The Empty Chair
A Sermon for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany
(First, I place an empty chair where the baptismal font usually goes. Then. . .)
I was devastated. I wanted to say, "What do you mean, 'you're leaving'?" but I couldn't get the words out of my mouth. This man, who had just announced he was moving halfway across the country—he had changed my life. I was a thirty–something, finding my way back to the church after staying away during my twenties, and he had found ways to include me in the life of this, my new church home. His influence on me was so profound, my son was named after him. Soon after we met, he and his wife started a prayer group. My wife and I could not get pregnant, so they prayed for us. When my son John was born, he was named for two people: Jack, his maternal grandfather and John, this man of prayer, who was our parish priest.
Father John was the first person to invite me to visit church members who were sick or homebound. I remember those first visits like it was yesterday—the hallways, the rooms, the faces. I remember being less afraid to visit that nursing home, because my friend was with me, showing me the way. And I remember how we talked about our visits afterward, how I learned about the importance of working together and becoming part of a team of caring ministers.
John was also the first person to invite me to speak in church. One Saturday night he and Cath had me over to their house for spaghetti dinner. After we finished eating, John said, "You know how we have people sharing a part of their stories of faith on Sunday mornings during the Stewardship season? I wonder if you would be willing to share your story sometime." I loved John for asking me, and I couldn't help but say "yes" to him. He smiled at me and said, "How about tomorrow morning?"
Long before I went to seminary, John taught me a lot about being a spiritual leader and about being a priest. He taught me about the importance of sharing my faith with others. He taught me about the power of prayer. He taught me about the need to collaborate. And though I don't think he realized it then, I know he taught me about the importance of welcoming a stranger into a community of faith.
Elijah was no stranger to the Hebrew people. He was, in fact, one of the community's prophets. He was the one who would announce the arrival of the Messiah, the prophet above all prophets, an anointed savior who would come to free his Jewish sisters and brothers. Multiplying food, bringing the dead to life, Elijah was also a miracle worker—like Jesus, some eight centuries later. And as we hear in our Hebrew scripture story today from the second book of the Kings, Elijah, like Jesus, does not depart this earth in the normal, human way. Elijah ascends heavenward, in a chariot of fire, while his successor Elisha, the one to whom he has passed his mantle of prophetic leadership, looks on.
There is a saying among rabbis that, whenever they are unable to resolve disputes or conflicts, they will suspend their discussion until Elijah comes to resolve it. Perhaps that's how the tradition of the empty chair came to be. This year, on April 6, our Good Friday, it is also the beginning of the Jewish feast of the Passover. You may know that on the first day of Passover, a Seder, or ceremonial meal, is celebrated. The Seder marks the liberation of Jewish slaves and their exodus from Egypt. At a Seder, rituals are kept and stories are told about the history of the Jewish people and their faith. And on that and other special occasions, Jews always put an extra place setting in front of an empty chair, and then, they pray. The prayer, the place setting and the empty chair are all for Elijah, because, as legend has it, Elijah will come and be present for them at every Seder meal. That's something like our saying that Jesus comes to us, that Christ is real and present for us, at every Eucharist we celebrate.
The symbol of the empty chair has also been used in what churches sometimes call the "small group" movement. When I was trained to lead small Bible study groups, I learned about that other use of "the empty chair." We were told always to have at least one extra, empty chair in our circle of friends, because we never knew when Elijah might show up.
The empty chair of Elijah at the Seder table and at our Communion table today is a visual reminder of the spiritual practice known as "welcoming the stranger," or in one word, "hospitality." Our Jewish sisters and brothers would likely tell us that the health of a faith community demands hospitality. Hospitality is the practice of welcoming those whom we do not know into our midst. Hospitality is about making room for someone new. Hospitality is about our willingness to open our minds and to stretch our hearts enough to welcome visitors and guests and then, to go deeper—to learn new things from them, to invite them to share their wisdom with us. Hospitality, our Jewish sisters and brothers would tell us, prepares the way for God to come more fully and completely into our lives.
We also find Elijah in our Gospel story, along with Moses. Like Elijah and Moses, Jesus is transfigured. He is changed, filled with light. Jesus becomes a brighter manifestation of God, while Peter and his friends look on. Then Jesus talks with both Elijah and Moses, whom some Jews believed had also been taken up, directly, into heaven. Peter wants to celebrate this special occasion. He wants to build three dwellings or tents in which their special guests can stay. Maybe Peter is trying to hold on to the moment and to Jesus in much the same way I wanted to hold on to my dear friend John. Maybe Peter "did not know what to say" (Mark 9:6), because he was afraid of losing the moment and the man.
As it turns out, their Kodak moment does not last. God has other plans. God interrupts and speaks to them, in words much like the ones spoken to Jesus at his Baptism. "This is my Beloved Son; listen to him!" And suddenly, the guests are gone, and it's just Jesus and his friends. Peter, James and John must have been confused by all this, just like they were confused the last time they went off together, alone with Jesus, when he raised the daughter of Jairus from the dead (Mark 5:37-43).
Now, let me stop right here and say that, whatever you might believe about these stories—that they are literally true, or symbolically important, or merely the product of an overactive imagination—whatever you think about them, I invite you to think about this: there are times in our lives when spiritual leaders come, and there are times in our lives when spiritual leaders go. Those times are times of transition. And in times of transition, God always raises up new leaders.
Spiritual leaders are people who seek to be led by the Spirit of God. Sometimes those leaders come from within the community of faith itself. Sometimes they are raised up through a clear line of succession. Like Elisha succeeding Elijah. Like Peter becoming the rock of the church. Or, as happened last Sunday at our annual parish meeting, like four Vestry members of an Episcopal church retiring, passing the mantle of leadership to four new Vestry members. Sometimes spiritual leaders will arrive unannounced, called and sent by God to come in and take their place in the life and leadership of their brand, new community. The question is: Will there be an empty chair for them, when they arrive?
All Saints' needs new leaders—right now, in this time of transition. Are you one of the people God is calling to leadership, within this community of faith? I invite you to come today at noon to the informational meeting about Prayers for Healing. I invite you to come next Saturday, starting at 9 a.m., to our "Stewardship, Membership and Leadership" conference. And I invite each and every one of you to begin the season of Lent this week by committing yourself to pray about God's call to you, as a spiritual follower of Jesus and, perhaps, as a potential spiritual leader in the church. Whether you are a member here or not, whether or not you think you're a leader, God calls you to ministry—somewhere.
The month after I arrived at All Saints', a beloved member of this church, known for his hospitality, his spiritual leadership and fellowship, suddenly died. The loss of Bruce Jones took the wind out of the sails of hospitality here at All Saints', and not just for a little while. For several years we've been looking for someone like Bruce to organize our parties and help us have some good times. Several of you have stepped forward, and we have had some fun! But from my perspective, no one was ready, willing and able to make hospitality happen here the way it really needed to happen again.
Or so I thought. Then, slowly, I noticed what had been happening since I arrived at All Saints' four years ago. I noticed the increase in the number of people who have come to this church from an around the world. More and more, our electronically connected world makes it easy for people who move into a new community like Frederick to find a church they might like to try. That's why our website is so important! And that's why more people of color, especially members of the African and African-American community, have been finding their way to All Saints'. Many have come as visitors and guests. Many have also stayed, filled empty chairs and become members—even hosts!
Not long ago I went to one of those new African friends and said, casually, that I wondered if this new community of color, led here by God's Spirit, would be willing to get together and have a party. If you do, I said, I'll come! Yes, some of them said, we want to get together and have a party, but we want to host it for our new church! And so, last Sunday, after the parish annual meeting, we had a soul feast, in honor of Black History Month. These new members of All Saints' provided us with food, fellowship and fun in a way we have not experienced nearly often enough! During that fabulous feast some of the organizers gathered in the kitchen, planning the next one or two or three parties.
Toward the end of the feast, I sat down at the table where Robin Jones was seated, and I said, "Robin, when I saw the notice in the bulletin about flowers given in honor of your husband Bruce, I thought, it can't be four years. But it has been." Then I said, "I've been praying for someone to come and take Bruce's place of leadership with hospitality here, and look! Look at all these new people! They are a community of hosts, not just one person, and they've been called and sent by God to this place, where they have felt welcome. And now, they are welcoming us!"
(More empty chairs are placed in the Nave of the church.)
Let us pray. God, we thank you that you call us to put out empty chairs, today and every day. God, we thank you that you call us to become ministers of hospitality and leadership, to welcome the stranger. Help us hear your call to the ministry of hospitality. Help us to answer your call, even today. We pray this in the name of Jesus, who welcomed all. AMEN.
—The Rev. Thomas A. Momberg
February 19, 2012