"Elway, Clayton, and Vince"

January 9, 2000 message
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland  USA
based upon  Matthew  2:1-12

This morning I want to tell the story of a mother and three wise men. "Oh, Mary, the mother of Jesus, and the three kings," you might be thinking. And in a way you are correct, for that old, old story is not just about people that lived long ago. It is a story for all time and all people. The characters in the tale I wish to tell, however, are not the ones in the story we’ve heard over and over again. Perhaps, however, there may be someone here for whom that story in Matthew’s gospel is brand new, never before heard. My prayer this day is that this Bible story may come alive in all of us, as if we were listening for the first time, in the telling of my tale.

Now, most of you have heard of how the Magi came to visit the infant Jesus, bringing with them their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, to honor this One to whom the heavens pointed. A star in the sky was all they had to go by. "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?" they asked along the way. "We have come to pay him homage." And so they made their way to Bethlehem, and in this little town they found the baby Jesus and his mother, Mary, and earthly father, Joseph. These wise men then gave what they had and left. Nothing more is said of them in the Bible.

In the story I have to tell, the wise men do not leave at the end. They remain, and by faith continue the story. Now, like most wise men I know, they would not give themselves that title. What is real wisdom, after all, but the courage to act upon what you believe, or the willingness to just stand when you can do nothing else? Neither would these three men consider themselves to be kings. But, then, St. Matthew never called the original magi "kings," either. Just men bearing gifts. That’s all. The other title bestowed upon these fellows in the Bible, about whom Matthew did not indicate how many, the "magi" - that is but another way of saying "wise men." Add a "c" on the end of the name "magi" and you get "magic," a word with similar meaning. I doubt, however, that the wise guys in my story this morning would consider what they have done and continue to do as somehow being "magic." No, they are simply men following a star, right where they are.

It all started with a mother. Callie Brown is her name. She lived, and continues to live at the corner of Rose and Ashland streets in Baltimore. Day by day this woman had a heavy heart, for night by night she watched the drug dealers control her little corner of the world. "What of the children growing up in my neighborhood," she wondered. Who would save them? The souls of the people around her were beginning to look like the crumbling row homes on her block, many of which were boarded up, empty, lifeless. What happens to children growing up in such a place?

All she could do was open up her home and let it become a protected space, like a womb, to all of these little ones of God. Her home became their home. Callie responded to God’s call with her own "Let it be," by becoming the "mother" of that neighborhood. Even so, it was still a dangerous place to be. Gun shots flying around in the night, needles laying about in the day. Drug dealers believing they owned this corner, even as they lived without hope of ever leaving it - alive, that is. Like dying King Herod in Bible times, they constantly watched their backs and defended their "turf."

What could mother Callie do? Well, I’ll tell you what she did, and it’s no less real than what Mary, the mother of Jesus did. Callie gathered two other women around her and together the prayed. They prayed and prayed and prayed and prayed. Now prayer is not doing ‘nothing,’ though in a way it is. When God’s people open themselves up to the Master of the Universe, what happens then is not their own doing, but in a way it is. To pray is to cease activity and just stand in the presence of God. Before the Almighty, the heart pours out what needs to be laid at the altar, sometimes with words, often without. Callie and her friends prayed, but as they prayed their folded hands continued to enfold the children about whom they were so concerned, little ones who came for love and support and guidance.

And God answered their prayer. As Callie puts it, "God sent three big angels." But me, a storyteller, I see them more as wise men who came and stayed. Actually they were there all along. They didn’t arrive from some distant place in the east. They were men from that very community. What were their names? Melchior? Gaspar? Balthasar? Not hardly! Actually, those weren’t the names of the original wise men, just the inventions of some imaginative person many centuries later. In Matthew’s story, the wise men had no names. But the wise men in my story today do: Elway Christopher, Clayton Guyton, and Vince Richardson.

Now, as I said, they didn’t come a long way to get to the corner of Rose and Ashland. It turned out to be their own little corner of the world. Like mother Callie, they were concerned about the children and the community. They considered these little ones to be their own responsibility, this block to be their own place to make a stand. And that’s just what they did, literally. Not gold, frankincense, or myrrh, but their own bodies they laid before the Lord on the corner of Rose and Ashland, every night. They didn’t climb on their camels and exit off into the night. They stayed. Sounds like real wisdom to me.

Who are these men? Well, Elway is a big man, literally, who has already raised his kids in that community. However, this big man suffers from muscular dystrophy, a disease which has put him on disability from his job with BG&E... Clayton is a prison guard. His parents live on the block and he takes care of them... Vince is a decorated Vietnam vet. His battlefield, though, is now a concrete jungle in east Baltimore, not southeast Asia.

Together, they have been standing on that corner for a while now, trying to take it back from the drug dealers. The star above them continues to shine out that corner of Rose and Ashland does not belong to those who would chew it up and spit it out, to those who would use it as a shooting gallery, to those who don’t care about the children playing in the street with no place else to go. That corner belongs to God and God’s people who live there. That’s the wisdom which Elway, Clayton, and Vince bring by standing where these two streets meet.

One wonders what might have happened had those Biblical magi stayed in Bethlehem. Would King Herod have dared to send his soldiers to kill all the children two years and under in that city, long ago, if the wise men had remained? Of course, that day was as dangerous as our own. Scripture says the magi were warned in a dream to leave "by another road." It also says Joseph was likewise told by an angel in a dream to take his family and flee to Egypt. Sometimes, that’s just how it happens. Sometimes, children are safer in other homes, in other places - and that’s how God works. Still, we mourn the loss, the murder of those innocent children by Herod long ago, as well as the victimization of children in our own day and age.

Beyond grief, some hear the call of God, and stand on their own corner of the world and say, "No more!" Persons like Elway Christopher, Clayton Guyton, and Vince Richardson. Persons who try to make a difference, even in a small way. Those wise men are making a difference. Slowly but surely they are taking back the corner of Rose and Ashland, but it is a long term process. Perhaps they have been the spark to get an entire city concerned enough to do something, to stand in the gap and say, "enough is enough!"

The new mayor, in order to be elected, had to put in his time, literally, one night at Rose and Ashland during the election campaign. And Elway, Clayton, and Vince will not let him forget now that he’s in office. Just as the biblical wise men troubled King Herod by their presence, so these modern day Magi will be a thorn in the side of any ruler, elected by votes or by drugs. There are other corners, other neighborhoods, other wise men and women who need to respond to the call.

On a call-in radio program last month, I heard this mother Callie and those wise men tell their story (Marc Steiner Show, WJHU, on RealPlayer - 12/13/99). It was shortly after five women were brutally and senselessly killed in a home in northeast Baltimore, not all that long after a big protest over police brutality in the shooting of a black man in the process of being arrested. Elway noted the concern of all sorts of ministers who stood up to the police over the killing of that man. Where was the outrage of the ministers, he wondered, over the killing of those women. On what corner were those ministers standing up to the drug dealers?

Harsh words, indeed, which could only be spoken by the person who said them. Do the rest of us, who have not stood up like he, have a right to say it like that? Few of us here know what it’s like to be a black person in a white man’s world. Likewise, few of us face what Elway Christopher does in his neighborhood. I appreciate what he has to say, though, when he speaks of the need now, in this day, for our concern for civil rights to expand into a deeper concern for civil life. Those are wise words from a wise man. Wise men still live. Wise women still live.

Well, that’s the story, my friends - a tale about real people following a star which sheds light upon the corner in which they live. The Savior of the world has been born, and he’s there at the corner of where Callie, Elway, Clayton, and Vince live, as surely as he’s on the corner where you live. Now, we’re not necessarily called to travel to the corner of Rose and Ashland and stand with those wise men and that wise woman, though I’d like to meet them face to face some day and shake their hands. But, you know, there are other corners, and some right nearby. It may not be at all the same kind of situation at all, but the need for men and women to pray and pray and pray and pray continues. The need for safe places for God’s children to grow goes on. The need to stand up and be counted still exists. The question is, for all of us, do we hear the call, do we see the star - right where we are?

Of course, we’re not all at the same point in life, just like we each reside in our own homes and neighborhoods. Some of us are in need of simply coming to Jesus as we are, laying ourselves before him, and receiving (for the first time, or with a renewed heart) this One who came to save that corner of Rose and Ashland, as well as every corner, every valley, every home, every person. Others of us may be hearing the challenge that Elway, Clayton, and Vince heard, the call that Melchior, Gaspar and Balthasar (or whatever their names were) heard. The details are always as different as the locations - where and how and to what each of us is directed. What is the corner to which God is nudging you? Only you can decide and respond.

Just now we want to give you the opportunity, whatever your need - to simply receive Jesus or to further stand with him in some corner of your and his world, which may or may not be known to you at this time. If you are sensing the tug of God’s Holy Spirit upon your life right now, I invite you to come forward as we sing our final hymn. We can pray together, knowing that in Christ, wise men and women still live, and their names may just be our own.

Gracious, truthful, silent, mighty, Holy Spirit, dwell with me, with us. Let it be so. Amen!

2000Peter L. Haynes

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