You may listen to Mother Erika's sermon here.
So unless you have been on Mars for the last week, or, perhaps, spent your entire week looking at the photographs from Mars (which are very, very cool), you know that this past week was the Republican National Convention. I didn’t watch any of it. This had nothing to do with a lack of interest in politics, or Republicans, or Tampa, and everything to do with the fact that I was away on retreat in a group house in Cape May where the only other guests were children from the Youth Chorale of Trinity Wall Street who, as you might imagine, had other ideas about what to watch on the house’s one television. So on Friday morning, when I checked my news feed on Facebook and saw that multiple friends had posted something about Clint Eastwood talking to an empty chair, I was perplexed. I was also a little concerned that Clint had gone off his rocker – but most of all I was curious. So I went online, googled “Clint Eastwood empty chair” and easily found his speech.
In case you missed the excitement, Clint Eastwood did, in fact, spend a chunk of his allotted time in front of the GOP faithful talking to an empty chair. But rest assured he has not gone off his rocker. No, Clint was pretending that President Obama was sitting in the empty chair. He asked the President questions. He pretended that the President answered him. Mostly he played to the crowd, making jokes at the President’s expense with the kind of biting sarcasm and mockery that Americans of both parties have somehow decided is appropriate for our nation’s political discourse. The empty chair was actually the perfect convention speech tool – it allowed Mr. Eastwood to be in complete control of the conversation, to ask questions and hear only the answers he wanted, to set up the laughs he wanted, to stir up the applause he wanted, to get in all of the digs he wanted. Talking to an empty chair was a strangely effective stunt. It wasn’t a real conversation, and it might have made him look a little foolish, but it accomplished his purpose, and that’s really all that matters.
Unfortunately, this is exactly what a lot of the world thinks we Christians are doing a lot of the time. They think that we gather here today on this first day of the week to gather around an empty throne and talk to an empty chair. Critics like Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens have written volumes trying to prove that there is no God, that religion is a massive social delusion, that the chair is demonstrably empty. The young unchurched in this country smartly ask why, if there actually is Someone, capital “S,” in the chair, we religious folks who are asking the questions all end up with such wildly different and aggressively competing answers. The outcast, particularly those who have been cast out, judged, and abused by the Church, look at the chair and hope that it’s empty, because they don’t want to even imagine that the Someone in the chair might reject them because they’re gay, or because they use birth control, or because they aren’t an American citizen, or because they smell, or have AIDS, or have doubts. The world looks at us at worship or prayer and sees us talking to an empty chair, imagines us carrying on a conversation all alone, asking and answering our own questions to make ourselves feel better, or to show how holy we are, or to try to help our neighbors be more lovable by remaking them in our own image. This isn’t a real conversation, they say – it makes you look foolish, and it might accomplish your purposes, but that actually doesn’t at all matter to us.
What’s worse is that sometimes we in the Church act like we’re talking to an empty chair ourselves. Church leaders look with woe at parishes that are dying if not dead, count and recount our shrinking national Average Sunday attendance figures and our parish and diocesan budgets, and then imagine that the chair must be empty, at least temporarily. We in the Church sometimes look at the throne of God and see nothing but an empty seat. We have a hard time imagining a conversation where God might be able to do something new, and so we start talking to ourselves – which churches to close, which positions to eliminate, which liturgies to cut or shorten or “update” and “make relevant.” We start responding to our own questions with answers based in fear and an overwhelming sense of scarcity. And it isn’t just church leaders who do this. How often do you and I worry that we’re talking to an empty chair? We pray and forget to listen, we conjure up our own answers because we tire of listening for God’s, or, worse, we look at that empty chair and don’t bother to pray at all. No wonder the world looks in on us and wonders if we’ve gone off our rocker.
This isn’t a new phenomenon, of course. The Israelites who followed Moses into the wilderness had gone off their rocker fairly regularly in their forty years of wandering. They moaned and complained for most of the journey, mostly moaning and complaining that their God had left them alone. When Moses went up the mountain, they looked around their campsite and saw only a big empty chair, so they happily set about filling it with a golden calf. They doubted and feared and rejected God; they imagined that no one was around to listen to them, and so they got to work answering their own questions in God’s absence.
But now, now, Moses says to them, you are here. You are standing on the edge of promise, looking into the land that flows with milk and honey, the land that God has always said he would give to you and to your children. And now that you are here, you are to keep God’s commandments and teach them to your children and to your children’s children. And why is this so important? Because keeping the commandments of God helps you to remember that God is near. God has given you all of these commandments not only because they will help you to live well in this holy land, but because they will remind you of God’s closeness every minute of every day, so that every time you say thank you, or bless this, or help me, you will be mindful of God right beside you. The commandments are given not as rules to follow in God’s absence, but as triggers to remind you of God’s presence. And when you live them out, you will be so steeped in God’s presence that when others see you, they will say, “What a fabulous bunch of people! I want to be just like them!” And they will say this because when they see you, they will see that there is, in fact, Someone sitting in the chair.
What a gift to give to this broken world. What a wonderful, timely, desperately necessary gift. To offer the world, by our own following of the commandments and by our own remembering of who gave them to us, a daily reminder that God is near. Isn’t that, ultimately, what the world most needs to remember? Don’t we want to help the world, and the Church, to see that the chair is full, that God sits on his holy throne, that the hem of his garment fills the temple? Isn’t that what we are sent to bear witness to – not that we’re Christians and we have it all together, or we’re Christians and we can tell you exactly how to live your life, or we’re Christians and so watch us be extra holy, but we’re Christians and our God is near. Our God reigns. When we pray, we pray to a God who is and who ever shall be. When we ask questions, God answers – maybe not when or how we imagine, but God is a God who responds. We speak and sing and cry and shout and moan and weep to a God who is very, very close to us, so close it’s like he’s sitting in the chair right next to you, so close it’s like he is sitting in your own heart.
And so here we stand, looking out over a new land, at the new program year at Saint Mark’s, at the new school year, at a new political year. So, now, you people, give heed to the great commandments that God has provided for you. Be doers of the word, care for the widows and orphans, love one another as Christ has loved you. Keep these commandments always and teach them to your children. Keep these commandments so that you will remember who you are and whose you are. Live in this holy way, so that when the world looks at you, they will see the truth that God is very near, that God reigns, that the chair is full.
Preached by Mother Erika Takacs
2 September 2012
Saint Mark's, Philadelphia