Truth Telling is Dangerous! from the Worship service at Harrow United Church, Sunday, January 23, 2022

Video of the worship service

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

Our stories shape, and reflect our worldview. Learning time for Sept 19, 2021 at Harrow United Church

When I tell you a story, whatever it is about, I am telling you about myself, my culture, my beliefs, my politics, my issues. The story may not sound like it is about me- but if I picked it, the fact that I am telling it, says something about me, who I am, and where I come from. The way I tell it may say even more. Have you ever noticed that some people, when they tell a story, what ever it is about, manage to make it mostly about themselves?

Everyone has stories. Stories pass on information, a worldview, a way of living.

You’ve heard the comment that history is told by the winners. The stories that get preserved, tell us something about the dominant culture, and what it values. The stories I learned as history, about the creation of Canada as a nation, were usually about brave and adventurous European discoverers, coming to a vast, untamed, and largely vacant land. The fact that there were communities, civilizations, nations long established here was never the focus of the story.

It reminds me of the way Sir Edmund Hilary is described as the first person to climb Mount Everest. He was the white guy, a beekeeper from New Zealand. How many of us can name the man who made the final ascent with him?

Tenzing Norgay was Hillary’s Sherpa guide. But Hillary and Norgay wouldn’t have got anywhere near the top of Everest by themselves. They were members of an expedition that included a dozen climbers, 35 Sherpa guides, and 350 porters, who carried the 18 tons of food and equipment needed for the climb.

We usually only hear part of the story, and what part gets chosen, tells you something about those who choose, and tell the stories. My favourite part of Edmund Hillary’s story is that 7 years after his famous climb of Mount Everest, he led another Himalayan expedition, sponsored by the World Book Encyclopaedia, in search of the Abominable Snowman. They did not find each other, but that’s a whole other story.

I grew up minutes away from the Fort William First Nation, on the edge of Thunder Bay, and never heard stories from that community, even though its history goes back a lot further than that of the Europeans who settled in Northern Ontario. It was as if the history of Canada, of this whole continent, began when white men arrived on its shores.

When the government of Canada decided to dismantle the culture and traditions of the First Nations people, they took the children, many against their will, and without parental consent, to places where they were not allowed to hear or speak the languages of their people. They were only allowed to hear, and speak English, and their traditional stories were replaced with the stories of the Bible, and with the same primers and textbooks used in white people’s schools.

Take away the language, you take away the stories. Take away the stories, and you take away cultural memory. That’s a very effective way to destroy a people. The goal was to solve the Indian Problem in Canada, by making the children into slightly darker skinned versions of white kids, so that they could be fit in, assimilated into mainstream, meaning white, Canadian society.

The stories we tell, and how we tell them, tell a story about us. The Bible has some kind of creation story in at least five different places. Over the weeks of the season of Creation we are hearing them. Last week we heard Psalm 8. This week our story comes from Genesis chapter 1. It’s the one that describes the Creator making everything over the course of 6 days, and then taking a rest day, to step back and enjoy it. In this story, before the Creator relaxes, they make humans, and then ask the humans to take care of the earth, and all that has been created, including all the creatures.

In our western culture we seem to have taken that part of the story about being caretakers, and upgraded ourselves from land managers, to owners. That was the attitude our forebears brought with them when they colonized and settled here in this part of the world. They used all their powers of persuasion, friendly and otherwise, to get title to the land, to claim it as their own.

In her book Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, Robin Wall Kimmerer, who is a member of the Potowatami First Nation, wrote:

“In the settler mind, land was property, real estate, capital, or natural resources. But to our people, it was everything: identity, the connection to our ancestors, the home of our nonhuman kinfolk, our pharmacy, our library, the source of all that sustained us. Our lands were where our responsibility to the world was enacted, sacred ground. It belonged to itself; it was a gift, not a commodity, so it could never be bought or sold.”

Did you hear that? Really hear that? The land, the whole world viewed as a sacred gift from the Creator, meant for the good of all, and not to owned, or bought, or sold.

That is such a foreign, weird idea to most of us. It’s not the story we have been told, or that we tell about the world. It’s a story that was not easily compatible with the stories the White Europeans came here with, that shaped their view of the world, and how to live in it.

The Ojibwe’ story we heard about the creation of Turtle Island shows Sky Woman working together with the animals, to make a safe place for them all to live. It is a cooperative vision, not a competitive one. It is a story not about owning and exploiting the gifts of creation for profit and power, but of taking care of what has been given by the Creator, for the good of all.

I read a commentary on this story, that pointed out that the creation of Turtle Island depended upon the bravery and determination of the smallest water creature in the story. Muskrat risked their own life to dive deep, and bring up the bit of soil Sky Woman needed, to begin the making of the new place to live.

Muskrat had a story about themselves, that said they were not as capable or useful as the larger water animals, the beaver, the fisher, the marten, or the loon. But when all these larger, stronger creatures failed, the muskrat let go of their former, limiting story, and lived into a story that encouraged them to try, to stretch themselves, to risk giving themselves to something beyond themselves.

Wilika Matchweta Asimont, the woman who offered that commentary describes herself as a survivor of Canada’s First Nations boarding school legacy and foster care system. What stories about herself did she have to let go of, in order to make a life beyond all of that? What stories did she discover in new ways, to live into, in order to survive, and thrive, and be of help to others?

As a community of Jesus followers, we have a story that we tell over and over again, and act out, that is meant to tell us something about the world, and about the Creator, our relationship to the Creator, and to each other. It’s a story we hold sacred, sacred enough to call it the sacrament of communion.

When we share the sacrament today, and I say the words, I will also be listening deeply to the story, trying to go as deep into the story as little Muskrat, to get a hold of a little something, that will help build a world.

What do we do on Canada Day?

(My latest column for the Kingsville Observer)

Canada Day a time for sober reflection about the country’s past and its future (kingsvilleobserver.com)

When I lived in a larger urban centre, I was often called on during the Christmas season to help with funerals for families without a church connection. I had a personal rule that I would never say no to helping with a funeral in that season, even if it was on Christmas Eve.

Sometimes families wanted to discuss “what to do about Christmas” in the shadow of a loved one’s death. Some chose to maintain their traditional events and customs. Others felt it improper or disrespectful to celebrate during a time of mourning. I often heard strong cases made on either side, within one family.

As an outsider, I appreciated the privilege of sitting with a family as they listened to their own hearts and to each other. As a pastor, I felt it was my role to acknowledge and honour their grief, but not to tell them how they should mourn.

When the announcement was made at the end of May that the unmarked, undocumented remains of at least 215 children were found on the grounds of the former Kamloops Residential School, there were calls to cancel Canada Day celebrations. The City of Victoria in B.C. did exactly that after two local First Nations, the Esquimault and the Songhees, withdrew their participation from previously planned online events.

And on Thursday, June 24, Chief Cadmus Delorme of the Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan announced a preliminary finding of 751 unmarked graves at a cemetery near the former Marieval Indian Residential School.

There are many people, families and communities who carry stories and grief and grievances associated with the federally mandated residential school system and with the larger, underlying realities of colonialism and racism. How could we who have not lived with those wounds have anything to say about how mourning should happen?

A few days after the Kamloops announcement, there was the terrible story of what is now being called an act of terror. A 20-year-old man in London was arrested for what amounted to using his vehicle as a murder weapon. Five members of a beautiful Canadian family were on foot, waiting at a corner for the light to change, when this man allegedly drove his pickup truck over the curb and ran them down.

The driver has been charged with killing a grandmother, her son, his wife and her granddaughter. Police say terror charges will likely be added.

The only survivor of this cruel and brutal attack is a nine-year-old boy named Fayez Afzaal.

I heard a heartbreaking interview with the mother of one of Fayez’s schoolmates. She said her child wanted to know if they could bring Fazel home to live with them so he would not be alone. The child also told their mother they never wanted to go outside again and later said, if I have to go outside, I don’t want to walk on sidewalks because they are not safe for us.

My hope is that whatever we find ourselves doing on the 154th anniversary of the passing of the British North America Act in 1867, we might take a moment for sober reflection about the kind of Canada we want going forward.

We are a relatively young country even though we are building it on land that has been known, cherished and occupied long before Europeans came. I say we are building it because Canada is growing and changing. Our country is a work in progress.

I think it would do us good to take a breath, stand back a little and think, and remember, imagine, and, perhaps, even pray.

I shouldn’t tell you what to pray for when it comes to our country. We do, after all, value freedom of thought and freedom of religion in Canada.

I will tell you about my own hopes and prayers, which have to do with the life ahead for that nine-year-old boy in London.

I hope we can do better and work together with all people of goodwill, to build, rebuild and fix Canada so that it can be a place where Fayez, who watched his family die, will someday feel safe. I pray that he and his friends, actually all children of all races, cultures, religions, and backgrounds can feel safe, respected, valued and protected. I pray for a Canada in which Fayez can heal and grow and begin to feel less sad and less afraid.