The Back Side of the Lord

Oct. 22, 2017

Ex 33.23-33; 1 Thes. 1.1-10; Mt 22.15-22

When Charles Lindbergh made his solo transatlantic flight and arrived in the clear spring night air of Paris in 1927--90 years ago this year--he became overnight, an international celebrity. His name became synonymous with greatness. When he landed after his 33½ hour flight –nobody even knew what he looked like. But he walked off the plane, "The Spirit of St Louis" wearing his traditional leather aviator cap and jacket the people engulfed him. A crowd estimated at as many as a million people had surrounded and filled the air field so that when he exited the plane, the jubilant revelers grabbed him and carried him about on their shoulders, first one direction and then another for more than a half hour celebrating this awesome accomplishment. He said he was tossed around the field in every position, except face UP! The only way he escaped the mayhem was when a French pilot put a flight helmet on an American correspondent's head who was standing nearby and yelled out, "Here's Lindbergh!" and the crowd put Lindbergh down and hoisted the other guy up and carried him around on the jamboree ride. But it just shows us that knowing a celebrity is like knowing about a person, it's not the same thing as knowing the person. But, then, what do we really know any person? A large part of celebrity is making a name for one's self...and that could work both ways--for or against us, depending on whether we're running to fame or running away from infamy!

In any case we infer or assume a great many things about others...rightly or wrongly. The gangster Al Capone wanted people to think of him as a businessman, an entrepreneur, and a philanthropist, but the public came to associate him with Prohibition era violence in Chicago and later with Alcatraz where he was imprisoned! He said, "I'm sick and tired of publicity. It puts me in a bad light." So today, we're more likely to remember Capone for his cynical statement, "You can get a lot more done with a kind word and a gun than you can with a kind word alone." On the face of it, things may appear one way, but looking deeper they can be very different.

Actually, we assume that the essence of a person is in their face. That must be why Moses said to the Lord in the reading from Exodus today, "I know you by name," but Moses added, "show me your glory, I pray." In other words...show me your face. By seeking the face of God, Moses figured as we frequently do, that that would reveal the essence of God. But the Lord cautioned, "no one shall see me and live." The Lord wanted Moses to know him so he agreed to show Moses his "backside" instead. What? That's kind of a baffling proposal from the Lord. What could it mean?

For most of us, we associate our "backside" with a less presentable part...it's certainly not "putting our best foot forward" as the saying goes. Sociologists call it our blind or hidden area...it's embarrassing to talk about...so we don't. It's a little like the lady who sued her doctor for joking about her backside when she was not completely anesthetized during her colonoscopy! Ouch!

So, why would the Lord propose to show Moses his backside? I have a theory about this. I think it's God's invitation to show Moses the hidden aspects of God himself...not God's reputation, not stories about God told by others, but a personal encounter to know God. It's a way to truly see not just the commonly known facts about God, but the hidden essence of the Lord. This is related to how we come to know each other.

One of the most insightful books I've ever read about human social relations is one by the sociologist Erving Goffman called, The Interaction Ritual. The premise of his book is, as Shakespeare put it, "All the world's a stage, and all...men and women merely players; they have their exits and their entrances". So, whether we recognize it our not, we're always on stage and potentially under scrutiny from others. And therefore we want to show our best side. When we meet people we read their faces. We are identified by our faces. When celebrities go into public they often try to obscure their faces so that people won't know them and they won't hear somebody say, "Look, it's THEM!" They may wear sunglasses, or a growth of beard, or a hat to hide their face. I've run into movie or TV stars in public places like you have at an airport or in a store, and my first inclination is to walk up and say to them, "Hey, how's it goin'?" like we were buds from way back. It's because we figure if we know their face, we know them. But obviously that's not the case. As a result, we tend to put out for public view what we want people to see. And we tend to keep the rest in a private hidden area. So, as we protect and regulate what we expose to the world, we have known public face experienced by everyone, but also an unseen and unknown area. God offers Moses the opportunity to see previously unrevealed aspects of the Almighty. One's face is seen and known--Moses is allowed to see the unseen.

That in my estimation is the reason why God offers Moses the opportunity to see not just the face, but behind the common knowledge of God. If we are offered this private view of a person, we'd likely see the deeper reality that is them. We, as well as Moses and all of Israel, are offered a glimmer of the God of all time and space. It is the God who is life, and justice, and goodness, and love. In the words of 1 Chronicles, "Yours, O Lord, is the greatness, the power, the glory, the victory and the majesty. For everything in heaven and on earth is yours. Yours, O Lord, is the kingdom, and you are exalted as head above all." As we come to know somebody, even the Lord, it's helpful to remember there's so much more than just a pretty face...there's the backside and a more profound journey to revelation and a greater knowledge of our God. AMEN.


The Reverend WA Ray St Thomas Church Diamondhead, MS 10/22/17