Sunday, July 02, 2017

Proper 8

Matthew 10
40 “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. 41 Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; 42 and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”

On a weekend dedicated to all things Canada, it seems fitting to make some local connections.

My new favourite historical fun-fact is the connection between the Tyrrell family and Central. Joseph Burr Tyrrell, who discovered a dinosaur named Albertosaurus, was a child of this congregation. Searching for coal in central Alberta, he stumbled on the fossilized remains of a rather nasty looking bipedal predator, and became the accidental father of palaeontology in Canada. The Royal Tyrrell Museum is named for him, along with the prehistoric name for Hudson’s Bay, the Tyrrell Sea.

And then there is E.A. Pearson, father of Lester B. Pearson, who served Central in the 1880’s. Baby Lester was born while his father was serving in Newtonbrook, but we can still claim a connection to the Nobel Peace Prize, the CPP, Medicare and our flag.

And, of course, we claim Edgerton Ryerson, who served here in the 1820’s, and went on to found the public education system in Ontario. His model of free and secular learning, locally available, became the model of education for the new nation of Canada too. The Ryerson window, located in our Milner Room, celebrates this connection. How Jacque Cartier snuck into the window is a bit of a mystery, predating the congregation by 250 years. Perhaps his role in gleaning the name Canada from the First Nations people he met merits an appearance in the window.

I’m trying to make connections between other famous Weston people and Central, but more research is required. Dr. Vera Peters, leading cancer researcher and recipient of the Order of Canada was born Methodist, but seems to have belonged to the church in Thistletown. We’ll claim her anyway. She pioneered a treatment for Hodgkin’s Disease, previously considered untreatable, and made significant advances in breast cancer research.

All of our resident historians, Mary Lou, Eric, Douglas, will tell you that history is more interesting when you can make local connections and bring the lives of individuals to life. And they will tell you that we are writing congregational history all the time, through our activities and decisions we make. So, for example, the meals served downstairs, or over at Weston Presbyterian, are part of the unfolding story of the churches in Weston. Future historians will ask, “why did they do it?”—and I expect part of the answer will be found in Matthew 10:

“Whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”

The topic is mission, and the context is a conversation about reception, how the work of the nascent church will be received. But underlying this question of reception is the command to “proclaim the good news that the kingdom of heaven has come near. Then cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, and cast out demons.” The cup of water is metaphor for the work of the church, and an early expression that will get a more complete treatment in Matthew 25:

I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’

The first part of our passage this morning (“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me”) is just another way of saying ‘when you did these things for the least of my brothers and sisters, you did them also for me.’

The task of the church, then, is to interpret and reinterpret the mission mandate of the church for each new generation. Some tasks remain relatively unchanged—visiting the sick comes to mind—but some require reimagining as circumstances change.

So if we took the scope of the history we celebrate this weekend—Canada 150—we can chart the ways we have tried to live our mission. There are, of course, advances and failures in this story, something I’ll look at a little later on. But from the beginning the church sought a role in the story of Canada.

In the earliest period—we’ll call it the nation-building period—the work of the church and the business of the nation were hard to distinguish. Growth and expansion, the settlement of the west as an example, was mirrored by the birth of new congregations and missions. Welcoming the stranger meant becoming the anchor institution in each new community, a process that repeated countless times as the Dominion expanded.

The next period—let’s call it character-building—began around the time of the Great War, when this “nation forged in fire” began to define itself. The church emerged in this period as a voice for change, with religionists pushing for rights for women, prohibition, and work for the relief of poverty—particularly in urban centres. This project, often called ‘the social gospel,’ propelled ministers and members to enter the political realm, like Nellie McClung, J.S. Woodsworth and Tommy Douglas. As this period drew to a close, the mission of the church and the work of the nation (relief for seniors, medicine for everyone) seemed to come together once more.

The last 50 years—let’s call it identity-building—saw the church and the country struggle to maintain old certainties. The Quiet Revolution in Quebec led to the decline of the church in that province and to the vexing question of the place of Quebec in Canada. All the mainline churches outside Quebec also began declining in the late 1960’s, even though we wouldn’t fully see it until years later. On some topics we were ahead of the public—LGBT rights, the apology to First Nations—and on others (such as Sunday shopping) we were largely ignored.

What will happen in the next period? For the churches? For Canada? We are entering a yet-to-be-defined age that seems to be willing to address old wrongs, or at least give people a hearing. Protests this week on Parliament Hill, where First Nations voiced their discomfort with this celebration of Canada, are part of this emerging trend. We can celebrate Canada and Canadian values, but need to examine ourselves when our actions—past and present—violate our own sense of what it means to be Canadian.

At its heart, Canada is an idea. It is an idea that seeks to contain a variety of voices, that ‘welcomes the stranger’ in the best possible sense, that strives to maintain a “safety net” befitting a compassionate people, and that tries to admit mistakes. And through it all, we try not to think too highly of ourselves, leaving claims of “greatest nation on earth” to others.

Like the ‘middle power’ that we are, we can measure ourselves and know that we do better than some on the Matthew 25 mandate—caring for the most vulnerable—yet fall behind others. Some countries have less inequality, some have better approaches to societal problems, and some—like Germany—have done more to address the mistakes of the past.

For the churches, I think the next period requires at least two things going forward. The first is making the next generation of noteworthy Canadians, people who begin in a local congregation and take a life-giving message out into the world. We need to inspire ourselves and others to be their best and see the best in the people we meet. And we need to work together on faithful activities that will strengthen the realm of God.

The second is certainty in the message we share. This is not being triumphant or superior, but confident in who we are and what we believe. It means learning our tradition, and learning how to articulate the message Jesus taught us to share. It means practicing all the elements of a Christian life: confession, reconciliation, proclamation and prayerful action. And it means finding the vulnerable and giving them a cup cold water.

We Christians are in the world but not of the world. We are dual citizens, belonging to the Kingdom of Canada and the Kingdom of Heaven. And as such, we have rights and obligations from both. We enjoy the benefits of belonging to both, but understand that God is the author of all that is good.

May we continue to be blessed, as we are a blessing. Amen.


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