The Flip of a Coin

Acts 1:1-17, 21-26
© Stacey Steck

I have a method for playing roulette that is a sure thing. That’s right, I never lose playing roulette. Well, at least that has been true the three times I’ve ever played! My method is simple: never bet more than the least amount you can win. In roulette, there are a variety of odds you can bet on each spin of the wheel and if you diversify your bets and play your chips right, you will break even or better often enough to keep playing long enough to win big. Now, those of you who may be growing uncomfortable with the thought of your pastor gambling might wish to take a closer look at today’s passage from Acts in which you will find that gambling is a profoundly Biblical and spiritual practice. This is, after all, the way Matthias was chosen to take the place of Judas as the twelfth apostle. It was in a game of chance called “casting lots.” Casting lots is not much different than flipping a coin, or drawing straws, or cutting a deck of cards. It is chance given divine purpose, the luck of the Lord, the fate of God Almighty. The names of the two contenders, or a symbol that represented them, would likely have been placed on stones, and then the winner’s lot would be the one chosen in a blind draw. Simple as that. Stay tuned for subsequent sermons, which will extol the virtues of dancing and smoking. Just kidding.

No matter our beliefs on whether or not gambling is a sin, it is pervasive in our society, so pervasive that nearly all of us are involved in it in one form or another, whether we know it or not, or like it or not. If you go to the casino or play the lottery, you are gambling. That one seems pretty obvious. But, if you own life insurance or auto insurance you are also gambling. If you have money in a pension plan, you are gambling. In all these ways, you are betting that the odds, or fate, or the market, will leave you better off, or at least let you break even. In the life insurance game, you are actually betting against yourself, betting that you’ll die before you have been able to accumulate enough money for your loved ones to be financially secure without you. With car insurance, you are betting that you’ll have an accident before you can fully pay for whatever damage results, and the company is betting that you won’t have an accident at all, or at least that it will be cheaper than the sum total of your premiums paid to date. Investing is gambling, gambling that your money will earn more in the stock market than under your mattress. And just like the disciples, we gamble with a certain trust in the system, that the casino, or the bank, or the insurance company will actually give us our payout. Just remember, however, that in gambling, the house always wins!

This sermon is not really about gambling, except as it illustrates the issues of trust involved in decision making in the church and in our lives as followers of Jesus Christ. You see, if we are willing to gamble in all those earthly kinds of ways shouldn’t we be willing to do it about spiritual matters? Suppose our Session were to come before you and say that after a great deal of soul searching and prayer, and a thorough process of discernment, it had decided to cast lots about whether to continue our ministry of love, faith, service and patient endurance in this community, or sell the place and give all the money to another worthy ministry – that they had decided to leave that choice up to chance, or even divine will if you prefer. I suspect there would be some misgivings, if not a call for their removal as leaders of the church. We would deem irresponsible any decision which took the power of the vote out of our hands. The hard won rights of democracy, celebrated as a hallmark of our nation, would be at stake, and heaven forbid we should allow a power higher than the right to vote to make a decision about the direction of God’s people.

Looking back at the early church, however, we see precisely that no power other than God is thought to be able to make a divine and important decision like the one that faced Peter and the rest of the disciples. Judas had betrayed Jesus and his companions, and left the leadership team one person short of the twelve needed to reconstitute Israel and prepare the way for the message of the Gospel to reach Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth. Jesus had made clear to the twelve that they would be an integral part of God’s plan of salvation for the world, but the plan was now threatened by the death of one whom God had chosen. They would need another to fill the ranks, and there was more than one qualified candidate. Clearly the choice was not a clear-cut one, otherwise they would have just selected one or the other. The story doesn’t say so, but there must have been equal support for both candidates, so that one camp or the other was going to be disappointed. Maybe they wanted to vote, but saw it would only end in gridlock. Maybe there were accusations of voter fraud and tampering. Or maybe they realized that the new twelfth disciple must in fact be the one whom God alone could choose. Just as Jesus had chosen the original twelve, they must leave the choice of the replacement twelfth to God. And so, using the method so many of their ancestors had used when they needed to make important decisions, they left it up to God. And so for this incredibly important decision, they simply flipped a coin. They played the lottery, so to speak.

Some of you may be recalling Shirley Jackson’s famous short story, called “The Lottery,” a staple of high school and college creative writing classes everywhere. In this story, an unnamed village annually conducts a lottery to determine which of its residents will die by stoning at the hands of the rest of the village to ensure a good harvest. The lottery is conducted by means of drawing from a black box folded pieces of paper, one of which contains a black dot. You can guess what the dot signifies. Tessie Hutchinson is this year’s choice and as much as they love her, the crowd accepts her selection without question. Some higher power has spoken, be it chance or God, and who are they to question it?

Now, I ask you, is there anything inherently wrong with choosing in this way? In both Shirley Jackson’s story and in the passage from Acts, the candidates have been chosen according to specific criteria, have consented to participate, have acknowledged the validity of the method. On top of that, the method is inscrutable; no one can tamper with it by campaigning, by bribing, by extortion. It is understood that the one chosen is chosen for a reason beyond the understanding of the participants, and in the case of Acts, for a divine reason and for divine purposes. As far as human beings can see, each of the options is equal, so God must be able to know which is the right choice.

There are all kinds of ways of making decisions within a body of people. Some groups strive for consensus, the idea that everyone needs to agree with the decision before it can be made. Other bodies recognize that such a consensus can never be reached in their deliberations and so choose that a simple majority of 50% plus one will carry the day. Some decisions in a voting body require a super majority, a percentage set higher, like two-thirds, or three-quarters, since there is so much at stake in the outcome. Our church uses a combination of these methods. But what if we flipped a coin instead?

Oh my! We might have to trust. You see, this is what really underlies the possibility of coin flips in the life of the church. You see, we would have to trust several things. We would have to trust that God is really choosing, rather than chance. We would have to trust each other that there was no hanky panky, no adjusting of the straws in the hand to deliver a predetermined winner. We would have to trust that even those who might not agree with the outcome would abide by the decision and support the winning position, since it was, after all, God’s choice.

There is a sense in which the process of voting on divided matters indicates a failure of nerve, an inability to trust God. I say this because when we have decided to take matters into our own hands and vote, it is precisely because we cannot all agree on a solution which is suitable. And so we frame the decision in human terms of winning and losing, and who doesn’t want to win! And so we push and pull and persuade and ultimately vote, and often our votes leave a large portion of our people unhappy with the result.

If we look back at how the early church ended up with Matthias as the newest apostle, we see how it might be better to trust than to vote. Through a process of discernment, based on their interpretation of Scripture and the criteria that the new apostle would need to be both someone who had “accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us” and someone who would “become a witness with us to his resurrection,” in other words, who would be willing to testify, the company of 120 was able to whittle it down to the final two candidates. Then, the group prayed to God seeking God’s assistance and then left it up to God when the lots were cast. God gave them, and gives us, what we need to prepare for these choices: Scripture, the power of the Holy Spirit, and prayer. Why then do we need to vote? Are we afraid that God will not choose as carefully as we would?

I am not naive enough to believe that we can do away with decision making by voting, but I am still idealistic enough to think that we can do our best to return to the basis of the kind of decision-making done by casting lots, that trust in God and each other that helps us prepare for our decisions with creative choices and common conviction. It is not to romanticize the early church to suggest that casting lots is something for which to strive, for the level of trust required to make a decision in this way is a level of trust would do well to attain, and which Jesus left his disciples as a legacy. May we develop the kind of trust in God and in one another, which will lead us to follow God’s leading for our church and in our lives. Amen.