In opening sermon, Robinson calls to ‘work for the impossible’

The Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson, Chautauqua’s Vice President of Religion and Senior Pastor, delivers his sermon during the opening worship service of the 2021 season Sunday, June 27, 2021 in the Amp. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

“In the Amargosa Desert, on a seldom-used trail, there was a pump. Tied to the pump in a baking powder can, was the following letter.” So began the Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson in the opening sermon for the 2021 Chautauqua Summer Assembly Season.

There was no sermon title. The scripture was Isaiah 58: 6-12.

The letter said, in part, that the pump was fine as of June 1932 but that the washer had a tendency to dry out and the pump needed to be primed. Desert Pete, who wrote the letter, had buried a bottle of water, cork end up, under the rock nearby so it would not evaporate. There was enough water to prime the pump, but not if some water was drunk before doing so.

Desert Pete suggested that the thirsty person pour out about one-quarter of the water and let it sit a minute to get the washer wet, then pour the rest of the water to get the pump going. 

“Pump like crazy and it will never run dry,” he wrote. “But you have to prime the pump first and you will get all the water you can hold.” 

When you have had enough, fill the bottle and put it back under the rock for the next person, Desert Pete wrote.

“This is our faith-works connection,” Robinson said. “One without the other is not useful. Faith without work gets us nothing, and work without faith will not get us where we need to be.”

Jared Jacobsen Chair for the Organist and Director of Sacred Music Joshua Stafford leads the choir during the opening worship service of the 2021 season Sunday, June 27, 2021 in the Amp. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

The past 16 months had been a challenging experience for the Institution and its trustees. 

“They were either going to be crazy or courageous in the decisions they made,” Robinson said. “We had a staff, the likes of which I have never seen, and an almost-always positive president, who even if he did not think we could pull it off, had faith we were planning for a real season.”

The stories in the Bible, said Robinson, are all about journeys — sometimes scary and dangerous journeys. 

Abram went off to a land he did not know and “his descendants are as numerous as the stars.” Moses returned to Egypt to confront Pharaoh to let the Israelites go. Moses did not believe he could do it, but he had the faith that God could – through him.

“Isaiah wrote of a world free of oppression,” Robinson said. “Jesus was cut from the same cloth. We need to visit prisons, care for the vulnerable and love our enemies like the prophets.”

He continued, “Whether we have visions of justice or believe in ‘the best of human values,’ these ideas are destinations. It takes a lifetime to learn to love our neighbor as ourself. We have to work for the impossible.”

Robinson challenged the congregation to think about their journey at Chautauqua. 

“Chautauqua is more an intellectual, emotional or political journey than a physical one. …Do more than just say you care about (issues). I am going to try to understand my privilege as a white man. Let us love our enemies even when they are so unlikable.”

It takes the balance of all four pillars of Chautauqua to provide the water for a journey through the wilderness.

 “The arts and recreation can provide that water for the desert journey,” he said.

Tom and Kathy Brownfield join the congregation in singing “Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty!” during the opening worship service of the 2021 season Sunday, June 27, 2021 in the Amp. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

“I suggest you listen for God’s voice on the journey,” Robinson continued. “What journeys is God calling you to consider? How do you know if it really is God calling you? If it is something that you really already want to do, it is probably your own ego doing a good impression of God.”

However, if it is something hard that you would rather not do, Robinson said, “chances are it is God calling. Pay attention.”

Robinson invited the congregation to contemplate what journey they were being called to now, what desert they were being invited to cross. 

“Remember, you are not alone,” he said. “There are refreshments — the symphony, the lake, the golf course, Smokey Robinson. We are not alone. As we begin, I wish you safe travels, enjoyment and bon voyage.”

The Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson, vice president of religion and senior pastor, presided. Candace Littell Maxwell, chair of the Chautauqua Board of Trustees, read the scripture. Joshua Stafford, the Jared Jacobsen Chair for the Organist and Director of Sacred Music, played the Massey Memorial Organ and conducted the choral octet. The organ prelude was “Dawn” by Cyril Jenkins. The prelude was followed by the Three Taps of the Gavel opening address by Chautauqua Institution President Michael E. HIll. The anthem, sung by the choral octet, was “Hymn After a Song of Wisdom,’’ by Charles Villiers Stanford. During the time of remembrance for Chautauquans who have died since June 2020, Aaron Dubois, a trumpeter with the Chautauqua Music School Festival Orchestra, played “Taps.” Written in 1862 during the “Peninsula Campaign” by David Butterfield of the 83rd Pennsylvania Regiment from Erie, “Taps” was first played by Oliver W. Norton, from Sherman, New York, for whom Norton Hall is dedicated. The offertory anthem was “With What Shall I Come Before the Lord,” by John Ness Beck. The postlude was “Final” from Symphonie No. 1 by Louis Vierne. The Gladys R. Brasted and the Adair Brasted Gould Memorial Chaplaincy provides support for this week’s chaplains and worship services.

Tags : ChautauquaGene RobinsonJared JacobsenJoshua Staffordmorning worshipreligionSenior Pastor Gene Robinson

The author Mary Lee Talbot

Mary Lee Talbot writes the recap of the morning worship service. A life-long Chautauquan, she is a Presbyterian minister, author of Chautauqua’s Heart: 100 Years of Beauty and a history of the Chapel of the Good Shepherd. She edited The Streets Where We Live and Shalom Chautauqua. She lives in Chautauqua year-round with her Stabyhoun, Sammi.