My sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter focused on our reading from Acts, the selection of Matthias to be an apostle. But, as I mention, I was more drawn to Joseph, who was not selected. What was his story? What did he do after this? We don’t know, just as we don’t know the stories of thousands of ordinary saints. Who were the ordinary saints for you? Perhaps you are one to someone else without even knowing it!
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
It was only a couple of minutes into recess and already the teams were starting to divide. The two boys called off names one by one, and we joined whichever side called our name to get ready for the kickball game. I got picked somewhere in the middle of the pack. I was a girl, but already by the fourth grade, I had a reputation for being scrappy.
Some of my friends weren’t so lucky. They remained waiting, hoping to be picked, until finally there were only two girls left. And one spot left. We wanted the teams to be even, so that meant someone was going to be left out. The teachers were sitting in the shade far away from the kickball field, or everyone might have had to be included. The final choice was made, and the poor girl who wasn’t picked trudged off to watch from the sidelines.
That’s the feeling I got listening to this story from Acts, of the disciples casting lots to figure out who was going to take Judas’s place among them. There are two equally-qualified candidates: Matthias and Joseph, sometimes called Barsabbas, sometimes called Justus. They both meet the main criterium: following Jesus from the beginning. The disciples pray about it. And still there is no clear choice, so they roll the dice. Matthias gets the last spot, and Joseph is left to watch from the sidelines.
It seems a terribly random way to do such an important thing. Casting lots. In Amish communities, it’s still a standard practice. All the men—only the men—take a hymnal at random and the one with a piece of paper in it is the preacher for the year. The process will repeat itself again when the new year begins.
We shouldn’t be so fast, though, to shake our heads at these odd, primitive processes for selecting church leaders. We, too, have what many would consider a very odd, old-fashioned method of electing our leadership. Our system is just more elaborate than pieces of paper in hymnals. We have nominating committees, and call committees, and congregational meetings instead.
Last weekend, at our synod assembly, we elected a new bishop, using a process called ecclesiastical ballot. Which means the over five-hundred voting members are given a blank sheet of paper and told to write down a name. We should consider ourselves lucky that only eighty-something people ended up being nominated. After those who wished to withdrew, the second ballot had 28 names, then it was narrowed to seven, then to three, and then we had a bishop. The Rev. Pat Davenport, the first black woman elected bishop in the ELCA.
After living through the election process, the idea of casting lots starts to seem appealing. But honestly, comparing the bishop’s election with the selection of Matthias in Acts, we find a lot of similarities. There is a discussion of what is needed: someone to fill this role. The synod underwent a self-study, much like congregations do before calling a pastor to think and to pray about what type of leader we need.
Then, you determine who is eligible for the position. In Acts it was anyone who had been with Jesus from the beginning. For the bishop’s election it is any ordained minister of the ELCA. You could have been ordained for 50 years or 50 minutes—you’re eligible. And once you lay out the need and the candidates, you pray, and you trust the Holy Spirit. In Acts, they prayed and rolled the dice. Today we pray and pass out ballots. And you have to trust that the Holy Spirit will use this flawed, human process to do something amazing.
I find myself drawn today, though to those who aren’t chosen. To those who didn’t win. Matthias takes the last spot among the apostles, and Joseph is just left to watch from the sidelines. Pat Davenport is elected bishop, and the others just go back to their calls and their churches and their lives.
In the book of Acts, neither Matthias nor Joseph is ever mentioned again. We don’t know what they get up to. Can we imagine a different ending for Joseph than the sidelines? He wasn’t called to this particular position, but can we imagine that he was called in some other way to bear witness to Jesus? He lost the toss of the dice, but nowhere does it say that he lost his faith.
We don’t hear about him ever again, so we are left to imagine. But I can only imagine that this man Joseph, who has been with Jesus from the beginning, continued to be a part of the church, continued to share what he had seen and heard. That he was there on Pentecost, when the Spirit descended like tongues of fire, that he preached and shared in the life of the community. That he became one of the hundreds, then thousands of ordinary people who carried this extraordinary gospel from generation to generation.
Most of us don’t have our first experience of God’s love through interacting with a bishop. Instead, we interact with the ordinary people in our lives. The Josephs, and those others whose names are never even mentioned. Our parents, grandparents, friends. Sunday school teachers. People who may never even be mentioned at synod assembly, but whose lives bear witness to God’s love in Christ.
These people may never get the recognition of even St. Matthias, but these are the ordinary saints who God uses to share that extra-ordinary story. The book of Acts and the history of the church unfolds because of hundreds upon hundreds of unnamed people. Who were those people for you? Who are those ordinary saints who made a difference in your life. A name I hear around St. Paul’s a lot is Mrs. Laudenslagger. She taught Sunday School for years, and impacted hundreds of lives. She is one of those people of faith whose ordinary life God used to do extraordinary things.
And so are you. No one is relegated to watching from the sidelines in the continually unfolding story of God’s love. No one is left to watch without participating. Maybe the roll of the dice will land on you, and you will be called to a public and well-known position, and you will use it for God’s glory. If so, thanks be to God.
But maybe the dice will never land on you. If that’s the case, then thanks be to God for that, too! Because in that case, we have the great calling to share God’s love in ordinary ways. To be the Josephs and the Mrs. Laudenslaggers of the world. To share God’s story with other ordinary people. And in doing so, we are a part of that extraordinary story: the story of God’s great and unfolding love for all people, and all creation. And that is never just ordinary. Thanks be to God. Amen.