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Chosen By Chance

Sermon - 5/24/09
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Acts 1:15-17, 21-26

The text for this Sunday prior to Pentecost is the text that comes right before the Pentecost story in the book of Acts.  It concerns the replacement for Judas.  Reading then from the first chapter:

In those days Peter stood up among the believers (together the crowd numbered about one hundred and twenty people) and said, 16‘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— 17for he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.’

So one of the men who have accompanied us throughout the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, 22beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection.’ 23So they proposed two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias. 24Then they prayed and said, ‘Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen 25to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.’ 26And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.

 

You know, we have an election coming up in the congregation next Sunday.  The nomination slate is there in your bulletin, but I thought in keeping with this scripture, instead it might be more appropriate if I just simply called out the names of people qualified to serve, and roll some dice.  If I roll a 1, you'll be a Deacon.  2 an Elder.  3 a Trustee.  The first to get a 6 becomes President of the congregation J.  Eliza, in our first service, said "Amen!".

Why not?  It was good enough for the Disciples, should be good enough for us, right?

What's kind of funny, some of you know I typically select scriptures that I'm going to preach on (and themes for the year) in January, and I lay out a plan to work on.  When I picked it for this particular Sunday, because it's part of the lectionary passage for the Sunday before Pentecost, I did not know we were going to be having an election next Sunday.  It should have happened a few weeks ago, but we didn't quite make that deadline.  So maybe this is just another one of those quirky coincidences that make me wonder. . . . is God trying to tell us something?  Is it God's sense of humor?

You know what they say about coincidences:  it's just another word for random acts of God.  Well, maybe.

Last time I preached on this text I decided to focus on the symbolism of the selection of a replacement for Judas.  The importance of having 12, a big Biblical number representing the 12 tribes of Israel before the story continues.  Next time I think I might reflect on the meaning of the death of Judas.  We focus a lot on the meaning of the death of Jesus, what about the meaning of the death of Judas?  That might be an interesting sermon.  In fact, come to think of it, it may be a more interesting sermon (but I didn't think about that in time).

So I thought instead I'd focus on the selection method.  The casting of lots to choose the 12th apostle.  And reflect with you a little bit on the meaning of randomness. . . . . I can hear someone thinking "Ah, he should have gone with the meaning of the death of Judas", this sounds like a real sleeper J.

Think about the Disciples faced with their first big decision without Jesus.  And they leave it up the ancient equivalent of rolling dice.  And because they prayed first, they get to call it the will of the Lord?  That God speaks through a random act like casting lots?  I suppose that works.  Does it always work?  Sometimes works?  Does it ever work?  Maybe I should go to Las Vegas and try it out?

What are we saying when we attribute acts of pure randomness to God's will?  Do all things happen for a reason, to further some purpose of God?

Harold Kushner tells the story of a couple sent to be married in a synagogue, and 3 days before their wedding, the groom-to-be was killed in a car accident.  And on the day of the wedding, at the same time the wedding was to be, instead of reciting vows of marriage, the congregation came to recite the Kaddish -- the prayer for the dead.  And afterwards, friends trying to comfort the bride-to-be would say things like "Well, I know it's hard to understand, but God needed him more than you", "He's in a better place", you know the types of things people say. 

And the bride went to her Rabbi and said "Rabbi, why do people want me to hate God?"

Is it really wise to attribute such acts of random violence to God?

John Hagee, the pastor of a mega-church in San Antonio says that all hurricanes are acts of God.  And so he called hurricane Katrina God's judgment on New Orleans because of a gay pride parade that was scheduled for the Monday when the hurricane came to town.  Now, regardless of ones views on homosexuality, given that the primary victims of Katrina were not gays and lesbians but the poor and disable and senior citizens (a man who fled to his attic to get out of the flood and then drowned), to attribute such random violence and destruction to a loving, forgiving God is morally outrageous and theologically blasphemous.

Two and a half years after making those statements, which he made repeatedly (including on National Public radio), pastor Hagee finally confessed that no one can know the mind of God in such things and he should not have suggested otherwise.  Came a little late.

Others have made similar statements about September 11th, so ponder with me a moment on the fate of those victims of that terrible day.  And I'm thinking not of the firefighters, the police officers, the first responders who heroically gave their lives in their unfortunately futile efforts to save many (although some of those attempts were successful).  But at least they died for a reason.  And they knew the risks of their job.  Nor am I thinking of all those innocent victims in the twin towers and the Pentagon.  Their deaths, tragically, I think, were inevitable as the victims of those chosen targets.  Some might have been in the wrong place at the wrong time for random reasons.

But for the sheer misfortune of bad luck, I'm thinking of those chosen victims on the four flights of that fateful day.  Simply there because they chose the wrong airline.  They chose to fly in the morning rather than in the afternoon.  They were trying to cash in on frequent-flyer miles.  They had a meeting scheduled.  For any one of a hundred different reasons, they could have been on a different flight, or no flight at all.  Why?  How do you make sense out of such randomness?

And indeed, the same would be true of anyone who has had the misfortune to die in a plane crash or a car accident or a bike accident or any other accident.  Sometimes it's the result of human error.  Sometimes a drunk driver.  Sometimes just a silly mistake, often taking others with you in the process, who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. 

And that's just accidents.  What about diseases, some that are so random?  Earthquakes, storms, lightning, the list goes on.

So here's the scary thing, more than we want to admit:  the good fortune we have in life is often simply that -- good fortune.

Slumdog Millionaire, that great feel-good movie of the year, wonderful, delightful movie (I won't spoil the ending).  A child of the Mumbai slums has this incredible string of coincidences (good fortune) that provide him with all the answers he'll need on a game show, save one (that comes at the end).  And in the process of learning all those coincidences that he had that led him to that moment, we also see the thousands and thousands of others who are not so fortunate.

Consider this bit of random good fortune from my own two children.  They exist because in 1976, the Spanish teacher at Phillips University was diagnosed with cancer.  Some of you know, my children were born in 1989 and 1991.  And I'm talking about 1976, so let me explain. 

I went to Phillips University in Oklahoma for another set of reasons and random events (I started school here at Northwest Christian University and the University of Oregon) that found my way to Oklahoma in 1976.  And I wanted a Bachelor of Arts, so I needed two years of foreign language, so I talked to my adviser and said I'd like to take Spanish.  And she said "Uh" -- the Spanish teacher has been diagnosed with cancer, not teaching this Fall, don't know if we're going to have Spanish, so she recommended I pick another language.

Alright, I'll take French.  "Uh" -- French teacher also teaches German, and really German is his language, but we needed a French teacher. 

Alright, I'll take German!  And some of you now know the rest of the story, which is that in 1978 after I graduated I ran into an old friend of our family who happened to be in Berlin at the time, head of the fraternal worker program, and said to me "Since you've taken German, would you like to come to Germany?"  And that's where I met my wife, who happened to be Berlin for another set of random reasons.  Otherwise, were it not for the misfortune of that Spanish teacher, my children would have never been born.

Think about the randomness of life that we all experience.  How do we find meaning in all of this?

If we reject the idea that hurricanes and terrorists carry out God's will, can we attribute good fortune to God?

United Methodist bishop William Willaman, very popular speaker, writer, used to be Dean at the Chapel at Duke University, received a chain saw for Christmas.  I just saw bishop Willaman in September at the end of my sabbatical last summer, and this past Christmas he was given a chain saw.  It was on his wish-list, and Santa Claus obliged.  And so on New Year's Eve, he decided to use this new, delightful instrument of wood-eating power to engage in a wood carving project.  His career as a budding artist was cut suddenly short when the saw slipped, grabbed his sleeve, threw the bishop to the ground, cutting his hand and wrist to the bone, a gash six inches long.  His arm about as useful as a badly butchered flank steak, bleeding profusely, his wife rushed him to the hospital as he considered how his obituary might kindly read:  "Bishop Willaman, dedicated foe of injustice, was injured while cutting wood for the poor".  Would be a small lie, of course, the truth was he was attempting to carve a salad bowl.  But somehow an obituary stating that the bishop gave his life for kitchenware just did not seem to be a fitting end.

So as he bled his way to the hospital, he thought perhaps this was God's punishment for all the lousy sermons he had preached.  Hopefully, he said, God was too busy with more important matters like peace in the Middle East to notice a bleeding bishop, otherwise God's would probably pull his clerical credentials saying:  an idiot like you has no business being in charge of anyone in a church!

Well, as good fortune would have it, the injury was not threatening to anything vital save his future as a chainsaw virtuoso of salad bowls.  As the would began to heal, the pain and medication began to wear off, Willaman had time to reflect on God's part in his suffering.  Was it God's will that he nearly cut his hand off just so he could impress dinner guests with his new skill will passing the salad?  Not likely.

It did occur to bishop Willaman, however, that God might like him to learn a few things from this experience.  Like how to have empathy for victims of suffering.  Like what it means to be dependent on someone else's care.  Or what it's like to live in constant pain.  Or how it feels when your prayer for healing goes unanswered.  Or what happens when you can't work and you have no sick leave and no insurance.  And why do we reduce God to be nothing more than a member of the healthcare delivery team whose purpose is to fix me?

I could relate to Willaman's story because so much of it sounds familiar.  When I was diagnosed with needing an appendectomy in 1994, I'm not ashamed to say I cried.  I cried not because I was in pain or because I hadn't slept for 3 days, or even because I was scared of the surgery.  I cried because I had never been in a hospital bed.  I was always the one who went to the hospital to pray.  I was the pray-er, not the pray-ee.  And to be suddenly vulnerable and weak in this way, to be the recipient of other people's concern and care was terrifying.  And I cried.

Twelve years later, I was diagnosed with prostate cancer.  I didn't cry.  I probably cussed a little J.  Oh phoo-ey J.  That's how preachers cuss J.  Why me?  I'm too young for this.  And then I prayed:  OK God, this is scary stuff, and I'm going to need help to get through this.  That help came.  The support of my wife, and family.  Good medical team, a doctor that was a real gem.  Friends, new friends that I had discovered all along the way that had been there before.  So many of you that came through to help me through it.

In the end, it was a real blessing.  Would I prefer life without prostate cancer?  Well, actually, I've been living now for 3 years without prostate cancer.  So that's the wrong question.  So let me rephrase.  Would I prefer life with my prostate back, free of any cancer?  Well, duh.  I'm not a self-masochist.  Yet, I have learned so much, I have gained so much, I can truly say life is just as good and wonderful and rich as ever and maybe even more so.

So here is where I come out on all this randomness in life. I truly do not know if God used a random act to choose Matthias over Justice as the story is told.  I have my doubts.  But I have no doubt that God worked with Matthias once he was chosen by chance to be one of those twelve.  To give witness to the resurrection, to continue the work of Jesus.  To proclaim the hope of life.

Does everything happen in life for a reason?  Well, if you mean does it happen because of some 'cause', whether a misbehaving chainsaw or a misguided religious zealot, yes it does.  But not everything happens for some God-given purpose or higher good.  Life is often random.  And those who look for meaning, or for God, in the randomness will often be disappointed if not disillusioned. 

So I would suggest instead:  look for God not in the randomness of life, look for God in the purpose-fullness of life. 

Look for God in those who consciously choose to do good instead of evil.  To make the best out of a difficult situation. 

Look for God in those shoe-store salesmen and women passing out sneakers to the women in high-heels on September 11th walking miles home because transportation came to a halt.

Look for God in the tavern waitress hearing the story of a customer with a child who needed a kidney transplant and said 'She can have mine'.

Look for God in that grade school student, who, hearing about Katrina, started her own fund-raising effort in that school beginning with her own savings that she was collecting for herself.

It's not the random coincidences of good fortune where God is known, but the random acts of kindness like those of our own Kelsey Hertel and her club at Sheldon High School.

So what do we make of life with all its randomness of good and evil?  We learn from it.  And we learn to find God in it not as the cause of randomness, but as the redeemer.

Willaman closed his account of his accidental lessons with this story, and so will I.  He writes:

"I preached on a recent Sunday gesticulating in the air with my plastic splint for 20 minutes.  After the service, a kid with purple hair came up to me and asked the question no one dared to ask:  What did you do to your arm, preacher, carpal tunnel syndrome?  "No, this is a real man's injury -- chainsaw did this to me".  "Bummer, man", said the kid.  "You're just like me".  "Huh, how do you mean?" asked Willamen.  "I did a stupid thing to -- busted my butt on my skateboard, cracked my elbow, hurt like hell, couldn't skate for two months.  My friends made fun of me. Still hurts.  I said to Jesus 'Get me out of this and I'll never skate again'. 

"Did you keep your promise to Jesus?", I asked my younger brother in Christ.  "Nah.  All I learned is next time be more careful about making promises to Jesus" J.

 

Yep, he replied, I learned too.  May we all.

 


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