You are my blessing today. It was nice having you.
It was a beautiful day. 78 degrees, no humidity, the wind blowing ever so gently, you could feel it playing tag around your body, the hairs on your arms and legs moving this way and then that, and the summer sun bathing everything in warm, clear light. Everyone was out, it was one of those days when people would tell you to go outside, ‘its too nice to be working inside’. People were sitting on benches, walking leisurely with friends, laying on any small grassy areas to read a book, take in the sun, or watch the people going by. I was having a ball, it was my day off, I was in lower Manhattan, it was just a perfect day to be in the city.
I was so taken up with it all, watching all the world around me as I walked the streets, that I didn’t notice the sky suddenly darkening, the air growing a little colder, the world a little less bright. I was crossing the street, and suddenly the whole sky fell in, big single drops at first, and then multiples, and I was stuck all alone on a traffic island, with no shelter in sight. It was clear that I was about to take an unwanted shower, and then out of nowhere, I had company on the island.
From behind me, a huge man—tall and wide---appeared, with an umbrella. He was wearing a full-deal Batman costume, complete with the half-face mask. It was New York, so I wasn’t shocked so much by the costume as I was when he offered to shelter me beneath the umbrella as well. Was he a weirdo? A little reluctantly I moved over and under, thanking him. But as I mentioned, he was a big man—very wide—and even though it was a big umbrella, I had to get pretty close to stay out of the downpour all around us. He kept insisting, urging me to come in closer, and our personal space was pretty much tapped out, we were belly to belly, and even with that, water was dripping down both our backs.
Who gets that physically close with anyone, even friends or family, much less with a Batman stranger in New York City?
The rain came down so hard it was making a really loud beating noise on the umbrella, and we stood there, just the two of us, castaways on a traffic island. He had a biiiiggg belly, and I could feel him breathing in and out, and he yelled something I didn’t hear and then he laughed, and then I could feel his belly really move and so I thought I should at least fake a laugh.
It lasted maybe two minutes, and for most of it, we just stood wordless amidst the roar and the rain. I wanted to make a Batman joke, but couldn’t think of anything clever enough, and if there was something off about the guy, I didn’t want to give him an excuse to take me out. And then the rain started to subside, big drops became little drops, and the sounds of the world re-emerged—cars honking, birds singing, someone shouting from afar.
“Guess it’s over”, he said. We looked at each other squarely for the first time as I exited from under the umbrella. “Thanks for the shelter in the storm,” I said. “No problem. It was nice having you,” he responded. And we smiled at one another, nodded, and turned to go our separate ways.
The sun came out a few minutes later, and the world looked even better than before: washed down, refreshed, brighter and more colorful. I was at the Battery, and the grass looked so green, the trees glistening with water making ready to evaporate into thin air.
I kept thinking about my Batman friend. “It was nice having you,” he said. A little bit of hospitality on a traffic island in Manhattan goes a long way to making you feel like the world, is indeed, ultimately redeemable. I wondered what, if anything, the two of us shared outside the shelter of that umbrella. Perhaps he was a Muslim, or a Jew, maybe he was a Red Sox fan, or a Republican, or a communist. It didn’t matter at that moment. What mattered was that we were trying to stay out of the storm, and this stranger gave me shelter.
Hospitality was an essential virtue in biblical times. In the days before Holiday Inn, travelers were often dependent on the hospitality of strangers not only for comfortbut also for safety at night. When Elisha the prophet needs shelter for the night, a woman offers him a place to stay, and the holy man makes a miracle happen in gratitude…she gets a son when it looked like that was an impossibility. Jesus sends his friends out as apostles to do good things as He did—cure the sick, raise the dead, drive out demons---and He warns them that it may be rough. To truly follow Him, they will have to leave the comforts of their family and friends, and rely on the hospitality of strangers…and it may not always be offered. But when a stranger in need arrives upon their own doorstep or traffic island, the disciple must welcome him even he is not of the same tribe or same faith or living under the same flag.
Years ago as a young Jesuit I went on a walking pilgrimage in upstate New York. The object of the pilgrimage was to rely on the goodness of God through the kindness and generosity of strangers. I walked alone for seven days, without food or shelter, and the rule was that I could not to explain to anyone what I was doing. I had to go up to houses or restaurants or stores and ask for food and drink. And at night, I had to ask for permission to sleep on someone’s property or porch. It was quite an experience, and I had some unsettling moments.
Like the night I had a gun drawn on me by a guy who thought I was trespassing on his property after his wife had allowed me to sleep on a chaise lounge in the back yard. That was interesting.
And there were a few times when I got pretty hungry, having been refused food, even at the rectory of a Catholic Church. But there was amazing generosity and love by strangers that I met along the way, and I certainly came nowhere near to starving and I slept in a good many comfortable places.
One woman left me speechless. I had stopped for food, and she made me a delicious turkey sandwich. She asked few questions, but was so kindly and caring in her every gesture. When I got ready to leave, she came over to me, took my hand, and kissed it. “You are my blessing today,” she said. “And may God bless you.”
That kiss stayed with me all these years. I thought about it—and her---on the traffic island in Manhattan. “You are my blessing today… it was nice having you,” she said.
On bright, sunny crystal clear days when the weather is warm and the breezes caress your skin, it is easy to believe in the goodness and the love of God. It is easy to smile at perfect strangers, even in Manhattan. But when the storm comes up, and the rain falls in buckets, God still walks the earth seeking shelter for his love.
We are, each of us, blessings to one another.
Think about this family, all of us in this place. I don’t know how many of you know one another, but it doesn’t matter. We need to see that we are all standing together on an island, and we have an umbrella to share as the storms rage around us. That’s the meaning of church in the first place. Here we find God in one another, and here we give God to one another. Hospitality. And what God gives us here, we need to share with others out on that island out there. Spread the blessings around.
It is particularly important on this holiday that we remember that our nation was founded upon that premise. When the Statue of Liberty was dedicated in 1886, Emma Lazarus, daughter of Jewish and German immigrants, wrote a poem to raise money for the statue’s construction costs. It was called the New Colossus, and it forever marked the Lady in the Harbor as a welcoming mother, a symbol of hope to the outcasts and downtrodden of the world. Here is the poem that is permanently installed on the statue in the harbor:
"Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame, with conquering limbs astride from land to land; Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand a mighty woman with a torch, whose flame is the imprisoned lightning, and her name MOTHER OF EXILES. From her beacon-hand glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command the air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame. Give me your tired, your poor, the huddled masses yearning to be free. The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me: I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”
“You are my blessing today, “God says to us. “It was nice having you.”
"Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it… and receive a righteous reward."
You are my blessing today. All of you.