Casting Lots to Discern God’s Will

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
The Seventh Sunday of Easter, May 16, 2021

Jesus, Savior, may I know your love and make it known. Amen.

About six miles from the house where I grew up in North Carolina is a Moravian church called Friedland, which means “Land of Peace” in German. When a man named Tycho Nissen was sent there in 1775 from the nearby town of Salem (now Winston-Salem) to organize that country church, he had been married for less than a month. Although this will sound odd, 12 days before the wedding, he and future wife weren’t even a couple.

Tycho knew he was meant to marry a woman named Salome the same way everyone knew these things in Moravian religious communities in the 18th century — by the use of the lot. Church leaders used three pieces of paper. One indicated “yes” (Ja), another indicated “no” (Nein), and the third was blank, meaning “not yet.” Following prayer, one of those pieces of paper was picked out of a container. [picks a folded piece of paper out of a glass jar and reads it] Hmm, that’s interesting. Maybe I should try that again.

Because Tycho had been appointed to an official task on behalf of the church, organizing that rural congregation, which is why he was required to get married, how they used the lot was recorded in the church minutes.[1]

Church leaders had a discussion about Tycho’s marriage, first suggesting the name of a widow in the community. The lot said no. Then they suggested the name of another woman, and the lot again said no. Finally, they suggested the name of Salome, the daughter of a Moravian minister, and the lot said yes. Seven days later it was announced that Tycho and Salome would indeed be getting married. Five days after that they were.

Now, so everyone here won’t be kept in suspense and worry unnecessarily, just know things worked out for them. They would have four children, including a son named Christian, who is my 4th great-grandfather.

Everyone involved in what I’ve just described truly believed they were doing God’s will, following the biblical example of the early church. Moravians used the lot to make other important decisions too, like where exactly to lay out the town of Salem in 1765. But several years after that, they also used prayer and the lot to decide if it was acceptable in the eyes of God to purchase an enslaved teenager.[2] The lot said yes. Was that God’s will too?

How do you know what God’s will is for you? While growing up, or even as an adult, did you ever throw open a Bible and let the pages settle in the genuine hope that God would somehow speak to you, show you the way, lead you beyond whatever that thing was you were struggling with? Did you ever do it again and again to get a different answer — an answer that was more clear, more like what you wanted to hear? I’ll admit I did that.

Or did you retreat into an intense season of prayer, desperately bargaining alone with the Almighty? (If you give me what I want, if you tell me it’s ok to walk down this path, I’ll do anything for you, O Lord.) In those kinds of conversations, we tend to take up all of the oxygen in the room. And in the silence that follows, too often we jump to the conclusion that God’s will and our will are perfectly aligned. Throughout the years, I’ve witnessed people pray hard, really hard, about difficult things, drawing conclusions about God’s will for them that affect their families without having talked to their spouses or that affect their church membership without having talked to their priests. If you already think God’s on your side, no one will be able to say anything otherwise without seeming to be opposed to God.

There are times when a lot of heartache could’ve been prevented if others, including God, had been invited into those prayerful wrestlings. It doesn’t mean the answer would have been different, but it invites to the table God and those who care about you, who want the best for you, who love you.

In today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles, we heard about prayer in combination with the casting of lots to figure out what to do next. Drawing the short straw, picking a name out of a hat, throwing dice — whatever you want to call it — goes back thousands of years to the first books of the Bible. It’s how Moses distributed land to the tribes of Israel.[3] It’s how his brother Aaron picked the right goat to make a sacrifice to God.[4]

Aaron and the other high priests of Israel who would follow after him wore something called the “breastplate of judgement,” which held a couple of mysterious objects called the Urim and Thummim. Those words in Hebrew appear on the logo of Yale University, where they’re also translated somewhat expansively as “Light and Truth.”[5] Surely we’d like to have light and truth shining upon us while facing a difficult decision.

The Urim and Thummim were taken out of that breastplate when the priests needed to know the will of God. They were probably thrown like dice in a ritual to do that.[6] [throws dice on the floor and looks down at them] I have no idea what that means. I must have skipped that class in divinity school.

Anyway, after the death of Judas, the eleven remaining apostles cast lots after they reconvene in the upper room to discern the will of God and figure out the restoration of the twelve — meaning twelve apostles, those who are sent, representing the twelve tribes of Israel. It was an unusual election with two fully qualified candidates, but with only one presumably divine vote.

That’s how Matthias is chosen to be an apostle, someone who had been with Jesus from the beginning, from the moment of his baptism by John the Baptist. And he believed he was called to that new role, called by God, to be a witness to the resurrection of our Lord and Savior.

What’s important about the story of the calling of Matthias isn’t the casting of lots. The point isn’t the method but the posture.[7] Together as a community those gathered in that upper room turn toward the lovingkindness of the God who raised Jesus from the dead. Together they search the scriptures. Together they pray. And they finally loosen their grip, letting go, confessing their limitations, allowing God to speak to them.

And that’s the part I left out when describing 18th-century marriages in the Moravian Church. It was really about communal discernment, a form of semi-arranged marriages in which proposed matches were discussed after having been suggested either by the men or by the church leaders. A “yes” from the use of the lot merely gave a green light to proceed with that same process. The women could still say no, which they sometimes did.[8]

That’s a stark contrast to the time Moravians needed to make a decision about owning a human being as property. When that was put to the lot, the community wasn’t working together, they were divided.[9] There’s a sense in which the lot was used to break a tie, but not a tie between two equally noble choices as in today’s story from the Book of Acts.

In this case, I believe their trust was misplaced, focusing on the lot rather than on their relationships, including their relationships with the strangers in their midst — people like that enslaved teenager, who had a different language, a different history, a different color of skin. When the Moravian Church wanted to be released from the economic burden of caring for him, he was granted his freedom. By that time, however, he and his wife were older and would struggle to provide for their children.[10]

Earlier I mentioned my fourth great-grandfather Christian Nissen. His brother-in-law, John Vogler, was a Moravian artisan and silversmith. John sought permission to marry seven times in Salem from 1814 to 1818. Six times the lot did not say yes, and one time the woman said no.[11]

Then, in 1818, the Moravian Church stopped using the lot in this way for marriages, with the exception of proposed marriages for ordained ministers.[12] Only then did John ask a woman named Christina to marry him. She was who he had first wanted to marry four years earlier. Since he was a silversmith, he made her wedding ring, which had this inscription:

With God and Thee My Joy shall be.[13]

Well, hearing the words of that inscription, it’s clear John believed that God, beyond the use of the lot, would be very much at the heart of their marriage. Perhaps the Holy Spirit had been at work in a strange way throughout those four years — and still is today — showing us, at the end of the day, that love really does win in this or some other important part of our life.

And it’s important to know that there still remained a circle of prayerful discernment about that engagement, beyond John Vogler himself, which included the Christian community to which he and Christina belonged.

The truth is that we see in the Book of Acts many different ways in which the followers of Jesus open their hearts to God’s will for them. The casting of lots to set apart a new apostle in today’s reading erases the humiliation of the casting of lots for the clothing of Jesus by the Roman soldiers who were executing him. In that scene at the cross in the Gospel of Luke, it appeared that God was absent, that God either didn’t care or didn’t exit.

But as we’ll be reminded next Sunday, God did care. God didn’t leave empty either the building or the space between us after Jesus, crucified and risen from the dead, returned from whence he came. On the Day of Pentecost, the Spirit would be poured out upon the followers of Jesus, filling each of their hearts and every corner of the world with the divine presence, with mercy and grace. The glory of God went with the people of God.

And once that happens, we never read again in the New Testament about the use of the lot to discern God’s will. It’s as if a page had been turned and a new chapter had begun. So I invite you to come back here next week to focus on the outpouring of the Spirit more than on the drawing of straws. The Spirit intercedes for us, even when we don’t know how to pray or how to throw dice, even when we’re unsure about what to do next, even when we get it wrong, helping us realize that, turning us around, drawing us back into a community of open hearts and open hands. This I believe.


BACK TO POST Records of the Moravians in North Carolina, Volume II, 1752-1775, edited by Adelaide L. Fries (Raleigh: Edwards & Broughton, 1925) 895.

BACK TO POST “The Stories of Bethabara’s Enslaved,” Historic Bethabara Park website.

BACK TO POST Numbers 34:13-15.

BACK TO POST Leviticus 16:5-10.

BACK TO POST Joel Baden, Twitter thread on Exodus 28:13-30, April 5, 2021. He is Professor of Hebrew Bible at Yale Divinity School in New Haven, Connecticut.

BACK TO POST Joel Baden, Twitter thread on Exodus 28:13-30, April 5, 2021. He is Professor of Hebrew Bible at Yale Divinity School in New Haven, Connecticut.

BACK TO POST Jerusha Matsen Neal, “Commentary on Acts 1:15-17, 21-26,” Working Preacher website, May 16, 2021.

BACK TO POST “The Relation of the Lot [to Moravian Marriages],” Bethlehem Digital History Project website.

BACK TO POST “The Stories of Bethabara’s Enslaved,” Historic Bethabara Park website. A newspaper article that explores the complexity of enslavement within the Moravian Church is “Hidden in History: Old Salem’s Hidden Town” by Kathy Norcross Watts, Winston-Salem Journal, February 1, 2018. Another one is “Slavery in Old Salem” by Susan Ladd, Greensboro News & Record, February 3, 1992. A book that explores this in depth is Jon F. Sensbach’s A Separate Canaan: The Making of an Afro-Moravian World in North Carolina, 1763-1840 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998). While it’s true the enslaved teenager, whose Christian name would be Johann Samuel, wanted “to know the Saviour” and asked to be purchased by the Moravian Church, he was nevertheless bought as human property “by permission of the Lord.” Additional details can be found in the first link in this footnote from Historic Bethabara Park.

10 BACK TO POST  “The Stories of Bethabara’s Enslaved,” Historic Bethabara Park website.

11 BACK TO POST “Teaspoon,” Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts website. This article about a silver teaspoon created by John Vogler includes biographical information about him and other historical facts.

12 BACK TO POST “Teaspoon,” Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts website. This article about a silver teaspoon created by John Vogler includes biographical information about him and other historical facts.

13 BACK TO POST “Teaspoon,” Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts website. This article about a silver teaspoon created by John Vogler includes biographical information about him and other historical facts.