Walk before me, and be blameless.
There are two ways to say “in front of me” in Hebrew, one is specific and one is general; one is constrained, one is limitless.
You can tell when God is serious about talking to one person, when god is focused and trying to get the message across to an individual, God uses the word neged which is eye to eye, face to face, picture God and Moses on the mountaintop and you get the idea of neged.
The other way is l’ifnay which directly translated means “in the face of” and in this case, the field is much broader. When God was finished with Moses, who stood face to face, eye to eye, neged to the Lord, Moses was sent back down the mountain and there he stood, l’ifnay, in the face of the people.
Both mean “in front of” or “before” but only one is used this morning.
Walk before me, and be blameless.
Think back, to college or to high school to that one teacher, professor, janitor, that one character from your life that you have long since left behind, but the one whom you can, in no sense whatsoever, leave behind. They were the one who first opened your eyes to the possibilities that lay ahead, that made you think about what you could be, what you might be if you just applied yourself
Maybe they were the teacher who first showed you that you might actually make a living doing something that you loved; or the first one who showed you an angle you hadn’t seen before, who in a flash opened up an entirely new vista into which you could insert yourself.
I have several of these but then one of the things that I do is that I collect characters. I intentionally collect things so that I can use them later in sermons, but even before then, when I was just telling stories, I tried to populate them with real characters, ones I could make breathe in the story because I had actually seen the people breathe once.
I am not elevating them, I am not spinning falsehoods about them, whether or not you believe it, you are probably interesting enough for me to talk about in other places, just the way you are and so was my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Stowell, who first introduced me to an open classroom and the notion of managing my own schedule and my own priorities.
She and dozens of others live in my head still, they are the chorus who sing the songs they once sang, and their voices live on in my voice when I lift it and sing.
The only way you will ever know Mary Beth Stowell is because I open my mouth and let her sing. The only way you will ever know Garner Buchannon, (except for Debbie, she knows him) is when he speaks through the ways he has helped me become the man I am, the father I am, the husband I am, the pastor I am. The same is true with Mark Papworth, and Mister Gibbons (I don’t think I ever knew his first name) my sixth grade teacher, Paul Currington my lifelong friend, and the host of others who speak when I speak, who live in my voice and in how they contributed to who I am.
It is kind of sad that you will not meet them. I have bothered carrying them around with me all of this time, have been so shaped by my knowing them that you know more about them than you might think, but you may never know their names.
I who have stood before them, neged, face to face now walk before them, l’ifnay, non in the physical sense, but in the intellectual sense, you will know them because I bring to you news of them, you will feel their power, hear their jokes, admire their nobility and mourn their weaknesses because I knew them once and they have left their mark upon me. More than just intellect, they have actual and real life in me, I do not remember just the things they said and did but also how I loved them, how their lives bumped into mine and changed me.
Walk before me, and be blameless.
And that is the best part. For all you know none of them really exist. I may have had a fourth grade teacher but you’ll struggle mightily to find out if it was Mary Beth Stowell or not and whether or not she was a formative of me as I assert will likely still remain a mystery to you.
You need me to give her voice. And so you need me to give her a reality you can grasp.
If I am wrong, if the memories of my fourth grade teacher fail me somehow (like that could happen!) then you will know what I have sifted through, what stuck so tightly, what I could not forget combined with my love and there the image will be, as vital as the original, even if some of the details are a little fuzzy.
Abram, in this morning’s reading from Genesis, is confronted with God and the message that he is to go out into the world, to leave all that he has and all that he loves and all that he knows and to venture out into the world l’ifnay God, not in the face of but in this verse as the face of God, “before” God as God’s voice, God’s presence, the knowledge and love of God, moving through the world.
God’s emissary, from the Latin root emittere, meaning send out. Does that sound like a familiar kind of verb? In Greek it is apostello from whence we get the word Apostle, the one sent out. And not just sent out, Abram is to be the story teller, the way for people to encounter, to know and to learn about who God is. From who Abram is, they are to draw their knowledge of who God is.
Most of us just think we reflect our parents but we are more than that, in Christ we reflect the larger family of God, the wider membership, the deeper relationships. I am Debbie and I am Caitlyn and I am Bruce and I am Leonard and I am Mary Beth and I am Christ because their stories live in me, their stories and their voices carry on in the echoes of the life I am leading and each and every day I owe them the truth of their legacy.
God tells Abram that he will make of him a great nation, that Abram will be the father and we will be his inheritors, his heirs; but first, Abram is to be God’s voice as well, God’s emissary, the heir of God’s story. In all that he does and says, he is to carry God. Wherever he goes, he is to carry God with him. Whoever he meets, he is to carry God to them. As the legion of people that make up each of us, some of whom have died and passed from our sight, count on us to carry on our inheritance in them, Abram is called upon to carry his legacy from God out into the world.
When Peter mouths off to Jesus, he is rebuked. “Get thee behind me Satan!” Jesus cries out “For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Peter is trying to manage the story instead of living it, instead of watching it unfold, learning it so that he can pass it on once Jesus is gone. Jesus knows he will go, Peter knows Jesus will go, he’s just not ready to accept it yet, not yet ready to grab ahold of the story and tell it once Jesus is gone.
Goethe said in Faust “What you have as a heritage, now take as a task; for thus you will make it your own.” Peter is trying to make it his own waaaaay too early, trying to decide when and where, what and how without looking to Jesus as Lord.
Maybe that’s the nugget of truth here, you have to accept the heritage, understand that it is something that has a life of its own, that has a truth and a dignity; a purpose that is not yours. For us to make it our own, to seize the truth of the salvation Christ has won for us, we must first accept that it may be our voice telling the story, but it is the story we have received from our parents and their parents, from generations past.
We should hear their voices, listen to them, embrace them and hear them speaking to us, teaching us, loving us, becoming us. We do not have to preach their stories with every breath, but if we are heirs, then let us be good heirs and do honor to our legacy.
God is not roaming the streets, Christ is not walking down Mendocino Ave this morning so far as we know and if Jesus is out there, He is keeping it quiet. If god’s word is to be heard, it will have to be from the throats of God’s heirs, the children who carry the legacy, who learn their heritage and who then let the world see it in what they say and what they do.
Walk before me, and be blameless.
This is “reckoned to him as righteousness” Sunday. We talk a lot about Abram who became Abraham, the father of many nations and how it was his belief, his faith in the word of God that came to him that allowed him to hear and to obey and to become what God promised he could become.
He had to understand that l’ifnay meant more than just being in front of God, it mean that he was to be the vanguard of God’s activity, God’s will and God’s word on this earth, out in front of it all so that God’s story could be told, could spread across the face of the earth as Abraham’s children would spread and carry their heritage with them until the whole of the earth would know Abraham’s God.
And if we are to be blameless in this it does not mean that we have to get it right, we have to have the very best and the very latest in theological education in order to tell the story, after all, I cannot recall which seminary Abraham went to, nor John, nor Peter for that matter.
But we should tell the story nonetheless; in our words to be sure, but also in our deeds. When we snap to attention in a public place when someone says, “the Lord be with you” and when we stoop to help those who falter and fail, when we feed the sheep that the Lord has left to us as a part of our heritage, as our flock we are to reflect the Lord and what we have inherited from Christ, not in perfection, nor dulcet tones as from a pulpit, but in truth, in the truth that rings within us, of how we are more at peace, how we are stronger in times of trouble, how we feel love and hope and the very presence of God in every moment of our lives.
As heirs we are defined by the inheritance and if we live only for ourselves, it will be the inheritance that we risk losing. But if we live as bearers of that heritage, well then the very life we lead will be one of blessing, and we will gain all that we need in the living.
Abram heard and believed, even though it was a remarkable story. He felt the heritage settle upon him and even in his old age, and not at all perfectly, he strove to be the bearer of that heritage. In honest witness, in loving tribute to those who had gone before him and those who would come after.
We look in both directions as heirs to the promise. We look back to those who told us the stories and showed us the love of God and what we have received as a heritage we take as a task, bearing the saving love of God in Christ Jesus, to generations not yet born so that in what we do and what we say, the legacy of love and hope and salvation in Christ might be heard in is, might be known in us, might be felt in the lives of others because they ran into us one day at Safeway and whether or not we discussed Jesus at all, he was known in us.
I carry a boatload of people in me these days, all of the people who have contributed to making me who I am and I try and honor them and their gifts to me by speaking of them in truth; but most of all I carry Christ with me, and struggle mightily with the heritage because I seldom feel Christ-like, seldom act with sheer righteousness.
But I keep swinging. I keep at it because I know that God is faithful and God is just and in the end I trust that it will be reckoned to us all, as righteousness.