Text: Frank North (1850-1935) Tune: William Gardiner (1770-1853)
1 Where cross the crowded ways of life, where sound the cries of race and clan, above the noise of selfish strife, we hear your voice, O Son of Man.
2 In haunts of wretchedness and need, on shadowed thresholds fraught with fears, from paths where hide the lures of greed, we catch the vision of your tears.
3 From tender childhood's helplessness, from human grief and burdened toil, from famished souls, from sorrow's stress, your heart has never known recoil.
4 The cup of water given for you still holds the freshness of your grace; yet long these multitudes to view the sweet compassion of your face.
5 O Master, from the mountainside, make haste to heal these hearts of pain; among these restless throngs abide; O tread the city's streets again;
6 Till all the world shall learn your love, and follow where your feet have trod; till glorious from your heaven above shall come the city of our God.
In the 1940s, we lived one block from the Great Northern railroad in Rugby, North Dakota. A fair number of vagrants riding the rails had marked the parsonage as a place to stop for a meal. I can still remember my mother hanging up the wash and a man coming toward her, wanting some food. Frightened, she yelled for my dad who came running.
He had grown up in a foster home with pious parents. His foster mother, Anna, believed what Jesus said in his parable about banquet guests and practiced his book of etiquette. For her the Luke parable and the text in Hebrews about entertaining an angel unawares were not just ancient tales, but the way to live her Christian life. My father would tell of having dinner with many an indigent in their Ferndale, Washington home, watching his foster mother feed and minister to the small number of vagrants or hobos as we called them during the Depression and later, whom she invited to dinner. They were not fed outside, but asked "to come up higher" and eat in their home with the family.
I think my father dealt with the man and fed him, but the event resulted in a protracted discussion with my mother. With my father frequently gone, she felt she had no protection and knew well the number of visitors would grow. It frightened her. They solved it by having mother recommend to any such vagrants that they go to the local rescue mission which they would support generously. The vagrants got the message, apparently, and the number of such visitors rapping on the kitchen window declined.
While I understand completely my mother’s reaction, my grandmother’s was more in accord with Jesus’ words. Because Jesus lived in a more agrarian society, relief for the poor came from individual to individual. There were no agencies to deal with the hungry. They were at one’s doorstep.
Now most of us live among strangers in cities. Christians have seen, as the writer of our hymn for today saw, that we have to organize to bring relief to the poor and hungry. The local foodbanks and homeless shelters help, but they do make it possible for us to salve our consciences by thinking institutions we build for the poor, the laws we pass, are enough. Do they quiet our consciences more than they actually help the needy? Sometimes from the scandals one reads about in the news, they seem not to.
North does not pray that Jesus will come to build poor houses, as were built in the 19th century, or pass laws that build huge bureaucracies with a mission to help the indigent. He asks Jesus himself to return and tend to each person: “make haste to heal these hearts of pain; among these restless throngs abide; O tread the city's streets again.” We are to be little Christs to the needy, we know. But how?
When Judas, during the lavish washing of Jesus' feet with spikenard, says it should have been sold and given to the poor, Jesus responds that we will always have the poor with us. People are always failing and falling into trouble and we need to be prepared to help them.
These are troubling passages for us. Society has changed so much; we are no longer an agrarian society where those with resources live cheek to jowl with those without.
My grandmother probably got it right for her time. But what about the vagrants at the parsonage doorway? They knew that was where they should get some kind of help and did. The parsonage or monastery had entertained the poor from their beginnings. But today, with throngs of the poor who could overwhelm the generous one, what is to be done?
North’s hymn, which speaks even more piercingly to us than maybe it did in his time, suggests in his hymn that this won’t be solved until all, warmed by the love of Jesus, work to share Christ’s love so they can minister to others until the city of God comes down to earth to change everything. So help us God!
North was a pseudonym for John Post Attwater. North studied at Wesleyan University and became a Methodist pastor in New York City as well a Middletown, Connecticut. He served as Corresponding Secretary of the New York City Extension and Missionary Society and the editor of The Christian City, among many such positions in the Methodist Episcopal Church. He served on many other boards in the US, China and Japan. He also received the Chevalier Legion of Honor and "Officer de l'Instruction Publique," France; Officer of the Royal Order of George I, Greece. North was considered one of the great Protestant leaders of his time.
The tune was taken and arranged from a tune of Beethoven by William Gardiner who had met both Haydn and Beethoven and wanted to popularize their work in England in an effort to make the singing of psalms more lively.
Cathedral of St, John https://youtu.be/X0l_ND_XSks
Michael Card https://youtu.be/vBrtz7vG7PY
London Fox Singers https://youtu.be/6rolLNDt0UY
For those planning for Bible study through the next year, you might consider the book Jesus the Harmony. It has a poem for every day of the year and Bible references for each poem that put Jesus in what has been called "the red thread of salvation." Many have been using it for daily devotions; others in group Bible studies.