The teachable moment: what the pastor should have said

By Sarah E. Reynolds | Sep 22, 2017

I happened on a video on Facebook the other day that got me thinking. It tells the story of the new pastor of a large church, who, on his first Sunday, before he had met the congregation, came to church dressed as a homeless person. He greeted the people he met standing around before the service, but few greeted him in return; some even gave him dirty looks. He asked some of those he met for change to buy food, but received no donations. And when he went into church, the ushers asked him to please sit at the back.

The service began, the committee that had hired the new pastor announced him with excitement — and the "homeless" man got up, walked to the front of the church and removed his disguise. Then he quoted the passage from the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 25, where Jesus describes how the righteous will be welcomed into heaven for having fed the hungry, given a drink to the thirsty, clothed the naked, etc., "for, in as much as you did it to the least of these, you have also done it to me."

The congregation was abashed and ashamed. And as their failure to live up to the gospel struck home, the pastor ended the service, dismissing them. Below the post, there were the predictable self-righteous comments about hypocritical Christians and so on.

I don't know whether anything like this actually happened — I suspect many of the stories that circulate on social media are as apocryphal as any story in the Bible — but it seems to me that not only was this a cheap trick to play on the new congregation, the pastor also missed the teachable moment he had set up.

If I had been in his place, after quoting Matthew and seeing the faces of the congregation fall, I would have said something like this: We are all afraid of difference; it's part of our makeup, it's normal, and sometimes it's even healthy. And God knows that; God does not reject us for falling short of the example of Jesus. But Jesus calls us to grow beyond our fears, and, trusting him, to reach out in spite of them.

All of us here know better than to turn away from a brother or sister because he or she looks or acts or smells different. But we need to practice doing it. We don't get better at it by berating ourselves for our failures; we get better by consciously, intentionally trying to do better — and by asking Jesus to help us.

Our world is often cold and brutal. None of us wants to identify with someone who is homeless — the poor, the pariah, the marginalized. But that is exactly who Jesus did identify with. When we recognize the fragility and impermanence of our life, we can see that we, too, are homeless, sick, impoverished and alone. When we deeply understand that truth, we can identify with others' suffering without fear, and be healed. When we can see the other no longer as a symbol of our deepest fears, but as a fellow human being, we will become conduits for God's love to flow through.

So, my friends, do not despair. God does not set us up to fail, and God does not reject us, no matter how many times we fail. God wants us to join in the divine outpouring of love for all of creation, to help build a world where everyone belongs, no one is out of place, and we are all at home. I hope you will be inspired to join me on this journey of growth, creativity, outreach and love.


Comments (2)
Posted by: Richard McKusic, Sr. | Sep 22, 2017 16:53

Have found dialogue with those different than myself FUN, inspiring and stimulating. Sarah wears a lot of different hats and touches many throughout our community with her open, loving heart.   Glad she returned from her sojourn out West. We need more people who actually walk their faith journey. Ain't always easy.
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Posted by: Mary A McKeever | Sep 22, 2017 15:13

Right on! I know this would not have happened to any destitute person in the churches that I have attended in the Knox area.

Blessings and love to all who read this and I am sure they know it could not have happened in their church

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