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Fifth Sunday After Easter – May 19, 2019
“Fire. God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of the philosophers and the scholars… I will not forget thy word. Amen.”
On November 23, 1654, sometime between 10:30 p.m. and 12:30 a.m., a thirty-two-year-old Blaise Pascal, the French mathematician, physicist, inventor, writer, and Catholic theologian experienced an intense religious vision and immediately wrote those words. He carefully sewed them into his coat and transferred them whenever he changed his clothes, something accidentally discovered by a servant after his death.
In religious circles, Pascal is best known for an influential theological work published after his death at thirty-nine called the Pensées or “Thoughts” (he originally planned to title the work “Defense of the Christian Religion”). First published in 1670, Pensées is widely considered a masterpiece of French prose and is the work that gave us what is known as “Pascal’s wager,” which I would like to discuss this morning.[i]
Pascal’s wager posits that humans bet with our lives that God does or does not exist. From Pascal’s perspective, the rational choice is to believe and live as though God does exist, since the consequences of being wrong are so much greater for those who do not believe. If you believe in God and God does not exist, well, you possibly missed out on a good time while you were alive. However, if you believe and live as if God does not exist and you are wrong, to put it mildly, you definitely miss out on something good for all eternity after you die. This game, Pascal believed, is always being played and no one is allowed to opt out.
It is a highly pragmatic way of thinking. Pascal believed that human finitude makes it impossible for humans achieve truth regarding God’s existence, so we are ultimately wagering on one of two cosmic choices, or to put it another way, as the great Duke New Testament scholar Dr. Mickey Efird is fond of saying, “You pays your money and you makes your choice.”[ii]
The wager was immediately criticized by both atheists and Christian theologians (which means there must be something to it). The atheistic criticism was that it was not reasonable, and the religious criticism was that it sounded both deistic and agnostic–that it assumes a god who is distant, beyond comprehension, and not intimately involved in human life as Christ was and is. Furthermore, it offers a rather low opinion of God, assuming that God is merely transactional, more concerned with our thinking about God and how it affects our status in the world to come than the redemption of our relationships with God and one another in this world.[iii]
Pray as Though Everything Depends Upon God, Live as Though Everything Depends Upon You. This bromide concludes our series “What the Bible Does Not Say,” a series in which we have explored the sayings “Everything happens for a reason,” “The Lord helps those who help themselves,” “God needed another angel,” and today’s saying. “Pray as though everything depends upon God, live as though everything depends upon you” has been attributed to the fourth-century theologian St. Augustine, the sixteenth-century founder of the Jesuits St. Ignatius, even Methodism’s founder John Wesley is accused of saying this. None of them actually did.
The saying is reminiscent of the nineteenth-century William Blacker poem “Trust in God and Keep Your Powder Dry,” which is based upon a quote attributed to Oliver Cromwell. “Pray as though everything depends upon God, live as though everything depends upon you” is quite problematic for Christian theology (and Christian people). It assumes the worst of God. Were this saying true, God would be a flake, that friend who agrees to do something and then never does it, leaving you to formulate a “plan B” each time they give you their word, as in “God may not show up yet again, so I had better be prepared.”
What is worse, living this saying (and God knows we often do), reduces God to some sort of ceremonial figurehead, a smiling, waving monarch who gets to cut the ribbon each time a new shopping center is opened, because when we fall prey to this morning’s saying, what we actually mean is “Never mind God. Everything is really riding on me.” Like Pascal, we make a wager that God is ultimately unreliable and that all of our hope lies in our own self-determination.
It is a bleak way to live, for in so many ways, life is quickly reduced to a quote by C.S. Lewis’ demon Screwtape: “A moderated religion is as good for [the Devil] as no religion at all—and more amusing.”
All of which brings me to this morning’s text, which tells the story of the call of the prophet Jeremiah. In the first ten verses of the book that bears his name, God explains to the prophet that God called him, lay claim to him before Jeremiah had any concept of God, or anything at all. In this reading, not only does God explain to Jeremiah that God consecrated him as a prophet to the nations while he was still in the womb, God knew Jeremiah even before he was in the womb.
And then, after Jeremiah protests that he cannot possibly speak for God because he is merely a boy, God explains to him that his calling is in no way whatsoever about what Jeremiah can and cannot do. God says, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you, Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.” Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me, “Now I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”
Did you hear that? Listen again to how God begins God’s promises: “I have put words in your mouth…” “I will send you…” “I will tell you who to speak to…” “I will deliver you…” “I have put the words in your mouth…” “I appoint you…”
This is not the witness of a God who believes that it ever all depends upon us.
Almost every time God calls someone to do something in the biblical witness, the person who is called objects. No one ever says to the Almighty “Given my experience and credentials. you have clearly made the right choice by calling me.” No one in the Bible ever pads their resume before handing it to God, because everyone believes they are not up to it, incapable of the task, any task to which God is calling them.” Jeremiah thinks he is too young. Moses thinks he does not speak well enough. Gideon thinks he is too weak. Abram thinks he is too old. Jonah is afraid of success, Ezekiel is not given a chance to object. Peter thinks he is too sinful. Ananias thinks the job is too dangerous.
Isaiah, on the other hand, is quite eager to serve and kind of makes everyone else look bad, everyone including you and me.
In this life of Christian discipleship, God is not “Plan A” and God is certainly not “Plan B.” It is not “Pray to God and keep your powder dry” or “Praise God and pass the ammunition,” and it is certainly not “Pray as though everything depends upon God and live as though everything depends upon you.” It is not these things because each of them creates an either/or dichotomy wherein we ultimately give lip-service to God and then do things as if it were indeed all about us, all about our resources, all about our talents and abilities. We claim the odds favor God and yet we wager upon ourselves.
There is an old Bobcat Golthwait routine from the 1980s where he tells the story of the birth of his first child and the doctor asking if he wanted to cut the umbilical cord, and his first response being “Don’t you have anyone more qualified?”
Is this not the question we ask ourselves every time we hear God’s call? Is this not how almost all of the biblical characters ultimately respond: “Don’t you have anyone more qualified?” God does not call Jeremiah because God sees some proven track record, some measure of success in him. In fact, scripture attests that God calls Jeremiah even before there is a Jeremiah to call. The call of Jeremiah is evidence of God’s wager, God wagering that in partnership with God, Jeremiah will become a mighty prophet, exactly what his people need.
God did not need to call Jeremiah into service. God could have opened the skies and spoken to God’s people in a clear, booming voice. In fact, God could have just forced God’s people into behaving according to God’s will and plan, or God could have taken away our freedom of choice entirely and rendered us into automatons who simply follow the program and do what we are told.
No. God does not do this. God never does this. It is not who God is.
Instead, God calls and works through the imperfect life and imperfect witness of people like Jeremiah, people like you, people like me, people like Reveille United Methodist Church. God does this because simply because we are who God has chosen to work with. God is the captain, and we are the team God has chosen to do God’s mission on earth. Because God is full of grace, God would rather redeem our shortcomings than do ministry without us and all the shortcomings we so naturally bring.
On Wednesday, the Reveille noon Communion small group was considering all of this as we read this morning’s text, especially the part when God promises Jeremiah to give him the words to speak, when someone commented that it sounds like preaching. “Isn’t this what you try to do each week, separate your words from God’s words and tell us what God has to say?”
It is true; this is exactly what, week after week, as I prepare in the study in my home and speak here in this pulpit, to trust that the words that emanate from my lips are somehow, miraculously, by God’s grace and Holy Spirit, the words for today from the creator of the universe.
So each week, I begin and end my preparation on my knees on the hardwood floor, in the light of the west-facing window in my study. Some weeks the words flow, and the writing feels less like work and more like happening upon a fully-constructed meditation. Other weeks, it is like forging a message out of cold iron. Most weeks, it is a little of both.
I pore over my sermons, sometimes rewriting a sentence multiple times just to get the meter right. I deliver them with all the passion I can muster and exit the service feeling so spent, each week believing I have just used my last good idea. And yet, the next Tuesday, the next writing day comes, and like manna in the wilderness, God always seems to have something else to say. It is pure grace, all of it.
Since I have been your pastor, I have preached a sermon in the sanctuary pulpit that felt as though it completely and utterly failed to connect with anyone, even me, only to turn to descend the steps to the pulpit and see that Sunday’s crucifer smile and give me the “thumbs up.” Throughout my ministry, I have had people tell me that when I said this or that, it meant so much to them in a life-changing way.
And more often than not, despite my best wishes to the contrary, I can prove with the manuscripts that I said nothing of the sort, not even close. For all of the labor of homiletics, at best, your experience of a sermon is only fifty-percent what I say. Everything else is what you brought into the worship space with you that day combined with the work of the Holy Spirit’s action in your heart and mind.
I tell you that so I can tell you this: the reason that “Pray as though everything depends upon God and live as though everything depends upon you” is so wrong is because God never calls us into an either/or dichotomy. Instead, God calls you, calls me, and calls this church into partnership, where everyone has a role to play. There are things in this divine-human relationship that only God can do, other things that God has graciously left for you and for me and for us together. When we get it wrong, and we will, God always graciously redeems the wrong and uses it for good because God would rather do it this way than do it without us. It is the way God wagers, the way God wins, the way the Kingdom of God comes in our midst.
Everything does not depend upon you. It just doesn’t. There is no need for safe wagers, no need for practical atheism. God is God and God always gets a vote in all of our present circumstances, in your life, in my life, and in our life together, and that may be the very best news of all, hope for the world, hope for you, hope for me, “not of the philosophers and the scholars… [so do] not forget thy word.”
Gloria In Excelsis Deo.