Sermon, May 13

In those days Peter stood up among the believers and said, “One of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us… must become a witness with us to his resurrection.” So they proposed two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias. Then they prayed and said, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles. (Acts chapter 1)

The Calling of Matthias, Movement 1: Congratulations, You Have An All-Male Panel!

Back in 2015, a Finnish scholar, Dr. Saara Sarma, started a blog called Congrats, You Have An All-Male Panel! She’d been noticing for years that panels of experts were very frequently all male – regardless of whether the field under discussion was agriculture in the Sudan, developments in the music industry, advances in chemical engineering, global banking regulation, or even women’s reproductive rights. (Source) Her blog quickly went viral as people began submitting photos of “expert” lineups that meet the All Male Panel criterion. In one recent example, a magazine asked the question, “What can the real estate industry do to better promote gender equality?”, and shared responses from… four men. 

If you go to Sarma’s blog – and you should – you’ll find that the header image at the top of the page is Leonardo da Vinci’s famous image of the Last Supper. You know the one: “We’d like a table for twenty-six.” “But there are only thirteen of you.” “That’s OK, we’re all going to sit on the same side.”  The image makes the point that Jesus’ Twelve Disciples are one of the classic All-Male Panels. 

The Gospel of Mark tells us that Jesus – overwhelmed by the crowds seeking him out for healing – calls his disciples to him and appoints twelve of them “to be with him, and to be sent out to preach and have authority to cast out demons.” (Mk 3:14-15). Matthew and Luke follow Mark’s lead in naming the Twelve. Twelve was an important number; it called to mind the Twelve Tribes of Israel, and suggested completeness and fulfillment. So after Judas’ betrayal and death, and after Jesus’ final ascension into Heaven, the remaining Eleven decide they need to fill that slot. The verses just before today’s Acts text tell us that among the 120 people present, there were many women, including Mary the mother of Jesus. And yet, when it comes time to pick candidates for the role, somehow they turn out to be men. 

Why would you expect otherwise, Miranda? In a patriarchal society and era?Well: the thing is, Jesus called women to follow him. Jesus’ inner circle included women – Mary his mother, Mary Magdalene, Salome, Joanna, Mary and Martha, and others. And women were important leaders in the early church – Lydia, Phoebe the deacon, Prisca, Junia the apostle, and more. 

Dorothy Sayers, one of my favorite writers of both mystery novels and theology, commented on this point back in the 1930s: “Perhaps it is no wonder that the women were first at the Cradle and last at the Cross. They had never known a man like this Man – there never has been such another. A prophet and teacher who never nagged at them, never flattered or coaxed or patronised; who never made arch jokes about them…; who rebuked without querulousness and praised without condescension; who took their questions and arguments seriously; who never mapped out their sphere for them, never urged them to be feminine or jeered at them for being female; who had no axe to grind and no uneasy male dignity to defend…” 

(From Are Women Human? Astute and Witty Essays on the Role of Women in Society)

I’ve often heard the question: How can someone who believes wholeheartedly in the capability and called-ness of women, be  loyal to a holy text that is so profoundly marked by sexism? I am loyal to Scripture – more, I love Scripture – because Scripture teaches me that God is not sexist. In both the Old and New Testaments, the dignity, strength, resourcefulness, intelligence, and simple humanity of women is honored. Not everywhere! But here and there, by the grace of God and the guidance of the Spirit, the Bible shows us humans living into a fuller understanding of humanity as made in God’s image, regardless of biological sex or gender. 

The calling of Matthias is not one of those times. Simon Peter, always trying to earn that gold star, reckons that since Jesus appointed twelve men, that means there should ALWAYS be twelve men. I think it’s interesting when the church turns to prayerful discernment, in this story. Not about whether it’s important to “replace” Judas and have Twelve again – that’s Peter’s idea. Not about the candidates for the open slot – Matthias and Barsabbas are suggested by an undefined “they.” Only when it comes to choosing one of those two men does the assembly open their hearts towards God before casting lots – a lot like rolling dice, only you pray first. I wonder how the outcome could have been different if those first church leaders had sought the Spirit’s guidance earlier in this process… 

A task force called to study how the Episcopal Church calls bishops, those with oversight of the church in a certain region, recently released its report.  That report shows that the current bishops of the Episcopal Church are 90% male and 90% white. Which is much closer to an all-male panel than it really ought to be, given our church’s teachings and membership. Just like in the first chapter of Acts, somehow, when it comes time to pick candidates for a leadership role, they turn out to be men. 

The Calling of Matthias, Movement II: The Deeds of the Apostle Matthias

Acts chapter 1, verse 26, says, “And they cast lots, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.” That is the last time Matthias is mentioned in Scripture. We have no idea how or whether he lived out his apostleship – a word that just means, One who is sent.  There are texts that claim that Matthias became an important evangelist, that he spread the faith in the region of Cappadocia, that he was eventually martyred there. There are also traditions that say he was stoned to death and beheaded in Jerusalem; and that he died of old age. His grave is claimed by sites in the countries of Georgia and Germany.  Many of these texts are from a thousand years after the events they claim to describe. There are some earlier texts, dating from the third century, such as one known as the Acts of Andrew and Matthias. In that story, Matthias is sent as a missionary to a city where the people eat only human flesh. He is captured and drugged, as a first step towards making him into a meal, but the drugs have no effect on him and he prays for God’s help. Meanwhile, the apostle Andrew comes to rescue him, carried on a boat piloted by Jesus Himself. It’s all quite exciting! – but I would definitely place it in the genre of fanfiction, rather than history. 

So it’s pretty hard to know if Matthias actually went on to do great things that just didn’t make it into the texts that give us our best historical record of the early church – or if Matthias just didn’t do much. He might have been kind of a dud; or he might have been a faithful, effective, kind, ordinary saint, whose acts of charity and grace were simply too everyday to be remembered. Like most of us! 

Meanwhile, the Book of the Acts of the Apostles goes on to tell us about the adventures and struggles of others who traveled the ancient world, preached the Gospel, and built up the first churches:  Paul, Barnabas, Timothy, Philip, Lydia, and others. These are the heroes that Scripture remembers. Not Matthias. 

In selecting Matthias, Peter and the rest of the Eleven were doing a very churchy thing – a very institutional thing: We have this vacancy on our board; we’d better recruit someone. Looking at this story in light of the rest of the Book of Acts, it sure looks like this bit of sacralized bureaucracy didn’t actually matter much to what God was doing in and with the church. I’ve heard this approach summed up as “filling the slot instead of fulfilling the volunteer.” – focusing on maintaining a certain way of being, rather than letting the gifts, skills, and passions of those called into our fellowship of faith lead the way, perhaps into a new way of being. 

A lot of churches do this; I think we do it less than some, but we still do it, for sure.  I carry the list in my head: who’s the next greeter, the next Sunday school teacher, the next Vestry candidate….  Sometimes I’m able to say, Well, you know, if nobody’s clamoring for the role, let’s leave it empty and see what happens, or think about how we might restructure that ministry… Let’s just trust that God is at work in the church, and that we’ll have the people we need to do what God wants us to do. But I’m a person in institutional leadership, and I get anxious about filling slots sometimes. I feel the temptation to seek out a Matthias with an arm I can twist. Gently and lovingly, of course. 

The good news is that God’s work in the world is bigger than the church – and God’s work in the church is bigger than the church’s institutional leadership. Peter thought they needed a twelfth apostle to meet God’s expectations and be the church Jesus intended. But while the church was fretting about matters of order and hierarchy, God was changing hearts and minds and lives. Matthias may or may not have helped spread the Gospel and build the church, but Philip did. Paul did. Barnabas did. Lydia did. And Luke and Timothy and Phoebe and so many others. 

The Calling of Matthias, Movement III: What About Barsabbas? 

There were two finalists for the role of Twelfth Apostle: Matthias and Joseph Barsabbas, known also as Justus.  If Scripture says little about Matthias, it says even less about Barsabbas.  All we know is that he’s loser. Not the right man for the job. 

Mike Kinman, a wonderful preacher now serving at All Saints in Pasadena, preached about Barsabbas a few years ago. Kinman observed that the matter of winners and losers, chosen and not-chosen, is one where most of us have not fully taken the teachings of our faith to heart. Jesus says things like, “the last shall be first and the first last” and “those who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” And then he dies on a cross – the very image of failure, loss, rejection, shame mockery. And we name it as triumph and glory and salvation. We know all of this. But Matthias has a feast day, and Barsabbas doesn’t. 

We’d just as soon not think about somebody like Barsabbas.  Many of us live in fear of becoming a Barsabbas – or having it discovered that we’ve been Barsabbas all along. 

Losing – being not chosen – is painful. It means we miss some opportunity, yes, but there’s more to it than that.  Kinman writes, “Not being chosen, whether it be in a job, in a relationship, in the church or wherever – not being chosen taps into our deepest insecurities and triggers painful memories. Not being chosen can fill us with embarrassment and shame. It can make us feel two inches tall and want to run away and hide. Not being chosen stabs like a knife. It makes our hearts cry out “Why not me? What’s wrong with me? Why am I not good enough.”  Or even worse, it makes our hearts crumble and whisper: “See, I knew it, I’m not good enough. I was right all along.” Not being chosen is like a giant amplifier for all the voices in our head and our heart that tell us we are less than, that we are unworthy, that we are unlovable. Losing stinks. Not being chosen hurts.”

But it happens to most of us, at one time or another. Most of us – maybe all of us – have had moments like this.  And yet in the church, where we’re called to love each other, where we should know better than to measure our worth by the standards of any human institution, we still don’t handle these situations very well. Kinman observes that he’s seen church folk deal with these moments in one of three ways: We “silver lining” it – insisting that people see a bright side in the situation, even if it takes binoculars or a microscope to find one. We offer consolation prizes – “You don’t get to do that, but maybe you’d like to do this?” Or we say and do nothing. We just don’t mention it, because we fear that bringing it up will be painful. Or we just never get around to calling the not-chosen person… because you never know; failure might be contagious. All of those responses – while very human and very understandable – are basically about managing our own discomfort, rather than actually caring for the person who’s struggling with a Barsabbas moment. 

What’s the alternative? 

Being not-chosen hurts – often disproportionately to the actual opportunity lost – because it feels like a rejection of who we are as a person. It undermines our sense of worth.  Could we instead take those Barsabbas moments – ours or someone else’s – as opportunities to remind ourselves of our true and unshakeable worth in the eyes of the God who made us? In our Gospel today we see Jesus speaking to his followers’ sense of being rejected, not taken seriously, of not fitting into the world as it is. He says, You may not belong here – but you belong to God; you belong to Me. 

Mike Kinman writes, “The deepest truth of our faith that our Barsabbas Moments invite us to lean into is that our goodness and belovedness come from God and God alone… Our Barsabbas Moments are opportunities for us not to lean on the admiration… [of other humans], but in those moments where we are feeling the deepest rejection to lean back into the loving arms of a God in whose eyes we are always good and always worthy and always deeply, deeply beloved.”

So before he drops out of the story, let’s pause to name and claim and celebrate Barsabbas, who did not become the twelfth apostle. Friends, Barsabbases all, listen, hear, remember, believe: Whatever opportunities or rejections the world or the church may hand you, you are never not chosen. Never not wanted. Never not worthy. 

Some sources: 

The origins of Congrats, You Have An All Male Panel!

The Acts of Andrew and Matthia

Kinman’s sermon in full