Sunday, October 28, 2012
+ A long time ago, when I was ordained first a deacon, then a priest, I made this promise, which can be found in the Book of Common Prayer on page 538. I promised at my ordinations,
“…I solemnly declare that I do believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New testaments to the be the Word of God, and to contain all things necessary to salvation, and I do solemnly engage to conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church.”
That last part especially—the part about promising to conform to the doctrine, discipline and worship of the Episcopal Church”—has very important to me.
As most of you know, as far as loyalty is concerned, my first loyalty is always to the Episcopal Church, as far as churches are concerned. Now I shouldn’t continue to tease them about this, but I have to. I think that the majority of the Vestry at St. Stephen’s thinks I am a secret Roman Catholic.
At our last vestry meeting, I heard a near-unanimous outcry from them expressing their dislike of the use of the term “Smells and Bells” in our Wednesday night Mass. Now, I understand where they’re coming from. And no, they don’t really think I’m a secret Roman Catholic. At least, I hope not.
Despite the fact that some of you might think I am a secret Roman Catholic, all I am is a former Roman Catholic.
But if I was to say I was anything other than Episcopalian, I don’t think I would be able to say that the Roman Catholic Church would be the place I would lean toward. I would say that much of my deepest interest, as you have heard me say many times, outside of the Episcopal Church, is actually with the Eastern Orthodox Church. I love the Orthodox Church. Well, I’m not all that fond of some of their social and political views. But I do love the majority of their theological and spiritual outlook on life. I love their liturgy. I love their down-to-earth, balanced approach everything. And I love the tradition they strive to uphold. And I really love their views of prayer.
I have been reading a wonderful book by a contemporary American Orthodox writer by the name of Frederica Mathewes Green. If you do not know Mathewes-Green, I would recommend you read her. She is a good spiritual writer. The book of hers that I’ve read and love is called, very simply, The Jesus Prayer. And I love it.
The Jesus Prayer, for those of you who might not know, is a prayer very popular in the Eastern Orthodox Chrurch. In fact, it is kind of the “Gem” of the Eastern Church. We’ll talk about the actual Jesus prayer in just a moment. First, let’s take a look at where the Jesus Prayer came from.
This morning, in our Gospel, we find the kernel from which the Jesus Prayer arises. And I really enjoy our Gospel reading this morning. It is a story that at first seems to be leading us in one direction.
We find Jesus at Jericho, which reminds us, of course, of the story from Joshua and the crumbling walls. We then find this strangely detailed story of Barthemaeus. It’s detailed in the sense that we not only have his name, but also the fact that he was the son of Timaeus. That’s an interesting little tidbit. And we find that he is blind.
Now, it’s not a big mystery what’s going to happen. We know where this story is going. We know Bartemaeus is going to be healed. We know he is going to see.
But the real gem of this story doesn’t have to do with Jericho, or the fact that we will never again hear about Bartimeus son of Timaeus. The real gem of this story is that little prayer Bartimaeus prays. There it is, huddled down within the Gospel like a wonderful little treasure.
“Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!”
This prayer is essentially the basis for the popular Jesus Prayer of the Orthodox Church. At first, it doesn’t seem like much. It’s so deceptively simple. But, obviously, according to the story, the prayer is important. Jesus does what he is asked. He has mercy on this man and heals him.
So why is this prayer so important? Well, for one thing, we get a glimpse of how to pray in this wonderfully simple little prayer.
Jesus occasionally gives us advice in the gospels on how we should pray. The first one that probably comes to mind probably is the Lord’s prayer. But here we find a prayer very different than the Lord’s prayer. The Lord’s prayer is very structured. It covers all the bases. We acknowledge and adore God, we acknowledge and ask forgiveness not only for our sins, but for the sins committed against us by others. And so on. You know the prayer.
The prayer we hear this morning cuts right to very heart not only of the Lord’s prayer but to every prayer we pray. It is a prayer that rises from within—from our very core. From our heart of hearts. It is truly the Prayer of the Heart.
The words of this prayer are the words of all those nameless, formless prayers we pray all the time—those prayers that we find ourselves longing to pray. Here it is, summed up for us. Here are the words we long to use in those prayers without words.
“Jesus, have mercy on me!”
Now the actual Jesus Prayer is a only slightly more expanded. The Jesus Prayer is:
“Lord Jesus Christ, son of God [or Son of the living God], have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Or slight variations of those words. The prayer we heard this morning is essentially the same.
In the Eastern Church, the “Jesus Prayer” it is also called “the prayer of the heart.” That’s a perfect description of the prayer we heard in today’s Gospel. It is, as I said before, a prayer of the heart. If our lips could no longer pray, our heart would go on and this prayer would be the words of our heart. The fact that it is so simple is what makes the Jesus prayer so popular. Anyone can memorize it and anyone pray it with true meaning. It is a prayer we can repeat to ourselves over and over again. In fact, it is a prayer that demands to be repeated. It’s almost impossible not to repeat it.
What I find so interesting about that statement is that, limitless as this prayer might be, infinite in its use as it might be, it comes from and addresses our very own limitations. It is the prayer of absolute humility.
“Have mercy on me.”
We are humans, with all the limitations and shortcomings that entails. But rather than groaning about it and bewailing our misfortune, in this prayer we are able to acknowledge it and to simply offer it up. Like Bartimeaus, we can simply bring it before Jesus, release it, and then walk away healed.
There is no room for haughtiness when praying this prayer. The person we are when we pray it is who we really are. When all our masks and all our defenses are gone, that is when this prayer comes in and takes over for us. This is the prayer we pray when, echoing Thomas Merton, we “present ourselves naked before our God.” That’s what makes the prayer of the heart—the Jesus prayer—such a popular prayer for so many.
And this prayer does not even have to be about us. We can use this prayer when praying for others. How easy it is to simply pray:
Jesus, have mercy on her, or him, or them.
It’s wonderful isn’t it? how those simple words can pack such a wallop. We don’t have to be profound or eloquent in the words we address to God. We don’t need to go on and on beseeching and petitioning God. We simply need to open our hearts to God and the words will come. No doubt those words will be very similar to the words of the Jesus prayer.
“Lord Jesus, have mercy on me.”
So, like Bartemeaus, let us pray what is in our heart. Let us open ourselves completely and humbly to Jesus, whom follow and serve. And when we do we will find the blindness’s of our own lives healed. We will find taken from us that spiritual blindness that causes us to grope about aimlessly, to ignore those in need around us, to not see the beauty of this world that God shows us all the time.
Like Bartemaeus, we too will be healed of whatever blinds us to the Light of God breaking through into our lives. And when that blindness is taken from us, with a clear spiritual vision granted to us, we too will focus our eyes, square our shoulders and follow him on the way.