Posted by: owizblog | October 22, 2017

“I’ve Got Your Back!” Sermon 22 October 2017, United Church of Bute

Exodus 33:12-23

1

I wish I could do a passable American accent. Apart from the wonderfully cool impression that so many American accents make, there’s something sad about trying to enunciate a quintessentially American phrase in an accent like mine. But here goes. “I’ve got your back!” “We’re going to have their backs…” “They’re in danger, and we’re going to go and get their backs…” “I’ve got your back, buddy!” And now I’m really in danger of pushing it too far. What does it mean, this expression that’s ubiquitous in American-made and American-set films and television series?

Sometimes, a good way of getting to the heart of a rich and complicated idiom
is to do something like what bell-ringers call “change-ringing” with it – working through every conceivable mathematical combination and permutation, to explore the expressive richness of what’s there. Let’s do that to explore this expression “I’ve got your back.” What does it mean?

Well, it’s clearly got something to do with protection. It’s got everything to do with being there with someone, and for someone, being a presence, a protecting presence. When you are facing danger, I’ve got your back, and because you are facing danger, you can’t necessarily see me – but I’m there. Because you are concentrating on what’s in front of you, and you don’t have eyes in the back of your head, you need someone to have your back, so that you can’t be, and won’t be, attacked from the back. You need someone to be there for you whether you can see them or not, whether you can even be aware, when things are happening and there’s danger all around, that they are still there. I will be that someone. I’ve got your back. I’ve got your back, buddy.

I had my suspicions about where this idiom came from. I suspected that it originated in a military setting, certainly a setting in which danger is immediate and can come in an instant from any direction. Facing where you think the danger is coming from, you might be facing entirely the wrong way. Threat could appear at any moment from behind you, and it would be a matter of life and death to know that someone had your back.

So I looked it up, and oddly enough, found no confirmation at all of my inklings. One of the online resources I consulted was the Urban Dictionary, which is usually very informative about street language and slang as well as contemporary idioms; it’s very entertaining, but often I learn things from it that I wouldn’t dream of putting in a sermon!

Here, though, I was astonished to find that the Urban Dictionary said nothing about the provenance of “I’ve got your back”, certainly nothing about a martial or combat origin. Instead, it offered something unusually lyrical and quite touching.

When someone has your back, they are there to support you unconditionally. When life seems to blindside you with undesirable events, they’re there for you without complaint, supporting you in your moment of need, not for their own selfish, self-gratifying reasons, but because your well-being to them is foremost in their mind and heart.

Isn’t that lovely? As to origins, utterly unhelpful – but lovely nonetheless. And all the more so because it does illustrate how an originally very narrow idiom expressing complete commitment, utter dependability, and a being-there, without reservation, that serves as a foundation for everything that the one does, undertakes, faces in the world, whether or not the other is visible, is in the line of sight. “I will be there!” it says. “Whether you can see me or not, I’ll be there, because I’ve got your back…”

2

In the Exodus reading we just heard from Gordon, Moses wants, needs, to know that God has his back.

He rambles – it’s partly the way the passage is put together – and stumbles through a series of questions and qualifications and irrelevances, but it does all seem to boil down to one thing, expressed in two ways: “When I need you to be there for me, will you?” and “How will I know…?”

You have been telling me, “Lead these people,” but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. You have said, “I know you by name and you have found favour with me.” If you are pleased with me, teach me your ways so I may know you and continue to find favour with you. Remember that this nation is your people… If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth…? Now show me your glory.’

Moses’ question to God boils down to two elements: “How will you be there for me?” and “How will I know that you will be there?” But you can actually boil them down further into “Have you got my back?”

And sometimes, that’s our question, too. When we have to – and note the expression – face things, difficult things, things which throw us, undermine us, leave us feeling lost, even alone. When we have to face things….

Perhaps we are beginning to recover a sense of how very basic these words – these expressionsface and back are. “Face” connotes far more than the front of your head, and “back” far more than what you sometimes put out by bending the wrong way, so that sitting, standing and moving are agony. And you might think that the natural pairing of “back” is with “front”, not “face”. But that isn’t how this passage works. “Back” is paired with – opposed to – “face”.

“‘You cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live,” says God; “When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.”

 

Moses wants to know, in all he has to face, whether God has his back. Moses can foresee the difficulties he will have to face, the pressures on him because of what the people will have to face, and when events put them under pressure, and put him under pressure too, when he is profoundly challenged by what he has to face – he needs to know that God has his back. That God is there with him, and for him, and that in all he has to worry about, God will be there for him in such a way that he won’t have to give it a second thought.

3

And, says God, he will.

And the Lord said, ‘I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.  But,’ he said, ‘you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.’

What does that mean?

We’ll return to that question in a few moments. But for the moment, let’s stay with that expression “I’ve got your back.” What difference does it make to the way we live in the world, to know that God has our back? In a sense, the reading we hear now, from the very beginning of Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, explores that. The Thessalonians are, he tells them, exemplars, living illustrations, of what faith means – and faith is the transforming conviction that God has their backs.

[Break: Hymn: Stand up, stand up for Jesus]

[Reading: 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10]

 [Reading: Matthew 22:15-22]

4

Part of the Pharisees’ problem is that they are utterly two-faced.

‘Teacher,’ they said, ‘we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are.’

In view of all we’ve said, about what we have to face, and about God having our back, the question is almost irresistible: “How can God have our backs, if we are two-faced?”

And that’s not a flippant observation. The Pharisees Jesus encounters in the Gospels, as we’ve said so many times before, can’t trust God.

They aren’t representative of the whole Pharisaic movement; in many ways, the Pharisees’ demand that faith be lived seriously in the world, as obedience to God, and in the hope of the resurrection, meant that they ought naturally to be receptive to Jesus’ preaching of the Kingdom, and the demand that we live the life of the Kingdom, in the hope of the Kingdom, in the world as it is now. And many of them were. And the utter trust in God, despite all experience and the profound questions it raised, are hallmarks of the Pharisaic tradition.

No, the Pharisees who gave Jesus such a hard time were people who couldn’t simply trust God. They needed to turn their relationship with God through the Law into a sort of contract, so that if they could be certain that they fulfilled their part, kept the commandments, then God would be for them. They couldn’t trust, so they had to know.

Moses had to trust. Moses wanted to know that God would be there for him, wanted to be assured of God’s presence, wanted to see, and know – wanted to see God’s face. But that isn’t possible. To see God, to comprehend God, is utterly beyond the capacities of mortal, human being – that’s the reasoning in our Old Testament reading. “No-one may see God and live…”

And so there’s this extraordinary expression:

When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.’

You won’t see God coming, you won’t see God passing by, here, passing through this moment. That will be hidden from you. You won’t see the face of God. But then, you will see. You will see God’s back, you will see that God did indeed pass through this situation, that God was indeed there for you, that God had – and so has – your back, even if all you can see is God’s back, the God who passed by, passed through, was here, and… well, there is no other expression for it, is there? Who has your back…

5

 

Who has your back… Standing back-to-back with you, completing your protection, so that you can face what you have to face. That’s how God is there for you, for us.

Back to these Pharisees. So two-faced, so preoccupied with faces, with appearances, so desperate for certainty, for a glimpse of God’s face, because they are incapable of trusting that God has their back.

They come, two-faced, to Jesus, to try to back him into a corner, so that his back is to the wall. Do you see how all-pervasive this language is in our ordering of our experience?

We know how the trick question works. Is it right to pay the poll-tax to Caesar? Say no, and you’re a rebel against Rome, and they will deal with you. Say no, and you are a collaborator, and your followers will turn against you, and the Zealots will probably settle your hash.

And Jesus says “Show me the coin used for paying the tax. Whose image is this?”

Whose face…?

Well, it’s not going to be God’s, is it? Israel’s God is the imageless God, the undepictable God, whose form, and face, could never be portrayed. Even to think of God that way is to diminish God. So to look at the face of the Emperor, a mere human being – and the Emperor Tiberius refused to allow himself to be worshipped as a god in his lifetime – and to say “Give him his due…” is hardly a threat to the God of Israel, his unimaginability, his ultimacy, his claim on his people.

But Jesus makes them come to this conclusion by themselves. “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and unto God that which is God’s…”

It’s nothing to look on the face of Tiberius Caesar and acknowledging who and what that face represents, if your faith is that God is God, and that the God whose face you have not seen has your back.

Because it’s not just a matter of Caesar is some things, and God is everything else. It’s that Caesar’s is Caesar’s, and God’s is everything – because ultimately Caesar is Caesar, and God is God.

But we can’t leave it there.

6

“You’re the image of your father,” people will say, which can’t be much fun if you’re the daughter of a bearded man. “Look at him! He’s the image of his father!”

That was the experience of the disciples. That Jesus passed through their lives, that there was much that they could not grasp, did not understand, was held from them at the time. Then came Good Friday, and Easter. And they looked back on all of this, all that they’d been held back from seeing at the time – and they saw that God had been in it all.

But they saw much more, too. More, even, than God’s back. Because they had seen the face of Jesus – what the radical English theologian and Bishop of Woolwich, John A T Robinson, calls “the human face of God.” It’s in Jesus that we know what God is like, and it’s in Jesus that we know that God is with us, and has our back, whether we realize it or not. Because Jesus is the human face of God.

I’m going to finish with a quotation, but oddly, it isn’t from Scripture. It’s the quotation we heard from the Urban Dictionary, a few minutes ago – its definition of “I’ve got your back…” and it both takes us back to where we started, and underlines where we’ve come to – how our experience is that we look back, and see, not God’s back, but the human face of God in Jesus Christ.

When someone has your back, they are there to support you unconditionally. When life seems to blindside you with undesirable events, they’re there for you without complaint, supporting you in your moment of need, not for their own selfish, self-gratifying reasons, but because your well-being to them is foremost in their mind and heart.

Isn’t that what Jesus reveals of God? And isn’t he just the image of his Father?

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