Psalm 14/53

Psalm 15

Psalm 16

Two Cheers for the Atheist

Fifth Sunday in lent

As I was working on our Psalms this week, Psalms 14, 15 and 16, I observed a pattern among them that I never noticed before.  I’ve known for a long time that Psalms 15 and 16 were once a single psalm in some of the earliest versions of the Hebrew Bible, but I never noticed before how Psalm 14 fit into the same pattern.

Before I get too deep into it, a word about our twin Psalms this morning, Psalm 14 and Psalm 53.  Except for the last few lines, they’re nearly identical, aren’t they?  Why would the Bible have near-duplicate chapters in the same book?  The reasons are in their differences, however slight.  We’ve said before that the psalms were used as Israel’s hymnal, after a fashion, so Psalms 14 and 53 are  really just the same song sung to a different tune.  The introduction to Psalm 14 reads simply, “To the Leader.  [A Psalm] Of David,” while the second reads, “To the leader:  according to Mahalath.  A Maskil of David.”  The leader is either the worship leader (that’s me) or the choirmaster (that’s Karli); the Mahalath is likely a hymn tune, and a maskil a style of song.  You and I just sang a hymn, “We Praise You O God,” that borrowed a tune from the more familiar “We Gather Together;” same tune, different words.  Psalms 14 and 53 are the same words, different tune.  The second difference is in the name used for God.  Psalm 53 uses the word God, in Hebrew, Elohim, consistently; Psalm 14 uses both Elohim/God and Yahweh/The Lord, interchangeably, which suggests that one psalm was used by one group of Jewish worshippers, the other by a different group.  The final difference is where you saw the words diverge.  Psalm 53 concludes with the idea of the punishment of the wicked:  “God will scatter the bones of the ungodly, they will be put to shame, for God has rejected them;” Psalm 14 leans more toward the delivery of the righteous:  “God is with the company of the righteous… the Lord is the refuge of the poor.”  It is this third difference that will figure in to the way Psalm 14 is related to Psalms 15 and 16.

So it finally happened. After nearly two years of putting sermon titles on our church sign that have consisted of an assortment of bad puns, non-sequiturs, tortured wordplay, enigmatic phrases, mysteries and riddles, I finally received an angry phone message the other day about a sermon title – this morning’s sermon title, “Two Cheers for the Atheist.”  The caller identified herself as an atheist, and said she took umbrage at the title, “Two Cheers for the Atheist.”  She asked whether I would title a sermon “Two Cheers for the Jew, or the Muslim,” and she has a point – I understand and respect where she is coming from.  But unfortunately it was just a voice message - she didn’t leave her name, or a contact number, so there was no way I could respond and engage her in conversation, which I like to do whenever anyone has an issue.  Because my intent here is not to disrespect anyone, not the believer, not the atheist, but rather to create room in our life together for those who seriously and honestly question the reality and existence of God.

My thoughts this morning were spurred by Richard Floyd’s piece in our Lent Devotionals for last Monday; it was based on the dual psalm we heard this morning, Psalm 14 & 53, “Fools say in their hearts, ‘There is no God.’”  As Floyd is quick to point out, “fool doesn’t mean an unintelligent person;” but rather a fool is one who disregards the divine call to be loving, who ignores the principles of hospitality, and who deny God, not with any human system of belief, but rather by refusing to love our neighbors as ourselves.  And when Floyd goes on to cite such contemporary writers as Sam Harris, and Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett, what he means is that the atheism or agnosticism of these and other writers is quite consistent:  that you and I do not and should not require the existence of God in order to be loving, compassionate and moral people, we should be all these things simply because we are human, sisters and brothers to all humanity.  Harris and Dawkins and the rest would agree with the writer of the 14th psalm who implies that when people who profess to love and believe in God neglect the most basic needs of our neighbors, wherever they might be found, these are the real fools.

Or to put it in the language of the greatest commandment, if we think we can love God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength without loving our neighbor as ourselves, then we just don’t get it.

And in a way this is what the next psalm, Psalm 15 is telling us.  Psalm 15 has always stood out for me because it basically describes how to be godly without ever saying anything about faith and belief, it is only and exclusively about how we treat each other.  Did you notice that there is barely any trace of God in Psalm 15?  It begins by asking the question, “Lord, who may abide in your tent?  Who may dwell on your holy hill?”  And listen carefully to the answer:  those who walk blamelessly, who do what is right, who speak the truth from the heart, who do not slander or do any wrong to a neighbor, who stand by their own word even when it is not to their advantage to do so, who do not lend at interest nor mistreat the innocent.  Psalm 15 is all about moral behavior, not about faith or believing the right things.  In other words, and this is what I would say to my phone-caller if I had the chance, even the Bible proclaims that it is possible to be a sound, moral, upright member of the human family without God necessarily being part of the equation.  Two cheers for the atheist is not a criticism – it in an endorsement, one that comes from the fifteenth psalm itself.

It is not a full-throated endorsement, to be sure, because at the end of the day we are the church, and we profess and proclaim a God who loves us and who loves every one of God’s children regardless of what they believe.  And this is where the third psalm of the series comes in, Psalm 16.  As I said earlier, Psalms 15 and 16 were once meant to be read together:  Psalm 15 talks about the morally upright as beloved of God and Psalm 16 describes the faithful person also as beloved of God:  “I say to the Lord, ‘You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you… The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup… in God’s presence there is fullness of joy… and pleasures forevermore.”

And so here is the pattern I noticed:  Psalm 14 begins with “Fools say in their hearts there is no God,” and concludes with the salvation of the righteous.  Psalm 15 goes on to describe someone whose behavior rather than belief makes them righteous and Psalm 16 describes someone whose belief in and love for God makes them righteous.  But note that neither the moral person nor the faithful person is the fool.  Both are righteous, and both have a home in the eternal presence of God.  None of us is perfect, to be sure, and when folks like Bertrand Russell and Sam Harris and the rest remind us that there have been times and instances in human history when the world has suffered great ill at the hands of those who claim the mantle of religion, their point is well taken.  Still, as Richard Floyd wrote in Monday’s devotion, “Lent calls us to confess the foolishness not of our belief systems but of our behaviors.  [We] always fall short, but [we] keep trying to do better at love.  And friends, there is nothing foolish about that.”


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