Riding the Rapids (Audio Available)

Sermon by Rev. Diane Rollert, 13 September 2015
(Click Read More for access to the audio files for this sermon)

Since we’re focusing on the theme of risk this month, I started out thinking that I would do something courageous to prepare for this Sunday — you know, do something that I’ve never done before.  I had this big plan that I would ride the rapids of the Saint Lawrence River here in Montreal.  There’s a company in Lachine that will take you out on rafts right into the heart of the rapids for a couple of hours.  When I asked members of my family if they wanted to join me, they were all shocked.  You?  You want to ride the rapids?  And really, I had every intention of going, but I never did find the time.

Up in the Gaspésie, just before Labour Day, David and I considered riding the rapids of the Rivière Bonaventure, but, well, it was a cold day.  We stopped to observe the guides as they prepared a group of 15 or so mostly young adults for a day’s ride on the rapids there.  After adamantly insisting that everyone rent cold water booties, the guides asked the group if anyone was afraid.  No one had the courage to admit their fear, but you could see the hesitation on their faces.  Next year, David and I agreed.  Next year, we’ll go — on a warm day.

So, OK, I didn’t follow through on my great plan, but the truth is, everything is always a risk — especially if you choose to be in relationship with other human beings, and if you choose to be in community.  Being in community is like riding rapids.  It can be exciting, it’s definitely fraught with potential danger, some days you really should wear your cold water boots, and honestly, nothing ever flows perfectly smoothly.  There are obstacles along the way.  Hearts will be broken.  People will be disappointed.  Something will get stirred up.  It’s guaranteed.

We begin our year together and we can stand here at the brink of a great flowing river, at the point of the rapids, and we know we are supposed to dive in, take chances, get wet.  But sometimes we can be afraid to move.  We get stuck there, wondering whether we’re ready for the ride.  Maybe staying still, avoiding all risks, is a better plan.  But, to paraphrase the words of author Leo Buscaglia,

If we risk nothing,
we do nothing,
we have nothing,
we become nothing.
We may avoid suffering and sorrow,
but we cut ourselves off from
learning, feeling, changing, growing or loving.
If we are chained by our certitude
we forfeit our freedom.

For the last two days, the leadership of this congregation has been on a mini-retreat to prepare for this new year.  I have to say it was pretty exciting as about 20 of us gathered to imagine what the near and distant future might look like for our community. It is wonderful to see a whole new crop of leaders step forward and stand alongside a group of seasoned leaders.

In recent times, we’ve had some moments of real panic.  Many of our faithful, longtime leaders have retired, some have sadly passed away.  Some of our younger leaders have been pulled away by demanding jobs or family needs, and we’ve said tearful goodbyes to some beloved leaders who have moved on to new homes far from Montreal.  Yet new leaders have continuously stepped forward.  This community is truly regenerating itself in times when everyone says that religious community is dead, that volunteerism is on the wane, and that no one has time to give to anything beyond themselves. This year’s board and council are full of passion for this community and for getting the message of Unitarian Universalism out into the world.  They have bold ideas.

Hallelujah, my faith has been restored.

Add to the many members of our board and council the twelve people (11 plus our organizer) who have signed up to lead our Exploration Groups, and I’d say that leadership commitment is alive and well here.  But let’s be honest.  All these folks, all these leaders, are putting themselves out there, to stand in a vulnerable place. They are preparing to be leaders in a community of very independent thinkers. Right?  That’s a big part of our history.  For more than four hundred fifty years, we’ve had the courage to think, to question, and to be heretics.  That’s a tremendous legacy to be proud of, but it also means that it’s like herding cats when it comes to getting us in line.

You and I and all of our leaders, we are in this together.  I can promise you that we are going to run into obstacles, that there are times when the ride will get rough and take much longer than we ever imagined.  But I can also promise tremendous rewards of laughter, friendship, insights, new skills and amazing moments of connection and accomplishment because we’ve dared to take the risk to learn, to grow, to feel and to change together.

So now, stop, pause.  You don’t really think that I can go on with this watery metaphor without talking about what has been weighing heavily upon us in the news this summer.  Your contributions to our water communion today may have come from streams, rivers, rapids, oceans, seas. In Quebec, there are many words for the waters that surround us: les étangs, les lacs, les ruisseaux, les flots, les rivières, le fleuve, la mer.  So many beautiful images of water.  Then a child, a small toddler, is washed ashore on the Turkish coast, and we are woken up from our quiet reveries to the realization that water is often treacherous and can carry with it all the wrongs of humanity. 

We have been witness to the ongoing refugee crisis in Syria, in Somalia and elsewhere.  We know that there are many places in the world, including here in Canada, where children are suffering.  But the numbers numb us.  We see one child, one single image and suddenly our hearts are broken, we wake up and we want to take action.  Friends who know me in other contexts ask me, “Can you help us figure out what to do?  Can your church help us to support refugees here?  Tell us what you plan to do and we’ll get involved.”  The Hungarian Unitarian Churches write to say that they standing witness to a horrible crisis in their own country and have made the commitment to aid refugees any way they can.  They are partnering with a local interfaith organization.  Can we send money?  Pope Francis calls upon every single Roman Catholic parish to host a refugee family.   What about us, the Unitarians of Montreal?  What will we do?

The other night I received an email from change.org.  It was a survey that asked:  What do I think should be done about the Syrian refugee crisis?  What petition would I write?  What action would I suggest the world take?  Oh my God, I thought.  Even change.org is feeling lost.  Every week they send me confident, clear petitions calling on me to take specific actions on something or for someone.  But here they are basically saying, “Help!  Tell us what to do.”

Meeting with our leaders this past weekend, here’s what I’ve learned:  Our Social and Environmental Concerns Committee is meeting today under the leadership of their new chair, Marie-France Boisvert.  Their first order of business is to discuss the options of what can be done — not whether or not we should do anything to respond to the crisis — but how we will respond to the crisis.  The problem is that sponsorship is currently very complex.  So the first step will be to figure out what can be done, who we can partner with, and what will have the most impact. If you want to be part of that discussion, join the committee after the service today.

 Our leaders also talked about taking risks as a community.  We talked about our relationship with money, about asking ourselves how our relationship to our endowment fund can truly express our mission and how we can take fuller financial responsibility for our dreams.  We talked about engaging greater diversity, about how we can reach out to youth and young adults, about how we can become a truly bilingual (and perhaps multilingual) community.  We talked about how we can speak more loudly and clearly about our Unitarian Universalist principles and history, and how we can boldly celebrate our 175th anniversary in 2017 by highlighting the historic role we’ve played here in Montreal.

There were many other ideas that we considered, and I am bowled over by everyone’s willingness to THINK BIG! The next step will be to figure out where to focus our efforts in the short term and how to keep the bigger picture alive. I think we may be surprised by what happens in the years to come.

I invite you to take some risks this year, to get engaged in this community.  Go to the Social and Environmental Concerns Committee meeting today.  Or join John Inder in the new UU theological discussion group he’s starting this fall.  Or consider being part of an Exploration Group, because being part of a group of ten people who meet every month to talk about our monthly themes is a way to become more deeply engaged in living, breathing community. The personal risks we take to become connected, to join in a small group that shares in the wider community conversation, can be amazingly lifesaving. I’ve been watching this happen since we started the groups last year, and it’s incredible.   You can sign up for an Exploration Group at the desk in the foyer today, or come join me for an introduction to the program in a few weeks on Sunday, October 4th.

There’s a lot more to consider this year, a lot more to challenge us as we face these changing times.  Believe me, I’m just getting started.  So stick around, come back in the weeks to come.  Take some risks with us.

To take risks
is to love
is to feel, grow, change and be free.
To take risks is to truly live.

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