In the world we are kingdom builders, partners with God, Rev. Natalie Hanson preaches

“Beloved friends and Chautauqua community members — and you are members of this community, whether you are here all year or all summer or just for this week — we are community, together,” the Rev. Natalie Hanson, Chautauqua’s interim senior pastor, told the congregation gathered for the 10:45 a.m. Sunday, Aug. 21 service of worship and sermon in the Amphitheater.

Hanson’s sermon title was “What We Breathe In” and the Scripture was Philippians 4:1-9, with the reminder to rejoice in the Lord, always. 

So, Hanson said, let’s talk about the community at Chautauqua, that “Chautauqua Bubble.”

“Some people even call it Shangri-La, a little bit of heaven on Earth. A bubble,” Hanson said. “As much as I love Chautauqua, I need to say something: The bubble was never real. It was never real.”

When we come to Chautauqua, the world does not stop at the gates, and we do not leave the world behind — we bring the world with us, because it is in us, Hanson said. This goes beyond the Aug. 12 attack on writer Salman Rusdhie.

“Talk to the emergency responders or our security folks, and they will tell you there is domestic violence at Chautauqua, there have been attacks at Chautauqua, there is stuff at Chautauqua, there are broken hearts at Chautauqua, broken families at Chautauqua, broken dreams at Chautauqua,” Hanson said. “There are lousy messages from doctors that we receive at Chautauqua, terrible diagnoses, life-changing events, incredible challenges.”

The bubble was never real. And even if it was just wishful thinking, “then maybe it is just as well that the bubble has been burst.”

But there is another side to the Chautauqua Bubble, and Hanson referenced her husband, the Rev. Paul Womack, who shared with her an article from NPR about a study done on religious behavior in the United States. In talking to people, particularly of the Abrahamic faiths, researchers asked, how do they put their faith to work?

“Muslims said, ‘Yes, we pray five times per day.’ And the people that were Jewish said, ‘I never miss Shabbat’  and the Christians said, ‘I always go to church,’ ” she said. “And here is the kicker — when the researchers went back, they said, ‘Tell us the truth, really.’ ”

On average, Muslims prayed just once a day, Jewish people missed Shabbat, and Christians went to church just once every six weeks.

“I am not offended by that, because I think people’s first response was what was called aspirational thinking. I think folks were first replying to those researchers, not out of what they knew about their truth, what they were actually asked about in all reality, but they were responding according to who they wished they were, what they wish their practice had been.”

The Chautauqua Bubble isn’t self-centeredness and wishful thinking, but that aspirational thinking “and hoping, and dreaming and to the extent that the aspiration is not just for us, but for all of the world around us.”

That aspiration, that bubble, cannot be burst. So, Hanson asked the congregation: What are your hopes and dreams? What do you want Chautauqua to be a laboratory for?

“What are your longings, the deepest needs of your heart?” she asked. “I dream of Chautauqua being a place where people can come to breathe.”

If Chautauqua is a place where we can breathe out all that harms us, we can breathe in something new.

“Paul (in Scripture) said: Rejoice. Breathe in joy together, let your gentleness be known to everyone,” Hanson said. “… I would say that what he is talking about and what we need, what I need in terms of breathing in these things, I need to breathe in the experience and the knowledge and the assurance that I am a part of something bigger than myself.”

If Chautauqua has learned nothing else this past week, Hanson said, it is “how much we truly, absolutely, in all reality need each other. And more than that needing each other, being together, we need to know that we are a part of a people who are themselves a part of something greater.”

Knowing that we are part of something greater, and that it is a part of us, gives life meaning and, Hanson said, takes her out of her silo, out of her “self-absorption, my fears, my night terrors, my own personal craziness and brings me to a different place of possibilities.”

We need to breathe that in, that presence of spirit and community. We can be broadened in that safety of spirit, and from that, we will be changed.

The trend in America of shopping around for churches makes it too easy to avoid both the challenges and grace of community.

“When it gets a little hard, we can go somewhere else,” Hanson said. “The point of the community of faith and spirit is that we hang in with each other no matter what, and we let that process of having to live together and figure it out change us forever, like stones in a tumbler being polished. We need to stay together, especially when it is dysfunctional and hard.”

We need to breathe in the spirit which makes that possible. In strength and in weakness, we look to each other and to the Lord.

“To walk through Christ is to walk through darkness, to walk through pain, to walk through challenge and know that there will be light at the other end,” Hanson said. “I need that. … Do you need that, too?”

The answer is yes. And the name of that answer is faith. This is not about denominations, or particular brands of faith, this is about whatever is divine in this world that makes us wholly human, wholly ourselves and holy together.

“This is what faith is about. God’s call on us to use our imagination, to exercise our hearts, to walk our feet and hands out in the works of service and mercy and compassion, to make ourselves go into strange and remarkable and sometimes terrifying places, trusting we will find God there — this is faith,” Hanson said. “This is faith.”

She told the congregation this for a reason. The fourth pillar of Chautauqua is “about discovering who we are and who we are together as we live in community. That is a part of a greater whole and that greater whole is something that informs and strengthens and heals us and leads us to more and more and more life,” Hanson said.

This is faith at Chautauqua. Breathing out, and breathing in. It is the thing that sets us apart. As we bring the world into the bubble, we take Chautauqua out back into our world. So the bubble has burst — that’s OK as long as we keep aspiring not just here, but in the world around us.

“As long as we keep aspiring to be the kind of people who will not resort to fear and self-defense and violence, no matter what, but we will jump on whatever stage it is and help those who are hurting and protect those who are vulnerable, I am OK with it,” Hanson said.

The Chautauqua Bubble bursting means a new day of exploring what it means to be the Children of God together, and what justice and mercy mean in the future of the country. It means putting our efforts together to build a little taste of what the kingdom of God may look like, and bring that out into the world with us. 

“When we walk into the world — which we never really left, but is in us and among us — we become kingdom builders, partners with God, there as well,” Hanson said.

Paul wrote to the Philippians, “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, pure, pleasing, commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, if there is gentleness, if there is a sense of the nearness of the Lord, practice these things.”   

“And the peace of God which passes all understanding will guard your hearts and safekeep your minds in the heart of Christ Jesus,” Hanson said, “and to God be the glory. Amen.”

Maureen Rovegno, Chautauqua Institution’s director of religion, presided. The Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson, retired vice president of religion, read the Scripture lesson. The Chautauqua Choir sang “There’s a Sweet Spirit in this Place,” by Joel Raney. The choir was under the direction of Joshua Stafford, director of sacred music and the Jared Jacobsen Chair for Organist, accompanied by Nicholas Stigall, organ scholar. The offertory anthem, sung by the Chautauqua Choir under the direction of Stafford and accompanied by Stigall, was “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me,” by Kevin Siegfried. The Prelude was Fugue in C, BWV 564, by J.S. Bach, performed by Stigall. The Postlude was Final, Op. 21, by César Franck, performed by Stafford. Support of this week’s services is provided by the Daney-Holden Chaplaincy Fund and the Marie Reid-Edward Spencer Babcox Memorial Fund. 

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The author Sara Toth

Sara Toth is entering her fifth summer as editor of The Chautauquan Daily and works year-round in Chautauqua Institution’s Department of Education. Previously, she served four years as the Daily’s assistant and then managing editor. An alum of the Daily internship program, she is a native of Pittsburgh(ish), attended Gannon University in Erie, Pennsylvania, and worked for nearly four years as a reporter in the Baltimore Sun Media Group. She lives in Jamestown with her husband, a photographer, and her Lilac, a cat.