There is so much hyperbole – exaggerated metaphors – in the warnings Jesus gives as part of his dialogue today, that our modern ears risk getting tangled in the metaphors and missing the meaning.
The disciples come to Jesus, like tattle-tale kids to a school teacher, to tell him about how they saw someone casting out demons in Jesus’ name and they tried to stop them, because they weren’t officially a Jesus follower.
Jesus responds by telling the disciples “no,” if someone is acting in Jesus’ name, don’t stop them. Your work, dear disciples, isn’t to police those who are or are not my followers. And then Jesus gives them really intense-sounding warnings about getting drowned with a millstone around your neck (have you ever seen the size of a millstone? They are huge and heavy), being maimed and going to hell (the word for “hell” here is “Gehenna,” which referred to a ravine south of Jerusalem famous for pagan killing of children); Jesus gives them these intense sounding warnings, to make sure they are listening. And these same warnings are given to us. It’s not our job to be Jesus’ grace enforcement officers. It’s not our job to try to figure out who is or isn’t worthy to do Jesus’ work of healing and restoration in this world.
Then what is our job?
This is one of those weeks when the lessons paired together are especially helpful, as the book of James highlights the central “jobs” or vocational callings for want-to-be Jesus followers: prayer.
Prayer. James reminds us that we are to pray when we are suffering. Are we sad and lonely, are we angry and tired, are we confused and distressed? Pray. Are we happy? Are we having a great day or finding ourselves able to see God’s blessings despite the muckity-muckity of problems facing us? Then let us offer songs of praise – which are another form of prayer! Are there those among us who are sick of body? Or sick with guilt and downtrodden as they consider their sins? Let us as a community surround one another with prayer – in the Confession and Forgiveness at the beginning of worship, in the hallways and on zoom where we add our prayers in the chat feature.
In every circumstance and at all times: pray.
And let’s remember, our prayers don’t need to be eloquent. Sometimes people have said to me, “Pastor, your pray so beautifully.” Well, that’s nice to hear, to be sure, but I always try to remind the people around me that you don’t have to be a pastor and you certainly don’t have to “know how” to pray in order to pray.
Years ago, someone said, after I’d offered, let’s be honest, a fairly long-winded prayer. You know, pastor, that prayer could have been summed up with “God, thank you. God help us. God thank you.” And they were right. So, we don’t need to ever think we don’t know how to pray or that our prayers aren’t good enough for God. Plus, Jesus gave us the Lord’s Prayer so that we could have the words to pray. I’d like to invite you to say these words with me now, and after each of the phrases I’m going to offer a paraphrase:
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.
God who originates beyond this world
We praise you.
Thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
May your heavenly grace be known
Here in this place also.
Give us this day our daily bread;
Give us what we need today
Body, heart, mind, and soul.
And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
Forgive us and protect us
From all that would harm us and others.
For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours. Now and forever. Amen.
For Your love is without end
And you know all we need
And we glorify you.
Thank you for trying that with me. Taking apart the prayers we pray can sometimes help us to better understand them, but also help us to take the time to really “feel” the prayers the way in which they deserve to be felt.
The bottom line: we are called to bold living as disciples. What this does not include is being grace enforcers. Jesus can take care of Jesus. What this does include is prayer. And prayer is one of those amazing, grace-filled ways in which Jesus works to take care of us. Praise God. Amen.