Recall again the words of the psalm we read a few moments ago: “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ All are corrupt and commit abominable acts; there is none who does any good” (Psalms 14:1). One of the commentaries I consulted as I prepared this sermon said that this psalm is addressing the problem of “functional atheism” (Preaching Through the Christian Year, Year C, p. 405). I find this a compelling and terribly pertinent term. The psalm is addressing itself to the elite within the society at the time it was written: those with the social and economic power. It warns these oppressors that “great terror” awaits them (v. 5) for their mistreatment of the poor. While they profess faith in Yahweh, their behavior gives no evidence of this faith. They are functional atheists – and great will be their fall.
Functional atheists. Again, the notion here is that lip service is paid to faith and belief. It would be an easy enough matter to read this psalm as an indictment of those “godless” people who are heedlessly oppressing the poor and the suffering. But we need to let the psalm hit much closer to home, which is where it is aimed. It challenges any person who claims to be a person of faith, “is that faith really influencing how you live? Your values, your priorities, your choices? Do you function recognizably as a Christian?”
Let’s stay with verse one of our psalm, which has ample material in it for many sermons. The great Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann points out that the verse “nicely links thought of autonomy (“The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God’”) with the act of social destructiveness” (Psalms, p. 80). Disbelief in God takes the form of acting on one’s own behalf, without reference back to the needs of the community. To say it another way: if we fail to place the common good at the center of our decision-making and choices, if we behave autonomously, the net result over time is social harm. And we are by definition not living out the faith we profess.
This reading of the verse really convicted me personally in framing autonomy as a reflection of functional atheism. In the field of psychotherapy, in the practice of which I spend the bulk of my professional time, autonomy is a highly-prized idea. It is seen as a developmental achievement to become an autonomous person, capable of making clear choices based upon mature self-knowledge. And while it is true that most psychotherapists would say, at least in theory, that this mature self-knowledge should result in living in a way that is good for the community, too often, functionally, it becomes an end in itself. “I know who I am” – therefore I’ve completed the work of therapy. I can make choices that are good for me. Insidiously, the well-being of the community stops being a concern. Living out of a belief in God has been left behind.
Don’t get me wrong: I do believe that getting to know our true selves is a worthy goal. But the biblical witness, over and over, says that the self we get to know ought to strive to live in a godly way. Such a self makes choices that are rooted and grounded in the love of God. Such a self is formed in community and will always be oriented towards community. So, we need to be careful about autonomy. Our self-awareness should be able to evaluate whether or not what we want is in line with what God wants. If we aren’t able to do this evaluation, we risk falling into – you guessed it- functional atheism.
When I began thinking about this sermon, I thought that it would go in the direction of social justice, making some kind of strong, prophetic call to respond to the evils of our world. And a sermon like this is certainly possible based on today’s texts. But instead, the sermon really took me to the person I see in the mirror every day. Our psalm wants us to start there. Each of us is challenged to make sure that our faith is evident in how we live our lives. It is easy and tempting to find fault with the “godless others” of the world. But if we do so without first taking a hard look at ourselves, we will lose our way. We must look at ourselves first.
If we need to be assured of the truth of this – that the spiritual condition of each of our lives is of immense importance to God – there is no better place to look than today’s Gospel lesson. “I tell you,” Jesus says,” that “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Luke 15:7). God is never too busy with the big picture to stop caring about each and every one of God’s children. So we must never be too busy to forget to take our own spiritual inventories.
And remember this, too: it’s our own inventories that are our proper focus, not those of our sisters and brothers in Christ. We are here to support and encourage one another, not to judge. This is true not least because when we find ourselves judging another person’s spiritual condition, we will more likely than not be wrong.
Some of you may remember my story about my saintly Uncle Ed, a profoundly faithful man of few words who encouraged me to pursue the call to ministry I had experienced when I was fifteen. Uncle Ed, one of my maternal grandfather’s five older brothers, was considered by everyone in his small farming community to be an exemplary Christian man. As for his youngest brother – my grandfather – not so much. My grandfather, Mervin Livingston, was as brash and loquacious as his brother was humble and soft-spoken. Unlike his brothers, my grandfather left farming, which he hated, and did so under mysterious circumstances that became the subject of family lore. Early in the Depression, in 1933, his barn burned down, which in those days meant that he lost the farm. My grandfather blamed his brother-in-law, Luke, who was considered something of a black sheep, claiming that he saw him running from the scene; but no-one else did, and many suspected that my grandfather had set the fire himself.
Whatever the truth of the matter was, my grandfather moved to the nearby city of York, Pennsylvania, where he largely abstained from church and lived a life that in many ways shocked his very traditional family. He was, without doubt, a difficult and complicated man. And yet, I remember vividly the moving grace that he said before every meal; and over the years I learned that my grandfather had been closely involved in building the church he rarely attended, which he always made sure I attended whenever we visited. He was so different than his visibly saintly brother; and yet, his influence in my faith formation was, if anything, stronger than my uncle’s was. Many who knew my grandfather would find this hard to believe. He was often disdainful of organized religion and at first seemed displeased with my choice to pursue ordination. But it was my grandfather who gave me the ordination gift that was most meaningful to me – a beautiful, engraved bible – and over the last two decades of his life – he lived to the age of 99 – he softened and became quite grounded in his Christian life. In his will, he directed that I would participate in his funeral service and preside at his burial.
On the gleaming February day on which we buried him, it was very clear to me that my grandfather Mervin, whom many had judged to be in considerable need of spiritual repair at various stages of his life, had never really been the lost sheep he had seemed to be. He was an unusual sort of Christian, to be sure – but a functional atheist he was not. It was a life lesson I will never forget. Fools say in their hearts that there is no God; but many who might appear to have been thinking this way turn out to have been close to God all along. Our job, always, is to look at ourselves first.
Charles D. Mayer