Thursday, January 17, 2013
Worship and Justice
I take my title from Psalm 9.18, "For the needy will not always be forgotten, and the hope of the poor will not die forever." In Churches of Christ (I will generalize here) we have been raised on a diet of worship that has focused primarily upon mechanics. Is it lawful to sing during the Lord's Supper? Is it according to the pattern to have one or multiple cups? Are worshiping falsely (= in vain) if we use a pitch pipe or a rhythm guitar (no to the former and yes to the latter!). These, and similar questions, that have consumed our corporate thinking are issues of mechanics. Zeal for them has often let us believe that our Gatherings were "in spirit and truth" if we abstained from these innovations. But we have failed to see that none of these questions actually bring us back to Scripture and its vision of worship. Biblical false worship castigated in the prophets focused on the lack of implementation in Israelite daily life of the vision of God's world of shalom encountered in their holy assemblies. Thus when Yahweh rejects Israel's worship in Amos 5.23 it is not because God really hates harps as some zealously imagine . The text reads
"Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream." (5.23-24)
Yahweh has already rejected their worship (vv. 21-22). But Amos is not telling us God is opposed to Israel's worship because of harps nor is he opposed to the "songs" being sung. What songs are those? Almost certainly the songs sung are what becomes part our book of Psalms - songs of the kingdom! Rather what is nauseating to the Lord, is the failure of the worshipers to appreciate the connection between their Gathered worship and neighborly love ... i.e. justice. Vain worship is in fact possible! But it is not simply a matter of "mechanical instruments of music." Vain worship is leaving the assembly without a commitment to spread the love of God to those around us. Worship demands our (my) involvement in cultivating the vision of the world that is proclaimed in and through worship.
What "Songs" Were Offered
Amos mentions the "songs" that God rejects. God loves David's lyrical poetry but he felt about Israel daring to sing such music the same way many Evangelicals would about Madonna singing "Mary Did You Know!" The chasm between the lyrics and the life of the person singing is rightly appalling. I will return to Pss 9-10 below but here is a sampling of the lyrics offered to God in prayer and Gathered worship ... 
"O LORD, who is like you?
You deliver the weak
from those to strong for them,
the weak and needy from those who
crush them" (35.10)
"Happy/Blessed are those who consider the poor;
the LORD delivers them in the day of trouble.
The LORD protects them and keeps the alive;
they are called happy in the land.
You do not give them up the will of their enemies.
The LORD sustains them on their sickbed;
in their illness you all their infirmities" (41.1-3)
"Father of orphans, defender of widows,
such is God in his holy dwelling;
God gives the lonely a permanent home,
makes prisoners happy by setting them free" (68.5-6, JB)
"Be pleased, O God, to deliver me.
O LORD, make haste to help me!
Let those be put to shame and confusion
who seek my life ...
Let those who love your salvation
say ever more that "God is Great!'
But I am poor and needy;
hasten to me, O God!
You are my help and my deliverer;
O LORD, do not delay" (70. 1-5)
"Give the king your justice, O God ...
May he judge your people with righteousness,
and your poor with justice.
May the mountains yield prosperity for the people,
and the hills, in righteousness.
May he defend the cause of the poor of the people,
and give deliverance to the needy,
and crush the oppressor ...
For he delivers the needy when they call,
the poor and those who have no helper.
He has pity on the week and the needy,
and saves the lives of the needy.
From oppression and violence he redeems their life;
and precious is their blood (i.e. life) in his sight" (72.2-4; 12-14)
These, and many more, kingdom songs of Israel were rejected by God. Not because they used harps to sing them nor because the theology is "this worldly." Rather they were rejected precisely because the Israelites did not live the words they offered to God as their sacrifice of praise. These ancient hymns invite both Israel of old, and us today, to believe in a certain kind of God and a certain kind of world in which he is King. Daring to enter the gracious Presence of Yahweh and singing the songs of his kingdom is an act (yes act - I know that some of my friends don't like that word) that commits us to implement the vision of justice and shalom not only for ourselves but for our neighbors - so they too may have justice and shalom in God's world.
But we often do not hear these ancient kingdom songs. There are multiple reasons for this. First in our religious tradition the Hebrew Scriptures as a whole have mostly been mined for three purposes if at all 1) messianic prophecy; 2) polemical use in debates on the mechanics of worship listed above; and 3) occasional character studies of such people as Joseph, Hannah, Samuel and David. Second because these texts were not among the "good passages" in the Psalms the elder mentioned - he liked Ps 23 - they did not become part of our functional canon. But the loss of the "Old Testament" and the laments or cries for help in the Psalms from our daily prayers and our theology is "costly" .
Loosing the Songs of the Kingdom
But God does not want these songs of the kingdom lost. What God desires is for the vision of these psalms to become the pattern of our life as we live for him in in a fallen world full of injustice. It seems there are at least three serious costly consequences in our communal and personal lives when we either rarely sing/pray these psalms or never encounter them at all:
1) We silence the voice of the victims of injustice both in Scripture and "life" and thus have no "ears to hear"
2) We fail to have "eyes to see" and thus do not recognize injustice and those performing it - indeed we may end up siding with the oppressors
3) We are robbed of the opportunity to pray for and commit ourselves to the pursuit of God's kingdom and righteousness in our lives and his shalom in the world .
Constant exposure to the Story of God in the wider canon and the singing of the songs of the kingdom remind us that God is the God of the poor. Through constant exposure to the songs Israel sang, but did not live, we come to embrace the vision that David Lipscomb grasped with clarity. That vision is captured in this radical statement by the then editor of the Gospel Advocate:
"The poor of this world were the chosen vessels of mercy, the especially honored and blessed of God. They, as a class, constitute his elect."
Rather than a few isolated texts of "whiners" as WASP's may be tempted to look at the voices in
the Psalms, we come to embrace them as the voices of God's elect (to use DL's words). Even if I, or you, have never experienced the poverty, the pain, the suffering, the humiliation of our humanity that many do, God in his wisdom and grace is giving us the opportunity to identify with the victims in an act of neighborly love and make their prayers our prayers and the concerns of their lives the concerns of ours. Israel, perhaps, found it more profitable to be on the side of winners rather than the losers.
The Needy Will Not Always Be Forgotten
"But the LORD sits enthroned forever,
he has established his throne for judgment.
He judges the world with righteousness;
he judges the peoples with equity.
The LORD is a stronghold for the oppressed,
a stronghold in times of trouble ...
Sing praises to the LORD, who dwells in Zion ...
For he who avenges blood is mindful of them;
he does not forget the cry of the afflicted ...
For the needy will not always be forgotten,
nor the hope of the poor perish forever ... (9.7-9, 12, 18)
I began with Psalm 9-10 and I want to return here. This psalm, or song of the kingdom, gives us a special window not only on the victim but also to the purveyor of injustice. We have a lyrical portrait - from the perspective of the victim - of the ones seeking gain anyway then can get it (See 10.4, 6, 11, 13). What emerges from this song sung in Gathered worship is the picture of one who is self-centered and believes he answers to no one for his economic choices (this is common in the Psalms see Pss 3.1-2; 14.1; 42.10; 53.1; 64.5-6; 73.11; 79.10; 115.2). In fact what is being described sounds very much like business as usual in most corporate contexts.
But in worship we confess that Yahweh is in fact King "enthroned forever ... upon his throne for judgment" (9.7). Merely by confessing his Lordship, we deny the life and the values of the oppressor. Those with illusions of power and self-control imagine, we confess in the kingdom song, are deluded because we declare "But you do see!! (10.14). We side with the King in our worship. We confess to a reality that is not seen nor believed by the powerful. In in the world of worship we cast aside our unwitting embrace of oppressive values - even economic values - that take away the dignity of our neighbor. We sing the songs of the kingdom of remembering the poor and then we become the living words of the song in flesh and blood.
We end where we began. Worship and justice cannot be separated in the biblical pattern. True worship results in lives that are sound and Spiritually healthy in the Pauline sense. True worship is about a vision of the God who is King. In our Gathered worship we are reminded that Yahweh calls for more than a melody emanating from our vocal chords. He demands that we "do justice" (Micah 6.8). The poor will not be forgotten. The victims of those "who can" will not be erased from the story. The widows shafted by corporations is seen by God. The children living on the street cold and hungry do not fall between God's cracks. The "aliens" who are used and abused to avoid paying taxes or a fair wage have the King's ear. Because we dare to come into his Presence, sit at his Table, read his Scriptures, and sing his songs ... then they better have ours. Our singing of the songs of the kingdom lead us to be the one's who answer the Lord's Prayer - we live his will on earth as we see in the vision of heaven in worship. When that happens the poor will never be forgotten among God's people.
1] See Douglas Stuart, Hosea-Jonah: Word Biblical Commentary (Waco, TX: Word Publishing, 1987), 353-356 on the text and context.
2] For fellowship with the poor as a "means of grace" see my book with John Mark Hicks, Kingdom Come: Embracing the Spiritual Legacy of David Lipscomb and James Harding (Leafwood, 2006), 93-109.
3] See his rich essay "The Costly Loss of Lament," JSOT 36 (1986):
4] For an outstanding look at the Psalms as "Hope for the Poor" and the toxic consequences of silencing certain texts see J. Clinton MCann's "The Hope of the Poor: The Psalms in Worship and Our Search for Justice," in Touching the Altar: The Old Testament for Christian Worship, ed. Carol M. Bechtel (Eerdmans 2008), 155-178.