Archbishop Linda Nicholls

Primate’s New Year’s Day Homily

Archbishop Linda Nicholls
Sermon, New Year’s Day, 2020
Christ Church Cathedral
Ottawa, Ontario

In the early years of my ministry I received a profound lesson in understanding Christian identity. It was close to Remembrance Day and as usual we planned a part of the Sunday worship to include an act of remembrance with the singing of the national anthem. After the service a man who was relatively new to this congregation came to me and said ‘I will never attend church again when that is happening’. I was surprised and asked what had we done wrong? What was the problem?” He then opened my eyes with his story. He was born in Germany and lived through WWII as a young teenager – too young to be conscripted but old enough to remember being bombed by the Allies and then awoken to the shame of the atrocities perpetrated by the leadership of his country – and living with anti-German prejudice throughout his life. But his problem with the Act of Remembrance was not with remembering the war – it was with presuming that nationalism and church could be intermingled so closely. He had seen much of the church in Germany coopted into Nazi nationalism. He experienced the singing of the national anthem in the middle of worship as a profound confusion of identity. He awakened me to the disturbing question – Where is our primary citizenship? Are we clear about our call in Christ first? Singing the national anthem within a service of worship was, for him, setting up Caesar where only Jesus should be. Who do we follow?

We stand at the beginning of a new year – some will have made resolutions about how they will live as there is the promise of a fresh start when the calendar rolls over to January 1st. For all of us the continued journey of life will ask that we make daily choices of how we shall live – what will be our priorities? What values will take first place in our choices? Who do we look to as our leader and mentor?

Today we gather in the city of Ottawa the national capital city of Canada – the center of national government where the life of this nation is debated and acted upon. We gather at the beginning of the mandate of a new minority government faced with critical challenges of climate change; economic fragility; and the constant challenges of equity across a country of such vast differences. We gather bearing the weight of colonialism – both acknowledged and yet often unexamined – that has us caught in a web of broken relationships with indigenous nations in this land and continued inequities. We bear iconic and stereotypical images of Canada. We are peacemakers; nice neighbours; welcomers of refugees and newcomers; and we bear the counter images that shatter each of those when we hear the news of discrimination and violence based on differences.

We also gather in this Cathedral as Christians under our identity as followers of Jesus Christ. We gather on this feast day of the Naming of Jesus, the eighth day after his birth; the day of his circumcision – and formal naming as Jesus – ‘The One who Saves’. We gather as those who by baptism, through water and the signing of the cross on our forehead, know that we are marked as Christ’s own forever – called to follow the way of Jesus.

So now we ask – how then shall we live? The basic values of Christian life still seem to undergird our social and political structures – seeking the common good, caring for those in need and loving neighbour as self. However choices are not always clear cut between good and evil, right and wrong. We are called to ask how we balance the needs of different parts of our communities? How we share resources? And there are powerful forces at work in us individually and corporately that seek self-preservation and prosperity first at the expense of others.

If we bear the mark and the name of Christ then our lives are called to reflect the life of Christ. This is so powerfully summed up in Philippians where we are called to have the same mind in us that was in Christ Jesus ‘who though he was in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited – but emptied himself and became obedient to the point of death’ ….

To be a follower of Christ is not to dabble in being nice or simply in mutual exchanges to balance everything. It is to be willing to sacrifice self, to be willing to give up what you might be entitled to in order to assist others. That is not a concept that sits easily in the world. It is deeply counterintuitive to the instinct for self-preservation! Yet – it is in this self-giving that Christians have found life – deep, joyful, abundant life that nothing can take away.

So our initial questions of how we will live in 2020 as children of God in Jesus Christ within this country of Canada must include what will I need to do to empty myself to address the call to love God and neighbour?

As an Anglican leader I am becoming ever more aware of the effects of colonization on me and all around me. I need to empty myself of the assumptions that cling to my view of the world that are rooted in aftereffects of presumed white superiority; and the privileges that I have and continue to enjoy because I am a settler. Those assumptions only come to light in relationships with those who have been the victims of colonialism – so I need to be in relationship and listen and listen again without defensiveness to see the web of racism and effects of colonialism that still live in us and the structures around us. I am committed to helping our church acknowledge and address the effects of embedded racism that continues to insidiously affect our lives – indigenous and non-indigenous; black and brown and white; settler and newcomer; immigrant and refugees.

As a human being in a world so deeply altered by climate change I need to empty myself of the expectations that that I can continue to live as I have always done. I have to work harder at the changes of habits and lifestyle that though small will keep me awake to the overall impacts and make me willing to accept even deeper changes, higher costs to truly change the trajectory our world is on. Those simple, seemingly small things, like the use of plastics that must give way to taking the time to resuse, recycle and reclaim. It will require mindfulness as a consumer that I often ignore and to remember not to leave the grocery bags yet again in the car! That may seem a pitifully small response but they are small steps as building blocks to retrain through new habits my view of the world and the costs of my lifestyle. We have been retrained to use blue boxes. We can be retrained again and again and again if we are willing to empty ourselves.

Self-emptying is not a concept with currency in North American society. We are rather urged to self-fulfilment through what we want or believe we need. The Christian call is sacrificial. And we engage in the full knowledge that in Christ the whole community is called to the same – for each other – and the result is not loss but gain, not death but life.

Today we stand at the cusp of the New Year with all of its hopes and promise ahead. We stand in a country striving to be a healthy good place for all. We stand as children of God called to follow the way of Jesus Christ. As we grapple with the difficult questions ahead for our country, we do it from our first and primary allegiance to Jesus Christ willing to empty self, willing to give up for others, seeking the common good in partnership with any and all seeking the same and speaking up for the least and most vulnerable whom others might be willing to sacrifice for the sake of expediency or power.

This will not be a place of comfort for us. It is the place of discipleship. It is a discipleship that that results in life affirming joy. It says we bear the name of Christ. It is branded on our bodies in baptism. It is branded on our hearts through the love of God that forgives, renews and saves. It is the hope we proclaim to the world around us. May we have courage to live into that name!

Thanks be to God!


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