|| "Who do you say
that I am?" Jesus asked. Simon Peter answered, "You
are the Messiah, the Son of the living God." And Jesus
answered, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! ... You are
Peter (petros), and on this rock (petra)
I will build my church..." Jesus then began to speak of
the rough road ahead. And Peter took him aside and rebuked him... "Get
behind me, Satan!" Jesus replied. "You are a stumbling
May these words of this Peter be like a rock,
"Elway, Clayton, and Vince" (revisited)
Message preached January 2,
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA
based upon Matthew 2:1-12
(listen to this on an .mp3 audiofile)
Order of Worship
for updates to this "revisit," see below.
This morning I want to tell, once again, 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 again, however, are not the ones in the story we’ve heard many times over. 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 re-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 wish to re-tell, however, 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 have given 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.” 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 were simply men following a star, right where they were.
It all started with a mother. Callie Brown was her name. When I first heard and told this tale eleven years ago, she lived at the corner of Rose and Ashland streets in Baltimore. Perhaps she still does, I don’t know. Day by day this woman had a heavy heart back then, 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 they 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 put 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 the story I’m re-telling 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 was a big man, literally, who had already raised his kids in that community. However, this big man suffered from muscular dystrophy, a disease which has put him on disability from his job with BG&E. Scanning the Internet for an update eleven years later, I have learned his name is Elroy, not Elway, and in 2010 he received a Volunteer Service award from the Governor. He is affectionately know as “Big Chris”... Clayton was a prison guard. His parents lived on the block and he took care of them. I learned a lot more about him, which I will later share... Vince was a decorated Vietnam vet. His battlefield, though, is now a concrete jungle in east Baltimore, not southeast Asia.
Together, Elroy, Clayton, and Vince stood on that corner for a long time, trying to take it back from the drug dealers. The star shining above them on the corner of Rose and Ashland declared the followed message – this neighborhood 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. Instead, the star proclaims - this corner belongs to God and God’s people who live there. That’s the wisdom which Elroy, Clayton, and Vince brought by standing where these two streets meet.
One wonders what might have happened had those Biblical magi stayed in Bethlehem long ago. Would King Herod have dared to send his soldiers to kill all the children two years and under in that city if those 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 everywhere 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 Elroy Christopher, Clayton Guyton, and Vince Richardson. They are persons who try to make a difference, even in a small way. Those wise men did make a difference. Slowly but surely they took back the corner of Rose and Ashland. In fact, they helped to start the Rose Street Community Center. It wasn’t easy. Late one night it was torched and burnt to the ground by drug dealers trying to intimidate them out of business. From the ashes, however, arose a new center two doors down, which continues to this day.
In fact, Clayton Guyton is still there. They call him “Mr. C.” In a recent article, he says this of the mission that a mother’s prayer brought into existence: “We’re a family trying to help each one to reach their goal.” He is a father figure for those who visit or sleep at the six-bed shelter, the only shelter for youth in Baltimore. One goal he emphasizes is the importance of personal health because he says obesity is a major epidemic for today’s children. He reminds them of their mandatory evening walk. Everyone must exercise, he says, and eat healthy. Nutritious food is one of their biggest problems. Another goal is the importance of getting an education. Mr. C holds “homework club” for homeless students to keep up with their studies or challenge those who are not enrolled, but seek to learn. “It’s easier to make up a problem, it’s harder to solve it,” he says.
(the above paragraph extensively quotes “Children struggle through homelessness”)
It was on a call-in radio program eleven years ago that I first heard that mother Callie and those three wise men tell their story (Marc Steiner Show, WJHU, 12/22/99). 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. Elroy 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 have been spoken by the person who uttered 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 have faced what Elroy Christopher has faced in his neighborhood. I furthered appreciated what he then had to say, when he spoke of the need now, in this day, for our concern for civil rights to expand into a deeper concern for civil life. Those were and are wise words from a wise man. You see, wise men still live. Wise women still live.
Well, that’s the story, my friends - a repeated and updated tale about real people following a star which sheds light upon the corner in which they lived. The Savior of the world has been born, and he’s there at the corner of where Callie, Elroy, Clayton, and Vince lived (and still 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 where they stood, and continue to stand. But, you know, there are other corners, some of which are nearby. It may not be at all the same kind of situation, 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 for all of us is this - do we hear the need, do we see the star - right where we are?
You don’t need to be an oriental king to respond to that star. You don’t literally need to bring gold, frankincense, or myrrh to make your way to the Bethlehem which may in fact be right outside your own door. You just need to be open to the light of Christ in your life, and willing to let it shine. That, my friends, is what the season of Epiphany teaches us. The star still shines, and the light is for everyone. Take it and shine right where you are. After all, in Christ, wise men and women still live, and their names may just be our own.
"To the Best of Our Ability: The Rose St. Community"
"Petra Foundation Fellow 2003"
"Best Neighborhood Activists"
a parishioner who is a retired city cop remembered after this message was preached
that the drug dealers at the corner of Rose and Ashland were more afraid of Callie Brown
than they were of the police.
several months later, I
received an email from Elroy Christopher:
"It is so good to know that what you do for God touches so many others. My Pastor P.M. Smith, of Huber Memorial Church, says that it’s all about relationship or it ain’t about nothing. That is - our relationship with God makes all the difference with our relationships with others - a blessing. I am humble of your sermon and continue working for the Lord...
He later added:
"I was just googling my name and ran across your sermon. I always like to hear positive stories of people, especially the young. It is a blessing to listen to this sermon. Sometimes servants, as we are, need to appreciate and have gratitude from others. Although it is not required for us to get any gratitude for being obedient to God, it helps give us strength to continue. Today a neighbor, whom I have not sat down to talk to me in over 30 years, called and said they would write me in as a mayoral candidate. I accepted and now must register as a candidate. Not to say that I will win, because I have no Ideas of how to run a city. My hope is that it may encourage someone - a younger person to try for their dreams. Continue to pray for our youth, seniors, city and country."
Elroy is still at it. See his Covenant Community Association.
revised from a sermon preached on January 9, 2000
(para traducir a español, presione la bandera de España)
©2000, 2011 Peter
(you are welcome to borrow and, where / as appropriate, note the source - myself or those from whom I have knowingly borrowed.)
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