Instead of enjoying the pampering, I am embarrassed. A few days before flying home on Saturday from our General Conference in Tampa I received an email saying that I had been upgraded to a first class seat on the Tampa-Detroit leg. Furthermore, I was going to be served lunch.
Many years ago our three young children were flying home alone from visiting grandparents in Florida and had been put into first class. They regaled us with stories of the fine food and royal treatment they received and said, “You ought to travel first class sometime!” That time came 2 days ago. Because I almost always fly Delta out of Grand Rapids, I have accumulated enough miles over the last few years to be a Silver Medallion member. All that really means is that if there are empty seats in first class I might be upgraded.
I was upgraded from Detroit to Grand Rapids earlier this year, but the benefits are few on a 25 minute flight. This time is different, but not in the way I expect. As I wait to board in Tampa along with 4 colleagues from the Detroit Conference, John Boley from West Michigan, a clergy friend from Minnesota, and a United Methodist bishop from another conference, I suddenly become extremely uncomfortable.
My seat is on the aisle in the very front row, and my friends are going to march right past me into coach. To be fair, I’ve spent the last 11 days sitting in the very back row of General Conference, so maybe when Jesus said that the last will be first, he was right. Being first sure doesn’t feel right, though.
I’m ready with my excuses as they file by me to the back, “I didn’t pay for first class. I didn’t ask to be here. I’m only here because I have silver medallion status.” Ah, there’s that pesky word status again. My colleagues are gracious, and one even says, “You’ve earned it by all those miles you fly for the church.” I attempt a smile as I drink the bottled water that was waiting at my seat.
The lunch is what does me in. A flight attendant places a tray in front of me with a cloth placemat, and I am given a warm towel to wash my hands. I am invited to choose between a roast beef sandwich and a chicken salad. My jaw drops when the tray arrives with an elegant salad, mixed fruit, gourmet tortilla strips, a Dancing Bear Baking Company Chocolate Chunk Brownie, and individual ceramic salt and pepper shakers. I can get used to this, I say to myself, as my friends in the back munch on miniscule packs of peanuts, pretzels, or cookies.
After using a private first class restroom, I stretch out my legs, read a magazine, and say, “No, thank you,” 4 more times to the flight attendant who offers me whatever I want. No wonder our kids never forgot their one experience in first class. My food, however, is not digesting well, and my spirit is discomfited.
Sitting in first class is antithetical to my values. Why should I enjoy privileges that others don’t have? If I had been sitting on a plane with all strangers, would I be feeling as embarrassed as I am in front of my friends, who put a human face on exclusion? Sadly, the answer is no. It’s dangerous to sit in the front row because I don’t have to look back, which renders everyone else behind me invisible.
That’s exactly the challenge we face in the church. In light of my recent experience at General Conference, I wonder. Whom are we continuing to exclude from the front row? Did the U.S. delegates preserve our front row status by focusing on our own issues ad nauseam? Did the unofficial makers of the Plan UMC that was declared unconstitutional compromise their restructuring proposal by excluding some of our constituencies? Are we now going to relegate to the “coach seats” clergy who pastor part-time when we vote not to require our conferences to include them in the pension program? Did we exclude international delegates when we spoke so fast that interpreters could not keep up? Did we parade our front row status when we verged on the unethical in attempting to influence others to vote in a certain way? Would we have been sending our retired bishops out to pasture had the approved petition to eliminate their presence from the Council of Bishops not been lost because we ran out of time?
And what about our local churches? Do we exclude others who don’t look, talk, act, think, dress, smell, or love like we do so that we don’t have to face the reality of our own prejudice? Do we exclude people when we remain inside our doors and send a clear message, “If you gather the courage to come through our doors, we may welcome you, but we’re certainly not going to go looking for you.” Do we exclude people when our worship services do not represent gender, racial/ethnic, age, socio-economic, and cultural diversity?
Do we exclude people when we who are privileged to sit in the front row of this world not only refuse to mingle with those in the back, but won’t even look back? Do we exclude people when we want to be in ministry for the poor rather than as a presence with the poor?
Do we exclude people when we label them as sinners without considering our own sin?
It’s easy to justify our own status and the exclusion of others when they are strangers. When we choose to come face to face with those sitting in coach, however, we come face to face with a Jesus who said through the owner of the vineyard, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” (Matthew 20:15)
Oops. Gotta go. The flight attendant asks one more time if I want a drink, and I have to stow away my computer. I need to be ready because I’m going to be the first one out. Don’t want to delay anyone else’s connecting flights. After all, I’m in the front row, and I haven’t dared to look into the faces of those in the back. I did not share my salad and especially my brownie. Nor did I offer to exchange seats with someone in the back row. I enjoyed my privilege – until God messed with my heart in the front row. Funny how those things happen.