Sunday, July 2, 2017

Loving Christ and Loving Canada - How Do They Fit Together?

Those of you who know me well will be a little surprised that I’m preaching a sermon today about Canada Day. I’ve never been enthusiastic about the idea of combining Christianity and patriotism, and I’m very uncomfortable with the presence of national flags in a church. I think there’s been a lot of damage done in the past when Christians have tried to make love of God and love of country the same thing, and in the church I think we need to be absolutely crystal clear that our love for God is what we’re about, whatever our national loyalty may be.

I’m also a little uncomfortable with the idea of this being ‘Canada’s 150th birthday’. Canada didn’t begin with 1867; if it did, that means that people like Jacques Cartier, Samuel de Champlain, Alexander Mackenzie and David Thompson weren’t part of the story of Canada – not to mention the original inhabitants of this land. Our mayor here in Edmonton likes to remind us that we don’t have a one-hundred-year history; we have a ten-thousand-year history. To call this ‘Canada’s 150th birthday’ makes it seem as if the true Canadians are the ones who came from elsewhere, not the ones who had been living here for millennia before we arrived.

However, despite these personal misgivings, I want to spend a few minutes with you this morning exploring the whole idea of Christianity and patriotism. What does it mean for us to love Canada as Christians? Let me suggest four things.

First, I would suggest it means gratitude for this good land. In the Book of Deuteronomy Moses is addressing God’s people as they are about to enter their promised land, the land that would become Israel. Here’s part of what he says:
“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 he has given you” (Deuteronomy 8:7-10).
We can well imagine a people who had been wandering the desert for forty years, hearing these words and feeling the excitement and anticipation: “Wow – that sounds like one beautiful country!”

Well, surely if anyone ought to feel gratitude for the beautiful country they live in, it’s us. This is a good land. It’s a land of majestic mountains and wide prairies, of lakes and forests and rivers and streams. It’s home to thousands of different species of wildlife, living in climates all the way from semi-desert to arctic and everything in between. It feeds not only those who live here but people in other parts of the world too. And we all know how rich its natural resources are.

I think we can get so used to the idea of Canada as a society, or as a political entity, that we forget this basic, bedrock reality: Canada is a land. First Nations people can help us here, of course, with their strong sense of the earth as our mother and the importance of our relationship with the whole of creation. But really, this idea has been in our scriptures from the very beginning. The second creation story in Genesis tells us that ‘The LORD God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to till it and keep it’ (Genesis 2:15); the word ‘to keep it’ could be translated ‘to guard it’. And the scriptures remind us that despite what our property laws say, we don’t actually own this land. Psalm 24 says, ‘The earth is the LORD’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it; for he has founded it on the seas, and established it on the rivers’ (Psalm 24:1-2).

So this good land belongs to God. He has allowed us to live here and enjoy it, and it’s appropriate for us to give him grateful thanks. ‘You shall eat your fill and bless the LORD your God for the good land that he has given you’ (Deuteronomy 8:10). And it’s also appropriate for us as Christians to guard this good land the Lord has entrusted to us. It’s not a small thing if our use of the land is destroying it for future generations. It’s not trivial in God’s sight if the animal species he took such care in designing are being driven to extinction by human activity. If glaciers are shrinking so that the water supply is endangered, that’s something that Christians should be concerned about, because we will have to answer to God for our part in that. So we not only thank God for this good land of Canada, we also do all we can to protect and preserve it so that future generations can enjoy it as well.

To love Canada as Christians means to be grateful for this good land God has entrusted to us, and to do our best to care for it. Second, to love Canada as Christians means to do our best to contribute to its true well-being.

One of my favourite Old Testament verses is in the book of Jeremiah. It comes from a time when many of the Jewish people had been taken into exile in Babylon. Some of them were wondering if God was going to come to their rescue any time soon; would they be staying in Babylon for a long time, or would they be set free in the near future? Jeremiah was still living far away in Judah, but he sent a message to the exiles, and here’s the money quote:
‘But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare’ (Jeremiah 29:7).
I think this is very relevant to us today as Christian citizens of Canada. We’re to take our place alongside other citizens of our country, seeking its well being and contributing to the common good.

But we will do this in a way that’s consistent with our Christian beliefs, and that won’t always line up neatly with what everyone else believes. For instance, some of the people around us may believe that the welfare of the country demands that we keep on getting richer and richer forever, but no follower of Jesus can accept that and at the same time be loyal to the teaching of our master, who told us not to store up for ourselves treasure on earth. We know that love and relationship, not wealth, are the most important parts of our human existence; Jesus told us that loving God with all our heart and loving our neighbour as ourselves is what life is really all about. And in the Sermon on the Mount he told us “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets” (Matthew 7:12).

So as Christians we will do our best to help build a country based on the values of love and compassion; that’s how we seek the welfare of our country. And love and compassion aren’t just about sentiment and feeling; they’re about justice for the oppressed and a fair deal for all, including the original inhabitants of this country – many of whom have told us that they don’t especially feel as if the past hundred and fifty years have been cause for celebration for them. We can’t ignore those voices; we have to take them seriously.

And this leads me to the third thing. As Christians, we’re called to live in gratitude for this good land, and we’re called to seek the welfare of this country where God has placed us. But we’re also called to speak a prophetic word where it’s necessary.

Some people feel that to speak any word of criticism at all it to be disloyal to one’s country. I don’t think any follower of Judaism or Christianity can accept that idea. Have you ever read the writings of the Old Testament prophets? Listen to Amos:
‘Thus says the LORD:
For three transgressions of Israel,
and for four, I will not revoke the punishment;
because they sell the righteous for silver,
and the needy for a pair of sandals –
they who trample the head of the poor
into the dust of the earth,
and push the afflicted out of the way;
father and son go into the same girl,
so that my holy name is profaned;
they lay themselves down beside every altar
on garments taken in pledge;
and in the house of their God they drink
wine bought with fines they imposed’ (Amos 2:6-8).

Or how about this, from Isaiah?
‘If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.
The LORD will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail’ (Isaiah 58:9b-11).

In the New Testament, the book that probably comes closest to the spirit of the Old Testament prophets is the letter of James. Listen to him now:
‘Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure for the last days. Listen! The wages of the labourers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts on a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous one, who does not resist you’ (James 5:1-6).

It’s a scorching passage, isn’t it? Obviously James and Isaiah and Amos didn’t believe that loving your country never meant speaking a word of challenge when they saw injustice and oppression. And so it’s right that we Christians should be in the front lines of those speaking out for the poor and needy, so that everyone who lives in this country gets a fair deal. This is not about trying to do away with the separation of church and state or imposing Christian morality by legislation. This is about values that are written on the conscience of every human being made in the image of God. This is what loving your neighbour as yourself looks like in a modern democracy, where everyone is entitled to speak out for what they believe.

I’m not trying to set out an exhaustive list for you this morning; that would take a much longer sermon than this! I’m simply suggesting to you a few things that I see in the scriptures that bear on this subject of loving our country as Christians. I’ve said that it includes gratitude to God for this good land we share, and doing our best to protect it. It means doing our best to contribute to the true well-being of our country. And it means being willing to speak a prophetic word of challenge when that’s necessary.

One last thing, and I think this is the most important thing of all. I think we love our country best when we love God more.

In the old 1980s movie Chariots of Fire, Eric Liddell is a young Scottish athlete competing in the Paris Olympic Games in 1924. He’s also a devout Christian, the son of missionaries, who is going to go out to China himself as a missionary in a few years. Eric is a real character, by the way, who died in an internment camp in China in 1944.

Eric is entered in the 100-yard sprint, but he discovers that the heats for that race are going to be run on Sunday. He’s a devout Scottish Presbyterian and he believes that keeping the Sabbath requires him to withdraw from the race. The British Olympic committee – including the Prince of Wales – tries to persuade him otherwise. The Prince of Wales reminds him that sometimes we’re required to make sacrifices in the name of our loyalty to our country. Another crusty old lord on the committee says “In my day it was king first, God after!” – to which another member replies “Yes, and the war to end all wars bitterly proved your point!” But in the end Eric stands his ground; he runs in the 400 metres instead – a race he hasn’t trained for – and to everyone’s surprise he wins the gold.

Nowadays we might want to quarrel with Eric about whether running a race on Sunday is really such a big deal, but be that as it may, the core issue is our primary loyalty. The early Christians went out into the Roman world proclaiming the provocative message that ‘Jesus is Lord’. The reason this was provocative is that the title ‘Kyrios’ – ‘Lord’ – was already given to someone else: the Roman Emperor. To say “Jesus is Lord” implied “and Caesar is not”. Of course, Caesar was Lord of the political world, but Christians believed that his lordship was secondary to the true Lord of all, Jesus the Messiah, to whom Caesar would have to give account one day.

And this is also true for us as Christians today. We can’t give unconditional allegiance to any human government or authority; we can only give that to God. In the Book of Acts, the Jewish ruling council commanded the apostles to stop preaching in the name of Jesus. Peter’s response was clear: “Whether it is right in God’s sight to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge; for we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:19-20). As Jesus said: “Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Matthew 6:33).

In a sense, to be a Christian is to be a dual citizen. I have both British and Canadian citizenship; I am a dual citizen. Fortunately for me, I’ve never been put in a position where I have to choose between those two citizenships, but it’s not hard to imagine how a situation like that could arise. And the same is true of our citizenship in the Kingdom of God and the earthly country that we belong to. There might come a time when our country might ask us to do something that was clean contrary to the way of life that Jesus is teaching us. And if that were to happen, our call as Christians is clear: Jesus is Lord, which means that Caesar is not. Let’s pray that we’re never put in that position; let’s also pray for the millions around the world who are put in that position, on a regular basis.

Let’s go round this one last time. Loving our country as Christians means being grateful to God for this good land of Canada, and doing what we can to preserve it for future generations. It means seeking the well-being of all who live here, and sometimes speaking words of prophetic challenge when they are necessary.

But most important of all, we love our country best when we don’t give it our ultimate allegiance. Ultimate allegiance is owed only to God, who will still be Lord of all long after Canada is only a memory. So by all means let’s sing ‘O Canada’ - but after that, let’s sing ‘Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you’.

In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

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