When Albert Schweitzer left the relative comfort and ease of his life in Europe for the jungles of Africa, he found that life could be even more challenging than he had envisioned. Labor was in short supply around the rural hospital in Lambarene, and he had to do a fair share of the manual work himself.
One visitor to the medical center saw the prestigious doctor pushing a wheelbarrow. She was shocked at such an important person having to do hard and dirty work. “How is it,” the visitor asked Schweitzer, “that you push a wheelbarrow?” Without breaking stride the doctor replied, “With two hands.”
Albert Schweitzer had a strong and abiding desire to help others less fortunate than himself, and he increasingly felt that it was his particular calling to serve as a medical missionary to French Equatorial Africa. This was not a minor decision, because to do it he had to first become a doctor with years of preparation. He had to leave a successful career in music in order to equip himself to work long, hard hours for a subsistence income. He did it because he had the feeling of somehow being chosen for that work.
Being chosen is also the theme of our scripture from Acts this morning. Our text tells us that, after Judas betrayed Jesus, it left a place among the disciples to be filled. Perhaps many were initially considered as a replacement, but in the end it came down to just two for selection: Joseph and Matthias. We assume that both were well regarded and qualified, and deserved this opportunity to step into the inner circle of the apostles. Both may have been good men but, nevertheless, only one could be chosen.
Either the two appeared so even or the group was deadlocked in their choice, but in any case those empowered to vote didn’t seem to have been able to make a selection on merit; so, our reading tells us, they cast lots. Perhaps this was the easiest way out of their predicament. Casting lots was something like throwing dice or flipping a coin. Clearly, someone would be the winner and the other the loser. There would be no doubt.
So the men prayed to God to direct the outcome, threw the lots, and the advantage fell to Matthias. He would be the one invited to complete the circle of twelve. And Joseph, also called Justus which meant “just” or “righteous,” is cast aside and we never hear of him again in the Bible.
When I read this account my curiosity is aroused. Maybe yours is, too. How did Joseph accept his fate? Did he remain faithful, though in the background of history? Was he broken or bitter from how close he had come to a position of leadership and influence? Wasn’t it just a bit unfair to be a person surnamed, The Righteous One, and lose out to plain old Matthias, surnamed nothing?
Past experience allows all of us to find something in common with Matthias—the winner—but I think we can more readily identify with the one who wasn’t chosen. From childhood on up, we know what it is like to get our hopes up for something and then to have them dashed. Later on we may have the ability to put our disappointments in perspective, but usually they hurt us deeply at the time. Sometimes these losses may color all the rest of our life.
It was the luck of Matthias to be chosen and Joseph not to be. Such was their lot in life. Both men, however, had to accept the way it turned out.
In my one and only time to run for political office I lost my bid by eight votes to serve on the Marysville City Council. I was just 28 then and wonder sometimes how a different outcome might have changed my future direction. Two years later, though I was encouraged to run, I decided not to enter the race for Union County Commissioner. How much of that consideration was influenced by the earlier experience of hard work in a losing cause? When I was later called by the Speaker of the Ohio House and urged to be a candidate for the Legislature, I took it as a compliment and then closed the book on any further political aspirations for myself. I thought then it wasn’t incompatible to be a minister and in public service at the same time. I don’t see any conflict now.
I imagine every one of you has, at some time, been passed over for a promotion, lost out on a job application, or failed to be chosen for some leadership position. If you’re still in school, you may know what it’s like to be chosen for a team or simply be thanked for trying out. We all have disappointments in our lives where who we are, or what we do, doesn’t seem to be good enough, and we have to live with the personal grief of that outcome.
Sometimes our hopes are not met because of understandable reasons, such as going up against another job applicant with more experience. Other times, it’s just bad luck that does us in. I recall once having had six interviews for the position of Minister of Administration in a large church, being assured that there would be a call forthcoming, then losing out to a member from within that congregation who entered the picture only during the final week of consideration.
Dumb luck and disappointments are often realities we have to deal with in life. In such circumstances bitterness can easily creep in and cause us to give up or, just as detrimentally, can lead us to an unhealthy determination to get even. Anger can drive us to become super-achievers in order to vindicate ourselves before others, to declare in every possible way, “I am good enough.” Usually such neurotic efforts fail to provide real satisfaction, and rarely do they bring happiness.
When negative things happen to us in life, maybe it’s a good time to take a closer look inward and see what, if anything, we can alter about ourselves. There a familiar little prayer that’s used in almost all recovery programs, and for good reason. You’ve probably heard it: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” That’s a beginning.
Late in his life Thomas Edison lost most of his industrial complex when fire swept his buildings in 1914. On that one night almost all of his immediate work went up in flames.
Walking through the charred embers of his hopes and dreams the next day, Edison said to his son, “There is [sometimes] great value in disaster. All our mistakes are burned up. Thank God we can start anew.” Less than three weeks later his firm produced the first phonograph. Subsequently they would turn out dozens of other inventions that would leave a mark on society.
Thomas Edison knew there was nothing he could do to change the reality of that fire and its destruction. It was not what he planned nor wished, but he dealt with it. He accepted his lot and then kept on working. Out of the rubble he rebuilt his factory; out of disappointment, he rebuilt his life.
Sometimes fate seems to deal us a poor hand in life. It isn’t what we would have wanted. We can crumble under the weight of dreams shattered, or take a deep breath and try to discern where we go from here. Losses are not easy to cope with, but neither do they have to hold us back. Often they can even be a springboard to something better in the future. How we deal with our disappointments and hurts is most often the test of our character.
The starting point for any hard journey in life begins with knowing that
that we are truly received by God who created us. We are loved and affirmed for who we are, not what we aren’t. From that deep, centering assurance we can build or rebuild our lives. We can face disappointment and stand up to loss, because we know we’ve already been chosen where it really counts.
I’m more convinced all the time that God is not interested in all the “might have beens” concerning us and instead will simply inquire of us, “What did you do with life as you were given it?”
We won’t always get our way and that’s just the reality of life. We’ll not always get chosen even when we’re the best person for the job. Bad luck can sometimes bring bad consequences. The lesson from all this is what the little prayer points to: change what you can, accept what you can’t and, I’ll add, rely increasingly on God in everything.
When Jesus calls to us, “Come, follow me,” he invites us to take whatever we have, grow life upon that base, make it fruitful by serving others, and realize the potential the Lord provides in every situation—good or bad.
Oh, yes, as to Matthias? Well, I already indicated that we never again hear of Joseph the Righteous after he loses out in the draw. So what do we know about Matthias, who is chosen as that new 12th disciple?
Beyond these verses he, too, is never mentioned again.
Copyright 2006 First Congregational Church, Columbus, Ohio