I Got Your Back

Watch the first 4 minutes of this video and then read John 17:6-19

People often wonder what others will say about them at their funeral. One of the most difficult, but rewarding things I do as a pastor is to meet with families, try to understand the breadth of their loved one’s life…and then try to memorialize it in 20 minutes. It can be an arduous task…but if the very essence of that loved one can be captured in the eulogy; the Holy Spirit has plenty of good memories to use for healing grief and loss. And often these families will begin to think about their own legacies. How will I be remembered? For all of us, there is a curiosity about how others will remember us when we die. Often, the epitaphs on gravestones tell their story.

A few years ago I visited Tombstone, Arizona just outside of Tucson while on vacation visiting family. One of the highlights of my trip was a stop at "Boothill Cemetery," the burial place for the town's first pioneers. I think our video this morning sums up the place quite well! But our comedic tour guide didn’t show the gravestone that I thought was most amusing:

Margarita, Stabbed by Gold Dollar. Two dance hall girls quarrelling over a man, and Gold Dollar won.

Well, you get the picture! It was fascinating what these pioneer folks were remembered for; the circumstances around their deaths, their eulogy if you will. Perhaps in the rough and tumble days of the Wild West, it was the way you died, that final statement on your gravestone, that was the truest way to remember you. And in a strange way, our scripture today reflects a similar remembrance about Jesus.

Our gospel story today follows on the heels of our last two Sunday scriptures from the end of the book of John. In fact, this conversation is part of Jesus' final prayer. It's at the end of his long talk with the disciples that began in chapter 13 with the washing of their feet. And his talk concludes with the climax of this prayer. Jesus final prayer is the culmination of his relationship with the disciples. It is his final thoughts during this last opportunity to teach them. Yet this conversation is also at the point of transition from his being with them to his being with God. It is his last will and testament of sorts. In most liturgical churches today is celebrated as Ascension Sunday, and this sacred story is an appropriate scripture for that.

Yet it is important to recognize that Jesus is now speaking to God, to his Father, and the disciples are nearby watching and listening. Jesus is praying for his disciples, but he is addressing God. That's what we need to catch in this story. On the one hand, Jesus is talking to the Father; but on the other hand, he is addressing the audience as his disciples. He is inviting them to listen in on his prayer. And when we hear this story, we have that same invitation to hear Jesus praying for us as his disciples. So also, we who are gathered in this community are being prayed for. Think about it…this last prayer of Jesus is a prayer for us too.

This is a prayer of petition for what Jesus hopes might happen between God and the human race. The prayer is that they might be saved from the powers of this world and that they might be one. Now these disciples, the early church in the first century, were not one. They were not an aligned, coherent, concise body of believers…just as we are not one now. That is why Jesus needed to pray and asked that their oneness, our oneness, might be restored. This petition is Jesus’ central message, a prayer that the body of Christ might be one. It's a prayer for now as it was a prayer for then.

The next part of Jesus' prayer is for the protection of his disciples, of those whom he loves. It is a statement that, now that he is leaving them, God would protect them. We need to remember that the Gospel of John was written around 90 A.D. So at this time of this writing, the Jesus' followers have been through the horrors of the Jewish War that occurred between 66 AD – 73 AD. Jesus prays for protection from "the hatred of the world," which alludes to the hatred of the Romans for the people of Israel and their religion. The destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. was a manifestation of this hatred. The prayer for protection reflects the fact that the Jews were not protected during the war. Vast numbers of the people of Israel were killed in that war. When the siege was broken, the Romans broke into the city of Jerusalem, went into the Temple and slaughtered thousands of people. Being hated by the world was the experience of all those who heard this prayer.

So this prayer resonates with the experience of the people of Israel in the aftermath of the loss of the Temple and the loss of that experience of intimacy with God in their central place of holiness, the Temple. Jesus here is praying for the people. He is praying for his own in the same way that the high priest would have prayed for the people in the Temple.

Eleanor shepherd

Eleanor Shepherd, a Canadian writer for the World Guild, said “A phrase I hear frequently has an interesting history. It strikes me as powerful words of encouragement. The phrase is “I’ve got your back.” Shepherd says that, “Although I am unaware of the origin of the phrase, one possible meaning is the idea that when soldiers are on patrol, the only way that they can be sure to have a 360 degree view of what is going on, is by standing back to back. Whatever is behind one is in front of the other. And since we do not have eyes in the back of our heads, two people committed to protecting each other have a 360 degree view.”

“I’ve got your back,” is a term that suggests solidarity.  It is a way of saying, “You can count on me. I will be there for you.” Whatever you are facing, there is someone who will not take advantage of your weaknesses, and more than that, will be there to step in and offer you strength and courage. If you tell me that you have my back, I know that I can confront whatever is before me, since I will not be ambushed from behind. You are looking out for me. This is the underlying theme of Jesus’ final prayer for his disciples and for us. I’ve got your back. You can count on me. But where was he at the time of the Jewish War? Where is he for us when things go wrong? https://twgauthors.blogspot.com/2011/07/ive-got-your-back.html

We have been told in our earliest learnings about God that there is much power in our prayers. But we still talk about it casually as though it is just a general saying and not something to act upon. Sometimes it comes up in a benign way, “O, pray for me.” But when folks ask us that, do we ever stop what we are doing right then and pray? I suspect that many of us have “typical” prayer lives. We prayer when it’s convenient…or when someone asks for it. But what might be the effects of having a dynamic prayer life? What might be the outcome on your life if you had an intentional prayer life built on faithful and disciplined engagement?

Today is Mother’s Day…so I have to mention my mother. I don’t know about your mothers but my Mom will call me after a few weeks if I haven’t spoken or seen her, just to say she is thinking about me. She’ll jokingly say, “Why haven’t you called me?” And I jokingly say, “why haven’t you called me?”...to which she replies, “I just did!” And I know it’s like that sometimes with our communication with God. We wonder why things go wrong in our lives, and inevitably we turn to God and asked “Why did you let this happen to me?” Sometimes I wonder if God says to us in return, “Why haven’t you called ME lately?”

Let me illustrate it another way. My good friend and fellow pastor, Tim Forbess is from Atoka, TN…about 45 north of Memphis near the Arkansas border, and has some great stories to tell about his family. His father, Jack, who I have met, was a printer for more than 40 years. Jack not only ran huge presses with thousands of gears and wheels, he also worked on them constantly. He had a saying that Tim shared he would remember his father saying for the rest of his life. It was this, “An oil can will put a repair man out of business.” 

Rev. bessie thomas

What if we thought of prayer as oil? What if we thought of our prayer life as that which kept us going, kept us alive, kept our hearts and mind running smoothly? Prayer is vital for those who have learned to practice it daily. Those who live prayerful lives, who we sometimes call prayer warriors. My grandma Rev. Bessie Thomas was one of those prayer warriors that taught me the value of staying closely connected to God through daily conversation. She taught me to be in a partnership with prayer, and constantly testified to the healing power that prayer brings to the hurt places, and renews those dead places, the tombstones in our lives.

But that is not even the most powerful aspect of prayer. Prayer helps us navigate difficult relationships with each other. This is the final week of our Easter season worship series and we are concluding our discussion of the book, “Unoffendable” that some of us have been reading. And I admit it’s been a great read, but it’s been very tough to practice. One word of caution…if you pray for God to help you not get offended by people, then every person in your life will somehow do something that offends you. It’s the way God works. If you pray to love people more, then God sends you people who are hard to love. If you pray not to be disappointed by people, then God sends disappointment your way. Pray to see God’s blessings in everything? Then tough times will come a calling. Because that is how God builds love, patience, kindness, compassion in you. By sending those your way who need it from you. The last chapter of Brent Hansen’s book pulled it all together for me. Chapter 24 is titled, “And Lo, the Kingdom of God is Like a Terrible Football Team.”

He writes, “Choosing to be Unoffendable means choosing to be humble. Not only that, the practice teaches humility. Once you’ve decided you can’t control people; once you’ve reconciled yourself to the fact that the world, and its people, are broken; once you’ve realized your own moral failure before God; once you’ve abandoned the idea that your significance comes from anything other than God, you’re growing in humility, and that’s exactly where God wants us all.”

And it all begins with honest prayer. Jesus’ prayer from John 17 is a source of great consolation for faithful persons in challenging situations. Jesus is praying for his followers, then and now. Jesus is praying for Peter, John, and Mary, and Jesus is praying for us. He is praying for their unity and he is also praying for their protection. Jesus is praying that we be protected from the impact of the evil one and all that would separate us from our brothers and sisters. Imagine it – Jesus is praying for us! Jesus’ prayer of protection is reaching out to encircle us and give us the courage to face life’s challenges with grace and trust. In our polarizing times, when the right course is in doubt, we need to know that God is with us in all of our uncertainty.

st patrick

Jesus’ prayer for his followers reminds me of the Celtic practice of “Caim” or “encircling” in which before a journey or facing a threat, a person draws a circle around her or himself as a sign that God surrounds him or her on every journey. Jesus’ prayer reminds me of the prayer of St. Patrick which can be connected with the encircling to give us courage amid threat and conflict.

Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down,
Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in the eye that sees me,
Christ in the ear that hears me.

We are always encircled by God’s love, and when we align ourselves with God’s way we can have confidence even in challenging times. We can live with confidence, amid challenge, knowing that God is as near as our next breath and that God seeks our well-being in every situation. (For more on the theology of prayer, see Bruce Epperly, “Process Spirituality: Practicing Holy Adventure.”)

Be reminded of the power of prayer when you prayer with each other. I encourage you to find a Powerful Prayer Partner or P to the 3rd power. I guarantee, that as each of you offer daily and constituent prayer lives to God, this church will cause the dead to rise in this community. And that is a worthy epitaph for all of us to live toward! Amen?