Year A Last Sunday after the Epiphany: Homeless Jesus and the Transfiguration

Some of you may have seen a news story this past week about a statue that has been installed outside an Episcopal church in Davidson, N.C.[1] The first time she saw it, one neighbourhood resident called the police, thinking that a homeless person was sleeping on a bench outside the church. (I’m actually a little concerned for this individual, who may have found accidental fame and notoriety through the reporting of this story on the internet, but I’m quoting the story because I was gripped by what it had to say about Jesus, and about the Transfiguration.)

On closer inspection, the homeless person that the woman saw turns out to be a bronzed statue of a man wrapped in a cloak or blanket, lying on a bench. There is space on the bench to sit next to him. If you do, you are close enough to see the holes that nails have left in his feet. A small plaque near the bench has the title of the work, “Homeless Jesus,” and an explanation that its inspiration derives from that passage in Matthew’s Gospel where the sheep and the goats are divided according to who fed the hungry, housed the homeless, visited the sick and the prisoners, and who did not.

The person who called the police (and perhaps she wasn’t the only one) did so no doubt for various reasons, some of them perhaps quite compassionate. It is not for us to judge her. But on further reflection, she remained uncomfortable with the statue, and is reported as saying, “Jesus is not a helpless person who needs our help… We need someone who is capable of meeting our needs, not someone who is also needy.”[2]

In other words, we, like Peter, want to stay on the summit, build booths in the bright cloud, hold on to mountaintop Jesus, rather than face the road to Jerusalem and see him helpless and hanging from the cross.

Which is, I venture, a valid point of view and fair enough. Who wouldn’t feel the same way? Unfortunately, mountain summits are rarely habitable for extended periods of time, and real life tends to happen in the valleys.

You have to wonder why we always read this story on the Sunday before entering Lent. Of course, it is the culmination of the Epiphany: the revelation of the glory of God in the face of our Lord Jesus Christ, emphatically reinforced with witness and the voice from heaven, and bright clouds. But it also comes as Jesus has turned his face towards Jerusalem, where he will be killed alongside too many of his countrymen. He has just begun to talk to his disciples of such things, and he will continue to do so more as they journey down country. It comes between stories of hunger and suffering, healing and relief; it comes in the midst of life, and it comes under the shadow of death.

Sometimes, when you’re in the valley – you know the one, the one with the shadows – then what you really need is for someone to come and sit beside you for a while, someone who has been there, who knows the score.

One of the crucial parts of the Homeless Jesus installation is the space on the bench to sit down beside him. Without such a space, even Homeless Jesus would remain out of reach, as remote as the God of the philosophers, impassive and untouchable, lost in a bright cloud.

You’ll be familiar, no doubt, with the famous quotation attributed to St Teresa of Avila:

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.[3]

There is a counterpart to this notion, and the gospel story on which the sculpture is based makes it abundantly clear. Christ is present not only in the hands and feet and eyes of compassion that serve. He is also present in those who are hungry, who are sick, who are imprisoned, who are homeless, who are, indeed, needy. And we are called to get off our mountaintops and to serve them as if we were serving Christ himself.

When we forget that, when we forget the squalour of the manger and the shame of the cross, the dust of his feet or the borrowed tomb –foxes have holes and the birds of the air have their nests, but even in death, the Son of Man had no place to lay his head – when we forget these things, and confine Jesus to the mountaintop and the bright cloud, we not only lose sight of the needs of our neighbour, but we lose sight of God.

The Incarnation, the coming of Christ in human form, was God’s promise to us that it is not God’s intention to remain out of reach, out of touch. Irenaus, bishop of Lyon back in the second century of the Christian church, argued that, “Just as the physician is proved by his patients, so is God also revealed through men,” and, more famously, “For the glory of God is a living man.”[4]

The revelation of the Transfiguration was that here, here was the glory of God, in flesh and blood, in hands that healed and a mouth that laughed and eyes that wept and feet that walked through the wilderness and on the water and into the city, feet which would bear iron nails soon enough. A human soul and body that sat down beside its friends and matched them, need for need, and loved them through it all.

As we leave the bright cloud of the Epiphany behind us and head into the valley of Lent, in the spirit of the Incarnation and Homeless Jesus, I offer you this poem by R.S. Thomas, a twentieth-century poet-priest from Wales, called

The Coming

And God held in his hand
A small globe. Look, he said.
The son looked. Far off.
As through water, he saw
A scorched land of fierce
Colour. The light burned
There; crusted buildings
Cast their shadows; a bright
Serpent, a river
Uncoiled itself, radiant
With slime.
On a bare
Hill a bare tree saddened
The sky. Many people
Held out their thin arms
To it, as though waiting
For a vanished April
To return to its crossed
Boughs. The son watched
Them. Let me go there, he said.[5]

______________________________________________

[1] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/02/28/homeless-jesus-statue_n_4875892.html?ncid=fcbklnkushpmg00000051

[2] http://www.wcnc.com/news/neighborhood-news/Homeless-Jesus-sculpture-sparks-controversy-247134691.html

[3] See more at: http://blog.episcopalrelief.org/blog/episcopal-relief-and-development-stories/christs-hands-and-feet#sthash.D5FrJJpl.dpuf

[4] St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, excerpted from Apostolic Fathers Volume I, edited by Paul A. Boer, Sr. (Veritatis Splendor Publications, 2012), Kindle edition, pp. 385, 477

[5] R.S. Thomas, “The Coming”, in R.S. Thomas, Collected Poems 1945-1990 (Phoenix, 1993), p. 234

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