In early 2013, a brand-new sculpture was unveiled on the campus of Regis College in Toronto, Canada. It was a bronze sculpture designed and created by Timothy Schmalz depicting a life-size figure of Jesus Christ as a homeless person, sleeping on a park bench, with his face and hands obscured and hidden under a blanket, and with crucifixion wounds on his feet which reveal his identity.
Timothy Schmalz, who is a Canadian and devout Catholic, created the piece as a devotional work, which he titled “Homeless Jesus,” hoping that his sculpture would be installed on the grounds of a church, and so he offered it to two congregations that he was connected to but they both declined the offer to receive the sculpture.
A spokesperson for the first of these two congregations declined, writing to the artist to say that “appreciation for the work among the church’s leadership was not unanimous.” The other congregation complimented the work but declined to receive it.
As is common with sculptures, Timothy Schmalz made casts of the original (exact replicas so that the work can be displayed multiple places), and, finally, one of these casts was installed for the public to view – in was installed at the St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Davidson, NC.
Reception of “Homeless Jesus” was… mixed.
Some locals in the Davidson community felt that it was an “insulting depiction” of Jesus that “demeaned” the neighborhood.
One Davidson resident mistook the statue for a real homeless person the first time she saw it and called the police.
And another person living in Davidson wrote a letter to the editor of the local paper, saying that the statue, “creeps me out.”
After his ministry in his own home region of Galilee, the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up. He set his face towards Jerusalem, and he sent messengers ahead of him to the towns and villages, but they did not receive him.
This is a crucial turning point in the story. Jesus sets his face toward Jerusalem and the cross. And immediately we hear people rejected him. They act like they don’t know him, they won’t return his phone calls, and they don’t want to be seen with him.
Previously, when Jesus healed a man living with a possessed spirit that man went away proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.
When Jesus restored a little girl to life the parents were publicly astounded and grateful.
When Jesus fed five thousand people with a few loaves of bread and a couple fish they ate their fill and went out to tell their neighbors about this incredible man they had met.
But when Jesus sets his face toward Jerusalem and the cross, the people confer and send an email back: “Thank you, Jesus, but appreciation for your work among our leadership is not unanimous.”
Timothy Schmalz who created Homeless Jesus admitted when asked that he had in fact intended for the bronze sculpture to be provocative, saying, “That’s essentially what the sculpture is there to do. It’s meant to challenge people.”
And the truth is: the cross is challenging.
You could make the case that the cross is insulting and demeaning, because the cross brings us to a point at which we must admit the sin that causes our suffering and the suffering of others.
The cross confronts us with the truth of our impulses to separate ourselves from our neighbor.
Whether we would go so far as to call the cops on our homeless brother or sister or just quietly hope they don’t get too close.
Whether we celebrate the privilege and power we have over people less fortunate than us or simply do too little to overturn the systemic powers of white privilege and economic advantage we take for granted.
Or whether, like James and John, we would desire punishment and retribution for those not as enlightened as us and want to call down shame and exclusion and fire from heaven on the heads of those people not like us.
But Jesus rebukes all that.
Instead he’s on the move, taking his rag-tag crew on down the road, asking people to join him in the way of putting God and the people God loves so radically first that he hasn’t even thought to call the Motel 6 down the road and make a reservation.
“Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the son of man has nowhere to lay his head,” he says. And after the long day of travel, healing, and teaching, he is maybe looking for just a park bench and a blanket to sleep on.
Jesus shows us what it looks like to put God and our neighbor first as he sets face is set toward Jerusalem and the cross, saying, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God.”
Jesus could’ve also said that you can’t put your hand to the plow and look back and be a good farmer.
Because it’s true that, quite literally, a farmer who is plowing with a team of animals has to look forward in the direction of the plow. If the farmer starts looking around to try and play the what-does-that-cloud-look-like-game, or if the farmer starts looking back to admire the work he’s already done, that plow is going to get off course and the field is going to be a mess.
Jesus invites us to look forward to God’s mission of dying to ourselves so that God can live in us and through us for the sake of a world in need and to keep this mission central — so it matters where we have set our face.
On my very first “Lost and Found” youth trip with kids from Epiphany, in the fall of 2014, I didn’t know about the tradition of taking a group picture on the hill at Eagle Eyrie retreat center.
We had pictures of the group and pictures that included everyone in the group but not that picture. On the hill. Faces forward.
After that retreat, when that picture didn’t emerge, Pastor Phillip mentioned that on the next trip we needed to make sure to take that picture. He stressed that a few times, so on the next trip we did take that picture, but as a joke, Mark Schuetze and I asked everyone turn around and we took a picture of the back of everyone’s head and then we sent that to Pastor Phillip.
I don’t know why Mark and I thought that was so funny, but we did. Of course, we also took a picture of our young men and women with their shining faces looking right into the camera.
But it matters which way our face is turned. It matters who we are looking to, and what and who we spend our attention on, and which way we’re pointed.
Jesus sets his face toward the cross for us and for the whole world to set us free from the power of sin, death, and brokenness.
He could have shown us the back of his head, and had a good laugh, and gotten out of town, and found a descent motel to spend the night in, and saved himself the pain and humiliation of the cross but God loves us too much.
Even after he was rejected in Samaria, he went on ahead to more towns and cities to invite, cajole, and reach out to as many people as he could, even if it meant having the door shut in his face. Even if no one welcomed him. Even if he was an offense.
Sharing our faith can be like that. We can have the door shut in our face for saying, “I believe.” But telling about the faith we have in us can also change peoples lives, it can encourage their trust in God, and it can remind them that they have a place as a part of a community that believes.
Timothy Schmalz, who created his Homeless Jesus sculpture was judged and his work was dismissed for a time, but once the word got out, there were many people who were moved by his witness.
In six short years, from 2013 until now, over a hundred casts of his original statue have been reproduced and occupy cities all over the world:
Liverpool, in Ontario, in Scotland, the Dominican Republic, Buffalo, NY, Charleston, WV, and Detroit, MI.
In Oklahoma City, “Homeless Jesus” is installed at a busy intersection where an estimated 60,000 vehicles pass the sculpture daily.
In Denver, Colorado, at the Haven of Hope mission which provides food, shelter, clothing, counseling, rehabilitation and hygienic services to the homeless and less fortunate, all those who enter the building see the sculpture and are reminded they are not alone.
A cast of “Homeless Jesus” has been installed in Washington, D.C., and during his 2015 visit to the United States, Pope Francis stopped there, touched the knee of the statue and spent time in prayer.
In “Homeless Jesus,” many people are able to see the lengths to which God would go to show us his love.
The message is that Christ became one of us, for all of us.
We sometimes tend to see ourselves first as American, Democrat or Republican, White, Asian, African descent, Hispanic, Southerner or Northerner or Mid-Westerner, male or female, we live in this or that section of Richmond, we are a member of this club or that group.
In the cross of Jesus, we are given a new identity.
We first and above all belong to Christ.
To some people this message might be challenging. To the world it might be insulting or even demeaning, but together we have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.
Together we have received freedom as a gift. Now, we can see ourselves primarily as one body in Christ.
We don’t call down fire from heaven on people who are different than us like James and John wanted to, but instead we are a part of a Pentecost people, part of a family who on that first Pentecost had tongues of fire on their heads as the Spirit formed them into a new people.
Today as the Lord gathers around his table, watch the people who walk up and down these aisles to receive the body and blood of Christ. Look into their faces and see a beloved Child of God for whom Christ died and for whom Christ was raised again.
In all our faces, together, the world sees the image of Christ.
In Christ God has made a home for us forever.
Together we live by his Spirit… and so let us be guided by his Spirit.