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HOMELESS JESUS (Views from the Abbey 13)

The Rev Alex Martin hoped that the realistic statue of a homeless Jesus sleeping outside his church would inspire conversations about how to care for people in need in his tight-knit Ohio community. It definitely got people talking after someone called the police to complain about a ‘vagrant’ sleeping on a bench outside St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Bay Village, Ohio, about 20 minutes after the statue was installed.

Homeless Jesus was designed by Timothy Schmalz, a Canadian sculptor and devout Catholic Christian. It depicts Jesus as a homeless person, sleeping on a park bench. His face and hands are obscured, hidden under a blanket, but the crucifixion wounds on his feet reveal his identity.  The statue has been described as a ‘visual translation’ of that passage in the Gospel of Matthew where Jesus tells his disciples, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ (Matthew 25:40). Schmalz intended for the bronze sculpture to be provocative, admitting, ‘That’s essentially what the sculpture is there to do. It’s meant to challenge people.’ He offered the first casts to St. Michael’s Cathedral in Toronto and St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, but both churches declined. The reason given (in both cases) was ‘ongoing restoration work’ but one spokesperson for one of the churches confessed that the real reason was because ‘appreciation was not unanimous’.

Eventually (in 2013) the statue found a home outside St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Davidson, North Carolina.  According to the Rev. David Buck, Rector of St. Alban’s, ‘It gives authenticity to our church. This is a relatively affluent church, to be honest, and we need to be reminded ourselves that our faith expresses itself in active concern for the marginalized of society’. Buck welcomed discussion about the sculpture and considers it a ‘Bible lesson for those used to seeing Jesus depicted in traditional religious art as the Christ of glory, enthroned in finery.’  Alex Martin commented that, ‘People have been grateful to be given an opportunity to have conversations about how we can best serve those who are in great need, conversations about the sacred worth and dignity of all human life, even that which is often cast aside by society.’

Since 2013 well over 100 replica statues have appeared outside various churches all round the world including the UK. One such replica was going to be installed in Westminster outside of the Methodist Central Hall but planning permission was eventually rejected by the local council who said that the statue ‘would not properly reflect the nature of London’. In contrast Manchester welcomed the installation of a replica with the Bishop of Manchester affirming the importance of having Homeless Jesus in the city, reflecting on Jesus saying that ‘turning away from helping someone in need is like turning from Jesus himself’.

We do not have such a statue here in Reading (as yet). Perhaps, if we did it would inspire those who saw it to act and offer practical help.  Seeing Jesus depicted in this way reminds us that Jesus identified with the outcast and marginalised in his own day. In reality we shouldn’t need a statue to prompt us – we have the clear teaching of Scripture, as well as the inner witness of the Holy Spirit who (according to 2 Peter 1:20,21) inspired people of old to write those Scriptures living within us. ‘Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you … and pray to the Lord on its behalf’ (Jeremiah 29:7) may be Old Testament but its sentiment is very much New Testament and accords with the teaching and example of Jesus himself!

Brother, sister, let me serve you;
let me be as Christ to you;
pray that I may have the grace to
let you be my servant too.

We are pilgrims on a journey,
and companions on the road;
we are here to help each other
walk the mile and bear the load.

I will hold the Christ-light for you
in the night-time of your fear;
I will hold my hand out to you,
speak the peace you long to hear.

I will weep when you are weeping;
when you laugh I’ll laugh with you;
I will share your joy and sorrow,
till we’ve seen this journey through.

When we sing to God in heaven,
we shall find such harmony,
born of all we’ve known together
of Christ’s love and agony.

Brother, sister, let me serve you;
let me be as Christ to you;
pray that l may have the grace to
let you be my servant too.

~ Richard Gillard (b. 1953)

~ Jim Binney

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