Psalm 89:1-4, 15-18
So Canada turned 150 yesterday, in case you missed all the ads, the decorations, and the shop discounts that have been promoted for the past year. We were at the mall the other day and Ryan saw a big sign that said “Canada 150” on it and he said it was so weird that Canada is only 150 years old, because he thought that it would take longer for the land to form and become a country. And so I had to explain to him that it’s just the 150 years that the colonizers declared their unity and independence and he already lost interest. But it did seem like many went all out to celebrate this sesquicentennial of Canada.
If you saw the ads and promos about celebrating Canada’s 150th, you may have seen the flip side to all the festivities too, those who aren’t in the mood to celebrate but instead want to remind everyone how Canada is actually stolen land and we should pay respect to the thousands of years of history of Indigenous folk instead. They claim that those who celebrate “Canada” and especially the 150 years of this nation are ignorant and insensitive, and that their festivities are actually harming others. Both sides feel very strongly about their stance, and while I haven’t heard of any violence that stemmed out from this difference, from what I have been reading and hearing, I wouldn’t be surprised if there were.
Now I am not advocating one way or another. I understand that Canada has a complicated past, and I think it is important to recognise that, but I just don’t know if this issue should be as divisive as it is. Don’t get me wrong, I think everyone has the right to their own opinion and should be allowed to and encouraged to voice it, but the problem that I’m seeing is how people are being alienated from their respective groups because they see the whole celebration differently. Some who didn’t want to celebrate were asked by their opposing friends “what kind of a Canadian are you?” while those who did want to celebrate were asked by their opposing friends “what kind of Canadian are you?”
And I get it, mostly because I get asked that about pretty much every aspect of my life whenever I do something that might be slightly against the grain. I get asked what kind of a Canadian I am when I tell people I don’t watch hockey or don’t own like 20 pairs of skis. I’m asked what kind of an Asian I am when people find out I don’t speak Chinese and don’t like tofu. People wonder what kind of a Lutheran pastor I am when they see my face and realise that I’m not European. And then people have actually asked me what kind of a Buddhist I am because I serve the Lutheran church. *shrug*
Don’t we do that a lot? Don’t we have these kinds of identifiers that tell us who we are, and perhaps inform us of who we think other people are? We like to size them up with what little we know of them and make these assumptions that we have them all figured out.
But do we really?
I mean, are Canadians only defined as Canadian if they are patriotic, like hockey, and are really, really polite? So anyone who doesn’t fit that mold then is somehow not truly Canadian? Or are Asians only defined as Asian if they speak the language, drive really nice cars (poorly), and are really good at math? Are Lutherans only defined as of German or Norwegian descent? And what about Christians in general? How are we defined? How do people know us as Christians? What markers do we have or give that will unmistakably label us as Christians, and no one would be like, what kind of Christian are you?
Well, for starters, it seems like Christians aren’t supposed to smoke, drink, swear, listen to hip hop music, wear too flashy clothes, lie, and speed. And as a Christian pastor I’m apparently not supposed to be married, either. These were all instances in my life when someone caught me in the act and actually asked me what kind of a Christian am I. Well, maybe except for the being married part, it’s not like someone walked in on my wife and me and was like, whoa, what kind of a Christian are you? Because that would have been awkward.
But is that what Christians are really defined as? To be a “true” Christian means that you aren’t able to do those things? Is the proof of who we are found in the things we do or don’t do?
I think people had these questions for centuries. At least, they seemed to have had them in the bible passages that we have today. In Jeremiah, the prophet talks about how he compares to the prophets of old, how what he says and what the others have said don’t jive, and how the people have to decide which is the actual message from God. And in Romans, Paul was speaking the Roman church about exactly this, their defining of each other by the proof of their actions, how disciplined they are, and how many times they messed up in terms of the strict rules according to their tradition. And in Matthew, Jesus seems to be talking to us in the same way, that we will be known by how well we can welcome others.
So the question of what are the defining traits of a disciple, a prophet, and a Christian in general were on people’s minds. Perhaps they wanted to make sure that people knew who they were so they would act appropriately. Or maybe they wanted to be sure themselves of who they were so they forced themselves to be a certain way. Or… maybe they wanted to prove to God that they were worthy of the salvation that God so graciously gives.
And I think you all know where I’m going with this. We do not, will not, and have not ever had to prove our worthiness to God because it isn’t us who decide if we or anyone else are worthy or not. It is not up to us whether or not God will love us because God will love us. So there essentially isn’t anything to prove, because God doesn’t love us for what we can or can’t do. Rather, God loves us because of who we are created as, and that is as children of God.
So the welcome that Jesus is talking about actually isn’t as hard as we would initially think. I mean, welcoming a stranger isn’t a problem per se for most, but it is welcoming the despised when it’s harder for us. It’s harder for us to welcome those who don’t fit our mold as those worthy of being welcomed. It’s harder for us to welcome those who haven’t proven themselves as deserving of our welcome or proved in our eyes that they definitely do not deserve it. It’s harder for us to welcome those who we just look at and have to ask, “what kind of a person are you that I should welcome you?”
We might size them up and wonder if they come from a stable family, or if they have substance abuse problems, or how they are doing financially, maybe what kind of education they have, or what kind of faith they hold. Before we want to welcome we check to see how good of a conversationalist they are, or how kind they are to others, and perhaps what they could offer us in return. Maybe we need them to be agreeable with us in matters of faith, matters of life, and matters of community. Or maybe we want to ask what they think about Canada celebrating 150 years.
But when we do that, when we put conditions on our welcome, then we have lost sight of who we are and how we are created. We have forgotten that God loves us in spite of our occupation, our nationality, or level of discipline. We have forgotten that God is gracious, in that God gives us, all of us, exactly what we don’t deserve, and that is God’s love, forgiveness, and inclusion into God’s eternal community and kingdom. This is God’s free gift, saving us from having to jump to conclusions, making assumptions, and judging others. Releasing us from the need to prove ourselves, show each other up, and be compared to our peers. Freeing us to love openly, serve selflessly, and welcome confidently knowing that God has welcomed us all first.
But we mustn’t confuse this as something that we must do because God commands it. We mustn’t think that this is something that we need to do to in order to earn our way into God’s kingdom. We mustn’t assume that this is something that we should do in an attempt to garner some kind of a reward. Instead, this is something that we can do because God has done it first. This is something that we learn to want to do because God has already included us into God’s kingdom. This is something that we are free to do because God has already graciously given us the free gift of eternal life in Jesus Christ our Lord.
And it goes both ways, as we welcome we can also accept welcome. We can see the ways that God is showing us love through the actions of others. We can know God’s good and whole community in both giving that welcome and receiving it.
What a beautiful image of eternity this is, in knowing the love of God through others. There is joy then in serving each other, not for some kind of proof or reward, but in that we are helping others see the love that God has for them as we see the love that God has for us through the help we receive.
So what kind of a Christian am I? The kind that is deeply loved by God, without condition or bias, without stipulation or hindrance, without assumption or proof of worthiness. For God has already deemed us worthy, by the sole fact that we are God’s children, formed in love, created to serve, and welcomed into eternal community.
As we continue in this season after Pentecost, may we always know the welcome of God, show it to others, and accept it even when it might make us uncomfortable. For this is what the community of God looks like, full of joy, mutuality, and love. Thanks be to God. Amen.