Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Could We Be Wrong about Worship?

Psalm 15
Micah 6:1-8

I thought we’d talk about the Seahawks this morning. That’s what we’re all thinking about anyway, right? I’m not a sports fan, so I’m really in no position to say anything meaningful about how the game might turn out, and I certainly don’t understand very much about what’s happening on the field, but when your home team gets to the Super Bowl, everybody’s a fan. At least this year I know which team I want to win. But I’m not a real fan. I’m not a 12th man. Bless you if you are! I’m intrigued by the whole 12th man frenzy. Certainly it’s made our fans the loudest in the nation. This is what interests me: How is it that fans ascribe the work of the team, individual they have never met, as a personal victory or defeat? Why do we get so invested in someone else playing a game that we feel like we have won or lost with them? It’s the players and coaches on the field who win or lose, whose decisions and actions make a difference in the outcome of the game.

I wonder if sometimes we come to our faith and worship more as fans than as players. I think that’s what Micah’s getting at in his imagined court room drama. God calls the mountains to witness and judge his complaint. The people of Israel worship God, but they live as practical atheists—as if God does not exist. God says, “I rescued you from slavery in Egypt and now you have become as brutal as your Egyptian oppressors.”

The context is 8th century BCE Israel, in which the wealth was being redistributed from family farms to wealthy land owners who moved to urban centers. The money was moving out of the rural areas into cities and poverty was growing. Micah’s accusations:
The powerful “covet fields, and seize them; houses, and take them away” (2:2)
They “tear the skin off my people” (3:2)
They send violence on the poor (3:5)
The political leaders take bribes, and the religious leaders sell out for money (3:11)

Micah envisions all the sacrifices that have been made on the altar and the rivers of oil that have been poured out as an offering in worship that idolizes God, but does not take God seriously. In Micah’s drama the people are surprised that they have been accused and ask, “How shall I come to worship? What pleases God if not sacrifices and rivers of oil?” And Micah delivers the word of the Lord:
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
  and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
  and to walk humbly with your God?

The most vulnerable person in the community, in fact the person you might see as your enemy, is also God’s beloved child—and your brother or sister in sharing a common humanity.

“God desires more than empty words. God desires justice that is measured by how well the most vulnerable fare in the community, a loyal love that is commensurate with the kind of loyal love that God has shown toward Israel, and a careful walking in one’s ethical life.”[1] But as the members of the Bible study on Wednesday discussed, doing justice and loving mercy are not easy. Caring for the vulnerable in the community is more complex than we imagine. Systemic injustice is not readily corrected. Perhaps that’s why humility is so necessary in our work. We have to work at creating justice and acts of mercy together with a real sense of humility because none of us has all the answers. It’s often easier to see what doesn’t work than what does. Sometimes what works in one community or within one population, is a total disaster in another place and time.

My point is that it doesn’t work to worship God and assume that God will take care of all of our social ills. It’s like being a 12th man and partying in the parking lot, and cheering in the stands, and wearing our team’s logos, and even getting wet and cold as we cheer. The real work is going on down on the field where the game is being played, in the mud or the heat, in the blur of mixed signals and unexpected hits; where good calls don’t always play out the way they were intended; where gains may be small or even lost and the goal can seem elusive. Our worship is not about cheering for God or for Jesus; it’s about preparing to play the game. It’s more locker room than tailgate, more huddle than pep rally. We show up to learn the plays and practice our skills so that we can do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly, knowing that the abundant life is a team effort.

Our songs, prayers, and gifts don’t please God unless they change us. We worship so that we will come to know God and to conform our lives to God’s very practical vision for the abundance of Creation. We come to understand our blessing so that we might bless others. We come to know that we are loved and treasured so that we can love and treasure others, even those we might think of as enemies. Our worship is an offering of ourselves to be transformed so that we might be effective and useful partners with God in the care of all Creation. We are called to be players and coaches and sports physicians, not spectators or even fanatical fans. We are not consumers or appreciators. Our worship should send us out on the field with a position to play and a goal in sight. We come before God ready to see who God is, to know who we are and how God loves us, and to learn how we are to live so that the world might be full of the abundance of God’s love.

Are you ready to play? Then let’s pray.

[1] Andrew Foster Connors, “Micah 6:1-8,” Feasting on the Word, year A, volume1, 292.

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