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May 13, 2018
Acts 1:15-17, 21-26
Today’s scripture comes from the book The Acts of the Apostles, thought to have been written by the same person who wrote the Gospel of Luke. It’s a continuation of the story of the Gospels: After Jesus leaves the disciples, how a few followers of Jesus turned into the early church, paving the way for us, a couple of thousand years later, to know this way of life.
One of the very first things this small band of people have to do, after Jesus leaves them, is elect a new leader to replace Judas. Judas is the disciple who didn’t understand Jesus’ ministry or purpose, and who thought he could help Jesus establish political power by forcing a confrontation between Jesus and the Roman leaders. Now, with eleven disciples remaining, they want to have twelve, and so the time has come to elect a new disciple. Listen for a word from God, from the Book of Acts, 1:15-17, 21-26, for how they used to choose leaders:
In those days Peter stood up among the believers
(together the crowd numbered about one hundred twenty persons) and said, “Friends, the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit through David foretold concerning Judas, who became a guide for those who arrested Jesus – for he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry. So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John, until the day he was taken up from us – one of those must become a witness with us to his resurrection.” So they proposed two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias. Then they prayed and said, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias, and he was added to the eleven apostles.”
May God bless our hearing and our understanding of this scripture.
What games did you play as a child with other kids – Anyone here play tag, freeze-tag, tv tag, hide and seek, sardines, kick the can? What about pick up games of softball, or football, or basketball? What about the much loved and much detested game of dodgeball? Who here liked dodgeball? Who here was like me, uncoordinated and slow and scared of fast-moving red playground balls that smacked and hurt when they hit you, and so, detested dodgeball? We actually played dodgeball in my youth fellowship when I was in high school. Such a Christian game. I hated it.
But did anyone here get to be team captain? And how did you pick your team? Can you think back on what the criteria were? Who was big, strong, fast, had good aim, wasn’t scared of the balls coming at them, didn’t huddle along the back wall, terrified? And once you picked the good athletes, then, did you move on to your friends? Then the not super popular but not outcast kids? There’s always some sort of predictable hierarchy when kids get together to choose teams. Does it surprise you to know I was never team captain? Nor one of the first to be picked? Shy, nerdy, scrawny & uncoordinated girls in glasses were usually among the last waiting around to be chosen. I never was the last last, but I was definitely in the last 25% of kids waiting for someone to claim us.
Anyone here in that bottom 25% when it came to schoolyard team-pickings? Remember that awkward feeling, knowing you didn’t bring much to a team, but you didn’t want to be the very last one standing there all by yourself?
Maybe that’s not been your experience of not being picked – Maybe you didn’t get picked for travel basketball, or the clique of girls in elementary school didn’t want your friendship or kicked you out, or you didn’t make the high school lacrosse team, or the college you really wanted didn’t accept you. Maybe it was the girl who dumped you for someone better-looking, smarter, more athletic. Maybe you came in second for a job you really wanted. It is the rare, rare person who gets through very many years without knowing rejection. It’s a pretty common experience, to not be the chosen one. And, it is a lousy, lousy feeling.
We’ve got our own biblical account of someone not picked, not chosen. Here were the criteria Peter set out for the twelfth leader: This person had to have been with Jesus from the very beginning – So apparently Jesus had more followers than the 12, even from the beginning. That person had to have stuck with Jesus until the very very end – Which even Peter didn’t do so well – He denied knowing Jesus three times to save his own skin. And that person had to have witnessed the resurrection. So out of the 150 eligible men gathered in that room – Because at that time, only the men would have been counted – two were proposed. We don’t know if any others met the criteria, or if it was just these two – But Joseph and Matthias were put forwarded, and Peter then led everyone in prayer, then lots were cast. Basically, they were hoping God would work through chance.
And Matthias was the one chosen.
But what was wrong with, and what happened to, Joseph? What story did he tell himself when he went home that night? Was it something along the lines of:
“Why didn’t they pick me? I think they are prejudiced against people with three names – Joseph, Barsabbas, and Justus. But how could they turn down “Joseph?” That’s the name of Jesus’ dad! And I’m also known by “Justus,” and who would make a better apostle than someone known by “justus?” The system is rigged. They wouldn’t know a good candidate if God’s own hand marked him. They think I’m not even good enough to replace the worst disciple of all time! How could they passed me by?”
Or: “Of course they didn’t pick me – I’m not worthy – I’m not good enough – I don’t have any skills – Not like those others – They clearly were born leaders, and know Jesus’ teachings better than I ever could. I’m too shy, too quiet, too inarticulate, to do that job. Of course Matthias should get it. I don’t have much to offer.”
Or, “Whew, that was a close call – My heart just stopped when my name was put forward – But what was I going to say? No thank you? Even I knew what an honor it was to be considered, even though I was hoping and praying and fingers crossed that they would NOT choose me. What kind of life is Matthias in for? Wandering around, from place to place, telling people things they think they want to know but they don’t really want to hear?”
What do we tell ourselves when we aren’t chosen? When we are the unchosen ones. Do we come up with a story that says “Those people don’t know a good thing when they see it. One day, they’ll regret passing me by. Do we say, “Well, I’ve got nothing to offer them anyway?” Are we relieved to be let off the hook? How do we understand what it means when we are not chosen?
To be the unchosen one happens to every single person, and the meaning we give it can determine how we move on. I’m watching Alex Wimberly try to figure out where God might be calling him and, as the breadwinner of his family of five, where God might be calling the whole family. His wife, my friend Kiran said, “He’s really good at coming in second place.” Which is a nice of way of saying, “He’s the unchosen one.”
When we aren’t chosen, do we panic? Are we scared? Is it an indictment on our gifts, our worthwhileness, our existence, our purpose? Does it mean we aren’t as good as someone else?
When life piles up on us, we can start to wonder if maybe even God doesn’t choose us, doesn’t find us worthy – Why does God seem to pick someone else for the job, someone else to be healthy, someone else to get a happy family and a nice house and a smooth life? Why does there seem to be a grey storm cloud following us around?
So much of it depends on the story we tell ourselves, the interpretation and spin we give the events of this life. That story determines how we see what happened in our yesterdays, how we understand the present, how we see the possibilities of the future. What if, in every moment, there is an invitation from God and a promise from God: “I have a purpose for you. I am trying to use you. I am trying to get you to see how much I love you.” And we miss it, because we say, “Well, if I wasn’t picked for this, if this isn’t what I’m supposed to be doing, then I must not have a purpose. If I’m not picked for this job, this school, this life that I want, then God must not be on my side. Maybe there’s nothing for me. If God doesn’t use me this way, or make this thing turn out the way I want, then maybe God doesn’t care about me.”
This can be completely unconscious on our part. We can look at everyone else, and be shocked how much easier it seems their life is. How much more God seems to love them, care about them, take care of them, approve of them, work through them. And we forget that we can never, ever know what it is like to be them. All we can know is what it is like to be us, trying to be disciples in a world that makes it awfully awfully hard.
But how we interpret what’s going on in our lives can make it easier or harder to be faithful. It can grow our trust in God or it can erode it. Jesus wants all the apostles and disciples and followers to trust in the Kingdom of God, the presence of God, the power of God’s love, to be more real than anything else. If that is our starting place and our ending place, then we must look around and ask, not “why is so much wrong here?” but “Where is God here?” And “What is God inviting of me here?”
You know what I find most fascinating and intriguing and yes, hopeful, about this passage on who is picked and who isn’t? Joseph and Matthias are equal in every other way: They both are equally qualified for this work. And they are equally invisible in the rest of the historical account. We hear nothing about how great or how bad, how important or how much influence, either of them had. One was a newly charged disciple, the other the unchosen – But their names are not mentioned again in all of scripture. We have no idea what happened in their lives, or in any one else’s life, as a result of being chosen or not.
Which opens us up to how we might imagine their stories: Maybe Matthias did great things with his position. Maybe Joseph slinked off into angry bitterness that he wasn’t chosen. Maybe Matthias was a complete failure as an apostle. Maybe Joseph was the more righteous, generous, loving follower of Christ in his hometown, touching so many lives and making so many lives better and bringing so many people into the way of Jesus. We don’t know.
It’s almost as if who gets picked and who doesn’t, doesn’t even matter. Picked or not, chosen or not, the question is, how will you now live your life, under these circumstances. Will you grow in bitterness and anger, and assume God and the world is against you? Will you grow in faith and trust, and eagerly watch for God’s next invitation? Where you start each day is where we’ll end up: Bitter, or faithful, or, most likely, some combination – But which way will the scale of your life tip?