our deepest nightmares, is not a particularly cheery tale for a Sunday morning. These verses from our sacred scripture don’t get much airplay in our sacred spaces. You don’t often hear about the dire consequences of our contempt for one another. Oh, sure we know that these verses are there, but we’d rather forget about them, and we certainly don’t want to be reminded of Gehenna on a summer Sunday. Which brings me full circle to what I want to remind us of on this particular summer Sunday. For like these uncomfortable verses of scripture that remind each of us of the contempt that slithers about in the dark places of our psyche, there’s a particular kind of contempt that most of us don’t particularly want to be reminded of at this particular time of the year. As our nation prepares to celebrate “Canada 150,” none of us want to think about the many ways our celebrations are spitting in the face of our sisters and brothers, who continue to suffer from the realities of the colonization which continues to benefit each of us as settlers in these lands that we love.

“Canada 150,” as if our various tribes’ appearance in these lands, marks the starting point of Canada. 12 to 15 thousand years, that’s how long the experts insist indigenous peoples had lived upon the lands we call Canada. Indigenous: “originating or occurring naturally in a particular place” As opposed to, settlers who colonized, these lands, displacing the indigenous by whatever means necessary so that our peoples could become the masters of these lands. Our ancestors, the original colonizers, brought diseases that wiped out whole nations of peoples. Our ancestors, the original settlers, inspired by contempt for the First Nations of these lands, drove millions off their various homelands. Our ancestors, came in waves, to settle these lands and over generations adopted tactics designed to rid these lands of “Indians”.

But just like our sacred scriptures that warn against the folly of spitting in the face of our opponents, the colonization of these lands happened a long time ago. We’d rather forget about all that and move on. The trouble is we settlers keep spitting in the faces of our indigenous sisters and brothers. And for those of us, who believe that we are not like our ancestors, the reality that our government is spending half-a-billion dollars this year to celebrate “Canada 150” while 134 indigenous communities do not have safe drinking water — well if that is not spiting in the face of our sisters and brothers, I’m not sure that we setters will ever understand what the anonymous gospel story teller that we call Matthew was trying to tell us, let alone what Jesus lived and died for.

Listen to the words of our Metis sister, Christi Belcourt as she reacts to the spit that has landed on her face.

“Canada,

I can cite for you

150

Lists of the dead

150 languages no longer spoken

150 rivers poisoned

150 Indigenous children taken into care last month

150 Indigenous communities without water

150 grieving in a hotel in Winnipeg

150 times a million lies

told to our faces

to steal our lands.

Canada,

I can cite for you

150

Forms of resistance

150 battles to the death

150 water warriors walking

150 naming ceremonies

150 ways we shake the ground with dance and song

150 tattooed expressions of sovereignty

150 times 2 million days faces were painted

with earth of this land.

Canada,

I can cite for you 

150

Summers coming of resurgence

150 thousand babies birthed in ceremonies

150 thousand status cards burned

150 thousand youth marching for water

150 thousand children with braids and feathers in their hair

150 thousand Indigenous words being spoken without English

150 summers coming 

of Mother Earth calling out to our hearts

150 summers coming

where you too, will finally come to understand

the power and spirit of these lands and waters

as our ancestors have known and have been trying to tell you for 500 years.”

Christi Belcourt is calling upon you and I to recognize that our “Canada 150” celebrations are in fact a celebration of 150 years of colonization. Perhaps it is time for us to really hear the words of our own sacred scriptures: “If you bring your gift to the altar and there remember that your sister or brother has a grudge against you, leave your gift there at the altar.Go to be reconciled to them, and then come and offer your gift. Lose no time in settling with your opponents—do so while still on the way to the courthouse with them. Otherwise your opponents may hand you over to the judge, and the judge hand you over to the bailiff, who will through you into prison. I warn you, you won’t get out until you have paid the last penny.”

Justice, real justice would extract a high price from those of us who continue to enjoy the benefits of 150 years of colonization. Fortunately, our indigenous sisters and brothers are not insisting upon an eye-for-an-eye kind of justice. Our indigenous sisters and brothers are inviting us to sit down with them to work together to find a way forward upon these lands that we all love. They are inviting us to do what the members of our Christian tribe have done since the first followers of the way began to chart a path in the wilderness of their own colonial nightmare. Our ancestors in the faith gathered together and in the words of the Acts of the Apostles: “Those who believed lived together, shared all things in common; they would sell their property and goods, sharing the proceeds with one another as each had need. They met in the Temple and they broke bread together in their homes every day. With joyful and sincere hearts, they took their meals in common, praising God and winning the approval of all the people.”

Our indigenous sisters and brothers are inviting us to sit down together to break bread with one another, so that we can find ways to share the blessings of these lands that we love. We are being invited to share in a process that is embodied in the smudging ceremony that purifies the space to permit the sacred energy that exists between peoples to lead us forward in peace.

So, during the days of celebration, let us open ourselves to the possibilities of peace among the lovers of these lands. Let us remember twelve to fifteen thousand years of history on these lands, and let us honour all those who have gone before us, all those who will come after us, by learning to live in harmony with our sisters and brothers upon these lands that we call Canada.