This was adapted from a sermon I gave at Edgewater Presbyterian Church last Sunday.
On this week that the acclaimed actor Peter Falk passed away, I’m reminded of his narration of one of my favorite childhood films: the Princess Bride. Playing a rough around the edges grandpa who reads the fairy tale to his sickly grandson, he gets into a debate with his grandson over the a twist in the story. The grandson is stunned as his grandfather reads that the princess heroine of the story has abruptly married the villain. “It can’t be true! It isn’t fair!” protests the son. To which Falk’s Grandpa responds, “Who says life is fair?”
That conservation echoed in my mind as a thought about the story of Abraham bringing Isaac to the verge of child sacrifice. At first glance there is little in such a story strikes me as fair or encouraging. Like many my compassion toward youth, especially innocent youth, is such that I cannot receive this story without reply, rebuttal or heavy conscience. Here we have the God that threatens and the God that provides, the God that gives life and takes it away. We see a Father who waits years to have a son, only to come so close to taking that precious life away in an instant. But I know the Scriptures are durable enough to receive doubts, questions and even complaints. Throughout Christian and Jewish history there have been various faithful interpretations that seek to probe beyond the surface to ask exactly what God is doing behind these difficult words. I want to share one possibility.
At the beginning of the story it is said that “God is tested Abraham.” I believe that test was more than simply a way to see if Abraham would sacrifice or kill for God. It was a way for God to test Abraham’s ability to listen and discern two critical voices: that of God and that of Neighbor – the essence of Torah and the heart of the Gospel.
To his credit, Abraham had two things going for him in this test: The first is his posture of Alertness. When Abraham says, “Here I am” to God’s calling it is the response of someone at attention. The Hebrew rendering of that phrase, “Heheni” strikes an even more authoritative tone than the English. It is as if to say “Behold, I stand at the ready”. “Heheni” is not just a word you will hear from the mouth of Abraham, but also from Moses at Sinai and the other prophets of Israel. That phrase illustrates an awareness of God’s presence and his willingness, even eagerness to attend to what God has to say. It’s the kind of alertness of a mind on two cups of strong coffee. But the real wonder is that Abraham seems to maintain it from the first call to take his son’s life, to the following call to refrain from doing so. He doesn’t quit listening to God.
What is it that prevents us from having that quality of alertness and obedience to the voice of God?
Our minds could immediately point to the usual suspects, the 1001 daily distractions that can thwart our ability to hear and respond to God. These are often as simple and ubiquitous as our smart phones, mp3 players, wifi or morning/evening commute. Yet behind these distractions looms a larger issue. Those goals and agendas that begin as God’s good word to us, have a rather insidious and mysterious way of pulling us away from the voice of God. We seek to succeed in our work, be the best that we can be, thrive economically and own a piece of the American dream. I have also observed this dynamic in that pesky desire to Right at all costs. To be right at all costs lures us into winning argument rather than simply being in relationship with people. Defending the strategies and tactics of our favorite causes, we trample over the freedom to disagree. What turns these worthy goals sour is the inability to consider that what God once called us to do is no longer what God is calling us to do in this moment. Did you catch that? The covenantal promises of God are most at risk most when we forget God is still speaking and that God has not spoken once and for all. God’s ways cannot be determined by one utterance, but must be discerned over a lifetime, over generations. So eventually that call to succeed must be open to God’s eventual call for Sabbath and rest. That call to be right must be open to God’s eventual call to let go of arguments and be a people of grace.
Abraham was steeped in cultures in which child sacrifice was the norm. And perhaps he traveled up to Moriah thinking this horrible, regrettable and ugly practice was just the way things were After all this was a common Ancient Near East custom. And yet, God was not done speaking on the issue. Through the call of Angel, God desired to overturn and end this culture of child sacrifice. I’m glad Abraham had the disposition to listen twice for in doing so he passed the test of listening to God.
But how about listening to his neighbor? In this case that neighbor was a vulnerable son and mother who doted on him. For someone who has devotedly and consistently listened to the voice of God, Abraham has a difficult time listening and attending to the voice of the vulnerable and the suffering. Where is that Abraham who was so willing to go tete a tete with God to save Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 18)? Where is the Abraham that called God to account for being just and protecting the righteous? He pleads on behalf of a city of strangers, but now suddenly can’t muster the courage to plead for the life of his son! The Abraham of Genesis 18 had a great deal of compassion. Given his journey began in Ur and took him to many corners of the Middle East, perhaps his heart was especially attuned to the struggle, poverty and kindness of the many people he encountered along the way. I have a feeling that quality of character looked promising to God seeking a covenant partner to bless many nations. For some reason Abraham is not consistent in applying his compassion, and it nearly costs his son’s life and the covenant itself.
I wonder what makes us fail to hear the voices of the vulnerable? Perhaps it’s a kind of compassion fatigue, in which we’ve heard too many voices pleading on behalf of them. Because we think we only have so many resources to go around, we stop listening so to ease the guilt. Does it make a difference if we hear the voices of the vulnerable themselves rather than just their advocates? I’m not sure. Nigerian author and Catholic priest Uwem Akpan wrote a series of short stories entitled Say You’re One of Them and what is most impressive about the work is that it doesn’t just plead for at risk children throughout Africa, but allows them to author (as much as possible) their own stories. In one of the stories, I was struck by how much a young girl, Monique, and her little brother Jean, were talked at instead of listened to. Granted the people talking at them often (though not always) had their best interests at heart, their voices were nevertheless overpowered by the clanging speech of adults.
It isn’t just the children of Akpan’s stories that have no one to turn to who hear their voices. There are children on the streets of American neighborhoods that find themselves in the same predicament. Those children and the vulnerable in their distressing array hide openly in our homes, apartment buildings and workplaces. Maybe you too have a quiet pain that has not been uttered or voiced. Like Abraham, we are occasionally inspired to act upon these voices, but like him these moments become fleeting as we experience “fatigue”. The great treasure of Christian community is that it reminds us that the author of the Universe is not done with us despite our fatigue. God never quits on and continues to use people who don’t always “get it”. Take solace in the fact that God did not quit on Abraham despite his inconsistencies. God never quit on Israel providing the people prophets whose voices were as God’s own. God in Christ Jesus never quit on a band of fickle disciples, nevertheless pouring the Holy Spirit upon them on Pentecost. Genuine community also reminds us that God will provide the additional ears needed to hear the important voices when your ears or my ears fail. Church can indeed be a place where our conscience is nourished and becomes viaticum on the road of life.