One Church’s Response To “The Least Of These”
There is a story that has gone around the Internet for some time now about a new pastor to a church that disguised himself as a homeless man and walked into the church to see how he would be treated. Upon receiving less than a loving welcome, he reveals himself as the church’s new pastor and offers some harsh criticism to his new congregation, subsequently leaving them in tears and feeling ashamed.
Thankfully, that story is an urban legend as that would be a rather rotten and manipulative way to begin a new relationship as a pastor with your new church family. Most new relationships don’t go well when they begin with shame and tears. But, the story serves as a powerful challenge to communities of faith when faced with the reality of what can too often seem to be an abstract: how do we welcome and embrace those whom Jesus referred to as “the least of these?”
This question crystallized itself fully for me yesterday during worship at the church where I am the Senior Minister, The First Congregational Church of Winter Park, FL. Immediately after I finished my sermon on the story of Zacchaeus from Luke’s Gospel and reflecting on how Jesus always reached out to the marginalized, the alienated and the outcast, just such a person entered our sanctuary.
I was watching from the pulpit as I saw a man who was clearly agitated enter the front doors, so he was behind everyone in the sanctuary and no one could see him. He was engaged by one of our ushers, and the more he was engaged the more agitated he became. As our Worship Minister began her words to collect the offering, he walked into the sanctuary and began to yell.
He yelled apologies for interrupting, but also yelled his frustrations: frustrations at his situation in life as well as frustrations at the way he had just been treated by another church nearby which did nothing but call the police on him. He was clearly at the end of his rope and on the edge of the proverbial cliff; and rightly so.
I left the pulpit, walked down to him and along with another member of the church walked him outside. There, on our front steps, he yelled, he cried, and he expressed his desire to be affirmed as a person. He was homeless, and he was looking for help. A number of members came out to join us. We held him, listened to him, affirmed his being a beloved and cherished Child of God, and we all offered him some financial assistance. We then joined hands and prayed together. Upon this, with tears still streaming down his face, he thanked us and went on his way.
I don’t know who this man was. I don’t know if we’ll ever see him again. Frankly, it truly doesn’t matter. What I do know is that the heart of our church was made manifest in the way it affirmed and helped this man, who most certainly was among those whom Jesus would have held among the least of these.
It broke my heart to hear him say that another church nearby, a church that has substantial financial means, did nothing to help and only served to make him feel like a criminal nuisance and less than human. It was no wonder this man had no other recourse but to yell and cry in his frustration. It was also a poor embodiment of the Spirit of God when confronted with one for whom Jesus preached, healed, lived, suffered and died.
For me, in many ways, this man was Jesus. Would we turn him away, or would we love him as Jesus loved us? For me, and for our church, the answer was clear and we responded with love.
It was remarkable to have just preached a sermon about the way in which Jesus calls us to reach out to those who are on the margins and almost immediately have a living example of that Truth walk into our sanctuary. I was abundantly proud of the way in which this man was cared for by our members, and I think all of us knew that this man symbolized something incredibly important about who and what we profess to be as The Church and as followers of Jesus of Nazareth.
I am profoundly grateful for the blessing of this stranger by reminding us in a very palpable way why we’re The Church and who we’re called to be as those who profess to follow The Way.