- Parish House
Sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter
The Right Rev. Larry R. Benfield
For some people, the sign of having arrived at a certain, mature age is to read the obituaries daily, looking not so much for names, as for birth dates, to see how many people who are younger than the reader have gone to be with their heavenly father, or join the choir of angels, or golf on the greens of Paradise, or whatever the elocution of the day is to avoid the word “died.” By the way, the newspaper loves those lengthy elocutions: more money as you sell space by the column inch.
For bishops of a certain age, the sign is to read who among our fellow bishops has announced plans to retire. Beth Matthews, who has worked with several bishops over decades and served as an assistant secretary to the House of Bishops, has said on more than one occasion, along with me, as we read the latest announcement, “But I didn’t know he is that old.” Okay, I must admit that she once said, “I didn’t know he was still alive.”
The institutional church, in its effort to ensure that all things are done properly, wants to know a couple of years in advance of a bishop’s retirement so that an orderly transition can take place. It allows time for the consultant to come to the diocese, a search committee to be formed, parishioners to express their hopes for the future, schedules to be made, interviews held, dates set…well, you get the picture. The church wants the perfect process undertaken. We even have a bishop whose job is to consult a diocese on how to find a transition consultant. I am not lying. From experience, I can tell you that it puts a lot of pressure on the person ultimately elected. How do you live up to the expectations—and the six-figure cost—of electing a new bishop? It ain’t easy.
But then there is Matthias, the subject of today’s reading from the Book of Acts. The expectations of him had to be rather low. They simply found a couple of people who had hung around Jesus from the beginning and then rolled the dice. They saved $100,000. There was a deficit, so to speak, in the number of people who were needed to be sent off to share good news, which is what the actual definition of an apostle is—one who is sent—and Matthias’s number came up on top of the dice.
As I am fond of saying, if Holy Scripture is to remain alive, it has to speak to us. No, today’s lesson from the Book of Acts is not an endorsement of any new gambling initiatives in Arkansas. Neither is it speaking simply as history. Instead, this lesson is a presentation to us of Good News in our own individual lives. The story is not so much about Matthias, as it is about you and me.
In order to understand that last comment, we need a little more background information. The writer of the Book of Acts knew what he was doing. He chose never to say another thing about Matthias. What you hear today is all we know about the guy: God, through the roll of the dice, takes an unknown person with few apparent qualifications for office, and says that such an anonymous, perhaps underwhelming person, is sufficient to be sent out to proclaim the good news of how death is turned into new life.
That is our story. That is the good news today for you and me. God rolls the dice and goes with us, as unlikely a candidate for church preferment that each of us might be. Ordinary people turned into apostles, turned into people who are sent.
As for the roll of the dice, let’s face it. All the fancy casino advertising aside, with their scenes of laughing, good-looking actors and actresses, a drink in one hand, rolling the dice at the craps table with the other (and, by the way, that smile that comes with winning), there is always something a bit disappointing about casinos when we walk into real ones. Too many truly ordinary people sitting at row after row of slot machines, tobacco smoke filling the air, lifelong dreams of security, financial or otherwise, going up in that very smoke. That scene in some ways is metaphorically the story of more of us than we want to admit: not necessarily of us actually in casinos, but stories of dreams turned to ash, of losing when we thought we would win, sometimes simultaneous overwhelming odds and an underwhelming life. Those are the real-life stories of our own deaths that keep us awake in the middle of the night, not some glittery ad that sends us into a contented sleep.
But the writer of the Book of Acts is saying to us that that in some sense that is where God is: among the anonymous, among the ordinary, among those whose lot has been cast. Those are the very people whom God chooses to use for the spreading of the Good News. How do we take our ordinary, in-so-many-ways-disappointing lives, and show others that there is good news in the holy truth that all people are lovely and loved, even if the dice have not necessarily rolled our way? We who call ourselves Christians have the privilege of showing how the many deaths we have undergone can be preludes to new life.
Remember what I said about Matthias? They looked for someone who had simply hung around Jesus. Or as the lesson states it, someone “beginning from the baptism….” You see, the story is that the good news becomes part and parcel of the lives of people who have hung around Jesus from their baptism. That is what the church offers: we baptize you and we confirm you, and we ask you to hang around Jesus and see what happens. Listen to our Baptismal Covenant: Will you continue in the breaking of the bread? We ask you to stay around and see Jesus in the church: in the bread, in the wine, in the people who sit beside us or in who sit ten pews away. And outside the church: the people who wouldn’t know what the inside of a church looks like. When we stay around week after week, when we start to take a serious look at our own lives, we are then ready to start sharing Good News of death turned into life with people who cannot yet see that the ashes of their lives can have any meaning, in part by the way we treat them. That treating them as God’s beloved is basic evangelism.
My dream for the church is simple: To have ordinary people discover the love of God so profoundly that we start seeing Jesus all around us. And then live into that truth. To live as if every person we see IS the resurrected Christ. And that includes our families, our employers, our political adversaries, immigrants, people south of the Interstate who live on welfare, even our own broken selves. When we live that way, we are apostles, witnesses to the resurrection, people sent into the world because we see the world as a holy place. Our name becomes Matthias. We may not be heard of again. But don’t despair. Our lot has already been cast as one of God’s beloved. Amen.