© 2021 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon will be available soon. A video of the service is available here with the sermon beginning around 12:50.
Perhaps the most important tool in my pastoral counseling toolbox is a coin. Heads or tails—which will it be?
People don’t come to me for advice all that often, but, when they do, I find that the most important thing I can give them is the confidence of knowing that they can’t make a wrong decision. Or, to say that another way, if you can see a situation from all sides and still don’t know the right thing to do, what would happen if you flipped a coin and let chance decide? Does the idea of letting a monumental decision rest on the flip of a coin free you up to make the decision you’re struggling to make?
Today’s story from the Acts of the Apostles is one of my favorites. The eleven apostles have gathered with the other believers in Jerusalem. They have seen the risen Jesus ascend into heaven, and now they wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. But before God’s Spirit can breathe through them, empowering them to carry the good news of Jesus Christ to the ends of the earth, the symbolic community of the apostles needs to be reconstituted.
When Judas “turned aside to go to his own place,” as Peter put it, the twelve lost one of their founding members. One of the disciples whom Jesus chose had betrayed him and, in gruesome fashion, had met his own demise. For a few reasons, the remaining disciples, who now understood themselves to be apostles or “sent ones” because of the commission the risen Jesus had given them, recognized the need to put the twelve back together.
Partly, that’s because twelve is an important symbolic number in Judaism, and an early Christian tradition held that the twelve disciples were representative of the twelve tribes of Israel. But it was also because the remaining disciples were desperate for healing. They had been wounded from within their own fellowship. One of their own had betrayed their master and everything he stood for. Even though the empty tomb had pushed aside any argument that a real messiah would have known better than to pick a traitor as one of his closest confidants, the remaining eleven and the other believers must have been eager for a way to move past those doubts. Choosing another apostle from among the community of believers who had been with them from the beginning was an important way to do that.
When it was time to make their choice, the apostles got together, held a televised debate among the leading candidates and, after a series of primary elections, used a secret ballot to ensure that the right person was chosen to take Judas’ place. No, that’s not what they did. Faced with the biggest decision that the way of Jesus had known, the eleven came together, identified two people who were qualified, prayed to God for guidance, and cast lots to determine who the twelfth apostle would be.
Was it chance? Was it luck? Was it magic? Was it faith? What did the apostles understand about the nature of lots, of God, and of themselves to lead them to effectively draw straws to decide who would join them as one of the most important leaders of the church? In the Jewish tradition, casting lots had long been an acceptable way to determine an outcome. In Leviticus 16, we read that, on the Day of Atonement, two goats were to be brought before the Lord and lots were to be cast to determine which one would be sacrificed and which one would be sent out into the wilderness bearing the sins of the people as a scapegoat. When it was time to divide up the land of Canaan among the tribes of Israel (Numbers 26:55), the divisions were made by casting lots. When determining which soldiers would go into battle (Judges 20:9) and which priests would go into the sanctuary to offer the appointed sacrifices (Luke 1:9), God’s people relied on lots. But all of those decisions were moments when the outcome clearly didn’t depend on a careful evaluation of the options. We wouldn’t say the same thing about choosing the twelfth apostle, would we?
Another thing to remember is that while the Jewish tradition accepted the casting of lots as a faithful way to make a decision, God’s people did not understand that process to be magic. This was not a séance or a mystical way to divine God’s will. With the strange and notable exception of the Urim and Thummim, the sacred objects that were kept in the high priest’s ephod and which had long since stopped being used to determine God’s will, the superstitious practice of conjuring up the right answer through an incantation or spiritual medium was outlawed. When Peter prayed and asked God to show them which of the two candidates should join in their ministry and apostleship, he wasn’t asking God to reach down and manipulate the dice as they were cast, yet, at the same time, he was expressing a confidence that, whatever the outcome would be, God and God’s will would be revealed through it.
What does it mean to believe in God like that? This isn’t a passage about primitive models for decision making or a primitive faith that understands God’s will to be most fully revealed at the roulette wheel. This is a story about believing that God’s loving plan for us is bigger than any decisions we would make. It’s a story about trusting that we can’t choose ourselves outside of God’s providential care. It’s a lesson about believing that God’s presence and will can be discerned no matter what direction our lives take. It’s a reminder that we are to seek a deeper understanding of that truth in all of the decisions we face. That’s the kind of faith I need to get me through every day.
When we elect a vestry, we don’t cast lots to determine who should serve, but, if we did, our church wouldn’t fall apart. And, even if it did fall apart, God’s reign on the earth wouldn’t unravel because of it. God’s plan is bigger than that. God’s love for the world is bigger than that. Believing in God does not require us to let go of our intellect—to discard the brains that God has given us—but it does require us to accept that, even when we make a catastrophically bad decision, God’s love for us will not be defeated. We are supposed to think carefully before making big decisions, and it is good practice to put smart, thoughtful people in positions of leadership, but no matter how carefully we think our way through a situation, we still might mess things up. And that’s ok because we can’t mess them up so badly that God can’t work through our mistakes to bring all things to their perfection.
No matter how bad our choices are, we can’t choose our way beyond the limits of God’s loving care. When it comes down to it, we might as well flip a coin. That isn’t a belief in chance or luck or fate. It’s confidence in the God who loves us.