Live Life Like an Atheist – Rev Peta 24th June 2018
So, Rev Michael sent me a particular version of Psalm 73, which is the paraphrase or interpretation or whatever from the Doubter Psalms. Which took me totally by surprise when I read it because it’s so very different from the two versions that I had. I’ve got one from The Message, which is, again, completely different from what’s in the NRSV. So I don’t know if I’m coming or going sometimes with this Psalm. But I think on the whole they are all the same psalm, and they do all have the same message – even though it wasn’t all that easy to find it.
So I’m going to read the one from the Message, because it is so different from the one that we heard, and because I’m going to reference all three versions liberally while I’m speaking.
1-5 No doubt about it! God is good—
good to good people, good to the good-hearted.
But I nearly missed it,
missed seeing his goodness.
I was looking the other way,
looking up to the people
At the top,
envying the wicked who have it made,
Who have nothing to worry about,
not a care in the whole wide world.
6-10 Pretentious with arrogance,
they wear the latest fashions in violence,
Pampered and overfed,
decked out in silk bows of silliness.
They jeer, using words to kill;
they bully their way with words.
They’re full of hot air,
loudmouths disturbing the peace.
People actually listen to them—can you believe it?
Like thirsty puppies, they lap up their words.
11-14 What’s going on here? Is God out to lunch?
Nobody’s tending the store.
The wicked get by with everything;
they have it made, piling up riches.
I’ve been stupid to play by the rules;
what has it gotten me?
A long run of bad luck, that’s what—
a slap in the face every time I walk out the door.
15-20 If I’d have given in and talked like this,
I would have betrayed your dear children.
Still, when I tried to figure it out,
all I got was a splitting headache . . .
Until I entered the sanctuary of God.
Then I saw the whole picture:
The slippery road you’ve put them on,
with a final crash in a ditch of delusions.
In the blink of an eye, disaster!
A blind curve in the dark, and—nightmare!
We wake up and rub our eyes. . . . Nothing.
There’s nothing to them. And there never was.
21-24 When I was beleaguered and bitter,
totally consumed by envy,
I was totally ignorant, a dumb ox
in your very presence.
I’m still in your presence,
but you’ve taken my hand.
You wisely and tenderly lead me,
and then you bless me.
25-28 You’re all I want in heaven!
You’re all I want on earth!
When my skin sags and my bones get brittle,
God is rock-firm and faithful.
Look! Those who left you are falling apart!
Deserters, they’ll never be heard from again.
But I’m in the very presence of God—
oh, how refreshing it is!
I’m not going to read the whole of the NRSV version, but that’s different again. The overall impression I got, both from the Message and the NRSV, was that psalmist had been brought up, as it were, with a prosperity gospel – you know, God will give good things to those who are good, and disaster overtakes those who’ve been bad. The wicked never prosper, that kind of thing. Which he has now rejected, on account of the evidence. He says frankly that’s just not what happens. Good people suffer. Bad people get what they want. What’s going on? Then at first glance it seems as though he’s had a sudden relapse into his old religious, prosperity gospel way of thinking. He’s been to Temple and gone ‘Oh! Actually, I was wrong, it’s all sorted out!’
But what he got in the sanctuary wasn’t a sense of certainty and righteousness – it was a sense of proportion. Look at what he says, and look at the evidence. What does he say that the wicked have?
Money. OK, probably not all rotten people are rich – and not all rich people are rotten. But there is a correlation between selfish behavior and wealth. I know there’s a saying: ‘get rich or die trying’ and yesterday I met someone with a wonderful T-shirt that said ‘Get rich or Try Sharing!’ I like that. I want one of those. Because the association is, that if you value possessions over people, you’re more likely to acquire a lot of possessions -as opposed to, say, a lot of friends. Whereas if you’re truly generous and you keep giving stuff away, obviously you’re not going to be building up a huge excess. And, if you trust God, you don’t need to stockpile.
It’s like Jesus’ parable about the guy who has the huge harvest, and builds a great barn to store it all in. Which maybe to us, who are used to people building big barns, or banks, to store wealth in, it doesn’t come across as shocking as it did at the time, when what you did, if you had a big harvest, was to invite all your neighbours round for a feast. It’s what Granny Weatherwax in Terry Pratchett calls ‘storing your wealth in other people’. Sooner or later, they’ll have a good harvest, and they’ll invite you round for supper! So this idea of shoving everything into a barn went totally against this way of thinking that Jesus grew up with thinking of as ‘the right way to do things’ – and what he was trying to encourage: be generous! What good is it to you in a barn? What good is it to your neighbor in a barn?
Then he says: the wicked have power. The reason being, that you can get power by coercion, violence, bribery, manipulation, lies – if you’re not fussed how you get it, there’s a lot of cheap ways to power. There’s not so many difficult and honest ways to power. I’m not saying that there aren’t any honest people who have power. We all have power of one kind or another, and it’s up to is how we use it. But nonetheless, these people he’s looking at, they’re getting their power by violence, he says.
They’ve got comfort. They’re not in pain, they’re not hungry, they’re not fearful. Because again, it’s easier to have enough if you’re not concerned about who you took it from.
They’ve got popularity. And this one I struggle with, because I do see, I see it in the world, you’ve got these people, they abuse the poor and the vulnerable, they cheat them, they lie to them, they take away their money and give it to corporations and people who are already rich, and for some reason they love them. And they vote for them. And I don’t know why. And the psalmist says: ‘I set myself to do only good, and in return they call me names and they jeer at me’ – and they do, don’t they? A lot of people who spend their lives trying to be truly honest and work for other people, mostly get a slap for it. I don’t know why. I get a splitting headache trying to figure it out.
They’ve also got no worry and concern. A lot of what troubles us wouldn’t give us worry and concern, if we didn’t love. If the disappearance of the polar bear didn’t trouble me; if the desperate cries of children detained in cages at borders didn’t break my heart. If I were as cold as ice, I wouldn’t hurt so much. And neither would I have anything else worth having.
The psalmist is right and the prosperity teachers are wrong. Evil does prosper – as far as we understand prosperity in this world. The good do suffer. Loving God faithfully won’t make you rich, or popular, or comfortable, or healthy. It won’t even take away your concerns, it just directs them towards the right stuff.
And yet – the psalmist is right when he says: ‘if I carried on talking like this, I would be foolish, and a betrayer of God’s children. It’s a betrayal of God’s children to say that there is no point being good, if you get nothing for it. As if we were only good in order to get good things. That’s what Satan teases God about in the book of Job, when God’s so proud of Job, of how faithful and good he is, and Satan says ‘Yeah, but it’s not for nothing, is it? He’s only good, he only loves you, because you’ve given him so much.’
What about when we don’t? We’re still supposed to be good. Sometimes, people make sense of this by ‘life after death’. Which may be very comforting. And may also be true. But it isn’t necessarily useful in following the God who is Love, here and now. ‘Pie in the sky when you die’, as they say, doesn’t encourage us to feed the hungry here and now. You know, they were right, when they said that. If we only do what is right in order to avoid eternal punishment or earn eternal reward, we’ve missed the point. We know this.
Money and possessions, for instance. We say ‘you can’t take it with you’. Well, yes – but what’s that got to do with enjoying it here and now? But there’s another change of perspective that’s about this life, that helps us to see that in any case those possessions weren’t the treasures that we thought them. Whether it’s here or in the hereafter, treasure in heaven means treasure of the spirit. Not treasure in the future, treasure in heaven now. Treasure in here [points to heart] now.
So despite everything – and I’m just going to say here that I do believe in God, (I’m very fond of God) – however, despite everything, I prefer to live like an atheist, when it comes to this thing: I do not live in the fear of Hell, or the hope of Heaven. I think God’s got all that stuff sorted out. It’s not really mine to worry about. A notion that would horrify the church I attended as a student, where the whole purpose was to rescue souls from hell, and store up thereby a reward for ourselves in heaven. Brush up our souls a bit, ready, and earthly life was just an opportunity to gather up as many souls as possible for the next one. And if I believed in a vengeful and punishing God, maybe that would have some meaning for me.
But if we have to frighten or bribe each other into love – into loving God, into loving our neighbor – what’s that worth? What kind of love is it that relies on the carrot and the stick? You know I’ve actually worked with a few donkeys in my time, and the carrot and the stick works, more or less, but actually you need neither the carrot nor the stick, if the donkey loves you. If you get to know it, then it’ll do what you ask because it trusts you, and it loves you, and it enjoys your company, and it’s enough to say ‘come on. Let’s go this way, let’s pull this, let’s move that, let’s not barge in there and eat everybody else’s food, thank you – donkeys are a nightmare for doing that – you don’t need carrots and sticks, and neither does God.
So it’s not in the fear of hell, or the hope of heaven, but the reality of God’s present Kingdom. The here and now light and love of Jesus. Never mind about forever. God’s the only one who knows about that, and God’s got it in hand. As far as that goes, all I can do is trust.
So if I were to go on envying the wicked and the prosperous, I would be a fool, and betraying God’s children. I’d stop looking towards the needs of the vulnerable. I’d betray those children at the US border, and all those in detention centres here as well. I’d betray the polar bears and the rainforests. I’d betray those who were in Grenfell tower, and all those still in buildings like it. I’d betray the everyday victims of casual racism, and the disappeared gay men of Chechnya. I’d betray my little niece and nephew who look to us to model what’s good and what’s not. I’d betray the future that I will never see, and the efforts of those who paved the way for me. Marsha P Johnson, DeLarverie, Rivera, Baldwin, Bonhoeffer and so many more, far too many to name.
Time spent with God, pondering God’s love, pondering what Love means, puts it in perspective. It’s not so much that the wicked become nothing, you know, as if God sweeps in with the armies of heaven and sweeps away Them and rewards Us. (whoever Them and Us may be – because my idea of wicked isn’t the same as my neighbour’s, I can tell you that for sure).
No, it’s because they already are nothing. Nothing to envy, that is. Nothing to emulate. Nothing to fear, or to obey. The speeches are hot air, and we will see through them. What’s been built by cruelty and destruction and hardheartedness won’t last. Walls, however high they manage to get, will tumble. What they try to destroy will rise again.
Most of what we’re urged to want and envy was never worth having in the first place. We won’t have it in heaven, we won’t need it on earth. ‘Who else is there for me in heaven?’ says the psalmist ‘and with You, I lack nothing’.
Nothing to envy, not because God will reverse the order of the haves and the have-nots, but because God already has. We have God. We have Jesus. We have each other. We have a job to do – building the Kingdom – and we have love. What more could we possibly want?