Sunday, June 30, 2024
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“Boo other nations”
By Rev. Dr.  Jason Byassee
Sunday, June 30, 2024
Reading: Psalm 149

Happy Canada Day. My family crossed the border into Canada this weekend nine years ago, so today starts our tenth year living in this country. I told our eight-year-old that day that Canada had a queen. As a good American he said, “aw, that means we’re not free.”

My favourite bumper sticker saying about our national identity says this: ‘Canada, we could have had French food, British culture, and American technology. Instead, we have British food, American culture, and French technology.’ I think it’s funny every time. Our problem as Canadians, it seems to me, is our negative definition. The key cultural thing for us Canadians is that we’re not Americans. Americans are loud, aggressive, religious, gun-toting, paying for healthcare out of pocket. We’re the opposite. Or we’ll speak about our vast geographic scope. But most of it is water, and farther north than any of us will ever go. Our identity was somewhat clearer when we were what was left of the British empire in North America. But that was always awkward with our French inheritance and indigenous legacy. Who are we?

We’re an absolutely lovely country. I love so much about Canada. You know our national healthcare system? I know we underfund it; I know we’re confused and confusing about physician-assisted suicide; problems abound. We want to pay taxes like Americans for services like Scandinavians. But try and take province-run healthcare away and this country would riot. And it all comes from a Baptist youth group. Tommy Douglas was a youth pastor in Saskatchewan who realized his Depression era kids didn’t need a pool table. They needed healthcare. He got elected to the provincial legislature and got it passed. And all the doctors went on strike. They called it a communist plot. But the people of Saskatchewan said ‘actually, we like it.’ The rest of the country followed. Canadian healthcare is an important national symbol, as important as the NHS is to our British forebears. And it was born in a Baptist church. The CBC held a contest for the most beloved Canadian in history. Wayne Gretzky finished eighth. Number one was Baptist minister Tommy Douglas.

I do appreciate our relationship to the British commonwealth. America’s national character was formed against Britishness with a violent rebellion. You can still see that in my home country’s MO: fight first, ask questions later. Canada had a negotiation with the Queen, and we got a country. We major in diplomacy—Lester Pearson won a Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating in the Suez Crisis. We’re a middle-weight power. We talk instead of fight. When Bono said “the world needs more Canada” he meant this tradition. Peace, order, and good government is different than life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. You may know that happiness was originally “property” in Thomas Jefferson’s early drafts, which in 1776 meant slaves. Ontario was founded as the first province in the British empire to outlaw slavery. We were Canaan on the underground railroad. Canada is far from perfect, we all know. We are trying to figure out how to tell our story vis a vis indigenous peoples dispossessed and traumatized. Even there I see the church leading the way. What is an apology but repentance? A friend tells a story of indigenous leaders meeting with ministers and lawyers to pursue an apology from the United Church for residential schools, which came in 1998. One indigenous elder noted when it’s time to pray it’s either us or the pastors. How about you lawyers? They all looked at each other. No class on prayer in law school. One finally offered up a ‘to whom it may concern’ sort of prayer. What, was he going to refuse the elder’s request? Indigenous Canadians are more likely to profess Christian faith now than European ones. As we pursue right relations, we may find Jesus there waiting for us. He does that kind of thing, you know.

We could stay all day and talk about what we love and what chaps us about our country. Here’s what the gospel says. Every country falls short. There is only one true republic. The city of God. It’s ruled by Christ, built on love of God and neighbour. Every other city is built on pride, violence against the neighbour. Like a lot of post-Christian countries, I worry what holds Canada together. The chance to make money? That’s what gets people animated politically. If so, the poor are losers, the middle-class also-rans. Christianity says no—judge a country on how we treat our poor. Jesus Christ commands us to visit those in prison. Do we know how our prisoners are treated in Canada? I don’t. I do know they’re disproportionately indigenous, that people with money tend not to land there. But what if God will judge us one day on how we treated our prisoners?

Billy Graham, like Bono, said he wished the US would follow Canada in its foreign policy. What it means to be an evangelical, like Graham, is to repent. Beg forgiveness. That’s no humiliation. It’s the most powerful thing anybody can ever do.

Psalm 149 is part of our series on Rude Praise. I’ve enjoyed it and can’t wait to preach and hear more sermons on it. I hope you’ve found more grit in your prayers. Psalm 149 starts out praising politely enough. Then it turns.

6 Let the high praises of God be in their throats
and two-edged swords in their hands,
7 to execute vengeance on the nations
and punishment on the peoples,
8 to bind their kings with fetters
and their nobles with chains of iron,
9 to execute on them the judgment decreed.
This is glory for all his faithful ones.
Praise the Lord!

Uh, yeah, praise God, we conquered and killed everybody. The reference is to the conquest of the nations in the promised land. Israel was a nation of slaves, delivered by God’s powerful hand from Pharaoh through the Red Sea. Then crossing the Jordan, it defeated nations and settled into the land flowing with milk and honey. Beat the Canaanites, the Amalekites, a bunch of other ‘ites. Of course, Israel kept on fighting those enemies. It still does. And the milk and honey don’t always flow so freely.

That’s a glimpse of us: humanity, either fighting with or sleeping with our enemies. A people desperate for mercy.

Whenever there’s a US-led war you’ll see bumper stickers, “God bless every nation—no exceptions.” My native USA likes to speak of itself as a chosen nation on analogy to Israel. That can be dangerous—to insist God is on your side and against your enemies. That’s idolatry. Bandying God around like a mascot to bless your causes. The true God of Israel often fights against Israel. Gives victory to her enemies, especially when Israel is unfaithful. You sure you want this God on your side? God punishes, doesn’t just bless. But maybe the problem in the first place is speaking of God as choosing a side at all. Having a people. Electing Israel. Once you say that haven’t you nearly guaranteed violence? This psalm’s neighbour, 147, ends this way

[God] declares his word to Jacob,
    his statutes and ordinances to Israel.
20 He has not dealt thus with any other nation;
    they do not know his ordinances.

Does God curse all the other nations? I notice my Jewish friends get nervous talking about Israel’s chosen-ness. It can sound like others are not-chosen, not-loved by God. They don’t mean that at all. I sometimes tease my fellow Canadians that we should be called not-America. Whatever America is, we’re superior. That’s impressive—the most arrogant nation on Earth and we say, ‘oh yeah were even better.’

Here’s how I view Israel’s chosen-ness. At first God deals with all humanity. Adam and Eve. The only people. Paradise, and just one rule. Of course, we break it and are punished. So, God gives a few more rules. Okay, don’t murder. And Cain murders Abel. Things go downhill from there. So, God says alright, that’s enough, I’m starting over with the one good family. Noah’s. I’m getting rid of these bad people. But ten minutes after the flood, Noah’s drunk and cursing his own children. Well, that didn’t work out. So, God tries this: I’m choosing a family to repair the world. Not the best family. The most unlikely one. Abram and Sarai. No kids. In their 90s. And through them I’ll fill the earth with blessings. I love this: when God wants to repair the world, God doesn’t send an army, an empire, a natural disaster. God sends a family. A couple too old to have children whose descendants will repair the world. Genesis puts it this way:

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2 I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

So Abram went, as the Lord had told him. . .

God’s people Israel. I don’t just mean the country with the flag, that’s one expression of Israel, I mean all 15 million Jewish people on the globe. And the church that shares chosen-ness with them.

That promise still stands. God has chosen Israel and can’t unchoose. Eventually God comes among us as an Israelite. A human. Jesus. To show us all how to live. To die for us. And rise and raise us all. I don’t mean God chooses Israel and not Palestine. Here’s the weird way God saves the world. God chooses one people through whom to bless all the others. We can get confused and say, “God chose us—and not them, hurray!” No, God’s blessings aren’t for us. They’re through us for everybody else. And being chosen can be hard. Ask Israel. It’s like being the teacher’s pet. The rest of the class resents the teacher’s pet. Ask Jesus on his cross. Being chosen means God squeezes blessings out of you for the world. Leaves you mangled. Others beautified.

Now I hope you get a little nervous when I say God chooses Israel and can’t unchoose. My Jewish friends do. Does that cause arrogance? The sort of violence we see now in Gaza? I don’t think so. When I quote Bono saying “the world needs more Canada” you don’t want to go invade somebody right? You feel proud. When I tell the story of Tommy Douglas and Canadian healthcare you feel proud of the church, I hope. Yeah, we can still serve our neighbours like that. When God chooses Israel it’s like you or I choosing a spouse. We’re not saying all other women or men are bad. No. Just that I’m going to make my life with this one. Not because the others are bad. But because this is the one for me. When one of you says your grandchild is the greatest grandchild in world, I don’t think you hate the other children!

When this psalm was first sung, it was looking back on conquering the nations in the promised land. But by the time it was written down, centuries later, Judah was in exile. It’s Israel’s leaders who are in fetters, its nobles bound, the people punished. There barely was an Israel left anymore. No king. No land. No temple. No nothin’. God’s promises failed. She remembers this time of prosperity from a position of poverty. Hardly a place of superiority or arrogance. On the contrary, she was a nation of convicts, reduced to begging, all proud arrogance lost. And when her last and greatest king comes, he’s bound with fetters. He wears a crown of thorns. His throne is a cross from which he rules the world. There is no place for national or ethnic arrogance in Christian faith. Ours is a faith of humility, of a cross, of a servant who washes our feet. Frederich Nietzsche, our most interesting atheist, hated Christianity because we exalt weakness. He wanted people to be strong, great, to throw off servanthood and step into power. The Nazis followed his lead. Some of my fellow Americans love this language of seeking greatness, all others be damned. But we Christians see God only in humility, service, self-emptying. I agree the world needs more Canada. But what it really needs more of is Jesus.

You know how every American who visits up here compliments Canada? It’s required I assume, CBSA checks at the border if we’re going to do that. Often, they’ll say if things keep going the way they are, moving to Canada sounds pretty good. Like after Thursday’s debate, or November’s election. Mine is one American family that did make this move. Let me tell you—it’s not so easy. I’ve met people who came to the Canadian border in the 60s and were just waived in, you’re against the Vietnam War? So are we! Come on in! Here’s some maple syrup! But now you have to get permits and prove you’re not taking someone else’s job and take tests and spend tens of thousands. I’ve written or edited 20 books, and my written English test was the lowest grade I got on citizenship exams. Whatever. Anyway, one American friend named Eugene Cho preached at the church I was involved with in Vancouver. Said he wished he could move to Canada then, circa 2018. He had been a great church planter in Seattle, now he works in DC for Bread for the World. But when he first came to America, he was a failure. His siblings, good Korean kids, were a doctor, and a lawyer. Instead of becoming an engineer he disappointed his parents—he would become a pastor. Grr. No money in it. But he impressed them by going to Princeton Seminary. Moved to California to plant a church. And it flopped. His mom came to visit him, and he got up early, 5:00 a.m., to sneak out to his job as a janitor, and she was already up praying. Why are you up, son? Mom, I failed, lost my job, I’m a janitor now. Now, that’s nothing to be ashamed of, but in an immigrant family that moved for professional opportunity, he felt so much shame. His mom got up from her prayers. Walked over to him. Was she going to hit him? No. She got her coat. And said come on, I’ll go clean the store with you, we’ll get done twice as fast together. Her faith overcame her desire for greatness for her kid. And he felt loved. When Donald Trump attacked Asian people for causing covid, Eugene took up their defense. On behalf of the whole Asian-American community he resisted racism, demonstrated Jesus’ way in a country more taken with Nietzsche’s ways of power and greatness. I’d say he made good after all, wouldn’t you? Eugene don’t stay in Canada, America needs you.

My favourite Canadian success stories are of our welcome of new immigrants. The US used to be proud of welcoming new people, now our doors are closed apparently, the debate is whether to be awful to immigrants or whether to be even more awful. We Canadians have a history of Ukrainian immigrants here after the war. One such family was called Gretzky. We wouldn’t have had the Great One without immigration. Our fastest-growing Christian communities in Canada are Filipino, Chinese, Iranian—they’re way more likely to embrace faith here, statistically, than they were back home. When I lived in Vancouver I heard about the Hungarian uprising in 1956 against the communists. My friend a professor there got a phone call from UBC’s president. Hey, you know German right? Yeah. That’s like Hungarian right? No, not at all! Whatever. A whole forestry department in Hungary just snuck over the border into Austria with their families. And I just gave them all jobs. Sir, we already have a forestry department. Yeah, now we’ve got two. Can you go take them around to get bank accounts, get their kids in school? I hear stories of this church mobilizing in the 1970s to receive Vietnamese refugees, in the last few years to receive Syrian ones, God bless you. When another friend of mine at UBC tried to revive the hospitality to the Hungarians by welcoming Syrians, he got nowhere. They’re in danger! Yeah, but they’re Muslims—how do we know they’re safe? We don’t! Nothing is safe! Not welcoming isn’t safe either! And real greatness is hospitality to those in danger. Plus, the next number 99 could have a Syrian last name.

Here’s an early church description of Christians and citizenship. Have a listen.

Christians are indistinguishable from other people either by nationality, language, or customs. They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life… With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in, whether it is Greek or foreign.

And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labor under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country. Like others, they marry and have children, but they do not abandon them. They share their meals, but not their wives. 

They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of heaven.

It’s not surprising our country falls short. Every country does. Even the best country is a pale imitation of the city of God, the kingdom Christ is bringing, one where the poor are blessed, the arrogant humbled, and all creation is transfigured into Jesus’ likeness. Until Jesus comes back and brings his kingdom, I’m happy to celebrate Canada Day with perogies and a beaver tail. I’m really happy you took my family in, my fellow Canadians. Let’s all give thanks for a kingdom and a king who accept everyone, especially the ones no one else wants, with the words “welcome home.” Amen.