In 2004, a church in Davidson, NC erected a statue depicting the risen Jesus as a person experiencing homelessness, sleeping on a park bench. He is huddled under a blanket with his face and hands obscured; only the stigmata on his uncovered feet reveal his identity.
There is room on the bench to sit with him. The reaction from the community was immediate, and mixed. Some residents felt that it was “an insulting depiction” of Jesus that “demeaned” the neighborhood. Someone called the police, mistaking the statue for a real person experiencing homelessness. Others were open to living amidst this powerful image.
The artist, a Canadian sculptor named Timothy Schmalz says he understands that his Jesus the Homeless is provocative. But, “that’s essentially what the sculpture is here to do. It’s meant to challenge people.” It attempts to visualize the New Testament and Jesus’ call to compassion for all people.
The statue has been offered to and considered by many prominent churches around the world, but its acceptance has not been universal. It did, however, find an admirer in Rome where Schmalz traveled to the Vatican to present a miniature version of it to Pope Francis. “He walked over to the Sculpture, touched the knee of Jesus the Homeless, closed his eyes and prayed. It was chilling.” A few years later a bronze version was completed on the avenue leading to St. Peter’s Basilica.
About the same time, the Westminister City Council in the Center of London (across the street from the famous Westminster Abby) rejected an application for the statue on the grounds that it would ‘fail to maintain or improve’ the character of the area.
Coincidentally, the Manchester City Council jumped at the chance to have the sculpture be sited outside their historic St. Ann’s Church in the heart of its city ‘to raise awareness of the plight of the homeless people in the city.”
What the ‘Homeless Jesus’ sculpture seems to do in many places is reveal the priorities of our faith. Are they…
Neatness and tidiness?
Or might they be rooted in other qualities?
Hopes and Expectations?
How do we pay attention to the guiding questions within our own hearts when it comes to living out Jesus’ call to enlighten or preserve the world?
Whether we are working with Heart Room, Grace Episcopal Homeless Shelter, or any other ministry that seeks to support marginalized – we still have to contend with our internal, and often unconscious priorities.
To say that we care for the marginalized, to say we want to help, is really only the first step. It’s a good and necessary step, but living into it often raises perplexing and humbling questions.
In the parlance of this famous passage from Matthew, what kind of salt are we? What kind of light shines from us?
I suspect even among Jesus’ followers, there wasn’t clarity or agreement about what constituted being ‘salt and light.’ The commandment and injunction is clear, but the details are up to us to work it out. How people responded to the statue is but just one example.
I remember in college, I became friends – through a campus ministry – with a handful of people who had some significant emotional challenges. At the time, I didn’t have the language or insight to understand their situations. I had a friend Priscilla, who I’m now convinced suffered from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder or was bi-polar or both. I hung out with Tom who was the first openly gay man I had known; and Kathi who was secretly lesbian and deathly afraid to share that with her Christian friends. I watched both of them struggle with depression as they sought to understand how to reconcile their Christian faith with their sexuality. Finally, I worked with Mel, an African American colleague who had grown up on the streets of Miami and lived then and now with a streak righteous anger about racism in this country.
My early adult years were a time when I lived with a bi-furcated faith that embarrasses me today. I wanted to care for these people – I wanted to share the light and salt of God’s presence in the world – but I consistently and stubbornly insisted that they understand that grace on my terms. I wanted Priscilla to get over it – the ‘it’ being her mental illness. I tried to convince Tom and Kathi to find peace in a church & society that offered them none, and I challenged Mel to approach social justice issues with my same spirit, one of ‘Minnesota nice’ born of a wealthy upbringing. I was pretty sure I knew what God wanted them to do, even if it was strangely reflective of the limits of my own imagination. Ironically, all of them resisted my ‘good will’ toward them; and naturally the friendships waned.
The challenge of my adulthood, even to this day, has been trying to reflect and celebrate God’s light and salt in the world, as well as the values of Jesus; while remaining open to light and salt looking and sounding differently than I might want. I’ve been on a journey to recognize that God cares in ways I don’t understand, and to celebrate that others can find their path in their own way. I’ve been confronted time and again with my own arrogance born of spiritual piety and religious certainty. I don’t think I’m alone in this. I don’t think I’m alone in wanting to be helpful, present, generous and useful – but all to often in ways that seek to control the decisions of others or the outcomes of their lives. I’m not alone in living with the arrogance that thinks that what works for me should be the template for how it will work for someone else. I’m not alone in simply being lazy with my spirituality, my compassion or my social analysis; wishing for and wanting simple solutions when often don’t even understand the problem.
There isn’t a single, ‘right’ response to those experiencing homelessness.
A rigid simplicity ignores the complexity of this social problem that many, many, smart people of good will care deeply about. But, as people who affirm in every new member covenant and every baptism that we “want to live a life of compassion –beautifully modeled and shown to us by Jesus” – we do have an obligation to ask the deeper question of values.
We do have an obligation to explore the values that guide our responses – and ask if our reactions are rooted in the love of Jesus for all people, the call of God to be salt and light – or in the reputation of our cities, the convenience of how we want to give help, or the desire for a vexing issue to simply go away. We do have to explore whether we are simply overwhelmed and apathetic, or on the other hand, prone to over spiritualizing a very real issue that is part of OUR community.
I celebrate the efforts we undertake to be salt and light in the world. I wonder if our reading this passage today isn’t just an opportunity for honest reflection, but maybe even a time for outright confession – either because we don’t believe in the power of salt or light; or because we seek to control and manage it on our own terms.
As we make a turn towards the communion table, I’d invite us into a time of prayer – as we all consider how our God calls us to lean in more fully to the values of the Jesus’ Way, to consider the ways we seek to soften the call because it makes us uncomfortable, or resistant. I’d invite us to pray for the courage and wisdom to seek the compassion of Jesus in our personal decisions and our communal efforts.
This sermon was inspired by a piece written by a friend, Ed Muir, in his company newsletter…
Super Bowl Blessing (2.4.18)
Often when he was teaching, Jesus said, ‘let those who ears to hear, listen.’
On this day when the national pastime involving grown and growling men comes to an end,
May the God of all beings cause your sprit to soar as an eagle gliding above the sea,
and May her presence ground you as a patriot – or loyal follower -of Jesus.
In the face turmoil may you know the spirit of brotherly and sisterly love, and may you know peace that floats like tea in the harbors of life.