Casting Lots, Prayer, and Vocations

I am always amazed at how the readings for any given Sunday can speak to a specific event or circumstance taking place in our lives or in our world. Reading from Acts about the selection process for someone to take Judas’ place among the Twelve hits a little close to home. Peter articulates their requirement for the position: the person needed to be a follower of Jesus from the time of his baptism until his ascension. Of the 120 in the upper room with them, only two were qualified. And then they bring forward Matthias and Joseph-Barsabbas-Justus (perhaps known as JBJ?), and Peter has them draw straws or roll dice or play a round of paper-rock-or scissors. And voilà, they have a new apostle. It took all of a day.

An Eastertide Sermon on Acts 1.

Compare this with the process we use for selecting a rector or a bishop. There are cover letters and resumes, Office of Transition Ministry profiles, videos of selected sermons, and written answers to specific questions. There are Zoom interviews and background checks, conversations with the applicant’s bishop and lay leaders. Often there’s a psych eval, a conversation with references, and then a chance for the entire search team—or diocese—to ask questions. After all that, it comes down to a final few candidates and a vote, the process usually taking some 10 months or more from the first letter of intent to the newly called person beginning their ministry. Sometimes I wonder if it’d just be easier to flip a coin.

Except there’s the one other thing mentioned in scripture. The assembled ones prayed together. “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 there it is. This whole thing was grounded in prayer. The 120 gathered in that room during the in-between time of when Jesus was taken up into heaven and before the coming of the Holy Spirit, and they prayed for God to act. Which is not unlike what we do now. Sure, we add in a dozen more steps along the way in order to properly vet people, but in the end our prayer is the same: “Lord, you know the hearts of everyone. Show us who you have chosen to lead us in the days ahead.”

And while our political systems and even the way we draw up teams on the playground tell us that there are winners and losers, that’s not the case here. While Matthias is the one who has the lot fall his way thereby taking his place alongside the other apostles, we never hear about him again in all of scripture. After this lesson, he fades into “the Twelve.” The same holds true for some of those other disciples that we get introduced to and then never hear from again, like Simon the Zealot or Bartholomew. Certainly they participated in sharing of the good news of Jesus, but they just did so out of the scope of what’s recorded.

In much the same way, Justus is never mentioned again either, although he’ll be among the 120 assembled there waiting for the coming of the Spirit. It’s not as if he just slinks away, disappointed he didn’t make, that he didn’t get picked, and so his life is no longer important. It’s just that he wasn’t meant for that particular role, at that particular time. But God still had plans for him.

I’m reminded of Peter Gabriel’s song “Don’t Give Up” from his 1986 album “So.” In it he sings of someone who had been taught that it was important to win, and who now faces a disappointing circumstance, firmly believing that no one wants you when you lose. That when things don’t go your way, when you aren’t picked for a job or you don’t get into the college of your dreams, that all is forever doomed. And yet, singer Kate Bush who joins Gabriel in this song, implores him not to give up. That he still has friends, that there’s a place he belongs. That he does indeed have a home.

I would venture that most—if not all—of us have stories of not being chosen. I was one of the smallest in my class for years and years—I began kindergarten when I was 4 making the school cut-off by just a couple weeks—so when picking up sides for kickball I was often last. Many years later I experienced the pain of being swiftly rejected from multiple PhD programs in English, receiving one rejection letter a mere 10 days after I applied, and I wondered if they had even read my application materials. As you might infer, that was before fully realizing my call to ordained ministry. You see, God had other plans for me that didn’t include teaching composition and rhetoric to college freshmen. There were unique gifts given to me by God that could best serve the world in a different way to share the love of Jesus.

While we don’t hear anything in scripture again about Justus, the one not chosen, his story doesn’t end in Acts 1. Tradition claims that after Pentecost, Justus eventually became the first bishop of Eleutheropolis. Known as “the City of the Free,” this Roman stronghold was a center for commerce and industry located along the road from Jerusalem to Gaza. In fact, seven routes in the area met in Eleutheropolis, and it was, according to historian Eusebius, the beginning from which each those routes was measured—mile 0, if you will. In the succeeding centuries, it would emerge as the largest bishopric—what we’d call a diocese—in all of Palestine. In other words, Justus still had work to do. While he drew the short straw, God had other things in mind. And who wouldn’t want to be the bishop in the “City of the Free”?

As we near graduation season, I cannot help but consider the angst of many 18- and 22-year-olds who think they must have a career path completely plotted out so they have a ready answer when asked about their future plans. I am reminded of my own undergraduate days and a classmate of mine who was in her 50s. Judith was an English major like me, and she wrote an essay once that shared her own struggle in life. She described hometown friends of hers who fell in love in high school, got married, and quickly began their careers. They were nearing the end of paying off their 30-year mortgage while she was dealing with the aftermath of a bitter divorce, and now getting her bachelor’s degree and trying to figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. She said at times she was envious of those friends and their clarity, while also recognizing the freedom that came in listening to the call of the Spirit and knowing that she was exactly where she needed to be and trusting that she would find her way.

For those of us in a season of uncertainty of any kind, I simply say don’t give up. Trust that the Spirit has plans for us. That there’s a place where we belong even if that is not clear yet. While our culture makes much of who is a winner and a loser when it comes to these things, God simply sees it as the opening and closing of doors on our journey. Clearly God thought I’d make a better priest than a college professor, and that Justus would make an excellent bishop instead of taking a place alongside the other apostles. The constant in this is that God sees more than we do, and that God desires to make all things whole in leading us to our vocation where we can bring together our deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger, as Frederick Buechner once put.

Because we all have a calling—a vocation—in this life. Far too often we believe that only those of us who are ordained have such a call, which is just bad theology. Each of us as a result of our baptism are called to spread the good news of Jesus in our respective vocations, whether that’s as a teacher or historian or engineer or marketing guru or electrician. In each of these—and more—God utilizes the gifts we’ve been given to share that message of hope with our world. For there are places I could never go, people I could never reach, as someone who wears a collar. There are those I will never encounter who will know you. And as we were reminded a few days ago at the Feast of the Ascension, now we are the ones who are Christ’s hands and feet. We are called to embody his love and empathy and lift up those who are struggling in this life. To remind them never to give up. To help them know that there’s a place where they belong. To trust that even when they lose in the eyes of the world, they are beloved by the creator of the universe. Each of us has been chosen by God to bring that good news to the world. Each of us is called to witness to the power of the risen Lord with all that we have.


Image by Alexa from Pixabay.

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