A few weeks ago, just prior to a couple of our weekend worship services, I pushed a shopping cart filled with blankets and other creature comforts a desperate soul would scavenge for, to two different locations where our congregants enter. My clothes were dirty and tattered, my ‘hair’ a disheveled wig, my scent and appearance attempting to replicate the most needy among us. In a matter of minutes, I gave only the appearance of having lived the long road that leads countless, nameless loved ones among us to find themselves “homeless.”
After preaching for months from the Bible about Vertical Living — that love for God and love for others cannot be separated — I wanted to see how the many thousands of people who come to our church every weekend would receive those whom Jesus calls “the least of these my brothers” (Matthew 25:40) right outside our door.
Not knowing entirely what to expect, I did anticipate being ignored. Even a pastor can believe the worst Christian stereotypes. Until a father gave some coins to his little child to hand to me — until two tough, Midwestern men brought me coffee and breakfast — until again and again in a constant stream, people from our church stopped to say “God bless you” and drop money into my coffee cup. Crying under my ragged beard, I lost count of the families who stopped to pray over me and invite me inside to sit with them. Filthy gloves covered my hands, yet little children put their hands on mine and told me, “God loves you and so do we.”
I didn’t see a church filled with self-righteous non-Samaritans, who passed ‘on the other side’ to avoid contact with the ‘unclean.’ I saw the true church of Jesus Christ, alive and overflowing with love just like their Savior — the Lord’s people heading to the Lord’s house on the Lord’s day had eyes to see their “neighbor” in need and stooped to give what they had. Most moving were the prayers from their hearts, words invoking God’s help to undergird what they said and did. I was so moved I had to leave before I had planned to avoid the revealing of my true identity.
Three weeks later, dressed again in my homeless persona, I pushed my cart into the back of our worship center as voices arose in praise. Before the sermon, a carefully edited video showed a few worshipers walking past, seeming not to notice the homeless man sitting on the sidewalk outside their house of worship. Then, with tattered clothes and shuffling feet, I pushed my cart down the aisle and ascended the steps to the pulpit, like I do every weekend. Except this time the packed worship center was silent — transfixed as I pulled off my beard and layers of extra clothes, revealing the identity of the man they had all now seen sitting outside our church.
The sermon was titled “When It’s Hardest to Love” and made the point that we love the least when the need is most common and the people are least known to us personally. I left them wondering how they had responded to the ‘homeless man’ as I preached from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount where he tells us, “If you love those who love you, what profit is there? For even unbelievers do that” (Luke 6:32).
At the end of my message — the moment I was so excited to share — I showed the rest of the edited video to surprise and bless the people about how incredibly loving they actually were. I could have said more, were I not choking back tears. “I want you to know, you did an awesome job,” I told them. The video, which went viral this week reaching more than two million people in two days, spoke for itself. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
Christians set the pace for charitable giving around the world and are renowned for establishing schools, hospitals and places of refuge. Here at Harvest Bible Chapel, we’re about to open Freedom House, a new addiction recovery program in Michigan. So much activity going on from Christian institutions everywhere — but nothing more powerful than true believers living the vertical life every day, and loving from our hearts those most in need.
Pastor James MacDonald is an esteemed Bible teacher whose “Walk in the Word” radio and television programs are followed by millions throughout the United States and around the world. He’s the founding and senior pastor of Harvest Bible Chapel whose seven campuses are spread throughout the greater Chicagoland area.