Monday, May 23, 2016
After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest. Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, “Peace to this house!” And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the labourer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.”
So I’m sitting on the floor of the Phoenix airport, near the gate, waiting to board. It’s crowded. The plane is delayed. Folks are grouchy. I’m wearing jeans and an old shirt so no one knows I’m an Episcopal priest. Incognito, I can be as cranky as I want without impeding the spread of the gospel. I’m focused on my laptop, in my zone. But for some reason I look up to see a guy in a clerical collar. He’s got a big nametag that says chaplain. And then I recognize him. He’s the Bishop of Arizona.
I’m not sure I’d ever met him in person, but he’s well known and well regarded in the wider church. We have some mutual friends. So I yelled to him, “Hey, Bishop.” I introduced myself, told him what I was doing in town (I was leading a Vestry retreat for one of the local parishes) and mentioned the folks we knew in common. Having done with all that, I asked what he was doing.
He told me that he asks each of his clergy to spend time serving as chaplain somewhere in the community, usually one day a month. The venues come in great variety. He said that if he asked his clergy to do that, he should do it too. So he clears the bishop’s calendar (loaded with meetings about meetings about the next meeting) and spends one day a month practicing a ministry of presence in the airline terminal of all places.
As I suspect you know all to well, it’s a place ripe for pastoral care. The harvest is plentiful (see gospel reading above.) The whole system breeds anxiety. In case you forget the anxiety, they insist on reminding you by having you remove your loafers which after all could be incendiary devices that bring down the aircraft. (Have a good day!). The boarding process has become a parable of a grace-starved world, as the human community is divided into an increasing number of categories conveying status. First class. Premium, Platinum. Gold. Silver, Wood. Hay. Stubble.
Often people prepare to board a plane at critical moments in their journeys. Saying goodbye. Reuniting. Responding to a crisis. Moving to a new home. Trying to make a meeting or meet a deadline. Often people are fatigued, worried about travel, fearful of flying. And meaning no offense to the folks who staff the desks, the airlines seem increasingly limited in the ability to provide humane service. Clearly, this place could use a chaplain.
There were many things I loved about what I learned that afternoon. The bishop was providing a good example of the mission of the church. It was not about hoping people would stumble through the red doors of the local parish. (Really, how likely is that these days?) It was not about expecting people to find their ways into our pews, picking up our special, occasionally precious rituals. It was about going out into the neighborhood, doing what Jesus asked his disciples to do (though I’m not certain what they would do in an airport), doing what Jesus himself did. In a world where it seems nothing is free, it came close to being an unconditional offering.
The airport was one place where a chaplain might really come in handy. I can think of others. A workplace. A dining room table. A hospital waiting room. The line for unemployment insurance. This kind of ministry in the world need not be limited to bishops. Each one of us can take the opportunity to think about where God calls us to be of service, to show love without expecting return, meeting the anxiety and fear of the world with a word of grace and kindness. Or maybe no word at all. Just presence.
Will this Monday in May provide that kind of opportunity? I’m guessing it will. Don’t miss it.
Rev. Jay Sidebotham
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