READ: Mark 9.38-50
This past week, a buddy of mine called me and asked me whether I believed it was good or bad to pray in public.
He said he was speaking to someone he respects and trusts as a spiritual leader, but that leader advised him not to pray in public.
And my friend was disturbed about that.
He asked me if I knew of any Scripture that reinforced the opinion of his colleague.
Two scriptures popped into my mind:
One was in Matthew 6, when Jesus tells his disciples that
“…when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen.
“Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”
And I thought, too, of Luke 18, in which Jesus tells a story of a repentant tax collector in the temple who was asking God humbly for forgiveness verses a Pharisee who made a big show about his prayer and how he prayed he was glad he basically wasn’t a lowlife like this tax collector.
Jesus says the tax collector, not the Pharisee, was justified.
But then I also thought of all the times Jesus cries out to the Father in prayer in front of others:
When he’s healing, raising people from the dead or suffering his own death…
So which is it?
Well, I concluded, that it depends on why you’re praying.
By this statement, I was able to extract the reason my buddy was so upset.
See, he had taken the battle upon himself to not ever be hushed from praying in public or expressing his Christianity.
I said “Amen,“ but I also said that if the reason you’re praying is because you really, humbly are seeking communication with God, then it doesn’t matter the volume or the eloquence of your prayer…
…it doesn’t matter whether you’re alone in your room with the door shut, or if you’re in the middle of a crowded shopping mall, classroom or city hall meeting chamber.
BUT, if you’re praying to make a statement, well, then that’s really not praying, is it?
That’s a bit like the Pharisee.
You’re making a show to make a statement.
I’d argue leave that for the courts to decide because that’s not a respectful, sincere or humble prayer, is it?
In other words, when you pray, pray to God.
I told him don’t pray because you want others to take some sort of note or cue or agenda from you.
Let others do their own thing.
You simply have to live in your Christian example.
Be genuine in what you do, and don’t make your prayer some kind of ulterior motive.
Your prayer is between YOU and GOD.
And it’s sacred.
Let others go about their prayers or faith without yours impinging upon theirs.
Because chances are you’re just going to drive them away anyway…
…just like that Pharisee did.
Now, in our reading in Mark this morning, we’re fresh on the heels of the disciples arguing about who is the greatest—
—which we talked about last week here.
And now, they’re still at it, but instead of putting the spotlight on themselves directly,
this time, they’re turning the spotlight on others that eventually is supposed to show how righteous the disciples are.
They say, “Hey, Jesus, look! Those imposters are trying to heal people in your name! Who do they think they are? Only we can do that the right way. Stop them!”
And Jesus says, basically, “Mind your own business.”
And he goes on to explain, beginning in verse 39:
“Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.
“Whoever is not against us, is for us.”
Well, Mark paints that with a very wide brush.
Only those who are against Jesus are bad.
Everyone else? They’re for Jesus.
That might be a stretch.
I can look around this community and say the same thing.
There are those who are definitely against Jesus.
They are hurting people, this community, this nation, this world and so on…
Everyone else who’s not hurting people, this community, this nation, this world and so on…?
They’re all for Jesus…
But the thing is this:
If they’re doing good, then they’re actually helping Jesus’s cause.
And more, if they’re doing it in Christ’s name — which is exactly what Jesus says in that verse — then they are absolutely helping Christ’s cause.
In fact, he says, they will never speak evil against Jesus.
Then to punctuate the whole thing, Jesus tells them that anyone who stands in the way of those working in Christ’s name, well…
let’s just say there are images of millstones tied around necks, eternal hellfire, plucking out of eyes and so on and so forth…
We get the idea…
Right vs. righteous
Many times in our lives we are guilty of what the disciples are doing, too.
There’s a difference between being right and being righteous.
Both are very good goals, but doing the right thing is never wrong.
But acting as if we’re righteous — that is doing things because we want to let others know we’re right —
well, there’s no genuineness in that.
I grew up with four older sisters.
And in our house, when things got a bit testy, someone was always telling on someone else.
“Look what Christopher is doing!”
And I’d do the same.
We didn’t really care what the other person was doing;
we just wanted to call them out on it, and in so doing, make ourselves look more saintlike…
KIds do this often.
It’s why we call it childish.
Yet here are the disciples — the ones who are supposed to have this stuff down —
acting like a bunch of children:
“Look what he’s doing!”
Whenever this happened in my house growing up, my father would always say, “No one likes a tattle-tale.”
I’ve actually said those very words to my own boys.
And here is Jesus doing the same.
The fact is that we’re going to see a whole lot of people doing a whole lot of things in Christ’s name.
And we’re going to think it’s wrong.
Sometimes, it just is.
Sometimes, it becomes a social justice issue to call out the hypocrisy.
See, when that happens, it’s not really in Christ’s name, is it?
I think we all know the difference.
But when someone is truly trying to do good things — especially trying to heal people or communities or situations — and calling on Christ to help,
well, who are we to tell them to knock it off?
Again, that’s between them and God.
The last thing we want to do is to stand in someone else’s way to Christ.
Jesus is pretty clear about what happens to us when we try to force our righteous judgment on others.
What have we learned?
A friend of mine was a pastor of a very progressive church in downtown State College a few years ago.
The church — and you might have seen it — had a banner hanging over its front door that said “God is still speaking here.”
And the banner was in the colors of the rainbow, signifying the acceptance of the LGBTQ community, where some openly gay people worshipped every Sunday.
But on one particular Sunday during worship, the congregation heard folks outside screaming vicious anti-gay statements through bullhorns.
Many members of the congregation and the pastor went to the door, and saw dozens of people with angry expression on their faces, yelling and pointing and holding up signs that targeted the church for allowing the LGBTQ community to worship in the church.
That could have turned very ugly, if not violent.
But instead, some of the congregation decided rather than to shout back, or ignore them, or call the police, they would invite them in to worship.
I can’t say if the folks on the lawn were acting in Christ’s name —
— they might have just believed that.
I do know that the congregation’s response was absolutely acting in Christ.
We know this because instead of the congregation trying to one-up the protestors by loudly displaying what a Christian is;
instead, they were humble, and loving and welcoming.
They were so sincere.
And do you know what happened?
The protestors accepted their invitation.
They came in to see that this was no den of iniquity.
That all these people — no matter what they believed — were all there in Christ’s name.
They were all there worshiping in Christ’s name.
And they all were trying their best to love one another as Christ loves each one of us.
After worship, believe it or not, many of the protestors stuck around during the coffee hour afterward.
They sat among the people of the church and calmly and sincerely talked about the issues.
They broke bread with one another.
And they even prayed together.
Now that is sincerity, isn’t it?
That prayer is always going to be justified.
That prayer is going to be heard.
And it was answered on that day.
Living life in Christ
We see the difference here between being right and being righteous.
Righteousness in a biblical sense isn’t a bad thing;
but none of us is perfect.
That title is reserved for Christ.
So if we act and move and love and welcome and listen in Christ, we don’t have to worry about inflicting our beliefs on others;
we’re just simply living it.
My buddy was silent on the other end of the phone for a bit, and he said, “Well, that’s interesting.”
I thought maybe my answer offended him or didn’t go far enough in the direction he had wanted.
But he thanked me, and he said, “You know? I have a whole new perspective on this.”
He said, “I see something I missed before.”
My response neither to tell him what I thought was right or what was wrong.
I live my Christianity out loud.
But I also don’t feel the need to shove it down someone else’s throat.
Despite how badly I think they need it;
In the Gospels, when people aren’t believing that Jesus is the Messiah;
when Jesus can’t perform miracles or help people because of their unbelief…
ever notice that he doesn’t try to make it an argument.
In fact, many times, he tells a story for those folks to ponder
or he just walks away.
Shakes the dust from his sandals.
I’m not God.
Neither is anyone else here.
Let God do God’s work.
And certainly that often can be through us.
Let go of what isn’t yours to carry.
Instead, let us live our lives as Christ lived his.
By letting our examples of love, charity, justice, hospitality, giving and peace be the image people see when they see us.
That is the image of Christ.
And that is what it means to live in Christ.