The first time I was asked to read scripture in my home congregation I was honoured, and afraid, and worried about getting it right. This was different from teaching Sunday School, or giving presentations at school, or even making speeches, which I’d done for school assemblies, many times. I am always grateful to our lay readers on Sunday morning, because I remember how hard it was.
The sanctuary was dark. The lights were down low because it was the Christmas Eve service, and later we’d be passing the flame from candle to candle. The chancel area was lit from above with a tiny spotlight, just enough for me to find my way on the carpeted steps, and not trip up the stairs. It was good the lights were low. I couldn’t really see people’s faces.
I read from Isaiah- not the part that Jesus read from in today’s Gospel story, but an earlier part in chapter 9 that starts off “ The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” and ends up with “ for a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
I’d written the words out on a piece of paper, (this was before I had a computer) so I wouldn’t have to hunt for the right page in the big pulpit bible. I copied the passage from my Good News Bible because it was easier to read than the version the minister used.
Even so, I stumbled over the words, and raced through the passage. I probably read the whole thing without taking a breath. And then it was done. I stood there feeling relieved, but also a little embarrassed, because I felt like I’d done a bad job. I focused on not tripping as I went down the chancel steps and back to my seat. I had to walk all the way to the very back of the church to get to the steps, because my family were all up in the balcony.
Imagine what it was like for Jesus, reading from the scroll of Isaiah, in his home synagogue, in front of people who’d watched him grow up. He’s reading along, and saying, “God’s Spirit is on me; he’s chosen me to preach the Message of good news to the poor, Sent me to announce pardon to prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, To set the burdened and battered free…”
Perhaps Jesus realized, not for the first time, that for him, these are more than beautiful words, from an ancient scroll. They light a fire inside him, and he burns with the powerful, perhaps overwhelming awareness that these words are meant for his time, his place, and his life. He’s been given the job of telling people to change their own lives, and change the world, so that things will be better. Jesus knows he’s been called to say to people who watched him grow up, “We need to get busy, the world’s a mess, and the cleanup starts right here, with us!”
How would the hometown crowd take what he had to say? He likely knew it wouldn’t go well, and it didn’t. They got very angry with him and threatened to toss him off a cliff.
I’ve been reading more about Autumn Peltier the young woman we just saw in the video. When she was 12 years old, she was chosen to present a ceremonial gift to the Prime Minister at a meeting of the Assembly of First Nations, in Gatineau, Quebec. She was told ahead of time not to talk to the Prime Minister, just walk up and give him the gift.
She discovered she couldn’t do what the organizers had told her. She found that she just had to speak. Her words came out in a wash of tears as she told the Prime Minister what was on her heart. She challenged his environmental record and told him he was failing the First Nations people who don’t have safe water to drink.
In an interview with Maclean’s Magazine, Peltier said, “That was my opportunity to say something to the literal Prime Minister of Canada. Like, who gets the chance to actually share their thoughts with him? So I took the opportunity. I gave him a piece of my mind.”
She said, “He made a big promise to me, which was: “I will protect the water.” I was 12 at the time, I am 17 years old now, and I’m still holding him accountable to that promise.”
The Macleans interviewer asked Peltier, “Do you believe that he cares about that?” She said,“I feel like he could care more. I know [his government] did make a commitment to resolve all boil water advisories in Canada by March of 2021, and of course that didn’t happen. To promise to resolve a big issue like that within a certain amount of time and [not do it], and there are still communities that can’t drink their water after over 25 years, how are we supposed to trust the government? How are we supposed to believe him?”
She asks good questions, that aren’t about partisan politics, but about human rights, the environment, and long-standing commitments- promises that have been made. Not everyone appreciates her efforts.
She said, “I get a lot of negative comments, negative feedback. It’s a lot more than I thought I would get, because the work that I do is for a good reason, and you wouldn’t generally think that people would be against this or try to bring me down. Like, “She’s just a kid, what can she do?” Or “Why does what she says matter?”
She’s not the only one saying that the government has failed to do what it promised us, and the people of many First Nations communities. The most recent Auditor General’s report says, “Overall, Indigenous Services Canada did not provide the support necessary to ensure that First Nations communities have ongoing access to safe drinking water. Drinking water advisories remained a constant for many communities, with almost half of the existing advisories in place for more than a decade.”
According to the Government of Canada, as of January 7 there are 37 water advisories in place in 29 First Nations communities. 28 of them are in Ontario, affecting 21 communities.
Can you imagine how quickly the situation would be remedied if it happened where you and I live? As Autumn Peltier said in the Macleans interview, “just think about how fast it would be resolved and fixed if there was to be a drinking water issue in an area like Toronto or Ottawa, how fast they would call that a state of emergency and how fast they would fix that. But a First Nations community of 200, 300, 400 people can go without clean drinking water for over 30 years, where they literally have to bathe their babies in bottled water, cook and clean with bottled water, wash themselves with bottled water.”
We need people like Autumn Peltier, who do what Jesus did. They recognize their calling, to stand up for what is right, and challenge what is wrong, and point out what needs to be fixed. As much as we need the prophets, and whistleblowers, those who remind us the Emperor’s new clothes are usually sewn together with lies and pride and greed- we are, typically, terrible towards them.
We like things to be smooth and polite, and happy. We don’t want our applecarts to be upset, even if deep down, we know that things aren’t as they should be.
When we are pushed by the prophets in our world to look honestly at things, and see the problems, then we are in the difficult position of wanting to do something about it. That often leads to the even more uncomfortable realization, that making change is hard.
The world is complicated, and can make us feel small and powerless. We don’t like that. It’s much easier to silence the prophets. Which is exactly what the people in Jesus’ hometown tried to do when they realized who he’d grown up to be, and what he had to say.
The Good News is Jesus got away from the angry crowd that day. They did not silence him. The Romans, and the religious authorities would try again, when he got to Jerusalem, but God did not let that be the last word.
God shone through the words and actions, and the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. God is on the side of those who say what needs to be said, and who inspire us to work to mend our broken world.
People like Autumn Peltier remind us of what is right. Their witness can also give us courage, and a good example to follow, when we need to speak our own truth, even though it may be difficult. Amen