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Sermon: Easter Sunday Riverside Service - March 31, 2024

by Rev Greg Wooley

What to say, the last time that I get to gather with you, by the Bow River on Easter morning?

I have learned so much by the riverside over the years, and now is a time to recap some of those learnings.

I have learned practical lessons, like which musical instruments work well when it’s cold, and which ones do not; I have learned the value of bringing hot liquid along with me to keep my voice working; and I have learned how long it takes to get from here, to home so that I can strip off the long johns/snow pants, and then to Church for the 10 AM service.  These are not unimportant learnings, but my lasting learnings are much deeper than those ones.

I have learned that the sun knows exactly the right time to crest the mountains.  Yes, I know, it’s the earth turning, not the sun rising, but no matter whether Easter is March 22nd or April 25th, sometime between 8 and 8:30, usually at a key point in the Easter narrative, we are gradually, then suddenly, joined in this place by sunshine.

I have learned that birds have an uncanny connection with Spirit.  How many times has a single bird circled high above us at the exact moment that we are speaking of Christ crucified and risen?  That continuity of heaven and earth, our connection as children of the Creator is real in this place; we cannot help but acknowledge the kinship between us two leggeds and the four leggeds and those that swim and those that crawl and those that slither and those that fly.  Our common connection to all living beings is spoken in the flight of a bird and the sound of our voices speaking and singing and the dogged determination of a sprout to push its way through soil. 

I have learned that nature can facilitate reconciliation. When we gathered here with Gloria and Ken two years ago, we were offered the opportunity to take tobacco, and go to the river, and to offer whatever prayer we needed to the river, for the river would carry our prayers where they needed to go, and in so doing something cracked open in me.  I did not come here that day expecting to start a process of forgiveness with one of my ancestors whose actions harmed my family, but that’s what happened as sacred tobacco was received by this river.  It was as if I finally gave myself over to Christ’s forgiving grace as my withholding of forgiveness lost its resolve. I broke open like a seed planted in soil, and a journey of growth began.  Resentment started to die, and a new coexistence with the past started to emerge.

One year ago, just up there, past the pathway, we were blessed to hear Elder Glen Stephens reflect on the 23rd Psalm, repeating several times with different inflection, “surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life.”   Those are powerful words, coming from one who experienced what he experienced in life.  No matter what the circumstances, no matter what evils attempted to subdue our human spirit and human dignity, I heard in Glen’s voice that those things do not ultimately win; life does.  Glen only lived another six months, which further underlines the gift of his words.  

And even in those pandemic years when we could not gather here in person, I still learned.  I came down here one morning in early April 2020 with my phone camera held in my shaky hands and yes, the sun crested the mountain just like it always has; I saw that in a new way, for I was unhampered by words and liturgy, only focused on the sun and the mountain.  And later, at home, still processing what all that meant, Jan sent me her recording for that service, singing the words “I’m going down, down to the shores of the river of lament; and there I lay my burden down that the water carry it away”, and I wept, those words allowing me to let go of all I had been carrying in those unsettling weeks…  and life started flowing again, or at least trickling.  As it turned out, the Bow was the river of lament that I would return to with tobacco a couple of years later, giving my assent to the healing invitation of these waters.

Whether we’ve been standing on ice, way out over the river, or sliding around in the mud trying to find a tuft of safe grass to stand on, being here with you in God’s cathedral has changed me.  For whether it’s been just a bit cold or a lot cold, calm or breezy, I have recognized that this is one of those thin places that the Celts wrote about, where the gap between this realm and the next is so slight as to be imperceptible.  And in this place, year after year, I have heard a story of an empty tomb, a story from two thousand years ago and ten thousand kilometers away, and here the unusualness of the story does not feel out of place: partly because dying and rising is so ingrained in nature, partly because of this thin space of such beauty, and partly because we, like the first disciples, need to hear over and over again God’s deep inclination toward resurrection.  Those words of sacred text are not one thing, and our times together outdoors something else; they speak, together, of holiness, and renewal, and confusion and expectation and awe.

And with our frozen faces and frozen fingers and frozen toes, we proclaim yet again our Alleluias, to the God who gives life in all its abundance, and refreshes even the depth of our being.  Amen, and Amen.

(c) 2024 Rev Greg Wooley, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church.

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