Sermon: Candlelight Service of Remembrance, December 8th, 2022

a sermon preached at St. Michael’s Anglican Church by Rev Greg Wooley…

It may seem a bit strange or out-of-place to hear the 23rd Psalm at this time of year. In this Psalm there is a verdant green valley, placid waters, and, in my mind, late afternoon light casting long lovely shadows.   That does not bear much resemblance to the scenery outside these walls on this wintry December night.

However, it was while out snowshoeing recently that the King James Version of the 23rd Psalm kept tugging on my sleeve, insisting that I hear one line: “he restoreth my soul.”  In the context of bright sunshine just peering over a mountain and glinting off the snow, with an adjacent soft-rushing stream providing the soundtrack, the 23rd Psalm had something that needed to be heard.

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When I have walked through the valley of the shadow of death, accompanying a beloved one who would not emerge from that valley, or recognizing a time of deep challenge in my own life, the promise that God is a restorer of souls has indeed lifted my spirits; and  I don’t think it is presumptuous for me to say that many who have gathered tonight in the dark calmness of this historic Sanctuary have souls that could use some restoring.

In response to souls longing to be restored, I offer two things:  one practical, one spiritual.

The practical suggestion to you, is to acknowledge that this place of extraordinary beauty where we are so fortunate to live, is filled with places that restore the soul; and chances are extremely good that you already know what those are.

When my spouse first moved to Canmore, her soul was in need of some TLC, and the place we were house-sitting at the time was set into the woods.  She already knew that nature was restorative for her, and the trees and greenery surrounding that house confirmed that.  So did the daily chat between a crow couple who would chortle their daily summary to each other just outside our window, and some cheeky squirrels who dashed way up tree-trunks and leapt from branch to branch just because they could.  The trees and the creatures housed by them transmitted God’s message of playfulness, relationship and restoration of soul, on a daily basis.

In the summers of 2020 and 2021, when getting outside and moving was even more essential than usual in preserving one’s mental and physical health, I too came to a realization.  A hike with a bit of elevation, and some evergreens, and a balance of sun and shade, is a very good thing, but I came to realize that if it also ran alongside a babbling brook, well, what could be better?  I know the 23rd Psalm speaks of still waters, but for me a stream that burbles and babbles restores my soul and never fails to do so, twelve months of the year. God knows what I need, leads me by those waters, and as I relax and breathe deep and lean back and smile, God does too.

I give these two examples, because I suspect that you also have restorative places and experiences that are easily accessed.  It may be in the glories of nature, or perhaps it is a cup of freshly-brewed coffee, or a phone call with that one special friend, or a time of day when the lighting is just perfect. Whatever it is, I encourage you to take advantage of it, freely and repeatedly, to literally step into those places where God’s gift of life has easy access to the soul that is wounded, weathered or just plain tired.

In addition to that practical suggestion, I also have a theological affirmation, that the God of love desires that every human, every living being, will have health and wholeness and a thirst for life.  This may seem hidden or even untrue when we are in the midst of sadness, or unsettled by life transitions, or when there is an empty chair around the table at Christmas.   But the truth of the matter is that just as surely as every sunset is eventually followed by a sunrise, the Divine lover of our souls who may seem to have gone away in our hardest times, has not and does not actually run away on us.  God is our source and our destination and, as much as we choose, our companion on life’s journey, leading us in goodness and mercy all the days of our lives, whether it is a stressful time “in the presence of mine enemies” or a time of joyous celebration when “my cup runneth over.”

Also true in our Christian faith, is the promise that love is not finite and that God is perpetually present to us even beyond this life. Malcolm Guite, a British cleric with whom I had the pleasure of spending Holy Week in 2019, suggests that we deal with the 22nd Psalm – which includes Christ’s last words on the Cross – with this 23rd Psalm, in which Malcolm sees Christ the Good Shepherd, our risen companion on life’s journeys.  To Malcolm Guite, the beautiful, pastoral images of the 23rd Psalm make the most impact when considered in answer to the bleak cries of the 22nd: the “leading beside still waters” of the 23rd Psalm following the despair of “my God, why have you forsaken me”, words heard from the cross and from the hearts and mouths of all who have suffered traumatic events and heart-punching loss.

Malcolm writes the most intricate and beautiful sonnets in response to scripture, and here is some of what he writes in response to Psalms 22 and 23:

I’ve found the true Shepherd and the false just fade away, Before him.
I will sing of how he drew me from the snares I set myself,
how day Dawned on my darkness, how he brought me forth, converted me and opened up the way
For me, and led me gently on that path,
Led me beside still waters, promised me
That he’d be with me all my days on earth,
And when my last day comes, accompany And comfort me,
as evening shadows fall, And draw me into his eternity.

So the second thing I wish for you tonight is this: in addition to the more practical task, of identifying and availing yourself of places where God restores your soul, to know that God, particularly as experienced in Christ, crucified and risen, is well acquainted with the hardest, most shadowy moments of your life and wants you to emerge from that into the light of a new day.  As a ministry friend once put it, “Christ walks with me through the valley of the shadow of death, but he doesn’t suggest that it would be a good idea to pitch a tent there.”

Whatever reasons brought you here tonight – if you have suffered loss or are amidst transition, are grieving or just unsettled, or even if tonight is simply a time to be quiet and pensive amidst a season that makes a lot of noise and has a lot going on – know that the God of love, and the glories of this beautiful place where we live, can indeed restore your soul in whatever way it needs to be renewed, restored or re-shaped.  Thanks be to God, and blessings be with all our companions on this journey.  Amen.

Reference cited:

Guite, Malcom.

© 2022, Rev Greg Wooley, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church