February 23, 2016

No Place to Lay His Head

Remember the statue of the homeless Jesus that was buzzing around the internet a few years ago? If you don't, several years ago a Canadian artist named Timothy Schmalz created a statue of a figure sleeping on a bench. The figure is covered by a blanket, except for its feet, which have scarred holes in them. Once someone sees the feet, they realize this statue isn't simply a homeless man, it is a homeless Jesus. The statue caused a stir when it first appeared, and has since been installed in several cities across North America. Some welcome the statue as a reminder that Jesus had no place to lay his head, and called us to love our neighbor. Others see the statue as sacrilege and blasphemy. In one city, someone even called the cops on the sleeping bronze figure.

The newest home of this provocative symbol is our very own Tampa! Hyde Park United Methodist raised the $40,000 to purchase it and have installed it at their downtown campus, The Portico. There is critique of the statue's price tag and the swiftness in which the money was raised for art, rather than directly meeting needs. This symbol, though, does have much to teach a city where those who actually are experiencing homelessness cannot fall asleep on a bench. A friend of mine that lives on the streets pointed out that there should be bars around the bench as that, he said, would be more accurate. If you fall asleep on a bench in Tampa you can be arrested. Because of the ways our city has criminalized homelessness, this Jesus is not just homeless, he is a law breaker. This sculpture stands as a critique of the very spirit of our city and the laws created to criminalize people living on the street. This statue, in this city, is a beautiful and ironic symbol which both points to and participates in our hypocrisy.

Several of us from the Well attended the dedication of the statue on Ash Wednesday, which was the beginning of Lent. A crowd was gathered there, mostly made up of members of the church. At the dedication, several scriptures were shared to remind us of what God calls us to:

Micah 6:8
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
   And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
   and to walk humbly with your God.

Jeremiah 29:7
But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile,
and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

Isaiah 58:7
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
   and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him,
   and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?

After the reading of these scriptures there was a communal call and response, in which the crowd and the leader committed themselves to the work of God's Kingdom, to loving their neighbor, and to remembering Jesus among the poor and the needy. It was good to see a crowd of people committing to these values. If more and more people committed themselves to seeing and acknowledging the neediest among us as our own flesh and blood, Tampa would be a different, more welcoming place. From statue to scripture, these were all very powerful symbols, and symbols matter, and it is important that we remember the words of John's first epistle, "let us not love with words or speech (symbols) but with actions and in truth -1 John 3:18. Let us remember the ones who have no place to lay their heads, and do our best to love them in action and in truth.

Read the Reverend Magrey deVega's homily from the dedication on Ash Wednesday

February 10, 2016

Ashes for Beauty

Ash Wednesday is, on the liturgical calendar, the beginning of the season of Lent. The day is 46 days before the church's celebration of the resurrection of Jesus. Ash Wednesday is observed by fasting, repentance, many will hold services where there heads are marked with ashes made from palms from the previous years Palm Sunday. Ashes are a sign of mourning, grieving, or repentance and are seen constantly throughout scripture as mourners dawn 'sackcloth and ashes.'

Typically the words of Genesis 3:19, "Remember that you are dust, and to dust shall you return," are repeated to each who participates as a reminder of both mortality and guilt. This begins a season of fasting known as lent. Lent is 46 days long, though the six Sundays are considered feast days as they are when the community gathers to celebrate the Lord's Supper. The remaining 40 days are usually spent fasting as an allusion to the 40 days Jesus spent fasting in the desert, where he was tempted by the devil. 
"Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him..."
Our community constantly faces reminders of our own guilt as well as our general fragility and mortality. For many who have no safe place to be at night death always feel like it might be just around the corner. Much of our work is a calling to mourn with those who mourn, and so today, as the calendar points all of the church to remember, I can't help but smile. 

When Jesus returned from his time in the wilderness he entered a synagogue and opened a scroll of the prophet Isaiah. He opened to and read aloud Isaiah 61 as an announcement of his own work and ministry to fulfill it. 

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
instead of ashes
the oil of joy
instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
instead of a spirit of despair.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
a planting of the Lord
for the display of his splendor.

They will rebuild the ancient ruins
and restore the places long devastated;
they will renew the ruined cities
that have been devastated for generations.

May we, who are well acquainted with suffering and grieving and guilt and death and despair, make our city whole again. May resurrection be more than 'believed in,' may it be practiced here at the Well.  May we too, like Jesus, give ourselves fully to this task.