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What Keeps Us From Praying

Praying Like Bartimaeus
A sermon preached October 25, 2015
The Rev. John Ohmer, Rector, The Falls Church Episcopal

Jesus and his disciples came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!" Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, "Son of David, have mercy on me!" Jesus stood still and said, "Call him here." And they called the blind man, saying to him, "Take heart; get up, he is calling you." So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, "What do you want me to do for you?" The blind man said to him, "My teacher, let me see again." Jesus said to him, "Go; your faith has made you well." Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way. (Mark 10:46-52)

As those of you who were here last week know, the passage just before this one in the Gospel of Mark is where James and John approach Jesus and say, “we want you to do whatever we ask of you,” and Jesus says, “what is it you want me to do for you?” and they respond that they want places of honor.

I’ve come to think that James and John actually model a good (or at least sincere) way of praying: tell God what you want, even if what you want isn’t exactly a model of purity or holiness, even if what you want is selfish or materialistic – pray honestly, because it’s not as though God doesn’t already know those things about you, it’s not as if there’s a part of us that God doesn’t know about…might as well get that all out there where God can work with it.

So if last week’s gospel encouraged us to pray “James and John prayers,” this week we’re encouraged to pray “blind Bartimaeus prayers.”

To set the stage: Jesus, his disciples and a large crowd are leaving the city of Jericho. Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, is sitting by the roadside. When he “hears that it was Jesus of Nazareth,” he starts to shout out “Jesus, son of David [honored one, anointed one], “mercify me!”

I say “mercify me” because as a biblical commentator[1]  has pointed out, there’s not really a good English translation of what (“eleeson me”) Bartimaeus is shouting out: “have mercy on me” sounds like he’s asking Jesus to be kindly disposed toward him,, not to judge him harshly, or simply to feel mercy or pity toward him.

[Ann Lamott says there are three essential prayers, help, thanks, and wow. That almost all our prayers can be simplified or summarized in one of three words: help! Thanks! And wow! We ask for assistance from God: HELP. We express gratitude – THANKS, and we fee awe, or we savor life’s events: WOW, help, thanks and wow, three essential prayers.

So here’s a good example of the first kind of prayer, a “help” prayer. When Bartimaeus says “have mercy on me” he’s not asking Jesus to feel a certain way toward him, he’s asking him to do something for him, and so a better translation is probably “help me!” except the Greek is apparently very informal and colloquial, so what Bartimaeus is saying is more like “Jesus, Son of David, do your mercy thing for me!”  

What happens next?

“Many sternly ordered him to be quiet.” 

I find that fascinating.

Many people…not “just then, someone, one or two people from the crowd tried to hush Bartimaeus” (shhhhh), but “many sternly ordered him” to be quiet. A polite translation of “lots of people told him to shut up.”

But Bartimaeus refuses to shut up, and cries out even more loudly, “SON OF DAVID DO YOUR MERCY THING FOR ME!”

If you pray “James and John prayers” -- if you tell God what you want, even if what you want isn’t exactly a model of purity or holiness, even if what you want is selfish or materialistic – at first it’ll feel weird, strange…because we’ve somehow picked up the notion that prayer should be formal, or done in a certain way, or be filled with holy thoughts…and so –when we pray honestly, at first it feels strange.

And if you pray the Bartimaeus prayer – if we shout out to God, “help me, do your mercy thing for me!” – if we go to God on a daily, hourly basis for help, if we cry out to God for help, then don’t be surprised if “many” voices – internal and external -- start telling you to shut up.  

Because there are a lot of competing voices to our calling out for help:
  • there’s the voice of pride that says, “I don’t need help…I can handle this on my own,” and the voice of denial, “Things aren’t so bad. It’ll be all right.” When you hear those voices, it’s important to cry out even more loudly, “Oh, I DO need help! I can’t handle this on my own, things ARE bad or could get worse, I need help. Help!
  • There’s a voice of skepticism that says, “who is it you think you’re yelling out to anyway? Does God really exist? Aren’t you just talking to your imagination? Doesn’t God have bigger problems than yours to worry about?” When you hear that voice [sternly ordering you to be quiet], cry out even more loudly, “God, you are mystery, incomprehensible, beyond my understanding. J But that doesn’t mean you don’t exist, or don’t care. I believe. I believe you are up there, and in here: I believe you are

o  below me, supporting me,
o  ahead of me, guiding me, 
o  above me, watching over me,
o  behind me, pushing me forward –
surrounding me with your care and support, enveloping me with your love. So please, mysterious but very real God, help me.
  • And there’s an evil voice that says, “well, even if God does exist and does care, he’s mad at you…disappointed in you…you’re in trouble, because God has seen what you’ve done and disapproves of you.” When you hear that voice  [sternly ordering you to be quiet], recognize it as the voice of the Adversary, the tempter, the Devil, Satan – and cry out even more loudly – shout! – “I don’t know what Bible you’re reading or where you got that from, but the God I know in this Bible and the God I’m reminded of each week at my church is a God of goodness, kindness, forgiveness, love, and mercy, who makes that goodness and mercy known – God is described as a forgiving father rushing out to embrace the prodigal son, a God who not only is not turned off by me when I turn to him but who is delighted, who throws a party, who speaks of angels rejoicing in heaven…believe in that God and say “do your mercy thing for me, God.”

Because what happens when Bartimaeus persists?

Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.”

To the point that the God we worship – the God made-known-in-Jesus – is merciful and kind – freeze-frame this scene for a minute and look at Jesus’ reaction to those in the crowd who are telling 

Bartimaeus to be quiet. He stood still and said “call him here.”

What’s Jesus reaction to those in the crowd who are being indifferent and even hostile to someone in need: he doesn’t scold them for telling him to be quiet. He doesn’t shame them by comparing 

Bartimaeus’ faith to their hostility.

He stands still, and says “call him here.” It’s a very subtle moment in the scene, but important: Jesus could’ve gone over to where Bartimaeus was sitting. Or he could’ve spoken directly to directly to Bartimaeus and said “come here.”

But he stands still. He speaks to the crowd, overruling their order with one of his own: “call him here.” You see? He makes them the disciples they want to be. He gives them something to do. And you see the change in their demeanor?

They call the blind man and say, “take heart, cheer up, courage…don’t be afraid.”

He throws off his cloak and comes to Jesus…
…and although he can’t see Jesus, he hears Jesus ask him,
“what do you want me to do for you?”

It’s pretty obvious that Bartimaeus is blind, but Jesus asks, God asks us to articulate our deepest desire anyway, name it, say it out loud.

“What do you want me to do for you?”

What do you want God to do for you?
What do you want God to do for you?
What do you want God to do for you?

Bartimaeus  says, “My teacher, let me see again.”

Let me see again.

What do you say?

What’s your cry? What’s your heart’s request? Where do you need help? Where do you need mercy? What would you like to see again?


[1] [A.K.M. Adam, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 4, pg 215]


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