Sermon: What do you want me to do for you? (Proper 25 Year B)
Proper 25 Year B
St. John the Baptist Episcopal Church, Lodi, CA
Job 42:1-6, 10-17 (end of job)
Psalm 34:1-8, (19-22)
Hebrews 7:23-28 (eternal priest)
Mark 10:46-52 (Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus)
Collect: Almighty and everlasting God, increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and charity; and, that we may obtain what you promise, make us love what you command; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
At first glance, this gospel story seems like so many others. Jesus heals a blind guy and goes on his way. But once you focus on the details it really is one of the more unique healing stories, and has a lot to teach us about prayer and faith.
Most times when Jesus heals a person, we don’t get a name, just a description. When we know the name it seems to mean that the person wasn’t just healed by Jesus, but became a follower of Jesus and a part of the first Christian community. The gospel writer was name dropping a guy that his readers might have known, or at least have heard of.
And then there’s the way Bartimaeus is treated by the crowd. In other stories, people bring their sick loved ones to Jesus for healing. But Bartimaeus is shushed by the crowd until Jesus acknowledges him. One way that illness was perceived in this time was as a punishment for sins. Obviously this was not and is not the case for many illnesses, but perhaps this is why the crowd dismissed and shunned Bartimaeus: they thought his blindness was deserved punishment for sin. He wasn’t someone in the crowd’s beloved son or a servant of a powerful Roman like in other gospel stories. He was just…Bartimaeus. Who was he to ask for healing from the famous Jesus?
But, for all his physical blindness, Bartimaeus had clear spiritual sight already. He knew Jesus for the messiah. Bartimaeus called him “son of David”. Throughout the gospel of Mark, Jesus keeps his identity a secret. He tells his disciples to not tell anybody that he’s the messiah. Why? Maybe because he knew he wouldn’t last very long as a political threat to Rome. Maybe he didn’t want to be followed around by 1st century paparazzi. Jesus could have ignored or shushed Bartimaeus, like the people around him were doing. But Jesus answers Bartimaeus’s call. “Son of David, have mercy on me.”
Bartimaeus’s cry is one of those single sentence summaries of the entire gospel. Son of David: Jesus, anointed savior of God’s people, have mercy: forgive us our sins, restore us to life. It is the prayer of so many of our hearts. The passage from Hebrews today tells us that through Jesus’s sacrifice of himself, forgiveness can be offered to all. Jesus is forever interceding praying, for us, always saving us. It is that eternal life, that eternal forgiveness of sins, that restoration and salvation that Bartimaeus recognizes in Jesus and wants so badly that even the entire crowd telling him to be quiet can’t stop him from announcing to the world.
And Jesus, instead of telling Bartimaeus to pipe down, seems to shoulder the duties of the messiah in this passage. When they walk down the road after Bartimaeus’s sight is restored, they are not just following some man named Jesus. They are the crowd that becomes the Palm Sunday welcome of the messiah. Bartimaeus named Jesus as the messiah…out of all the people in the crowd, it was the blind man who saw him for who he was.
The actual restoration of Bartimaeus’s sight is also a bit strange. Jesus does not just assume that the blind man wants to see. I mean, Jesus already knew Bartimaeus was very insightful, since he recognized him as the messiah! …Instead, Jesus asks: what do you want me to do for you?
I think, here, this question, is the heart of our connection with God in prayer. We cannot encounter the 1st century flesh and blood son of David on the road into Jerusalem like Bartimaeus did. But we can still cry out for mercy. I know I have done that so many times in my prayers recently. Son of David, have mercy on me. And Jesus listens, and answers with a gentle question: what do you want me to do for you? No assumption of guilt. No gatekeeping to make sure we are worthy of Jesus’s attention. Jesus is always ready to answer our prayers.
I wonder what Bartimaeus was feeling then. Maybe he was feeling defensive about his blindness, wanting to reassure Jesus that he was repentant and deserving of healing. I wonder if he felt like no one had been listening to him and had always assumed they knew what was best. And then here comes Jesus, not assuming anything, but asking: what do you want? Bartimaeus maybe takes a moment to think. I wonder if he had ever been asked that before. I might have been confused if Jesus asked me what I want. It’s like, you’re the messiah, why do you care what I want? But Bartimaeus’s inner vision is clear, even if his physical sight is not. What he wants is to see again.
I’m not sure about the metaphysics of the healing that takes place in this story. In other stories Jesus touches the person, or even uses a healing mud. But here, Jesus announces “your faith has made you well” and Bartimaeus can see. Bartimaeus was healed by his faith. The strength of his prayers, the clarity of his inner sight, his faith in the messiah, has healed him. Bartimaeus was restored to the community by his faith in asking to be healed. At the beginning of this story, Bartimaeus was shunned. But through his persistence and boldness in asking, through his faith, he was restored to the community and maybe even went on to become a minor celebrity in the early church!
It *is* our faith that makes us well. It is our faith that connects us to God. It is our faith that connects us together as a church. It is our faith that allows us to see the truth in the world. When we pray “son of David, have mercy on me”, it is through our faith that we actually do receive forgiveness. It is our faith that makes our souls whole. We might not receive the physical signs of restored sight like Bartimaeus, but our faith continues to heal and restore us. It is our faith that makes us well. And when we are restored we can follow Jesus on his way, announcing him as the messiah.
This October is the time of the year where the congregation is focused on financial stewardship. I’ve also recently gotten annual giving emails from every university I’ve ever attended and several nonprofits. Is the church asking for money like just one more charitable organization? Yes. And no. Yes, in the sense that the things other organizations do, the church also does: care for the poor, work against injustice, heal the sick, teach those who would learn, produce beautiful art….those are all worthy things that the church does and that also require financial resources. That’s a good enough reason to commit financial resources to the church, but it is not, perhaps, the most important reason for me.
When we commit our resources to the church we are showing our faith. We are showing our faith in this congregation, and our faith in the church’s work in the world. We are showing how faith can make us well, by restoring community, by taking care of physical needs, by showing God’s love to the world. We are showing how our faith is a real force in this world. When we commit to supporting the church, we are doing something real with our faith. Jesus told Bartimaeus that his faith made him well. I hope that Jesus would say the same for us: that our faith and trust in Jesus makes us, the church, well. I hope that as we follow Jesus in our own restoration, we show that faith to the world.