Saturday, May 23, 2009

Casting lots

Do you remember the last time we read of anyone casting lots? Yup, it was the soldiers trying to decide who would get Jesus’ cloak. Casting lots is an ancient way of making decisions. It is similar to flipping a coin or eeny-meeny-miny-mo. It is drawing straws or tossing the dice. Casting lots is relying on the old ways to move the new way forward.
We might ask why Peter thought there had to be twelve disciples but he doesn’t really explain his reasons other than to say that they need to replace Judas.
It is true that there were twelve tribes of Israel and Jesus did call twelve
disciples. So I suppose Peter equated one twelve with the other and, indeed, scholars too have often done so. If that’s the case, then eleven was an insufficient number. Perhaps Peter was wondering how the Holy Spirit, the one to come after Jesus, would know who they were if there weren't twelve.
In fact, Luke says there are about 120 people gathered in that place and Peter set up rather arbitrary qualifications for disciple candidates. The potential disciple has to have been a part of the group from the very beginning, from the banks of the Jordan where Jesus was baptized – an event, by the way, that none of the disciples witnessed – to the crucifixion – another event witnessed by only one of the eleven. So just as the number twelve is arbitrary, so are the qualifications for discipleship.
In any case, prayers are made, lots are cast and Matthias is elected to take Judas’ place. And then we never hear about him again! He is a place holder,
someone to fill the void only.
It appears that the disciples, in this interim period when Jesus is no longer with them but the Holy Spirit has not yet come into their midst, have reverted to old ways instead of praying to discern new ways. And are we any different?
In the Episcopal Church, the process for calling rectors and bishops is relatively similar. A search committee is appointed, names are submitted for consideration, the list is pared down to about three to five people and then a decision is made. Thus it has been for as long as any of us can remember.
Except it hasn’t. Bishops used to place rectors in their parishes and there are still bishops who do that, particularly in mission churches. In our own Diocese, we offersparishes three ways to call a new rector. There’s the standard full search which is the method used most often. There is an option
to have the Diocese submit six to twelve names to the search committee.
And there is the option to choose one of two or three candidates to be priest in charge for one to two years during which the priest and parish discern
whether this is a good fit.
There is a diocese in our church located on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. It is a very small, isolated diocese and, over the years, this diocese has developed a way of being church that is called Total Ministry. Total ministry draws on the gifts of all the members of each congregation to get done the work not just of the parish but also much of the work of the priest. You see, there aren’t enough priests to have one celebrate and preach every Sunday. So people have been identified who can preach, teach, administer the parish and do pastoral calling. The gifts of the whole congregation are necessary to be the body of Christ.
Total ministry is a wonderful addition to our understanding of how we are to be the church. It is rooted in the teaching of St. Paul. In the Diocese of East Tennessee, we call it Shared Ministry and there are several parishes who now work this way or have borrowed part of the model to enhance and enrich the ministry of the laity.
Well, back to the Diocese of Northern Michigan. Discernment is critical to the success of total or shared ministry. The vestry doesn’t meet and arbitrarily
decide that Lucy should preach and Horatio should make pastoral visits. No, over a period of as much as two years the whole congregation meets in prayer
to do the work that will help them hear the Spirit’s voice, will, in effect, elect
the right person for each job.
Just a few months ago, this diocese elected a new bishop. Their previous bishop, Jim McElvey, died in June of 2007. Normally, we would instantly begin the process of electing a new bishop. But Northern Michigan, fully invested in the discernment process of total ministry, decided to use that same
process to find their new bishop.
And it worked. One name was put forward as the person who should be the next bishop. A special convention was called and the Diocese concurred with the discernment committee’s decision.
But the rest of The Episcopal Church, a majority of whose dioceses have to consent to the election of every new bishop, immediately had fits. How, we asked Northern Michigan, can you have an election if there is but one name on the ballot?
Northern Michigan dared to do a new thing, to trust that the way the Spirit has been moving in their Diocese would effectively lead to the right person for the job of bishop. But the rest of us want to cast lots. We like the old ways and aren’t interested in learning new ones.
Sometimes, we have to change. Sometimes the old casting of lots needs to make way for the new discernment through the Spirit. This lesson, of course, doesn’t just apply to how we elect bishops and clergy. It isn’t even just about how we organize our churches.
Life is not meant to be static. I once knew someone who washed all her clothes with hot water because that is how the washer was set when it was installed. But sometimes you need cold or even warm water and most of us don’t use hot water much at all. Her argument was that it came that way and so that’s the way it would be used.
We don’t come with carefully defined never to be changed settings. If that were the case, we would all still be in diapers. The fact that we are supposed to change and grow and keep on learning is not a new idea for any of us. But the fact that the changes and the growth and the learning are guided by God through the work of the Spirit just might be.
Sure, we believe the Spirit guides us in spiritual decisions but we have carefully divided our lives into sections. There is the spiritual section in which God is present and active and there is the worldly or everyday section which I control myself, making decisions with the help sometimes of other people but this is not God’s area of expertise.
Well, that’s just not true! All of life is spiritual and God is in all of it. It goes back to the notion of abiding that we have heard in the gospel readings the last two weeks. In fact, that is what Jesus is still talking about in this week’s reading; he just uses different words.
We are God’s and so God abides in us. Therefore, it is right and good to make decisions and changes in conversation and partnership with God. And sometimes God helps us to realize that the old ways are just that – old. They were right for their time, served their purpose, but now we need to put them away and seek new ways to do what we are called to do.
Listening for God is one of the hardest things we are called to do. But it is also one of the most rewarding. Because God opens doors and windows we didn’t know were there. God takes us to surprising places along with people we never thought we would share the journey with.
What are the old ways that don’t work for us anymore? How might the Spirit be calling us? We will never know unless we decide to listen.

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