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

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