Text: Acts 1:15-17; 21-26
I would venture to say that almost everyone in this room has a story of being the one not chosen for something. Sitting around the lectionary table this week we reminisced about our own “not chosen” stories. For one person, it was not being chosen for a college scholarship. For another, it was not being chosen for the school spelling bee team. Another relived the memories of not being crowned “Ms. Franklin County, Vermont,” while yet another person spoke of not being chosen senior prom queen. Most of the stories we shared were of long ago—a safe distance from which to share and be vulnerable. And yet, I was sitting there wondering if all of our memories of not being chosen, and the feelings that go with that, are all in the distant past. Or is it that our more recent/adult experiences of not being chosen still are simply too painful to name. And if this is so, I began wondering how do we redeem these experiences as being an integral part of our spiritual journey?
Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, is not a well-known character of scripture. And there is a reason for that. He was the disciple “not chosen” when it came time to replace Judas, the betrayer. Yes, technically, he lost out in a game of lot casting. But nonetheless, if casting lots was divinely directed as it surely would have been thought, Joseph called Barsabbas was still the one not chosen. So I have been wondering this week what happened to Joseph of Barsabbas. How did he handle not being the chosen one—one of Jesus’ inner circle disciples? What did he go on to do with his life?
In researching this little-known biblical character I found out some interesting things about his life. I learned that Joseph had been a follower of Jesus from the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry at the baptism of John. He had continued as a member of the larger company of disciples even to the time that Jesus was crucified. Being a member of the larger company of disciples is what had qualified him to replace Judas. But it was not his lot to take Judas’ place. That fell to Matthias.
In Christian tradition, after losing out to Matthias, this Joseph (also known as Justus) went on to become the Bishop of Eleutheropolis. And what of this place called Eleutheropolis? Eleutheropolis was a pre-1948 Palestinian Arab village located about 13 miles northwest of the city of Hebron. The village had a total land area of about 13,900 acres, of which 69 acres were built-up while the rest remained farmland. During the 8th century BCE, the village was part of the Kingdom of Judah. During the days of Jewish king Herod the town became a thriving Roman colony and was known as the administrative center for the district of Idumea.
The town was renamed over the centuries. Its original Aramaic name Beth Gabra, translates as the “house of the mighty one.” The Romans gave it the Greek name, Eleutheropolis, meaning “City of the Free.” It was during this period that the Roman Emperor granted the city municipal status and exempted its citizens from taxes—thus the name “City of the Free.” The city flourished under the Romans, who built public buildings, military installations, aqueducts and a larger amphitheater. On maps, it is shown as a walled city with three towers, a curving street with a colonnade in the central part and an important basilica. Seven routes met at Eleutheropolis indicating the city as a central point from which the distance of other towns were measured.
I tell you this to note that Eleutheropolis was a very important city. And it was this thriving Romans colony, the administrative hub of the region, in which the one not chosen became the Bishop. And as I thought about it, who wouldn’t want to be Bishop of the “City of the Free?”
It was learning all of this about Joseph of Barsabbas and the “City of the Free” that started me to thinking about what it means to not be chosen for something. And I wondered, “How often does not being chosen for one thing free us up for something else important to do in our lives.” The idea that life is not about being chosen or not chosen—we know that in God’s commonwealth we are all chosen—but rather about how pivotal events that seem to bring disappointment can actually free us to explore other options started to become a redemptive and transcendent spiritual idea for me.
Let me tell you a story where this happened to me. It is a recent story. About six months ago, Dr. Walter Parrish, the executive minister for American Baptist Churches of the South (ABCOTS) called me to ask if he could nominate me to be the ABCOTS Ministers’ Council representative to the national board of American Baptists Churches, USA. Knowing Pullen’s current struggle to fit in with ABC I thought this might be a good thing for our church and so I said yes. I didn’t think much else about it in the following months, figuring that if Dr. Parrish had asked it would be a formality. I surely didn’t know that it was part of a vetting/election/voting process. During that same phone call, Dr. Parrish had also asked me if I would preach at the annual Award’s banquet at the ABCOTS meeting in Winston-Salem to take place in April—just last month. To which I had also said yes. I arrived at the conference about an hour early just in time to catch the Ministers’ Council meeting prior to the banquet at which I was to preach. As I stepped into the meeting—a room filled with ministers of ABC churches in the South—the gentleman convening the meeting said, “A Reverend Nancy Petty was nominated to serve as our representative to the National Board but I am over-ruling that nomination and appointing an interim person to the Board. I don’t even think that Rev. Petty is here.” At that point, Rev. Earl Johnson, pastor of our sister church Martin Street, was standing at the back of the room and shouted, “She’s here. Right here.” With Earl’s declaration, all heads turned and stared at me—the only white person in the room. I was mortified and the deafening silence didn’t help. A lengthy discussion pursued. I said nothing because I wasn’t asked anything. At the end of the discussion, it was upheld that an interim appointment would be made. I had not been chosen!
I walked out of the room, a bit shaken, found Dr. Parrish and said, “I guess that means I wasn’t chosen as the representative.” With a note of disappointment in his voice he said, “Nancy, it got a bit political in there. You know being from Pullen and all. I’m sorry you were not chosen.” Wow. I stood there thinking, “Why does this feel bad?” It wasn’t even that big of deal to me. And for certain there were better, more qualified people in that room to represent the Ministers’ Council to the National Board. But it didn’t matter. The feeling of “not being chosen” was an emotional moment.
In the thirty minutes I had before having to preach before these same two hundred ministers I found a corner and called Karla. I needed to talk to someone who could restore a bit of my confidence before having to preach. And something happened from the time I hung up from talking with Karla to when I walked into the banquet hall where I would preach on the text of Daniel and the lion’s den. You see, I had worried a bit about my sermon. The question I had built my sermon around was “Are you ready to be vetted?” a theme of the Daniel story. As a part of my sermon I had chosen to talk about being a gay pastor in a Baptist church in the South. I knew it was risky but it was the message I felt I had been given to deliver. And so, as I sat at the head table trying to choke down my dinner before delivering my sermon something happened. I felt a wave of freedom come over me. Free to say what I came to say. I didn’t have to worry about whether or not I would be accepted. I had already not been chosen. It didn’t matter what the people in that room thought of me. I was freed to speak my conscience and my truth. I will tell you, and not in a boastful way, that might have been the best sermon I have ever preached. The people were receptive, as only people in the black church tradition can be, as they shouted, “preach it sister, preach it” and it was a powerful moment. It was one of the most transcending and redemptive moments of my ministry. As I sat down to a standing ovation Dr. Parrish made his way to the lectern. Having felt the tension in the room, with great calmness and confidence, he began speaking. He said, “Let me tell you about the church this woman pastors. She comes to us from a church that during the civil rights movement was possibly the only safe white church in the south. She stands in the preaching tradition of Rev. W.W. Finlator and Rev. Mahan Siler. Her church is not afraid to speak out on important issues of social justice. Pullen Memorial is a church that lives the social gospel and takes risk for the oppressed and the marginalized. She continues that tradition and she has spoken a word that every one in this room needs to hear.” Then he went over and picked up a book that was lying on the table where he had been seated. The thumbed through the pages and said, “Yes, that’s what I thought. Pullen Memorial Baptist Church contributed over $11,000.00 to ABCOTS this past year. That puts them in the top three contributors to ABCOTS. I expect all of you will want to come forward after the benediction and greet our sister.”
In reflecting on that experience, I have realized that I was not the only one to experience the “City of the Free” that night. I learned later that Dr. Parrish had taken quite a bit of heat from some of the ministers for inviting me to preach—the gay pastor from Pullen was not a popular choice. Dr. Parrish had chosen the “not chosen” to preach at the most important banquet of the conference. And on that night he, too, experienced the “City of the Free.” There was indeed transcendence and redemption in choosing the “not chosen one.”
Now, for the sake of a good sermon story, I have framed this as the pain of not being chosen unfolding into freedom and opportunity in a tidy interaction over the course of a matter of hours. That is all true. But it is only a fraction of the story. The experience of being not chosen as a gay woman called to preach began the moment of my calling. And our church knows too well the fervor of many of our sister churches who fear and fight against the inclusion and acceptance of the LGBT community, yet many of those congregations also come out of a lifetime of being not-chosen in this country, simply by virtue of their race and geography. I would say that in that wild night in Winston Salem, there were two tracks of not chosen converging, and we had few options in front of us. The most common would be to stand fervent in our own position and exclude the other. But somehow, through the grace of Dr. Parrish taking a risk and the grace of me accepting the risk, we all entered a moment where we were allowed to transcend our losses and our pain while including and bringing along our deepest, most authentic identity. I didn’t convince people in that sermon that gays are alright with God. God will have to do that. But I spoke to them of truths that they recognized. And they saw that they could be their whole selves and agree with me. This experience is an example of what others have called transcend and include, a theme that I will explore over the next few weeks as we examine other places where we are being called to transcend our own limitations of love without losing our identity.
And so for today I simply want to plant this seed. Not being chosen is a bummer. But if we can stay on the journey, sometimes not being the chosen one can be an invitation. It can free us to see other possibilities and enter into new experiences. Not being chosen can be our invitation to ask, “If not this, then what?” Most of the time the spiritual journey is not about being freed from something but rather for something. It is about transcending and redeeming what can seem to be disappointing moments in life into pivotal moments of freedom and abundant life—to living in the “City of the Free.”
I can almost hear Joseph called Barsabbas, sometimes called Justus, the Bishop of Eleutheropolis saying to us this morning, “Not being the chosen one can lead you to the ‘City of the Free’ if you can but keep an open heart and an open mind.”