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Canada Day Homily

By Sr. Constance Joanna, SSJD

Isaiah 32:1-5, 16-18  
Psalm 85:7-13
Colossians 3:12-17
John 15:12-17

In 1939, in response to the violation of sovereign borders between the countries of Europe at the beginning of WW 2, Winston Churchill described the relationship between Canada and the United States: “That long frontier (5,500 miles to be exact) from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans, guarded only by neighborly respect and honorable obligations, is an example to every country and a pattern for the future of the world.”

It makes me a little nostalgic for better times – or at least what seemed better at the time. When I lived in Detroit back in the 1970s, one of the most popular things to do at the beginning of July was to go down to the International Freedom Festival on the Detroit River. It took place on the weekend closest to July 1 and July 4 and celebrated both Canada Day and U.S. Independence Day. It was fun to see people celebrating on both sides of the river, in Detroit and Windsor. There would be a carnival atmosphere in both cities – both countries – with thousands of people celebrating the great value of freedom that we all felt was shared by Canada and the US. Barges in the middle of the river were the site of fabulous firework displays, and if you got tired of what was going on in one city you could get in your car and drive across the the bridge or the tunnel to the city on the other side. No one had to have a passport in those days to cross between the U.S. and Canada.

The International Freedom Festival no longer exists in the same way – beginning in 2007 it was split into two different events, one in Windsor and one in Detroit, partly because Detroit wanted to focus on its newly developed Riverwalk. It might seem a small thing, but I think it’s evidence of a shift from celebrating a relationship to celebrating one particular city’s accomplishments. Although the Fireworks display still takes place in the middle of the river at the end of the two festivals, it’s not the same as a festival of our shared values of freedom and democracy, and it reminds me of the discouraging way in which not only the U.S. but so-called free countries around the world are reacting to migration and the refugee crisis by putting up walls of regulations to protect us from each other.

I am so grateful to be a citizen of Canada, where we have enough walls of regulations ourselves  but at least where many people – I would hope most – are still open to welcoming the strangers, refugees, people who no longer have a country of their own. And yet we too are in danger of being sucked into the radical protectionism and nationalism that we are seeing south of the border and in so many places around the world.

The readings set out in the church’s lectionary for today call us to something different. The passage from Isaiah presents a vision of rulers who will reign with righteousness, with justice. The imagery in the passage is all life-giving: they will be “like a hiding-place from the wind . . . like streams of water in a dry place . . .  like the shade of a great rock in a weary land.” And the rulers will no longer be fools or villains; they will exercise good judgement. They will speak “readily and distinctly” – we might say truthfully and transparently.

But this does not happen magically or without struggle and courage. Paul speaks, in his letter to the Colossians, of our responsibility to help bring about this vision of peaceful government and wise and generous leadership: ”As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another . . . forgive one another . . let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts . . . and be thankful . . . teach and admonish one another . . .” And above all, Paul says, be grateful: “with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.”

In other words, a peaceful and just country comes from peaceful and just citizens – and grateful ones. We bear a responsibility in our own small spheres to treat one another the way we wish world leaders and countries would treat each other, not closing down our personal borders, not being isolationist, not being fearful of other people, not looking out just for ourselves.

Jesus knew about the fear of those who are different, the fear that rises in our hearts when we are asked to welcome others into our midst. He knew about the courage needed to stay open to those who hate and fear you. And in the last days of his life, as he was walking with the disciples in the vineyard, he told them, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” That is the ultimate sacrifice demanded by the kind of leadership that Isaiah described. We lay down our lives – perhaps not physically (at least not often here in Canada) but spiritually and emotionally – to welcome the stranger.

This country, like the United States, was and continues to be built by immigrants and refugees who are just beginning to understand the implications of being settlers on land belonging to the indigenous people of Turtle Island. All of us here today are immigrants and settlers, however long or short a time our families may have been in Canada. Even the English present have come originally from somewhere else. None of us would be where we are now without the openness and inclusivity of a democratic country.

As both citizens and monastics, we need to pray for strong leadership in our own country. And then to do everything we can to promote the values of the gospel. Democracy is ultimately about human dignity. And human dignity is what Jesus demonstrates in all his teaching and interactions with people – except of course that dignity is the manifestation of something much deeper – of  the creative love of God, the sacrificial love of Jesus, and the unifying love of the Holy Spirit.

Mother Hannah founded this community to give women of prayer an opportunity to share the dignity that comes from that holy Trinity of creativity, sacrifice, and unity, by caring for those who were treated without dignity in the Canada of the 1880s. May we, SSJE and OHP,  find that vision anew, as we reach out to the spiritually tired and hungry who come as our guests, and to those around us in the city who long for an incarnational love that reaches them through ordinary people like us whose prayer is rooted in an incarnational sacrificial love.