(This homily was delivered to the Bloomington Inclusive Mass, An Old Catholic Parish, in Bloomington, Indiana on November 2, 2014)
The original Star Trek series and its successor The Next Generation begins with the respective captains of the U.S.S. Enterprise saying, “Space, the final frontier . . .”
“Space” is one of those words that have multiple meanings: It can refer to the region beyond the earth’s atmosphere, the “final frontier” as the Star Trek captains explained. It can be the unlimited three-dimensional expanse in which all material objects are located, the distance between two or more objects, or just an empty or unoccupied area.
Space can be a particular place, such as a seat at a table or in a pew. “Sir, you are in my space” we might overhear someone say to an unsuspecting guest worshiper.
Some people just need their space. We have a special needs daughter on the autism spectrum who loves to inch up to people and get as close as she possibly can. We often have to tell her, “Megan, give them some space.”
Space can refer to someone who seems to have too much emptiness between the ears. So-and-so is spacey, spaced out, or a space cadet, we might say.
In the world of religion we have our own notion of space. Specifically, we have our sacred space—an altar or a chancel area or the sanctuary itself.
One of the best things we can do as religious institutions, however, is to give people their space. The church needs to be an institution of space and grace. The church needs to give people the space—the freedom—to grow spiritually, to relate to God, to work out their salvation, to fulfill their calling. The church needs to give people the space to succeed or fail, to evolve in their practice of love, to develop their own sense of right and wrong, and to make their own choices about theology and church doctrine.
At its best the church is a spacious garden of freedom, love, and grace; at its worst it is a suffocating swampland that cripples souls and dehydrates spirits. The church is suffocating when it places unnecessary burdens on people, which is a way of taking away space and grace. When the church places unnecessary burdens on people, the people perish.
In Matthew 23, Jesus tells his listeners not to follow the leaders of his place and time because they did just that: They overburdened people and, at the same time, were unwilling to carry the same burdens. Rather than nourishing people with the banquet of God, Jesus accused them of packaging what God has to offer “in bundles and rules,” loading them down like pack animals.
Even today, the greatest obstacle to a church of space and grace is the tendency of church leaders (of all denominations) to occupy their own space as if they were anointed royalty. They love name recognition, titles, honorary degrees, places of honor, and prominent positions. They love their space and their place while ignoring God’s grace.
At its best the church removes the ecclesiastical mirage of the space between the ordained and the laity, recognizing that the burdens to bring justice and peace to this chaotic world are shared burdens. We are all in the same fishbowl. We occupy the same space and we all stand equally at the center of our known universe.
The church needs to give you and me some space—space to breathe, space to grow, space to love—without being overly encumbered. But how do we go forward gracefully in this space that God wants us to have?
Thomas Paine once said, “Lead, follow, or get out of the way.” This makes for a great bumper sticker, although when I see it my first thought is always, “I’m obviously following this car, so why the lecture?” This slogan accurately describes three different types of people in the world: those who lead, those who follow, and those who just get out of the way. People don’t always fit just one of these types. We occupy these three roles at different times and for different reasons.
For example, I have been a leader in my life. I am a mother and grandmother and a former school teacher, all of which require leadership skills. I have led various groups, including the formation of an annual special needs art show in Kentucky.
I have also been a follower. I am someone’s daughter, I have been a student on several levels, and I was a nun for several years. You can’t be a nun if you don’t follow orders!
And then there are times when I have simply gotten out of the way, when something didn’t concern me, when something was none of my business, when I felt that my involvement in something was not good for me or others. These are the times when my gift to others is space and grace, nothing more, nothing less.
Most of us have had opportunities to lead, obligations to follow, and occasions to get out of the way. As someone studying for the priesthood in the Women’s Priest movement, I have had to decide which choice is best for me. The first choice I had to make was whether or not to get out of the way—to give it—the movement—some space! When I first heard about the movement, my natural inclination was to step aside and not be involved. I knew instinctively that if I didn’t get out of the way of this movement, a giant can of worms would open in my life and I would never get the opportunity to get out of the way again. I knew this would follow me my entire life, even more so than my few years in the convent as a younger woman. Once you get on the bandwagon of an alternative, inclusive Catholic community, there is no getting out of the way!
I chose not to get out of the way.
I chose to occupy the space known as the Roman Catholic Women’s Priest movement. That leaves only the other two choices: lead or follow. For now, thankfully, I am a follower more than a leader. I have a lot yet to learn. I have had to voluntarily place my trust in certain leaders in my movement, especially my bishop and my mentors.
My personal goal, however, is ultimately to be a leader in the Women’s Priest movement. This is what I am called to do. And yet, if and when I get there I will have to learn a very valuable lesson, one that all those in leadership in the church needs to learn and practice: to get out of the way—in an active way rather than a passive way—to facilitate and provide space and grace for those who are on the same journey, although maybe in a different place.
Getting out of the way and offering people space and grace may be the greatest gift we can bring to our faith communities. There is a graceful wisdom in knowing when to get out of the way, to allow others the space to grow, make decisions, and even make mistakes.I call on the church of Jesus Christ, in all its many manifestations, to employ this gift generously. Let us work to make the church a spacious garden of freedom, love, and grace