On a Sunday, two weeks before Christmas, some 200 people gathered under the Jefferson Street Bridge for a memorial service. They gathered to read the names of 36 homeless men and women who had died that year, some of them right there under the bridge. Charlie Strobel was there, founder of Room in the Inn and tireless ambassador of love and justice for the poor. He said he hoped a public memorial would raise awareness about our city’s growing homeless population.
The Metro Homeless Commission keeps track of the numbers for us, and they tell us there are currently about 4,000 men, women, and children living in shelters and on Nashville streets.
“Public awareness is important to create public policy,” Charlie told the newspaper. “We need public policy that creates affordable housing and eliminates this awful condition of people living on the streets like the animals.”
James Fulmer was found dead early Thursday morning under the covered entrance of a church in East Nashville. He was 50 years old. Temperatures that night had dipped into the mid 20’s, and police say he most likely died from hypothermia. The man who notified police of his death was also homeless and had just met him the night before. “He had no blanket, no nothing,” he said. “I went (…) to the Family Dollar store to buy a blanket to cover him up with, cause that’s what the good Lord says to do, you know.”
Some of us will be quick to jump into Let’s-Fix-This-Mode: “We must do something about this; a death like this is a scandal.” Yes it is, and yes we must, but before we let this sad death challenge us to reconsider our attitudes and actions, the beauty and love in this story is waiting to be recognized: Wilford went to the Family Dollar store to buy a blanket for James, something to cover him up with. One homeless neighbor responded to another homeless neighbor’s need with compassion. It’s what the good Lord says to do. It’s how the kingdom of the good Lord is extended.
“I have no gift to bring, pa-rum-pum-pum-pum,” we like to sing with the little drummer boy. “I have no gift to bring that’s fit to give the king,” we sing with him; until we ask, “Shall I play for you?” We can all play the tune of love and compassion that extends the good Lord’s kingdom; and we want to play it with all our heart, and mind, and strength. Here at Vine Street, we will be hosting Room in the Inn again for a week in February, and I am grateful for each of you who participates in this ministry. I am grateful for every gesture and every public policy initiative that extends the good Lord’s kingdom.
Why do we talk about a kingdom and not just about better public policy? In the days of King Solomon, Jerusalem was the capital of a great kingdom. Solomon’s fame had spread far and wide, even to the coasts of Africa. The Queen of Sheba came to Jerusalem with caravans of camels bearing spices, gold, and precious stones. Traders and merchants, all the kings of Arabia and the governors of the land brought their gifts to Solomon, the great king who excelled all the kings of the earth in riches and in wisdom.
Generation after generation, Israel’s children sat in the laps of their grandparents, begging them to tell them stories about Solomon, the wise king. And Grandpa and Grandma loved telling them the old stories and making up new ones, painting a golden past of peace and prosperity. They told stories with extra color because for hundreds of years the kings of the nations had come to Jerusalem not to bring treasure, but to take it away.
And then came the day, when the king of Babylon and his armies destroyed the city, and took its people into exile. Nothing left to take away. After two generations, the first groups of Israelites returned from exile in Babylon, and things didn’t look good at all. The once proud nation was now but a tiny colony on the fringe of yet another empire, this time Persia, and many of its people still lived far away by the rivers of Babylon. Most buildings were destroyed, the economy was in a shambles, the temple lay in ruins, and the community was divided. Who would repair the city walls? Who would rebuild the temple? And, more importantly, who would pay for it?
The initial excitement about the possibilities of a new beginning soon wore off, and the old folks were tired of telling stories. Then Isaiah’s words pierced the gloom:
Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. … the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you. A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; … they shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord (Isaiah 60:1-6).
No stories of a golden past from this prophet! Isaiah sang of God’s glory transforming the world.
Now there are two quite distinct ways of hearing Isaiah’s lines. In one, the tables are finally starting to turn: Israel has been small, weak, and poor for so long, but now, now they would be great, they would be strong, they would be rich – they would be greater, stronger and richer than all the other nations. Now their city would be the hub of the global economy; sky-high bank towers and business headquarters would line the streets of downtown, and the world would play by Jerusalem’s rules.
The other way to hear the prophet’s words follows the same script, but with a different voice and a different hope: Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. Let your life reflect this glory; shine with hope, and the nations will be drawn to your light; the whole world will gather to be part of God’s future.
It matters greatly how we envision a reign of peace and prosperity. Matthew tells us that in the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem. We don’t know much about them, these wise ones from the East, but they have always fascinated us, these travelers from far away lands, bearing exotic gifts. And because we know almost nothing about them, we let our imagination go to work.
Matthew gives us an almost blank canvas, and we gladly fill it with rich, colorful detail. First we look at the map, and we list all the lands in the East – Arabia, Babylon, Persia, India, and China – from how far East did they come, these wise ones? Then we look at the gifts they bring – gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Not exactly what you and I would bring to a baby shower, but didn’t Isaiah sing about gold and frankincense, and didn’t he sing about kings? In our imagination the wise men now certainly were kings, royal visitors bearing royal gifts, and because they came with three gifts, we determine that there must have been three of them. Now we’re singing We Three Kings From Orient are, but our hunger for detail isn’t satisfied yet. Did they walk all the way? Certainly not, and already we see caravans of camels, not just three or four, but the multitude of camels from Midian and Ephah of Isaiah’s proclamation (Isaiah 60:6).
With passing centuries, the stories of the wise men from the East became ever more colorful and elaborate – and all because of the child whose star they had observed and followed. This child arouses in us a holy extravagance of story, image, song, and gift. The nations are coming to the light that has dawned, and the travelers from the East represent all of them – Asia, Africa, Europe, Australia, and the Americas: the whole world is gathering to be part of God’s future. Matthew gives us but a hint, and we let our imagination run with it because we know in our hearts that this child of Bethlehem is the good Lord, born to bring us all together in a kingdom where no man, woman, or child is left outside.
We notice again that the glory of God has risen not upon Herod’s palace nor any of Jerusalem’s other grand buildings, but a little ways to the south, upon a dusty little hill town. This contrast, this conflict runs through the whole story, all the way to this year and this city and our life in it. We must decide where we will go and pay homage. Do we want the peace and prosperity of Herod’s realm, of yet another empire that rises and falls, but has no place for James and Wilford and so many others? Or do we bring our hope and our gifts to Bethlehem, where another kingdom has been born?
The wise ones from the east didn’t hesitate; they went to Bethlehem, to the house where the glory of God had appeared in a vulnerable human being. Miroslav Wolf observed that, in contrast to our Christmas traditions, “the wise men did not huddle around a fire and give gifts to each other and delight in each other’s generosity.” Instead, they opened the circle and gave their gifts to the child before whose glory they bent their knees.
That’s what Wilford did with his blanket on the tenth day of Christmas.
 Christian Century, December 27, 2003, p.31