St. Catherine’s Episcopal Church
Sunday, September 16, 2018
The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 19B)
First Lesson: Isaiah 50:4-9a
Second Lesson: James 3:1-12
Gospel: Mark 8:27-38
Now, O Lord, take my lips and speak with them. Take our minds and think through them. Take our hearts and set them on fire for your Gospel. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Imagine, for a moment, that you’re taking a walk through what appears to be a pretty nice, suburban neighborhood. You’re walking down a sidewalk lined with tall, luscious trees and beautifully landscaped front yards. Judging from the appearance of the homes in this neighborhood and the people who live here, it’s probably made up of mostly middle to upper-middle class families. There’s no trash on the ground anywhere, and you imagine that it would be a grave sin to even consider going more than a couple of weeks without cutting the grass. The appearance of this neighborhood is well maintained, and the residents want to keep it that way.
After a few blocks of walking, you come to what appears to be a church in the middle of this pristine neighborhood. The church, like the neighborhood in which it resides, is beautiful. The front yard is immaculate, enclosed with red brick columns and a black, wrought iron fence. You imagine that it must take a lot of work to maintain such a lovely appearance. Upon further investigation, you discover that this church is an Episcopal Church, and as you continue walking by, you witness a very shocking sight, indeed- something quite unexpected. From a short distance, you see what appears to be a homeless person, covered up with a long blanket and sleeping on a park bench next to the church. You ask yourself, “How could there be a homeless person sleeping here in the middle of this perfect neighborhood?” “How did they get here?” Despite your initial shock, you decide to move a little closer to see if there’s any way you can help. Maybe he or she needs help with food or money to purchase a bus ticket.
So, you move closer, and as you approach the covered up person on the bench, you notice something strange about their feet, the only part of their body that isn’t covered up with the blanket. You notice that each foot has a large, round scar in the center, and then it dawns on you. This isn’t just any homeless person. These are the feet of Jesus.
In February of 2014, St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Davidson, North Carolina, installed a bronze replica of Homeless Jesus, a sculpture that was created by Canadian artist, Timothy Schmalz. According to one article, the sculpture was intended as a “visual translation of the passage in the Book of Matthew, in which Jesus tells his disciples, ‘As you did it to one of the least of my brothers, you did it to me.’” The Rev’d David Buck, who was serving as rector of St. Alban’s at the time, stated that the sculpture is “a good Bible lesson for those used to seeing Jesus depicted in traditional religious art as the Christ of glory, enthroned in finery.”
As you can imagine, when the sculpture was first installed, the church received mixed reactions from the community. Some people loved it. Others found it revolting. One woman from the neighborhood actually called the police the first time she drove by because she thought it was an actual homeless person. Another person wrote a letter to the church, claiming that the statue was creepy. Others felt that it was insulting to depict Jesus as a homeless person.
I have to admit that when I first saw the pictures of Homeless Jesus, I didn’t quite know what to think. On one hand, I found it to be incredibly powerful. The sculpture is a vivid and poignant reminder that, in order to serve Jesus, we must be willing to serve our brothers and sisters, especially the most vulnerable and needy among us.
On the other hand, it challenged my perception and expectations of Jesus. It made me realize that I don’t really want a Savior who sleeps on a park bench, covered up with an old, tattered blanket. It made me realize that I really don’t want a Savior with scars on his feet, reminding me that his journey to the cross is the same journey that I’m called to make as one of his disciples. No, I want a Savior who will reassure me that everything’s under control. I want a Savior who will tell me that I can follow him without having to give up anything in return. Like Peter, in today’s lesson from Mark’s Gospel, I want the long-expected Messiah, the mighty king who will come and fix everything that’s wrong with the world. I want a safe Jesus, a Jesus who will protect me from getting hurt. I don’t want Good Friday Jesus. I want Easter Jesus.
The problem with that is that we don’t get to skip over Good Friday and go straight to Easter, do we? We don’t get to look at the homeless Jesus lying asleep on the park bench and say, “That’s not my Jesus.” Whether we like it or not, our Jesus is the one who lies covered up on the park bench, waiting for us to join him. Our Jesus is the one who suffers right along with those on the margins of society. Our Jesus is the one who is persecuted and killed in order to teach us that the way of the cross is the only path to eternal life.
New Testament scholar, N.T. Wright, once wrote, “Jesus’s call to follow him, to discover in the present time the habits of life which point forward to the coming kingdom and already, in a measure, share in its life, only makes sense when it is couched in the terms made famous by Dietrich Bonhoeffer: ‘Come and die.’ Jesus didn’t say, as do some modern evangelists, ‘God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.’ Nor did he say, ‘I accept you as you are, so you can now happily do whatever comes naturally.’ He said, ‘If you want to become my followers, deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me.’”
Dear friends, God does love us, and God does have a wonderful plan for our lives. But, that plan doesn’t involve worldly comforts, and it doesn’t involve freedom from suffering or passively waiting around for someone else to do the work that we’ve been given to do as Christians. God’s plan is for us to participate in the building up of God’s Kingdom, to help fulfill the work that Jesus began in his sacrifice on the cross.
God does accept us as we are, but that doesn’t mean that God wants us to stay as we are. As followers of Jesus, we believe that new life is always possible and that forgiveness and redemption are always within our reach. This Christian life to which we are called is a lifelong journey of transformation, but in order to experience the transformation that God desires for us, we must be willing to let go of the things that hold us back, including our false ideas of who Jesus is and what Jesus calls us to do.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, may we always hold on to the image of the homeless Jesus lying on a park bench in the midst of the pristine neighborhood, reminding us that his place and our place is with the poor, the sick, and the oppressed. May we always hold on to the image of the scars on Jesus’s feet, reminding us that his journey to the cross is our journey as well, and may we have the courage and the strength to persevere in this work, now and always. Amen.
Click here to listen to an audio recording of the sermon.