by Rev. Peter Friedrichs
At the Passover Seder, tradition dictates that there should be an empty chair, or an empty wine glass, set aside for the prophet Elijah. The Jewish tradition of the empty chair has been adopted and expanded beyond just the Passover Seder. An empty chair is kept on all sorts of occasions. For some, the empty chair represents an invitation for God, or the Holy, to join us at the table. For others, the empty chair reminds us of who is missing from the event. For example, when the Nobel Peace Prize was given out in 2010, the recipient, Liu Xiaobo, was unable to attend because he was in prison in China for speaking out for freedom. So, in his place the Nobel Committee placed an empty chair on the stage. The empty chair says that not everyone is at the table who should be. It reminds us of who’s missing. Of the fact that we’re not quite complete without everyone. That we haven’t yet become the beloved community that we seek.
I’m wondering about the idea of the empty chair, and asking the question: “Who’s missing from our table?”. In just a few days, we will be gathered ‘round the Thanksgiving table, piled high with all kinds of scrumptious food. We’ll be stuffing ourselves like we stuff the proverbial turkey. We’ll be surrounded by family and friends and, I hope it’ll be a wonderful celebration for everyone. But who’s missing? You might be missing a friend who couldn’t make it this year. Or someone who has moved away. And of course we’ll remember all those whom we’ve lost who won’t be at our table this year, or ever again. But this question is bigger than that. It’s not about who’s missing from our particular tables. It’s about who’s missing from the larger table that we set.
I think about immigrant families in our country, who want nothing more than a safe home to live in and a future for their children. I think about all those who work at minimum wage jobs, often more than one, struggling to put food on their own table. I think about those who struggle with mental illness, who are so stigmatized by our society. I think about the drop-outs and the drug addicts, the teen mothers and the thousands, mostly young black men, in prisons. I think about the people we hold at the margins, whom we don’t let near the table because they aren’t like us. How we keep them away from the table, telling them there’s no room for them. All of these, all of them, deserve a place at the table. I ask you, who is it that we need to invite to the table, to take that empty chair and fill it, to make our community complete? To whom will we extend that grace?
It’s risky to try and fill that empty seat. But that’s who we are as Unitarian Universalists. We notice who’s not at the table and we go out and get them. We are a people of invitation. We are people who aren’t afraid. We are a people who stand up and say, “Wait a minute! Someone’s missing! We need them here!” and we go out and find them, and bring them back, and welcome them in. We are a people who say that we are prepared to risk change and to risk being changed, who seek to transform and aren’t afraid to be transformed by those who show up at our table. That’s who we are.
Amidst all the abundance that we share in this season of gratitude and thanksgiving, let us make room and call everyone to our table.