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Sunday, June 28, 2020 | 11:00 a.m.

Pay Attention

Joseph L. Morrow
Minister for Evangelism, Fourth Presbyterian Church

Psalm 89:1–4; 15–18

Genesis 22:1–14

In Roald Dahl’s classic children’s story Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the young protagonist, Charlie, is in search of a lifetime’s supply of chocolates and sets about getting it by enduring a group tour of the factory, with various traps and temptations along the way. It turns out that Charlie ends up being the last participant left, but a piece of candy, an everlasting gobstopper he privately set aside for himself, turned out to be his weakness. Realizing his misdeed, he returned the candy to Willie Wonka, the factory’s mysterious owner, and with that one gesture, Wonka says, “so shines a good deed in a weary world.” To which he adds, “I had to test you, Charlie. You passed the test, and you won.”

Many of life’s tests never come to such a serendipitous and happy ending. Most simply induce anxiety, sweaty palms, and racing minds as we nervously wonder whether we will succeed. In this harrowing story of scripture, much told and often misunderstood, we have the ultimate test: a matter of life and death. And many an interpreter, philosophers from Kierkegaard to Kant, have earnestly speculated on what this story means by the phrase “God tested Abraham.” A test of faithfulness toward God or a test of compassion toward a son? Scripture gives clues but never a conclusive answer.

What we know for sure is this is not about one person’s success or failures. The test of a father affects a whole family. On one person’s trial hangs the fate of a people. To Abraham alone is given the dreadful task of sacrificing the life of his son to the very God that revealed his child as the sign of a covenantal promise. How might he respond? Several choices present themselves each with their own shortcomings. Abraham could embrace his likely feelings of defiance, raise his clenched fist to the sky, and simply refuse. Or with anxiety building, he might try to endlessly stall. Or, with a wince, he could proceed with the act and hope for a miraculous turnaround. Yet Abraham takes a rather different, if not odd, approach.

Arriving at basecamp, calling off his attendants, and leaving his worldly affairs with these trusted companions, Abraham takes his son and, before pressing onward, looks back and says, “We will worship.” Yes, you heard that right. “Don’t worry, keep the car running, and sit tight. We’ll go worship.”

Now in the midst of a crisis, “we will worship” sounds like an avoidance or simply a capitulation to an ugly fate. It might sound like fiddling while Rome burns or playing the violin while lifeboats are lowered from a sinking ship. But for Abraham and Isaac, it is the act by which their salvation comes. To know why, we must consider something about the nature of worship.

At Fourth Church community worship feels like the air we breathe—at once felt but difficult to characterize. Poets, philosophers, anthropologists, and psychologists all contribute to our ability to describe these rituals in which we partake. But in the Hebrew scriptures, worship is implied very early on—in the sacrificial acts of Cain and Abel, for instance—but it is in this passage we read today that worship is for the first time named directly as such in the Torah. The word Abraham uses is shachah, meaning more literally to prostrate, to fall to the knees, to bow in an act of honor and embrace. In the Christian tradition we make that yielding a central attribute of our worship as we attempt to face not simply upward to the sky or downward to the earth but Godward, as theologian Nicholas Wolterstorff calls it. And as we bend the body Godward with reverence, humility, and awe, we also bend the ear.

Poet Mary Oliver gets at the heart of what that means.

It doesn’t have to be 
the blue iris, it could be 
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few 
small stones; just 
pay attention,

And in that moment of attentive surrender comes, she says

. . . a silence in which 
another voice may speak.
(Mary Oliver, “Praying,” Thirst)

If worship creates the silence in which another voice may speak, who is Abraham hearing in his soul on the way to Mount Moriah? Could it have been the voice of Sarah? Might he have regaled his beloved son with a story from his mother, when God told him years before, “Do not be distressed; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named after you.’” And Abraham might have said, “I listened to your mother, and that’s why you’re alive today. A God of such requires our faithfulness. Let us not fear.”

Or maybe it could have been Hagar, caretaker and surrogate mother in this holy household. Much maligned by Sarah after giving birth to Ishmael, Hagar was mistreated and fled into the wilderness, to almost certain death. Yet God hears her cry. She is the voice of the anguished and cast aside, and perhaps somehow Abraham came to hear her version of the story. From the voice of a perceived victim comes the first person in scripture to name God in response to the blessing she receives in her moment of need. This is El Roi, the God who sees, and seeing the ram in the bush is central to Abraham’s resolution of this crisis.

But another voice Abraham could have heard was not a human one at all but a divine call. Perhaps the original command to go to Mount Moriah echoed menacingly in his ears. This voice of God was not unlike every other god he has ever known in his travels from Ur of Babylon to Egypt and then through Canaan. Not unlike the various cults that encouraged the sacrifice of children as a way to seek prosperity by other means, voices that mimicked the divine but turned out to be false idols. Later the voice of a divine angel offers a second contradictory command to save the child’s life. Where is the authentic voice of God?

But perhaps the most poignant and terrifying voice Abraham heard on his mountain climb was one not actually recorded but only implied—the cries of his own son Isaac in the midst of being bound and surely surmising what was likely to happen. Abraham’s worship, his test, is to determine which of these voices he should heed.

Friends, you and I know that we live in perilous times, betwixt and between a litany of crises that include a biological pandemic, an epidemic of racism, a sclerotic body politic, an anemic liberalism, and a malnourished sense of community. And in this moment of moral reckoning and spiritual testing, the outcome will depend on whose voice we hear and to whose call we respond.

In a marketplace of media and the crucible of public life, there are many voices, viewpoints, and opinions vying for our ears. But how can we know what is the right voice to listen to? What we need is someone to mediate and curate all these possibilities, to cut through the noise so we can find the signal. Television networks, newspapers, record labels, and Twitter feeds with their algorithms all attempt to do this by telling us what voices are worthy. But author Seth Godin notes, “What great curators do is they put the truth in front of people who need to hear it in a way that changes the culture” (Seth Godin, “Curation,” Akimbo podcast).

Although I might give you a reasonable list of viewpoints to consider, I believe we should trust the clues scripture offers about the voices that produce change. The Bible introduces us to persons whose stories never made the news in ancient Babylon, Egypt, Greece, or Rome. Their achievements were deemed negligible. Nevertheless, scripture’s testimony is that they mattered. And while the Bible is unsparing of their grief and sufferings, the Bible’s heroes are more than the sum total of their deficits, greater than a catalog of challenges. We know that Sarah is capable of laughter and joy and Abraham is too, for that matter. We know Hagar cries, but she is a prophet. We know Ishmael likely feels abandoned but is meant to a blessing. They who appear on the margins are vessels of deliverance and heralds of salvation for peoples who will never know them.  

So who are those voices among us today? Well, consider that in this city there has been a conversation long brewing with voices crying in the wilderness.  For years our kin and family on the South and West sides of this city have been trying to get the whole city to hear them. For years our siblings, Black and Brown, and I among them, have been trying to get this country to hear their voice. Just two years ago next month, the St. Sabina community, which has previously challenged this congregation, joined together residents throughout the city in shutting down the Dan Ryan Expressway. They offered a protest against violence, brutality, poverty, and inequity inching north from 76th Street to 67th to the doorway of the Woodlawn neighborhood. And then later that month another group, also with church leadership, marched up Lake Shore Drive and over to Wrigley Field, bringing the issue of violence with increased urgency to neighborhoods that thought themselves immune or distant.

And those voices of Black and Brown people have only grown louder and unavoidable in the years that have gone by, pushing those of us in the Presbyterian church to affirm our denomination’s confessional commitment to listen to the voices of those long silenced. Many of us have swelled the chorus that amplifies their stories, their pain, their lives of witness to the best and worst of humanity and God.  

In 1970, just blocks from this sanctuary, a small group gathered for the first Pride Parade from Bughouse Square to our west and processed with words and song to Water Tower Place and then to Federal Plaza. Because Fourth Church opened its ears and hearts to the voices on the street that day, decades later we can proudly display pride ribbons as a seal on our commitment to welcome LGBTQIA+ siblings in Christ to every facet of ministry and leadership in our congregation. Because we are now attuned to their voices, our ministries continue to be transformed. We have listened before. We can and must listen again.

The revered Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once commenting on the binding of Isaac—the Akedah, as the story is called in Jewish tradition—told of one child’s reaction upon hearing the conclusion. The boy asked with genuine concern, “What if the Angel came too late?”

In these times we live in it may seem as if events are going to overwhelm us, that we are in danger of failing our test and missing the moment of our visitation. But fear not. The Angel came right on time. And it is not too late for us for us to turn and listen to the voices that will prevent us from condemning our children and our neighbors and ourselves. It is not too late for us to truly worship in ways that sacrifice injustice rather than our future. For the God who provides, it is not too late. Yes, this is a moment of moral reckoning and spiritual testing, and the outcome will depend on whose voice we hear. May we choose wisely. Amen.