“Fools say in their hearts, “There is no God.”
They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds;
there is no one who does good.
2 The Lord looks down from heaven on humankind
to see if there are any who are wise,
who seek after God.
3 They have all gone astray, they are all alike perverse;
there is no one who does good,
no, not one.
4 Have they no knowledge, all the evildoers
who eat up my people as they eat bread,
and do not call upon the Lord?
5 There they shall be in great terror,
for God is with the company of the righteous.
6 You would confound the plans of the poor,
but the Lord is their refuge.
7 O that deliverance for Israel would come from Zion!
When the Lord restores the fortunes of his people,
Jacob will rejoice; Israel will be glad.”
The Reverend Phillip Blackburn
July 26, 2015
Atticus Finch. I love Atticus Finch. Atticus is, or was, perhaps the most beloved character to ever arise from American Literature. If he wasn’t number 1, he was very close. We met Atticus for the first time in Harper Lee’s 1960 novel, “To Kill A Mockingbird.” And my, wasn’t he the best fellow? He was made even better when he was so admirably portrayed by Gregory Peck in the 1962 movie based on the book. If you are one of the few people who have never read To Kill A Mockingbird, or not seen the movie, then I would like to recommend you go the library first thing in the morning and read it. But since the library is closed today, I will tell you a little about Mr. Atticus Finch.
Atticus Finch was a gentrified southern lawyer, living in the rural south during the 1930s. He was a widower, raising his two children, Jem and Jean Louise, aka Scout. Atticus was basically the type of person we all wished we were. In the book, he unsuccessfully defended Tom Robinson, who was wrongfully accused of assault. He was principled, he was wise, and he was brave. I remember in the movie, one of my favorite scenes was after Tom’s trial had ended and he had been led away in shackles, and the courtroom was mostly empty. The trial had, of course, been segregated and the black folks in town had been placed in the balcony. Even after the whites had left the courtroom, they stayed behind. Atticus slowly gathered up his papers and his briefcase, straightened up, and began to walk out of the courtroom. His children, who had been watching with the people in the balcony, looked on, when one of the folks leaned down to Scout and said, “Miss Jean Louise, Miss Jean Louise, you stand up, your daddy’s passing.” And with that the entire balcony arose in appreciation of Atticus and his valiant but futile defense of Tom.
There was something so aspirational about Atticus Finch. Yes, Atticus was our best selves, the person we hope to be each Sunday morning when we straighten our tie in the mirror or settle into our pew. If we looked for him in Psalm 14, we’d have known right where to find old Atticus, back there in the back, with the righteous and the poor. That’s where God is, after all, back there in the back of the Psalm. The Psalmist writes that God is in the company of the righteous and is the refuge of the poor. It is a powerful statement about God’s place in culture and society, especially in contrast to the powerful. And that is where we believe we’d find Atticus, if he were in this Psalm, at the back.
But now, we have a problem, because a couple of weeks ago a new book came out. This one is called “Go Set A Watchman,” and this one was written before “To Kill A Mockingbird”, but occurs after it. And in this book there is a problem. And it’s a problem with Atticus. Of all her characters, why, oh why, did Harper Lee have to do this to Atticus. What did she do to him? Well, she moved him to the front of the Psalm. In “Go Set A Watchman”, Atticus is different. Atticus goes to Klan meetings, and Atticus talks about how the races shouldn’t mingle, and, well, that’s enough. It’s enough because we don’t want to hear any more about Atticus; we liked him perfectly well before and now we aren’t sure what to think. I’ll admit, I haven’t read “Watchman” yet because I don’t really want to deal with this new Atticus. I don’t want to deal with a story that undoes much of what I loved about Mockingbird. And I don’t really want to move Atticus around in Psalm 14. I like him at the back.
But if we are being fair, we probably need to move him. The beginning of the Psalm, its front, is a tough place to be for those of us who love God. It is a place where the fool says, “there is no God”, and the Psalmist remarks: there is “not one” who does good. Ouch. The front of the Psalm is dark and captures an experience that is regrettably common in this world: the experience that society, culture, and those in power, have no regard for God, God’s righteousness, or God’s place in this world. On the surface, we might believe that the front of the Psalm references atheism, and we might immediately apply it to the rising tide of atheism and agnosticism in our own time. This would be to miss the point a bit. The Psalmist is not writing about people who don’t believe, but is instead writing about people who believe it is they, not God, who are the authors of the planet’s fate. The fool says in his heart, there is no God, and sets about doing what he thinks is best.
And here we find this new Atticus, a new Atticus who believes the Klan is the solution to society’s ills, an Atticus who believes that blacks are inferior to whites. This Atticus is surely not viewing the world through God’s eyes. And so we are left to ask ourselves, who is the real Atticus? And who wants to have that conversation. We liked him before but we have a tough time with him now. Is this the real Atticus? Where does he belong? Conversations like these are the hardest to have. It is tough to look at a person whose beliefs are complex or seemingly contradictory. Which Atticus is it? And here I will give you the answer. He is both.
The Psalmist makes a bold claim, that there is not one person who does good in the whole land. It is an unqualified statement. Then two verses later he talks about the righteous poor. Are they two different groups? Are the statements contradictory? No. They are the same people. Is it so hard for us to believe that a man might, on the one hand, fight for the rights of a black man in court and pass on sage wisdom about race to his young child, but also hold beliefs in his heart that are deeply racist and seemingly inconsistent with his other actions? Is it so hard to believe that a person in ancient Israel might have sought diligently his own gains and pursuits and ends, but who still might, at the end of the day, belong to the company of the righteous? Of course it is not.
This is where our modern world gets so many things wrong. We reduce people to one or the other, good or bad, wise or fool. No person can be both, we are told. But in truth we are all some of both. In truth, this new Atticus reflects us perfectly, not because we are all latent racists but because we all live in both the front and back of this Psalm, with our own sins and our own values mixed up in the same person. We who are gathered here this morning want to follow God. We pray. We worship. We study. We serve. We offer compassion and love to our communities. But we also have our moments, whether they be many or few, when we say explicitly or implicitly, that there is no God, and we proceed to just do what we want.
And we look around the world and we try to place people into one of two groups, people who are making the world better and people who are making it worse: people like the Atticus we loved or people like the Atticus we have only just met. And when we do that, we miss the point. We all do both. Some of us live more in the front of the Psalm and some more in the back. But if we want things to change, if we want the world to improve, we have got to stop believing that every person is either good or bad, and we have got to stop believing that we have not contributed to the mess that we see around us.
This world does not belong to you and me. It belongs to God. We are most fully ourselves when we get out of the way and we look diligently for the Holy Spirit’s presence in this world, and we try to join in. In truth, Atticus didn’t get messed up for us, he was simply made more real. And he, like us, lives in both ends of Psalm 14. As Jesus said, only God is good. And when we are at our best, we live most vibrantly into that truth. Amen.