Pastor Joseph Wallace Brown, or “Pastor Joe” as he was lovingly referred to by his congregation, sat quietly in his study this particular Friday afternoon contemplating and reflecting as he was gathering his thoughts for the sermon that he would deliver to the congregation on Sunday morning. This Sunday was a special Sunday, as all Sabbath days are; however, this Sunday was Independence Day and it would also mark the twenty ninth anniversary of his serving as Pastor.
At the young age of 46, Joseph Wallace Brown had been selected to be the Pastor of the congregation of the Robinson Street Baptist Church in San Domingo Maryland. For the past 29 years he had spent many hours reading and studying the Scriptures and preparing sermons that he felt would edify and strengthen his congregation. During those 29 years he had seen many members of the congregation come and go. Many had moved away to find better employment. Some had left to go to college and decided not to return to San Domingo after graduating. Others had left the church for various reasons. And there were some dear ones, both family members and friends, who had passed away over the years, including his beloved wife Frances Mae. Some of the adults in the congregation who were only babies when Pastor Joe preached his first sermon on Sunday morning, July 4, 1981, were now leaders in the congregation.
As Pastor Joe continued to ponder what his sermon would be about on Sunday morning, he recalled that first sermon he had preached. He had titled the sermon “Blessed Is The Nation.” The sermon was based on the Scriptures found in Psalm 33:12, “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord; and the people whom he hath chosen for his own inheritance”, and 2 Chronicles 7:14, “If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.” His first thoughts were to preach a sermon using this same theme, but then he began to reflect more upon the years gone by and some of the events that had taken place in his own life, as well as, the lives of the members of his congregation and decided that might not be the way to go. He also thought about preaching a sermon in honor of being the Pastor for the past 29 years, but soon decided against that idea as well. Neither of the ideas seemed to fit. Somehow he felt that God had a special message that He needed him to deliver to the congregation on this special Sabbath Day morning. Suddenly he felt impressed to take a walk.
The community of San Domingo where Pastor Joe lived was small and close knit. Everybody knew who lived in the community and when a stranger came into the community it drew everyone’s attention. Just about everyone who lived in the community were members of the Robinson Street Baptist Church with a few exceptions that attended church elsewhere. As he walked around the community he observed neighbors at work and children at play. He stopped and spoke to several of them as he passed by. As he continued to walk through the community he still could not help but wonder what the special message was that the Lord would have him preach on Sunday morning. The words from 2 Chronicles 7:14, “If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin” suddenly came to mind and it was as if a small voice whispered to him at that moment, “Not all things are as they seem. Watch and listen.”
In a short time he began to see, hear, and understand what the voice was telling him. As he passed by one neighbor’s house he saw some children playing in their yard. A young boy who he knew to be in town visiting some relatives saw the boys playing and asked if he could play too. Instead of inviting the boy to join their group, they began to mock and tease him to the point that the boy ran away in tears. Pastor Joe wanted to stop and say something to the boys, but noticing that the mother had come outside, he felt that it was best to let it be and let the mother handle it.
As he walked on a little further he saw Mrs. Dashields, one of the elderly ladies of the community, struggling to carry some heavy bags of things that she had gotten from another neighbor to her home. Two teenage boys on bicycles, Timothy Wilson and William Johnson rode past her, but not one of them bothered to ask her if they could lend a hand and lighten her load. Instead they just looked at her and laughed and rode on by. Just as he was going to go help her another neighbor who had looked out his window and had seen her, came running to her aid.
Moving on a little further he saw and heard a father, Mr. Beckett, yelling and screaming at his son. Pastor Joe knew the boy well and knew that he had a difficult time at learning and understanding things. Obviously his father knew this as well, but things must not have been going well for the father that day and he decided to take it out on his son. Not only was he yelling at the boy, but he was calling him dumb, slow, stupid, and other such names. The boy repeatedly said that he was sorry for whatever it was he had done but the father would not hear of it and sent the boy in the house in tears and shame. Pastor Joe felt sorry for the boy and wanted to stop and say something to the father, but seeing the angry mother coming out of the house to confront the father, he thought it best not to get in the middle of it.
As he walked towards the end of the community and was turning around to start walking back towards home, he was in awe of some of the things that he had seen and heard from the members of his congregation. By the time he reached home and returned to his study, he knew exactly what the special message was that the Lord would have him preach on Sunday morning. He opened his Bible and turned to the passage of Scripture that he would use as his text. He also had the title for the sermon. Now, the question was how to make the sermon effective and meaningful. He thought for a moment and then he had the answer. He paused and gave thanks to God for opening his eyes and allowing him to see some things as they really are. He also thanked Him for the message that he had been entrusted to deliver on Sunday morning. Then he ended the prayer by asking a special blessing for his congregation and for those who would be visiting on Sunday.
When members of the congregation arrived that Sunday morning they greeted one another with the usual smiles, hugs and handshakes. As they neared the entrance of the building they stopped as they noticed an old man sitting against the building. No one knew what to think of him. He wore an old overcoat that was dirty and torn. He wore an old hat that looked like something that had been taken out of the garbage. The clothes he had on were filthy, ragged, and torn. Even a few of the patches were beginning to come lose and were in need of mending. He had a scraggly beard and he wore dark sunglasses to cover his eyes. His shoes had holes in the soles and had cardboard in them to cover the holes. In spite of his appearance the man seemed friendly enough as he stood to his feet to greet the members in a scruffy voice with “Good morning! How is everyone this fine Sunday morning?” He reached out his hand to shake hands with some of them as another friendly gesture, but no one would accept his offer. This man was a stranger. He was dirty. His dress was deplorable. Surely he was not thinking of coming inside to worship with them. And, what was it that he was carrying that had been so carefully wrapped in a brown paper bag?
The old man just stood there and looked at the members. Some of the children were beginning to snicker, point, and whisper jokes about this stranger. Some of the adults were no better as they too began whispering amongst themselves. “Who is this person?” some asked. “Do we know him?” “Why don’t the deacons and trustees just ask this person to leave so that we can go in and have our worship service?” others asked. Mrs. Dashields spoke up and asked, “Does the pastor know that this man is here? Why don’t someone go and tell him?” Then Mr. Beckett, one of the deacons, looked around and said, “That is odd. I don’t even see the pastor’s car here yet. It is unusual that he would not be here by now. I hope he is not ill or something.”
A couple of the other deacons finally asked the old man to stand aside and allow the members to enter while they had a talk with him. The man cordially agreed. Before the deacons could say anything the old man assured them that he was not there to cause any trouble or to cause anyone any harm. He only wanted to attend worship services and then he would go quietly on his way, The deacons agreed to let him stay and told him that he could sit in one of the back pews and enjoy the service. The old man thanked them and went inside. Still the deacons wondered, “Who is this person? Do we know him from somewhere?”, and “Where is the pastor this morning?” They too went inside and took their usual seats.
The congregation sat reverently awaiting the arrival of Pastor Joe. Mrs. Chandler, the church pianist, played hymns as they waited. One of the hymns that she played was “They Will Know We Are Christians By Our Love”. At the conclusion of the playing of the hymn, the old gentleman in the back stood up and started walking towards the pulpit. The congregation was in uproar that this person would dare think of entering the sacred pulpit. What made him think that he was even worthy to do so? One of the deacons asked him to please return to his seat, but the man would not listen. He continued walking towards the pulpit.
Once he was in the pulpit he sat the package that he was carrying down and stood and gazed at the congregation. Then he opened the Bible that was on the pulpit. He gazed at the congregation once more and then he read these words to them: “Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me” (Matthew 25:34-36). The congregation sat in silence and wonderment that this stranger had chosen this particular passage of Scripture to read. He continued and then read these words, “Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?” (Matthew 25:37-39) The old gentleman paused and reached down for the package. Carefully he unwrapped the package and then revealed its contents to the congregation. What was inside the package was a picture that he now held up for all to see. As he held the picture high with one hand, he continued reading starting with the verses that he had just read: “Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Matthew 25:37-40).
He paused and laid the picture down. Looking into the audience with tears now welling up in his eyes, he stood in silence for a brief moment and then said something that the people did not quite understand. He simply said, “Not everything is always as it seems.” He then turned around and walked towards one of the seats on the stand. The people thought he was finished, but much to their amazement, this stranger, with his back to the audience, first took off the old overcoat that he was wearing. Next, he took off the dark glasses, followed by the fake mustache and beard and finally the hair piece that he was wearing. Pausing for yet another brief moment, he turned and faced the congregation. This supposed stranger was no stranger at all. This man was none other than Pastor Joe, their beloved Pastor who had faithfully served them for the past 29 years. Some were a bit angered that Pastor Joe would deceive them in such a cunning manner, but no one said anything. Pastor Joe went back to the pulpit, picked up the picture once again, held it high for all to see, and then read once more the last verse which he had just read: “And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren. . . .” (he motioned with his free hand waving it over the congregation and then pointing to himself), ye have done it unto me (now raising the picture high with both hands). Having read that verse, he sat the picture down once again and turned to go to the seat on the stand. Nothing more needed to be said as Pastor Joe had delivered the special message that the Lord needed him to deliver. He motioned for Mrs. Chandler to come to the piano and play the closing hymn and then invited Timothy Wilson to give the closing prayer.
Disclaimer: I wrote this article/short story and posted it on an older blog that I used to maintain, on 23 July 2010. It is shared here because I believe that the message contained therein is powerful, and needs to be repeated from time to time, especially within the body of Christ. It is interesting to note that recent news stories based on the same theme as the message of this article have recently appeared about an LDS Bishop who disguised himself as a homeless person to teach his congregation a lesson on compassion (see the picture and related articles below). Please feel free to comment as to whether you believe that this is a good method of illustrating a Biblical principle.