The following sermon was preached by The Reverend Susan Butler-Jones on the occasion of Parkwoods 60th Anniversary. Now retired, Susan had “grown up” in this congregation and was a candidate for ministry from Parkwoods.
Before I say anything else, I want to express my thanks for your wonderful invitation to be with you today. To worship with you all and to celebrate this very special occasion. I am delighted and honoured. My husband the Rev Boyd Drake would be here with me in our home office, but he is in the dining room leading worship for St Andrew’s United Church, Cumberland ON. It’s quite an amazing feat of technology!
I bring greetings to you from two people who are very dear to me. Two others who have a strong connection with Parkwoods. First my Dad, Bryce Butler who now lives in Riverview NB. And also from Isabel Jones (my other mother) who lives in Ottawa. Both were thrilled to hear I would be celebrating with you today, and both asked me to bring their enthusiastic greetings to you all.
Our hearts are full today as we give thanks for the gift of Parkwoods UC in our lives. For all the memories. For all that you gave to us – for all that you called forth from us. We celebrate with you this anniversary. Sixty years of witness and work in this community. Sixty years of worship. Of confirmations and baptisms. Of marriages and blessings, of memorials and remembrances. Of Advents and Christmases; Epiphanies and Lents. Of Easters and Pentecosts and Ordinary times!
Sixty years of being the people of God in this corner of Creation. Of bringing the light of Christ into hearts and homes – of being that light of Christ for each other. Sixty years of reaching out into the community and welcoming children, teens, families, seniors – newcomers, immigrants and people seeking refuge. The lost and brokenhearted. The joyful and courageous. Sixty years of nurturing. Of praying and laughing and singing together. And in the ”olden days” which I remember – youth group meetings, New Year’s Eve square dancing, performing musicals with the Parkwoods players, singing along with Syzygy. So much. So very much.
Some of you remember those early days. And have been faithful members for all or most of these 60 years. This is a particularly significant day for you. Some of you have been part of this community for only a little while. Some have gone away and returned. And yet here we are. All of us together today to celebrate and to give thanks to God for all that is Parkwoods – for all that has been accomplished in the name of Jesus Christ because of this church community. As on any birthday or anniversary we look to the past with gratitude. And we look to the future with anticipation and hope. We can be confident in that hope because we know God. And we are known by God. We are God’s beloved.
We do not know what the future will look like, but we are assured – because of the covenant that God has made with God’s people – God’s beloved people – that God will be with us. God will be with you. God will be with all God’s creation. We are united by that faith, and by that truth.
This is the same covenant that we read about in the passage from Jeremiah today. This covenant – this new covenant written not on scrolls or stone tablets, or in books, but on our hearts. On our very hearts.
…I invite you for a moment to ponder your heart, your own heartbeat. I invite you to very gently place your hand over your heart. Right in the centre of your chest. You may want to close your eyes and just tune in to your own heart. Take a couple of breaths, gentle and deep… Can you feel your heart beating? …Consider the strength of that beat; or the weakness of it. Think of the constancy of it – the steadiness of it, and how it keeps you alive on such a fine balance….
As you remain with your hand over your heart recall the thoughts of God spoken through the prophet Jeremiah. One day my people will know me and walk in my ways as naturally as their hearts beat. Just as surely as their hearts beat, and pump the lifeblood through their bodies, so surely and steadily, will my people walk in my ways. It will come naturally to them like their heartbeat. They won’t have to learn how to do it. Their hearts will be connected to me in the same way that an unborn baby’s heart is connected to her mother… I, your God, have written this on their hearts.
…Another breath, perhaps a gentle pat as you give thinks to your own heart for all it does for you. And with one more breath, as you remove your hand from your chest, imagine how all of our hearts are connected. If each of us is connected to the heart of God – then surely we are all connected to each other. Interconnected. Intertwined in the life of this world. We are one.
This covenant with us that God has created – and invites us into each new day, is a covenant that God has repeated over and over, and over. Many generations before the Prophet Jeremiah in the stories of Genesis, God called Abraham and Sarah and said to them – “I will make you and your family a blessing to all creation. You will have many descendants – as many as the stars in the sky or the grains of sand on the sea shore. And I will be your God and you will be my people.” So because Abraham and Sarah trusted the promise and the one who made the promise, they followed the call and followed their God into the unknown.
If you read of their adventures in Genesis you will know that sometimes things didn’t go well for them. Sometimes Abraham, and sometimes Sarah made poor choices – unloving choices. But always, sooner or later, (maybe when they stopped for a moment and felt their own heart beat…) sooner or later they would remember the promise that God had made and they would return to the covenant. They would return to the heart of God and once again they would find strength, and courage, and blessing. They realized that God had never stopped being faithful to that promise. God had been there all the time, dreaming God’s dream of peace and wholeness for all creation.
The story of the people of God (our ancestors in the faith) continues in the pages of the scripture stories, through the generations of the descendants of Sarah and Abraham – through Isaac and Rebekah, through Jacob and Leah and Rachel, through Joseph and the exile in Egypt. And much later through Moses and Miriam. And on and on through the generations until we come to the time of Jeremiah. Another time when the people God had forgotten God’s promise that they would be a blessing to all creation – that God would not abandon them – that they were (still) God’s own beloved people.
When the people of God forget themselves, forget who they are – who we are – things fall apart. There is no harmony. There is no peace. There is no right relationship. Love gets covered over by fear. Abundance of grace is replaced by a culture of scarcity. The voices of wisdom sound like clanging gongs. The heartbeat of God is no longer heard; no longer felt within the community.
This is the situation into which Jeremiah is called by God to speak. It’s a dangerous job and Jeremiah is uneasy about his “yes”. But he commits to speaking on God’s behalf… because he trusts the promise, and the one who made the promise.
Can you imagine how Jeremiah must have felt when he heard that the words he had dictated to Baruch – that his scribe had so carefully written down on the scroll – were burned by the king. Systematically and purposefully destroyed. Thrown into the fire like so much garbage…
And yet, we still have these stories of Jeremiah, the prophet of God. In spite of it all they were not destroyed. Book burnings have never kept the truth from the people. Ever.
The steadfastness of God cannot be destroyed by ill placed power.
The steadfastness of God permeates creation. It is seen in the vast and ever expanding universe. It is seen in the cycles of our beloved planet earth. The seasons, the ocean currents, the prevailing winds. The cycles of birth and death and rebirth.
The steadfastness of God is lived out in faith communities who come together in this beautiful cyclical pattern to pray together, to worship together, to struggle – and together to be the people of God in this time and in this place. Even if this “place” is in our own homes and not in the buildings we call “church”. (Sidenote – is this online church thing our experience of exile? As so many times God’s beloved have found themselves exiled from their home place – where they thought they ought to be? And yet – they still were the people God.)
Parkwoods Church community was where I first learned about the steadfastness of God. Between my home and this church community I learned that I could trust my innate sense of God in my life. I learned – from the inside out – that God was present because of the care of the people. I was encouraged as a young child by ministers, Sunday School teachers and Explorer leaders, my parents and their friends to ask questions, to take part and to join in. As a teen I was challenged to take on leadership roles, to be involved in decision making and worship leadership. And when I goofed up I was supported and offered guidance to learn new skills. I am forever grateful for these gifts. Mostly I am grateful for the deep knowledge which is written on my heart, of the steadfastness of God and of the people of God.
This covenant offered through God’s love, from God’s own heart to ours, is what calls to us to be prophets in our day. When we know this steadfast covenant love within our own hearts we cannot keep silence. The call of God is a call to action.
There is so much that needs our attention in these days. So much that calls for our action and our commitment. We have our own prophets calling to us in these times. There are prophets of the pandemic – calling us to keep each other safe by staying home and wearing masks when we do have to go out. This is an act of love.
There are prophets for Black Lives Matter
There are prophets for reconciliation and indigenous rights.
There are prophets for climate crisis.
All calls to love.
The heart of God continues to call. As it has called to the people of Parkwoods these many years. The heart of God calls to our hearts. As sure as our hearts beat, and the lifeblood flows through the people of God, the heart of God beats strongly in us and through us, calling us into the vision of peace and love, where we all walk together closer to one another and closer to God.
Happy anniversary, Parkwoods. Thanks be to God for the saints and the prophets among you and those who have gone before. All those who have joined their hearts to the heart of God, and who walk with us all into God’s shalom.