Bombs and Blessings

As I was preparing to leave work on Friday afternoon, a warning siren followed by an unsettling announcement came over the City Hall complex PA system. I don’t now recall the exact wording, but it was something like “A credible threat has been received at City Hall. The police are sweeping the building. No evacuation is necessary at this time.” A few seconds later, the announcement was repeated.

At first my colleague and I weren’t sure what to make of this.  In preparation for hosting the DNC next year, Milwaukee’s Emergency Preparedness team was already hard at work, strategizing responses to any of a host of possible threats to people’s safety during the convention. Just last week we’d had an emergency evacuation drill which exposed mechanical flaws in the City Hall complex’s warning system, including a malfunction of the PA system, and we’d been told to expect another drill in the near future. But this certainly hadn’t sounded like a drill.

I left the building to begin my walk home.  On the way, my watch vibrated, and I saw a breaking news headline flash on the screen that a bomb threat had been received at City Hall.  Wow. So the announcement was the real deal. It was a little sobering to think that had there been a real bomb, you might have been listening to a different preacher this morning. As a City hall colleague posted, “It was a great day at work, until the bomb sniffing dog walked past.”

Since there wasn’t actually a bomb, none of us was ever really in any danger. But no one likes to be made to feel vulnerable or afraid.

Fear is formidable weapon, and when employed by those in power, can persuade otherwise rational people to condone inhumane things, or at least look the other way. Fear drives a wedge between us and the rest of the world that is not like us, and tells us we are justified in doing so. 

We’ve heard repeatedly that the great tide of illegal immigrants from the southern Americas will flood the country with criminals, take jobs away from deserving citizens, overwhelm our economy and put our own women and children in danger. And that locking up their children is an effective deterrent. That makes it acceptable – not ideal, but necessary for the sake of national security.  

Fear robs us of the ability to think. It keeps us from asking the probing questions that might lead us to better, more humane and sustainable solutions. There are serious problems with our country’s immigration system and border security. But I am convinced that we, as Christians, cannot condone any solution that does not, as we promise in our Baptismal Covenant, “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.” 

The portion of the letter to the Hebrews that we heard this morning is clear about how the Christian community should treat those who are not part of their own circle. “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.” A bit further on, it says, “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.” 

To some people, showing hospitality may be second nature, but for someone like me who tends to be a bit more on the introverted and reserved side of the spectrum, I felt I needed a bit more to go on, and so I turned to one of the most famous Christian writings about hospitality: The Rule of Benedict, and specifically, the Rule as interpreted by Sister Joan Chittister.  Benedict of Nursia was born in 480, so the Rule he composed for his religious community is about 1500 years old, but it is still fresh and applicable to our own time.

In describing the Rule, Chittister says that “it isn’t so much what we do for those curious others in our lives, the strange, the needy, the unscrubbed, as it is the way we do it. We can give people charity, or we can give them attention. We can give them the necessities of life, or we can give them its joys. Benedictine hospitality is the gift of one human being to another. […] For the Benedictine heart the reception of the poor is an essential part of going to God. We cannot be too busy, too professional, too removed from the world of the poor to receive the poor and sustain the poor. Anything else, Benedict warns in a society that is by nature class structured, is not hospitality.”

“It is an important distinction in a culture in which strangers are ignored and self-sufficiency is considered a sign of virtue and poverty is a synonym for failure. Hospitality for us may as much involve a change of attitudes and perspectives as it does a handout. To practice hospitality in our world, it may be necessary to evaluate all the laws and all the promotions and all the invitation lists of corporate and political society from the point of view of the people who never make the lists. Then hospitality may demand that we work to change things.”

I am eternally grateful for the people who can, effortlessly, it seems, whip up a meal to bring to someone who is sick, or who is exhausted from caring for an aging parent, or who has gone too many days in a row without sleep because of a colicky baby.  To me it is akin to magic. (I have the same sort of wondrous admiration for those who put together the Christ Church Feasts. Mind boggling!)

Given that I’m not a domestic goddess, or even a minor household cherub, what other ways is it possible to show hospitality that I can get my head around?  How else does God call us into hospitality? Making time to listen to another person can be as nourishing to the soul as a loaf of freshly baked bread is to the body. Reading to someone whose eyes no longer work well enough can bring great joy. Driving someone to a doctor’s appointment. Collecting funny photos or quotes to give someone else a good laugh. Writing a short note to show someone they’re not forgotten.  It can be making room in our minds and hearts to listen to someone whose views on a subject are the complete opposite of ours, without belittling or condemning them. Hospitality can also be shown in allowing someone else to serve you.

Hospitality stands in quiet opposition to fear. It makes room, while fear pushes away. It chooses to confer the same human value on the mother separated from her child at the border as it does the person who separated them.  

Hospitality is the sharing of the banquet of Christ with the world.  So when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. Make room for those who are lost, and broken, angry and sad. Pray for those who frighten you – even those who threaten to blow you up on a Friday afternoon.  And I promise you that you will be blessed.

Rev. Deacon Nancy Hills