Start with a blessing, keep the end always in mind, Presa preaches

The Rev. Neal Presa, Week Three’s chaplain-in-residence, delivers his opening sermon of the week, “And What Then, and For What?, ” Sunday morning in the Amphitheater. Carrie Legg/Staff Photographer

Column by Mary Lee Talbot

“Because we believe we shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living, because we believe, we can testify and we must testify,” said the Rev. Neal D. Presa at the 10:45 a.m. Sunday morning worship service in the Amphitheater. His sermon title was “And What Then, and For What?” The scripture reading was from Numbers 6: 22-27, the Aaronic blessing. 

Presa described the world as a place that needs healing words, the ancient words from the Judeo-Christian faiths. This world included a downcast teenager, confronting the future with sadness, rather than joy and energy. There was an older woman whose medicine cabinet “keeps being filled with round plastic cylinders accumulated at great cost,” and believes she does not have long to live. 

There was also a mother with all her belongings in a bag, with a baby in her arms and a child at her side. She tries to give them security but is stopped (at the border) and has to wait, and wait and wait. “There is war in Ukraine and we just celebrated Independence Day in the ‘Divided States of America,’ ” Presa said. “The grass withers and worlds fade away, but the word of God stands and we need to tap the wellspring of our Judeo-Christian faith with healing words for a hurting world.”

Presa shared a story about British Prime Minister William Gladstone. The son of one of Gladstone’s friends came for advice on his career plans. The young man planned to study at Oxford, become a prominent barrister, stand for parliament, rise to a cabinet post and eventually become prime minister. At every point in his planned journey, Gladstone would ask the young man, “and then?” 

The young man allowed that he would one day be forced to retire and then expected to die. Gladstone asked, “and what then?” The young man had no reply. Gladstone told him: “Go home and think your life through to its end.”

“And what then? We say a benediction at the end of a service. We say goodbye, which means God go with you,” Presa said. “What if we would live with the ending at the beginning, with the ending always in sight? What if we offer ‘God be with you’ from the get go?”

He continued, “Eat dessert first. Most of the time we live from point to point, place to place. We reach 90 years and what then? We should start the day with the benediction, the good word, the blessing.”

The Aaronic blessing, the blessing that came while Israel was in the desert, was a reminder that God was with them. Told in stories and dramatized in worship, the blessing reminded them of being God’s beloved community. 

This blessing was not a “last word” but carried through the struggles, sweat and tears of Israel. 

“The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace,” Presa said, repeating the blessing. 

He continued, “The Lord’s name is stamped on God’s people. When this blessing is pronounced, it means ‘I am the Lord your God, you are my people. I have your back.’  We say to each other, ‘You and I belong to God, to one another, you matter to the Lord God Almighty, you are a precious child of God, you are loved and created in the image of the Lord God Almighty.’ ”

William Gladstone’s father was one of the largest slave holders in Britain. Gladstone advocated for compensation for slave holders when enslaved people were freed. He also advocated for gradual release of enslaved people, to educate them and give them apprenticeships. At the end of his life, he said that the abolition of slavery was one of the 10 greatest achievements of the previous 60 years where the masses were right and the upper classes wrong.

The phrase “and what then?” goes to the purpose of our lives, Presa told the congregation. “To say ‘God bless you and keep you’ is to testify to God’s love and grace, but it is not prosperity just for the sake of prosperity. We are blessed to be a blessing to others,” he said. 

“In our family, we believe we are blessed with food so that we can help others. We have a home to shelter us and to extend hospitality, an education to use our minds, work to lift the downtrodden and advocate for the disempowered,” Presa said. “It is work to pray that all people will flourish.”

He continued, “I travel a lot, and at every hotel I leave a note with a blessing and a gratuity for the household staff. I bless them and tell them I appreciate their service.”

Presa invited the congregation to stand and raise their arms wide open and slightly uplifted. He said, “This is an ancient stance of blessing. We are inviting the Holy Spirit to come. ‘May the Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you. The Lord lift up the light of his countenance upon you, and give you peace.’ ”

The Rt. Rev. Eugene Taylor Sutton, senior pastor for Chautauqua Institution, presided. Amy Gardner, vice president for advancement at Chautauqua Institution, read the scripture. The prelude, “Prelude, Fugue, and Chaccone,” BuxWV 137, by Dietrich Buxtehude, was performed by Nicholas Stigall, organ scholar. The anthem, sung a cappella by the Chautauqua Choir under the direction of Joshua Stafford, director of sacred music and Jared Jacobsen Chair for the Organist, was “Bless the Lord, O my soul,” music by Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov, arranged by Arthur Becker and words from Psalm 102. Stafford directed and Stigall accompanied the Chautauqua Choir in the offertory anthem “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” music by Craig Phillips and words from Matthew 5: 3-12. The postlude was “Toccata,” by John Weaver, played by Stafford on the Massey Memorial Organ. Support for this week’s chaplaincy and preaching is provided by the Edmond E. Robb-Walter C. Shaw Fund and the Randall-Hall Memorial Chaplaincy.


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.