On Flows the River
Sunday, June 9, 2019
Rev. Tricia Brennan’s final sermon as Interim Minister
of First Parish Dorchester
Where Go The Boats? by Robert Louis Stevenson
Dark brown is the river,
Golden is the sand.
It flows along for ever,
With trees on either hand.
Green leaves a-floating,
Castles of the foam,
Boats of mine a-boating—
Where will all come home?
On goes the river
And out past the mill,
Away down the valley,
Away down the hill.
Away down the river,
A hundred miles or more,
Other little children
Shall bring my boats ashore.
So here we are today, coming close to concluding
three and half years of interim ministry together,
ministry that began in the cold winter days of 2016,
when Barack Obama was still President,
when this congregation was in a tough place,
when some of you had yet to arrive to grace First Parish with your presence,
and others there then have since passed on.
Three and half years is not a long, long time,
but it is a substantial time- 49 months in total it will be.
It is a long river winding that we have traveled.
Ministry that matters, like all things of substance, is paradoxical.
It is both stillness and movement.
It best have a sense of rootedness, of depth, that knows of
“rivers ancient as the world and older
than the flow of human blood in human veins”.*
And yet it must move, minister and congregation must move together-
in a creative flow that will take them somewhere
“out past the mill, away down the valley, away down the hill.”
I like to think, that if I have been of use to you in my time here,
it has been in part because I have deeply believed in you,
which is to say I have moved by who you are now
and captivated by who you can become,
which is to also say I know the stillness in you,
and feel the movement that calls you forward.
There a stillness in your long congregational history.
The roots of the big old oak trees outside this sanctuary
go deep into the earth,
and your roots in this Dorchester community are intertwined
into the history of this place, this land,
the generations who have lived, loved and died here.
And there is movement when you are curious about that history,
open to learning not just the facts but the layers of the stories,
the complexity of it all.
There is stillness in your life now
when you spend time together
with no agenda, no task, no good reason other than enjoying each other,
playing, laughing, listening
getting to know each other-
young and old, longtime member and newcomer,
and there is movement in those relationships
when you aim to be fully yourself,
when you risk sharing how you disagree,
when forgiveness is practiced
when you deepen your understanding
of what it means to be in covenant with each other.
There is stillness here when reflect on what you value,
when you take the time, in worship and in conversation,
to ponder the big questions, to pray, to be silent.
And there is movement when you put those values in action,
when what you do and what you say and who you are
become more and more congruent.
We need both- stillness and movement- to be the people and institutions
that we want to be and our world needs us to be.
If we are all action, all production, all task and movement-
we forget who we are and lose touch with what matter most.
If we are all stillness, all silence, immobile, we become stuck.
The river that rushes at great speed can be dangerous,
the river that does not move becomes a stagnant pond.
We must move to live and we must be still to live well.
When I first remembered that poem by RL Stevenson
I recalled it as a poem of a boy who had made a boat and put it on the river
to float downstream to be picked up by some other boy.
In my imagination the first boy had made the boat
out of twigs and leaves and bark-
And also in imagination the next boy was really happy
when he caught sight of that boat
bobbing down the river to him,
And he reaches out his hand and brought safely ashore.
It was to me a poem of letting go, saying good-bye,
trusting the river and trusting the boat, trusting what comes.
I feel like that little boy in saying goodbye to you,
trusting that you will float safely and surely
and that your next interim minister will extend a hand to you in partnership
and take pleasure in that shared ministry.
And that is all true.
I have loved being a partner in your renewal, shall we call it,
on this stage of your journey.
I got to serve as your interim minister for 3 and a half years
of your 389 years of existence- that’s pretty cool by me.
I always wanted to serve an urban congregation in a dynamic diverse community,
I wanted to serve a congregation whose existence mattered
to the place where it was rooted,
a faith community that could literally save lives
by its witness to justice, by its programs,
by its hospitality, by its message that all are worthy and all are welcome.
And I am really grateful that I got to do that, finally,
at the end of my career as an interim parish minister.
And ministers do come and go, each different,
each hopefully a good match for the congregation
where they are on their journey right then.
When I first began with you, we didn’t know each other.
It took a little time to form a good partnership.
I made mistakes and you hung in there with me. Thank you.
I trust all that will prove true with your next interim minister.
That person may make mistakes and also no doubt
will bring gifts and skills that differ from mine,
and may well just right for your next stage on your journey.
Back to the poem.
There is no boy in that poem I read,
No boy who makes a boat,
No boy at the other end who brings the homemade boat ashore.
And there not just the one boat,
there a whole flotilla of boats out there on the river,
and not just one child but a bunch of little children who find the boats.
In my mind they a class of 2nd graders out
on an end of the year school trip to the Charles River
and they manage to save the boats without drowning themselves.
It’s entirely possible, by the way, that Stevenson
did write the poem in the way I more or less remembered it,
with but one boat on the river bookended by the two boys,
and that the poem I found when I googled Where Go The Boats?
was a non-gendered UU updated version of the original.
Either way, let’s stay with the version I read.
And by way of doing that I want to start by saying
that I was feeling a little down earlier this week.
I was feeling regret about what I hadn’t been able to do in my time with you.
I was cognizant of all we had accomplished, not negating that,
but was living in that space of wanting more,
wishing I tried this or tried that or said this or said that,
essentially wishing I could have been more.
I knew when I was in that low mood that that
was just part of my process of ending.
And those feelings are gone now,
they have had their moment and have floated down the river.
I am really happy and proud of what we have done together,
and accepting of the truth we are always unfinished creatures
and always congregations forever in formation.
I mention that because mixed in with all the good stuff
you too might have some feelings of regret or disappointment,
and I just want affirm that there’s nothing wrong with those feelings,
especially if you trust the river, if you trust each other.
And maybe too, it is good to remember that what matters
is not only what we accomplish,
but who we are becoming as people and as a community.
The movement- what we make happen- and the stillness- who we are-
balance one another in a necessary and beautiful way.
We did launch a lot of boats these three and a half years.
They are out there now in the dna of congregation.
If we named them we might call them names like healing, forgiveness,
sustainability, stability, we might call one old wooden boat covenant,
and a tugboat, those unpretentious boats that guide the big boats
through the tricky water might be called Governance or By-laws.
Some beloved dilapidated boat might be called Farewell to the Manse.
A jaunty schooner might be called Joie de Vivre would be chartered by the youth,
Another seaworthy vessel could be called Faithfulness
whose crew is all your leaders.
What would you name the boats that this congregation has launched?
May you sail all those boats skillfully into your future.
In the last handful of years, when I take time to settle into stillness,
listen to nudging of the spirit calling me to love myself and the world,
asking hard things of me sometimes,
blessing me with peace other times,
it is often the image of a river that surfaces in mind and heart.
It in an unseen beautiful river,
It is the river of life, God’s river some say, or grace.
We step into that river whenever we acknowledge
that we can’t go it alone in this world,
and it gives us what we need.
We step into that river whenever we act for the good,
and then we nourish the river.
It’s a timeless river, been around a long time.
Good people of First Parish Dorchester,
May you never live far from the source of this river.
May its waters refresh and fill you,
and may you add your strength to its strength.
May this river carry you forward, safely and surely,
into your future of stillness and movement.
- From The Negro Speaks of Rivers, by Langston Hughes