Walk Before Me/Get Behind Me

February 11, 2024

    Series: February 2024

    Speaker: Rob McClellan


    Today's Sermon


    "Walk Before Me/Get Behind Me"


    Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
    1When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. 2And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.” 3Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, 4“As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. 5No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. 6I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. 7I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.”

    15God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. 16I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.”

    Mark 8:31-38

    31Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

    34He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

    “Go Before Me/Get Behind Me”

                In a moment, we will get to Martin Luther who authored the quote on your bulletin, who authored the Protestant Reformation, but let’s ease into it by first talking about Elmo.  You know Elmo, the fuzzy red Sesame Street character known for talking in the third person, Elmo who sold by the droves in animatronic form.  “Tickle Me Elmo” would laugh and laugh when you tickled it. Elmo captured the hearts of people recently with a post on social media.  The New York Times even wrote a piece about it, citing that at the time of its publishing the post had been seen over 140 million times, that number surely skyrocketing since.[1]  Telling was how many of those hearts it captured were broken. 

                The post read simply: “Elmo is just checking in! How is everybody doing?”  Some who responded were doing great.  Many were not:

    “Elmo I’m depressed and broke,” said one.

    Another spoke of being laid off from work.

    "I'm at my lowest. Thanks for asking," wrote one person. 

    Still another replied, "Elmo I'm suffering from existential dread over here.”  Perhaps this was offered tongue in cheek, perhaps not.

    "Elmo get outta here it isn't safe," a person warned, probably referring the toxicity of social media.

    One said simply, “Elmo, we are tired.”[2]

                Some of the wave of sadness may be attributable to the sea level rise of angst that social media tends to create.  I don’t doubt some were going for shock value.  Yet, serious or not, those sentiments are very much carried by everyday people.

                Elmo, we are tired.  Jake Owensby, Bishop of the Episcopal Church in Western Louisiana, wrote recently that “this era has big stressors: climate change, school shootings, the resulting routine of lockdown drills, a pandemic, burdensome student debt, endless wars, declining economic prospects, a shifting geopolitical landscape.”[3]Every era has its stressors, but that’s no reason to downplay our own.

                Maybe Luther would have been more uplifting. 

                Who knows the meaning of Luther’s quote on the cover of the bulletin?  Where are our Latin scholars?  “CRUX sola est nostra Theologia.”  It means, “The cross alone is our theology.”  Back to Elmo?  Luther famously contrasted what he called the theology of the cross with the theology of glory.  The theology of glory is about fame, riches, power, all the “stuff” of this world.  It tends to rule culture, but shows up in the church in manifestations such as “the prosperity gospel,” which trumpets material wealth as a sign of God’s favor, and Christian Nationalism which glorifies a certain kind of power.  Not for Luther.  The theology of the cross is the way of Christ, sacrifice, self-giving love… 

                …which isn’t to say it’s all suffering.  In our first reading today, Abram is promised a great blessing to be the ancestor of “a multitude of nations” (Gen. 17:4).  Sarai, Abram’s wife, after a lifetime of barrenness will be given the incredible joy of having a child.  God says to Abram, “Walk before me.”  Be blameless, live righteously.  It is a good life, even if a challenging one.

                In the second reading, Peter is unable to accept anything but glory for his teacher Jesus, a sentiment born of love even if misunderstanding.  When Jesus forewarns his fate of suffering, rejection, and execution, even while followed by a resurrection, Peter “rebukes him” (Mk. 8:33).  Jesus responds, “Get behind me, Satan!” 

                Go before me, live into my blessing and calling. Get behind me if you are unwilling to accept the sacrifice that comes with this path.

                We might take Luther’s theology of the cross, Jesus’ instruction to take up the cross, as more bad news, reason for angst, dread, heaviness, a weight we cannot carry.  Maybe Luther was just a tortured soul, and he was that.  But, the theology of the cross, the acknowledgement that there is a certain kind of death that comes with the walk of faith is ultimately liberating, releasing us from the chase of illusory ends.  And, the cross is not the end.  We are a resurrection people. 

                May I read you something?  It’s an entry, a couple pages, from a book called The Little Flowers of St. Francis.  The entries read as somewhat melodramatic to our ears, but they also reveal the blessing of a deep humility that is a stark contrast to a theology of glory. 

    St. Francis
    lived at the Portiuncula with Brother Masseo,
    whom he loved because of his
                extraordinary saintliness,
                remarkable discretion and grace
                            in talking about God.
    Francis came from the woods one day,
    where he had cloistered himself in prayer.
                Brother Masseo tested Francis’ humility:
                            “Why you?
                            Why you?
                            Why you?
                Francis answered,
                            “What are you getting at?”
                Brother Masseo answered,
                            “Why do you have so many followers?
                            Why do people want to see you?
                            Why do they want to hear you?
                            Why do they want to obey you?
                            You’re not good looking.
                            You’re not sophisticated.
                            You have no blue blood in your veins.
                            Why, then, do people want you?”
    St. Francis’ heart now sang with joy;
    he lifted his face to heaven,    
                his soul lost in God for the longest time.
                Coming back to earth,
                Francis knelt,
                            thanked God,
                            spoke to Brother Masseo energetically:
                            “Why does this happen to me?
                            Why me?
                            Why so many followers?
                            The answer comes from Divine Eyes
                                        which see into good and evil.
                                        Those Divine Eyes see me as
                                        the worst of sinners,
                                        the most wretched,
                                        the most inadequate.
                            To do His [God’s] wonderful work,
                            He finds
                                        no viler person anywhere;
                            So He chooses me to puzzle
                                        the noble,
                                        the proud,
                                        the strong,
                                        the worldly models,
                                        the sophisticated.
                            To reveal that
                                        every virtue,
                                        every good,
                                        comes from God,
                                        not from people;
                            To reveal that
                                        no one can be stuck up;                     
                                        all must depend on God,
                                        who alone deserves eternal credit.”
                Well Brother Masseo,
                            hearing these humble answers
                                        spoken so strongly,
                                                    stood awestruck.
                                                                “Francis is rooted in
                                                                genuine humility.”
                                                                            he said to himself.           

    Hyperbolic perhaps, but can you see the commitment to a spirituality that does not seek one’s own glory, recognizing a greater glory from which all things flow?  What’s more this is not experienced as bad news.  St. Francis’ disposition was neither dour nor dire.  It was said that “Joy was a hallmark of St. Francis’ life.  He censured friars who went about with a sad and gloomy face.  He exhorted them to have a cheerful demeanor.”[4]  The gospel defies the logic of this world.  The saint finds joy in humility not in glory. 

                Get behind me if you refuse to accept a path of self-giving love.  Go before me if you will accept my blessing and walk righteously.  Sometimes it helps to remember who has gone before us, our spiritual grandparents such as Sarai and Abram.  Oh, I didn’t tell you where I got the book.  The Little Flowers of St. Francis was a gift from my father’s mother, probably 35 or so years ago, she now gone.  I never really opened it until a few weeks ago when it was referenced in an interview I heard with someone who had been a monk under Thomas Merton, the great Catholic contemplative of the 20thcentury. I had underestimated the spiritual weight of what it carried, perhaps because of the brand of Christianity that has shown up in various parts of my spiritual lineage.  So, I held onto it as memento more than a messenger.

                Then when my presuppositions were altered, a perception of my own superiority challenged, I pulled it off the shelf in my study, and then it happened. Do you know how the olfactory sense is among the strongest in terms of being tied to memory.  When I opened this book, I smelled my grandparents’ house, a smell I hadn’t smelled in 30 years.  I tried it again, and it was gone.  That’s how it is with those who go before you who have gone before God as faithfully as they could.  They’ll give you that aroma you need to carry on, to remember who you are, sometimes who you’re not, even showing you how to take up your cross. 

                Do we want to be “get behind me” people, who have no tolerance for sacrifice for the sake of God’s dream or “walk before me” people who carry God’s love into our sometimes-challenging walks?  If we can choose the latter, we might be surprised with how it goes for us.

                Do you know what Sarai did when she was told after her long hard life that she, at a ripe old age, would give birth to new life? She laughed.  It’s taken to be dismissive of God, but maybe we’ve misread it, and she was just overcome with joy at the gift that comes with faith.  I wonder what would have happened if someone said to Sarai, “Just checking in. How are you doing?”  She might have answered, “It’s been tough, I have had good reason for despair, but I have walked before you in faith, and I have to tell you, right now I feel downright tickled.” 

                So, how are we doing and what path will we choose, to walk before God in blessing or will we be too afraid to be anything but behind?



    [2]Compiled from The New York Times, CBS News,and NBC local news.