It has always been slightly amusing to me (I am easily amused, of course!) to watch the battles of the so-called “worship wars,” those struggles in the churches of the 21st century to capture congregations by means of the right music, the right liturgy, the right sorts of sermon presentations, from conversation to interaction to puppet-supported dramas to wild surges of preacherly track meets across the front of stages. My own church here in Los Angeles has a form of these wars in that we offer two quite distinctive services at the same hour on Sundays, one a traditional organ/hymn/monologue sermon, the other an interactive folk-song/rock-song/conversational sermon time. Because I was trained as a classical singer in my younger days, I eschew the latter and embrace the former. I admit that I would rather lie on beds of nails than be subjected to the music one hears in the upstairs service. Yes, I am a snob, and understand that music not at all, but I am very glad that many in that service find it much to their liking and flock back to that community weekly, or almost weekly.
The rise of the “alternative services” predates the 21st century, of course. We participated in such services at my seminary in the 1960’s after all. But, they did not become ubiquitous in local churches, I do not think, until the late 1980’s. Drums, guitars, and very loud vocalists began to appear in larger churches that had the resources to do that stuff well, but soon many more churches had replaced their electronic organs with a trap set and multiple microphones. When I was asked to preach, often in churches with significant resources to invite a character like me, one of the three services I preached in was one that featured these musical tools. I was asked in these places to remove my robe and my tie, and just “talk” to the assembled crowd, after they had listened to, and occasionally even sung, a rock-like tune or three. These were not my favorite experiences, I admit, but they became increasingly common by the turn of the century.
Of course, all of these wars were fought while many churches struggled to maintain their congregations. As I have noted more then once in my essays, my own denomination, the United Methodists, have lost about 40% of our US membership over the past 50 years, and no manner of music has staunched the gaping wound. My own church in Los Angeles once had some 1000 or so members, but despite our offering of two quite distinct services each Sunday, as well done as we can do it, our membership hovers around 300 or so, with about 100 attending the Loft, our “contemporary” service, and about 80-100 in the “traditional” sanctuary service, the remaining members not appearing at all. It seems clear enough that the “worship wars” are hardly the main problem in the contemporary church. Perhaps a 2600-year-old prophet might be of help to us, as absurd as that may sound.
In the complex book of Isaiah there are at least three sections: Is.1-39 (with the possible exception of chapters 24-27) is the apparent work of an 8th century prophet; Is.40-55 is the obvious work of an exilic writer of the 6th century; Is.56-66 is a kind of mélange of prophetic writing from the period after the exile, perhaps from the late 6th- early 5th centuries. Whenever Is.58 is to be dated, it is clear that the problems of right worship plagued the author’s community as it plagues ours.
Is.58 begins as many prophetic oracles do, with an announcement of the evil of the community: “Shout out! Don’t hold back! Lift your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sin” (is.58:1)! As always in the eyes of the prophets of the Hebrew Bible, from Amos to Isaiah, Israel/Judah is enmeshed in evil practice, though they appear completely oblivious of that terrible fact. Oh, they are worshipping all right; they are singing the ancient equivalents of love songs to God; they are plucking the six-stringed harp (that early guitar), and blowing loudly on the shofar (rather like a modern organ’s special reed stop). The problem is that their worship of God is performed in face of their evil deeds. They fast and pray and expect God to respond with appropriate divine blessings: “Why do we fast and you do not watch? Why do we humble ourselves, but you pay no attention” (Is.58:3)?The problem is not the rightness, the grandeur, the beauty of their worship practice, their superb harp playing or their wonderful trumpet sounds. “Look! you serve your own interests when you fast, since you oppress all your workers” (Is.58:3b)! While you worship, your laborers are forced to work hard for little pay; while you pray to YHWH for blessings, your hired hands toil in sweatshops and mines, doing work you refuse to do. Your fasting is no fast at all!
“Is not the fast that I choose to loose the bonds of injustice, to untie the thongs of every yoke, to share your bread with the hungry, to bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, cover them? Do not hide yourself from your own brothers and sisters” (Is.58:6-7)! True fasting has nothing to do with depriving yourself of food for a time, hoping thereby to catch the attention of God in order to receive some kind of divine goodies for yourself. True fasting is finally acts of justice for the poor and oppressed, actions on behalf of those who sit at the margins of your society. True fasting has nothing to do with “right or wrong” worship, “right or wrong” music, “right or wrong” preaching. What Isaiah does here is completely to redefine fasting to be actions of justice. Isaiah is announcing once again what his forebear Amos said some 300 years before him. “Take away all that worship stuff,” he said, “instead let justice roll on like waters and righteousness like a perennial stream” (Amos 5:21-24), among the most powerful words ever offered to would-be religious folk. The worship wars of our time are a smoke screen for our unwillingness to address the injustices of our day outside of our church doors.
Yesterday brought two more mass shootings in our gun-addled USA. “Thoughts and prayers” have again been offered up by various people in power, including the current occupant of the White House. Once again, the specters of mental illness and even the lack of prayer in our schools have been suggested as reasons for this odious spate of violence. Still, all of us know the basic cause; there are plainly too many guns floating in our society and too many of those guns are assault rifles. Those weapons of mass destruction must be banned from purchase everywhere! If we can regulate driver’s licenses, we can regulate guns. And no amount of right music and right worship will stop these senseless slaughters. Act against gun violence: write your legislators; flood the White house with your voices! Then, and only then, will you be performing the fast that YHWH chooses, the worship that God enjoins. Sing whatever your pleasure calls you to sing, but, in the name of heaven, act to hold up the cause of righteousness and justice. That is in the end the true worship of God.
(Images from Wikimedia Commons)