The World As It Should Be
April 29, 2018
Rev. Fritz Nelson – First Presbyterian, Columbiana; First United Presbyterian, EP
Text: Acts 8:26-40
An angel of the Lord said to Philip … and Philip listens.
A few years ago a friend of mine, Jason Storbakken started a bible study for homeless individuals living on the streets of Manhattan. They met in the chapel of The Bowery Mission. For over a century the chapel had ministered to the spiritual needs of homeless New Yorkers, but in all that time nobody had ever handed out bibles, read a scripture and asked the most basic of all questions: “What does God’s word mean to you?” Never before had anyone asked the homeless who came to worship God in that sacred space what it meant for them to live out God’s word in their lives, in their situation. Never before had anyone offered to journey with them on their terms, in their world.
The angel speaks and Philip listens. He goes out into the wilderness to meet this castrated Jewish official from the court of the Ethiopian queen. This Ethiopian is a foreigner in Jerusalem and an oddity in his home country. He’s a practicing Jew whose sexual situation renders many to consider him permanently unclean. Philip catches up with this Ethiopian and begins with a question. Not a sermon, not a judgment, not a lecture on what’s wrong with him or how he should live his life, but a question. Philip has traveled all this way to listen. To hear of this man’s journey, his struggles, his questions. To accept his invitation to journey together.
Had Philip come with ears closed and mouth flapping he likely never would have been invited into the Ethiopian’s chariot. Had he been, he would witnessed with a compromised gospel, one filled with all the biases, stereotypes and suppositions fed to us by the World As It Is. Instead, by listening to each other, Philip and the Ethiopian journey into the World As It Should Be.
For the last few weeks we’ve been dwelling in this contrast between the World As It Is and the World As It Should Be. We’ve noted how the World As It Should Be begins with our belonging to God. We’ve commented how the World As It Is begins when the human collective violate the image of God in ourselves and others. We’ve discussed how we can embrace the World As It Should Be in our personal lives through repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation and resting certain in our belonging to God. Today we’re beginning to consider how we bring about the World As It Should Be beyond ourselves, in our church, in our community, in our world.
My friend Jason had to hold his bible study in near secrecy because for generations the leaders of The Bowery Mission believed truth to be something defined by those in charge – those who had the money, those who had the power, those who occupied the pulpit or got to pick those who preached. Their gospel, to put it bluntly, was a rich white man’s gospel to which the poor and struggling were to subscribe, no questions asked. Jason believed each person’s experience leads them to hear their own unique truth. God’s truth only comes when we hear how the gospel speaks to those whose lives and situations differ from ours. Through listening the Christian community grows closer to each other and closer to God.
Around a table in The Bowery Mission chapel Jason invited the homeless and hurting into the World As It Should Be. On the surface the Bowery Mission is already such a place. After all, within its walls the hungry receive food, the thirsty drink, the stranger welcome, the naked clothing and the sick medical care. Yet in the process of trying to save the souls of the homeless, many at The Mission had forgotten they had them.
In the World As It Should Be who we are matters. Every voice matters. How each of us, from the most powerful to the least powerful, experience truth matters. And those in power take special care to seek out and to truly hear the voices of those outside of power, voices long silenced by community dynamics, social structures, biases and prejudices. Voices long silence by the World As It Is.
Years ago two couples in the congregation I was then serving took a cruise down the Yangtze River in China. On their return they shared highlights from their trip at the monthly potluck. Also present was a family in church who were from China. As the travelers shared their experience the family who were actually from China became increasingly uncomfortable. The China they knew was nothing like the China experienced by those on the cruise – and when they tried to share, the cruisers shut them down. The couples had very little interest in hearing about a different China, a China distinct from the one packaged and presented by the tour company, a China nonconforming to their prejudices and challenging to their suppositions.
The World As It Should Be begins to come into being when we repent of our suppositions and prejudices. The World As It Should Be begins to come into being when we open our ears to the truths as experienced by those who sit in the pew next to us, those who join us for church programs or dinners, those in our neighborhood who would never walk through this door. The World As It Should Be begins when we hear voices challenging to us and to the systems we take for granted. The World As It Should Be begins when we hear the truth as experienced by the oppressed and the abused, the hurting and the beaten down, the margionalized and the forsaken, those whose voices have been silenced for so long we don’t realize they even can speak.
The World As It Should Be comes when we greet each other with the most basic of questions: “What does God’s Word mean to you.” And when we praise God for the answer, even when it hurts, even when it challenges the world as we experience it, even when it contradicts truths proclaimed as inerrant gospel by the World As It Is.