Ascension Day: Making Space
By: The Rev. Chana Tetzlaff
Although I began serving my parish less than a year ago, it is evident to me that we have a space issue. Not because we’re starting to outgrow our building and Sunday morning worship feels a little cramped. Not because there are calendar conflicts between groups wanting to reserve use of our flexible space. No, the space issue that my congregation finds most challenging is in making room for those people who don’t conform to the norm of “how we’ve always done it.”
How does this issue manifest in the parish? Mostly through conversations about what it means to include noisy, boisterous children who wander around the sanctuary and distract us from contemplative worship. Or in conversations about whether or not to have designated alcohol-free fellowship events because some young families have requested family-friendly activities (“but no one will come!”). Or why it was courteous during the interfaith Lenten series we hosted, not to pray specifically “in Jesus name.” I’ll admit, most of these conversations have been induced by me and I’ve been pushing the point about “radical hospitality,” otherwise known as “making space for the other.” But it didn’t dawn on me until I read David Cunningham’s (Professor of Religion at Hope College in Holland, Michigan) commentary on Ascension Day as to why this has been such an urgent and imperative point for me.
David observes that the Ascension is not really about the physical act of Jesus’s return to the Father but that the Ascension is about Jesus “making space so the mission of the church can begin.” One simple sentence opened my mind to understand an elemental belief I hold about God:
Making space is essential to God’s nature.
David goes on to cite Rowan Williams’ writings on the Trinity. He notes that “each of the three divine ‘persons’ seeks not to gain pride of place or to assert hierarchical dominion over the others, but to give place to the others, so that they too can most fully be what they are. As such, the divine Trinity models for us the true nature of community, in which self-assertion and hegemony give way to a polyphonic chorus of mutual participation and difference.”
Scripture attests to this. From Genesis to Revelation, scripture is full of ways that God makes space creatively and purposefully, continually reminding us “See! I am doing a new thing. Do you not perceive it?”
In the nascent act of creation itself, God opens up the void and implants it with an interdependent community – vegetation, animals, oceans and fishes, birds, and humans who are commissioned to “rule and serve all [God’s] creatures.” From nothing comes life. God makes space for others to participate in God’s dance and to be fully what they are.
In the Exodus, when the Hebrew people find their path barred by the Red Sea as they flee from Pharaoh’s armies, God makes space. God divides the waters so that the people might pass through. From chaos and uncertainty, a new community emerges—the Hebrew people enter into covenant relationship, place trust in the God who liberates.
In the time of Exile, as God allows God’s people to be dispersed throughout foreign empires and Jerusalem falls to rubble and ruin, God makes space for transformation. God inspires prophets to exhort the people to return to God’s ways, and to remind them that God has not forgotten them though the community must learn to sing God’s praises even in a foreign land.
As the heavy hand of the Roman Empire slowly crushes the spirit of God’s people, the Virgin Mary consents to God’s request to use her life and her body to make space for God to incarnate. Definitely a new thing, and a promise of new life.
Christ persistently makes space around his own table, including those deemed beyond the pale of decent society (sinners and tax collectors) as well as Pharisees. He makes space in his busy schedule of preaching and teaching to touch the untouchables, to heal lepers and hemorrhaging women and to bring the dead back to life. He invites despised “outsiders” into relationship with him, Samaritans and Roman centurions and criminals. A community forms of people who otherwise might have nothing to do with each other.
God makes space in the empty tomb. Resurrection is unquestionably a new thing. The empty tomb becomes for us a sign of God’s promises: new life, reconciliation, and the shalom of God’s kingdom being ushered in.
Christ’s Ascension makes space for Pentecost; for the arrival of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit makes possible the expansion of Christ’s mission from local to global. The Spirit continues to remake and renew God’s church, perpetually calling us into the reality of John’s vision of God’s kingdom: the gates of the new Jerusalem eternally flung open, overflowing with the river of life and shaded by the tree of life which produces healing for all the nations. From beginning to end, God gives place in community – mutual participation in all our God-created difference.
So why is making space and giving place so hard for us to do?
So often our culture teaches us a false dichotomy, that in order for someone else to be fully who they are means that I have to miss out. In a conflict, there are only winners or losers; for someone else to win, I have to lose. Or “there’s only so much pie to go around,” so if someone else gets a bigger slice then my slice is necessarily smaller. By all our “normal” cultural standards, this concept of giving place or making space goes against our rugged individualism. But when we recall that God doesn’t play by our rules, that God’s love is not scarce in supply and thus something to be hoarded, when we revel in being most fully what God has created us to be then we are free to invite others to discover fully who God has created them to be.
Making space is not easy work, particularly when we have grounded ourselves in particular religious, spiritual, and emotional spaces. God asks us to let go of our self-centeredness, our worldly illusions of stature, our need for control, our fear of change. Participation in that polyphonic chorus often looks and feels more like a rock tumbler. We tumble against each other until all our rough edges are smoothed out… that’s true community. Perhaps our exasperation with that child’s noisy shoes might give way to joy when we realize that she is a sign of new life in our midst. Perhaps if we make more of an effort to reach out to people who feel like outsiders, they might start showing up to more communal gatherings. Perhaps we can still passionately proclaim Christ through our ministry to others, modeling repentance and forgiveness of sins, even as we respect other faith traditions. Perhaps we can do mission not to the other but with the other.
What new thing may God be calling you and your people to become aware of? In what ways does God call you into deeper participation with God and with each other? What space must be made in order for your people to grow and your mission to be met?
For God is always doing a new thing. Do you not perceive it?
The Rev. Chana Tetzlaff is Priest-in-Charge of Holy Cross Episcopal Church in Wilmington, North Carolina. Her greatest joy as a priest is walking with people who seek and follow Christ in deep relationship with each other. Chana believes that God’s grace is extended to all, and that nothing is impossible when we truly seek and attend to God’s call to us! In her spare time, Chana can be found dancing Lindy Hop and teaching basic swing, enjoying conversation and caffeine at a coffee house, or exploring local attractions and foodie hangouts. Chana, her husband, TJ, and their two dogs, Molly and Momo, live in Wilmington.
 I am grateful to The Rev. Chance Perdue for the insightful examples in his eloquent sermon preached at the Church of the Redeemer, Nashville, TN that prompted my thinking about the scripture portion of this essay. Check it out at: http://redeemernashville.libsyn.com/the-god-who-makes-space