Saturday, August 2, 2014

Amidst the worship wars a call to a lifestyle of trust and justice (Psalm 146)

I’m not sure if you are aware of it but there is a war going on…not just in the far off places of our news headlines…but right here… and by coming to public worship you can find yourself at the front lines. You can find yourself entrenched on one side or the other, hunkering in the bunker and lobbing grenades at the opposition… Marooned in no-man’s land and vulnerable to attack from both sides... Cut off from your own people and surrounded. It’s not a very comfortable place to be…there are casualties, displaced peoples, refugees,  wounded in need of care and healing and some places lie in ruins, obliterated by the conflict.

I’m taking about worship wars… the clash of styles and philosophy and theology when it comes to worship in our churches. A conflict which has flared up in recent times because of the development of electronic music, mass media, new technology, a culture of choice, globalisation … what Leonard sweet calls a cultural tsunami; A wave that has broken over and through the church.

It’s a clash between those who treasure the traditional and those who value the new. Those who view worship and church music as being associated with high culture; classical music and soaring choral splendour, those who relate it to folk culture; singing those shared songs and tunes of our past and our people, and those who express it in pop culture; with bands and beats seamless with what is on their personal playlists in a myriad of electronic devices.

It’s happened before in history. Even in scripture King David and his wife Micah’s marriage is fouled by a clash over worship styles. We sang one of Isaac Watt’s metric psalms this morning… but when he sought the freedom to write his own words of praise to popular tunes they were mocked as his whims rather than real hymns. Down in the deep south of our country, in the heart land of Presbyterianism, hearing people complain about the devils instrument in church is still a living memory… they were referring to the organ by the way.

Throw in those who desire deep well thought out well-crafted prayers and liturgy and those who …well…just…want to…well…express themselves to God. Formality verse informality questions of clothes and clerical cloth or lack of it. Participation verse performance, peaceful contemplation verses jubilant celebration. It’s sad but often the choice that people make about where to worship has to do with these things…with style. And, yes, these things matter. They have to do with culture…With who we are as people. They are part of our spiritual make-up, John Westerhoff says that different ways of worship actually connect with different personality types.

It might seem a bit arrogant but in the face of that conflict, over the next five Sundays, we are going to have the final word on praise and worship. No! not my final word, No! Not yours, not a voicing of our preferences in the worship wars. We are going to look at the final five psalms. Five hymns of praise which start and finish with “Hallelujah” or “praise the LORD” that are the last words in the book of Psalms. Five hymns without introduction or ascribed to anyone that sum up and draw together threads that have been running through the whole collection. Five Songs that call us beyond style and preference…to Hallelujah… to praise the Lord. Each of them gives us reason to worship and give thanks, each of them speaks not only to the people of their day but to us today. And perhaps in an election year it’s appropriate that we should start with a psalm that warns against trusting in human leaders and calls us to worship the God who can be trusted, who is from beginning to end all about justice…psalm 146.

Psalm 146, starts by being a personal individual hymn of praise, an encouragement to be a lifelong worshipper of God. At the end of the book of Psalms which encapsulate so much of the life experiences of God’s people it is appropriate for the psalmist to call themselves and their listeners to worship God with and throughout all of life. We’ve had Psalms from throughout David’s life from his songs as a shepherd in his youth right up through life’s ups and downs, his coronation and ascendancy his having to flee because of the revolt led by his son Absalom, right through to sickness and the challenges of his old age. We’ve had the laments of Individuals and the whole community of God’s people as they have wrestled with exile, illness, suffering. We’ve heard God praised for the splendour of the night sky and in the midst of storms sweeping up from the Mediterranean Sea. There are pilgrim’s song, the songs of those established and at peace and those far away and feeling cut off. In the midst of that this Psalm is able to confirm and affirm God’s help and God’s faithfulness…From beginning to end. God is a lifelong help to be praised all life long.

The Psalmist calls others to come and to worship as well… couching his invitation to praise and to trust God firstly by using a negative comparison. He compares God to the rulers and princes of this world. Ultimately they cannot be trusted to bring about justice and wholeness and peace. Not because they are corrupt or evil but rather because they like us are human, their life span is so limited. I guess in a democracy it could even be said the ability to have effect is shorter still Just simply the time between elections.  If this Psalm comes from the post exilic period as many scholars seem to think, then Jerusalem would have been re-established by the goodwill of a succession of Mede and Persian kings. If you look at Nehemiah and Ezra you see them named. But the Palmist is aware that just as in the past in the future the reigns and goodness of such rulers and leaders is fickle and short lived.

He then turns and gives a positive affirmation of why God can be trusted. Israel’s hope is in the long term rule and reign of Yhwh. God is eternal, God does not change. God is not fickle. God’s plans are never thwarted. The Psalmist uses the book ends of eternity to express this. God was the maker of heaven and earth in verse 6 and the LORD will reign for ever in verse 10. At the back of the other book, the book of revelations picks this up by using the metaphor of the Greek alphabet to affirming that Jesus is that expression of God reigns, he is the alpha and omega.

Not only is God faithful through all of life and all of time but the psalmist calls us to praise and trust God because God’s good character is expressed in his activity. From beginning to end God manifesto and manifestations are about justice. The core of this psalm is a list of that activity… of that justice. It starts and finishes with two lines each about the God caring for the oppressed and the hungry, the orphans and the widows and frustrating the ways of the wicked; Protecting the innocent. In the middle of that the name of the LORD is invoked five times as it says the LORD sets free the prisoner, those held captive, the Lord gives sight to the blind, The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down, the LORD loves the righteous and the LORD watches over the stranger. This is the justice of God… caring for the misfortunate, misplaced and marginalised. Last month we looked at Jesus use of Isaiah 61 as his mission statement and we can see that it parallels this list. Jesus ministry and mission are about God’s justice. In Luke chapter 7 John the Baptist sends some of his disciples to ask if Jesus is the messiah or should they expect someone else” and Jesus tells them to go back and tell him what they have seen and gives a list that expresses the help talked about in this Psalm. We can praise and trust God because God is about justice for his people.

The psalm finishes with a universal call to praise the Lord… Your God O Zion… The psalmist has experienced the help and justice of God and invites everyone else to give him praise. So we step into the scene, we step into the picture and are invited to join our story of God’s goodness of God’s justice to the psalmists… It is a call amidst our war torn worship to two things trust and justice.

 Firstly our story of trust, Walter Brueggemann has  discerned a pattern in the psalms: Psalms of orientation; songs when everything seems as it should be of blessing and plain sailing, Psalms of disorientation; when the storms of life strike and we are picked up and tossed to and fro, we don’t know which way is up and we can question what we believe and hold true, then there are Psalms of reorientation; not that there are no longer any storms or conflict but that we have come to realise that in the midst of this the important thing is the abiding presence and goodness of God. Were we have learned to unfurl the sails and allow the wind of God to blow us where it will, in gentle breeze or howling gale. Psalm 146 is a Psalm of reorientation… It says at the centre of a life of worship is a life of trust. The use of personal pronouns in the Psalm tells us it’s a call to a lifelong relationship trusting God. To praise and worship is to voice as this psalmist does that you have trusted God and found God to be trustworthy. As Whitney Kunholm says “The source of hope is not the absence of problems, as the people of God have discovered throughout the ages. Rather, it is knowing that God is there and in control no matter what happens.” The heart of worship is trust. I has a women in my office a few weeks ago the very day I read that quote as part of my daily devotions and she was telling me about her concerns for her family. As she was doing that her head went down her eyes clenched close. AS I read her that quote her head came up and her eyes opened and her demeanour changed, it lightened.

Secondly, our story of Justice that the seeds of God’s justice are in our hands…To be lifelong worshipper is also to be about justice. The prophet Amos had seen the great praise parties the people in Jerusalem were holding, but he looked beyond the glitz and the glamour and saw that it was hollow and fake.  He saw through the prosperity Israel was giving thanks for it and saw it based on the oppression of the poor not on obeying their covenant relationship with God. A rural man and farmer he uses earthy language to express God’s displeasure. It makes God want to spew, what God wants is not a decorative fountain or water feature, like God was tame and could be contained and domesticated in our backyard, but that God called for Justice flow like a mighty river and mercy like a never ending stream. God is about justice and to worship God is also to be people who are about Justice. Jesus is our prime example if the activity of God is justice then the agent of God is about justice. It is a good Psalm to have in the lead up to an election because it reminds us of the limitations and frailties of human leaders, but it also expounds the manifesto of the kingdom of God and gives us something to consider as exercise the great privilege we have in a democracy of choosing who will govern us, of assessing which vision of the future for our nation we will buy into.

Psalm 146 finish with an affirmation that God reigns through all generations. one of the reasons that we have worship wars in the church is that this cultural tsunami we are facing has caused a split between generations. The generation gap of the 1960’s still gapingly obvious like an isle amidst the pews: Even more so these days the Guttenberg or print generation, and the Google or screen generation. Each with its senses and sensibilities, each called to worship as who they are. Each invited to be lifelong worshippers, from birth to death a hallelujah people, each bringing the best of their generation and culture…beyond a clash of styles they live with, each being called to a lifestyle of worship a lifestyle of trust and justice…

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