Text: Psalm 29 (YHWH thunders over the waters)
The three-year cycle of Bible readings that we use to plan our Sunday gatherings suggests four readings each week; and one of them is always a psalm. The Psalms are a set of 150 songs from the Hebrew Bible said to have been written by King David 3,000 years ago. In his song “Hallelujah,” Leonard Cohen alludes to this tradition: “I heard there was a secret chord, that David played to please the Lord . . . the baffled king composing Hallelujah.”
But when biblical scholars started to use scientific methods, they realized that the Psalms were not written by one person. Like much of the rest of the Bible, they were compiled 2500 years ago by Jewish leaders when they lived in exile in what is now Iraq.
The 150 Psalms cover a range of emotions from joy to despair. The ones that express anger help some of us feel free to vent when we are hurting.
The hymn “When in our Music God is Glorified” includes the line, “And did not Jesus sing a psalm that night when utmost evil strove against the light?” The hymn is referring to Jesus’ last words. In Mark’s version of the crucifixion, Jesus exclaims: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” which is from Psalm 22.
Other psalms use vivid imagery to express hope. Psalm 23 is a prime example: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want; he makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul.”
But despite how well-loved the Psalms are, I rarely use them in our gatherings. Most of them convey a concept of God that doesn’t resonate with me. And Psalm 29, which is assigned to “Storm Sunday” today, is no exception. It suggests that the tribal god of the Jews, YHWH, is the source of thunder, lightning and storms.
But for many of us, the god of thunder is no longer YHWH from ancient Israel but Thor from ancient Norway! Thor’s popularity continues to rise with each new movie based on Marvel’s comic book version of this divine hero. YHWH may have come first in literary history, but Thor now seems to be carrying the day.
Further, the science of weather has demystified thunder and lightning. Today we know that thunderstorms are the products of natural processes and not the actions of gods like Thor or YHWH.
In the face of science, many of us no longer believe in a god of thunder. We may enjoy tales of Thor battling the Frost Giants on the silver screen, but few actually believe that he is a god. Most of us are “Thor atheists.”
In the same way, many of us don’t believe the Bible stories about YHWH fighting rival gods like Baal, murdering innocent Egyptian children, or directing the genocide of the people of Canaan. In the face of tales of YHWH’s violence and xenophobia, we don’t believe in him, and so we could be called “YHWH atheists.”
Hmmm. But isn’t YHWH also God the Father, the Holy One whose only begotten son is Jesus of Nazareth? Perhaps, but I don’t find the issue to be clear.
There are at least seven names for God in the Hebrew Bible. In Genesis chapter one, a group of sky gods called Elohim creates the heavens and earth. Most English versions translate Elohim into the singular word “God,” but in the Hebrew original it is plural. In Genesis chapter two, the god YHWH creates Adam and Eve in a story quite different from the one found in Genesis 1. The creation stories of Genesis 1 and 2 don’t match; they were written centuries apart; and they are about different gods.
The church says we are to believe in God. But does this refer to Elohim or YHWH? And what about Zeus or Thor? Finally, if we don’t believe in YHWH in the same way that we don’t believe in Thor, does this imply that we are atheists who should leave the church?
This summer, a storm has been raging in the United Church of Canada about atheism. For the first time in its 91-year history, the United Church held a heresy trial. In June, the Toronto Conference reviewed the beliefs of well-known Toronto minister Gretta Vosper. In 2013, Vosper stopped calling herself a non-theist and began calling herself an atheist. In response, the top bureaucrat of our denomination, General Secretary Nora Sanders, created a process to review ministers for our stated beliefs.
On September 8, the results of the June trial were released by a Review Committee. Nineteen of its 23 members recommended that Vosper be fired. The other four recommended that she be allowed to continue as the minister of West Hill United. The report made a splash in the media, even reaching ABC TV’s talk show “The View.” On September 9, The View’s moderator Whoopi Goldberg publicly invited Vosper to come on the show. Despite this, when I mentioned the news about Vosper at a Council meeting this past Tuesday, only a few of us had heard about it.
I raise the Vosper case today for several reasons: because I think it fits with a reflection on Psalm 29 and “Storm Sunday;” because of the passions it has aroused among ministers; and because I am a public supporter of Vosper, including a letter of mine that the United Church Observer published last year.
This past Thursday, a group of church officials met in Toronto to decide whether to proceed with the recommendation that Vosper be fired. They heard from Rev. Vosper and her congregation of West Hill United, which supports her. But the committee couldn’t reach a decision. They will meet again tomorrow to see if they can come to a consensus.
I have been upset by discussions of this case among United Church ministers on Facebook groups this summer. Many responded the same way that Goldberg and others on The View did — with sarcasm and derision. One of the panelists on The View suggested that being an atheist minister is analogous to a being a baseball player who is no longer willing to use a bat.
On the other hand, I am cheered by the response of others in the church. Large meetings of supporters of Vosper occurred last week in Sherwood Park United and Southminster-Steinhauer United. These meetings led to an online petition, which has gathered 1,000 signatures and 500 comments in less than a week. The petition urges church leaders in Toronto to let Vosper remain in ministry.
Reading the names and comments on this petition has encouraged me. The list includes ministers I know here in Alberta, in Saskatchewan where I served for two and half years, and in Toronto. The comments give me greater courage to speak out for openness and inclusion in our church. The petition has connected a large community of seekers within the United Church, which gives me hope.
In the face of gods like Thor and YHWH, many of us are atheists. Nevertheless, I believe that everyone worships. As children we worship our parents. As adolescents we idolize pop stars or sport heroes. As adults we may find ourselves worshipping alcohol, the nation, or even the church.
Worship might be universal, but so is idolatry. I am grateful, then, that Grace is also universal. Every life includes crisis and disillusionment. Though painful, such crises often lead to new life. Through a series of spiritual crises, we sometimes abandon the worship of an idol and find ourselves raised closer to the God who is Love.
Vosper describes the end point of this process as atheism. I don’t do the same, but I think I understand her point. Vosper is distancing herself from ancient tribal gods like Thor or YHWH and trying to be open to wherever a quest for justice, truth and love might lead us.
The people who first followed Jesus abandoned animal sacrifice in the Temple and worshipped in a new spirit of Love. They abandoned tribal gods for a Shalom that could embrace the entire human race. Today we too are challenged to move beyond old beliefs and traditions.
Many churches focus on belief. Above all other goals, they encourage belief in things like eternal lakes of fire and the notion that the Bible is without error.
But this is not for me. If I had thought the United Church of Canada was yet another “Bible-believing” church, I wouldn’t have rejoined it 15 years ago.
I want to belong to a church that focuses on community more than creeds; on healing more than doctrine; and on enlightenment more than belief. How we act is more important to me than what we say. I want to walk with fellow pilgrims on a path that is characterized by mutual respect, kindness and love. If we can conduct ourselves like this in worship, education, mission and outreach, then the many different beliefs among us seem unimportant to me.
I will now end with the last two verses of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” I think they contain some insight into these issues:
“You say I took the name in vain, but I don’t even know the name
And even if I did, well, what’s it to you?
There’s a blaze of light in every word.
It doesn’t matter which you heard the holy or the broken Hallelujah.
I did my best, it wasn’t much, I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch
I’ve told the truth. I didn’t come to fool you.
And even though it all went wrong, I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my lips but Hallelujah.
Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah.”
May it be so. Amen.