Sunday, October 25, 2009

21 Pentecost

October 25, 2009

Mark 10.46-52

This morning, in our Gospel, we find a little gem. This story 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 of 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 sons of Timaeus. And that he is blind. We know where this story is going. We know he’s 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!”

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 the 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 heard 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. 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 this prayer sounds very familiar especially to those of who have prayed what is commonly called the “Jesus prayer.”

“Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Or whatever other variations of that prayer one might use.

The prayer we heard this morning is essentially the same. 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 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.

When I was telling a friend of mine about this prayer once, she said to me, “Doesn’t Jesus say in Matthew that one shouldn’t be vainly repeating a prayer over and over again like the heathen do?”

Emily Gardner Neal, one of my favorite Episcopal writers, explains why this kind of prayer is all right to pray over and over again.

“The answer to this must be that the repetition in this prayer is not in vain,”[1] she says. The prayer of the heathen is a meaningless prayer and it is prayed simply to “wrack up points,” so to speak. Neal says that for the Christian, repeating this prayer is not meaningless, but rather by the repeating the prayer one “evokes and expresses the faith in [one’s] heart.”[2]

She goes on to say, “In each such repetition, the words may be the same, but never twice identical, for their meaning is inexhaustible. Your intent and your emphases shift and change.”[3]

So, no matter how many times we pray this prayer, we will never pray the same prayer twice. If it truly comes from our heart, then the prayer will be meaningful to us in that one moment.

Emily Gardner Neal goes on to say, “Perhaps because it contains the spirit and hence the power of all prayer, it not only limitless in its scope, but infinite in its use.”

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. There is a wonderful book from the Russian Orthodox tradition called The Way of the Pilgrim. It is the story of a man who travels about Russia, visiting churches and holy places. As he goes, he prays the Jesus prayer repeatedly and meets others who are also praying the prayer. As he travels, he observes how this kind of praying has transformed the lives of these people. When all else fails in their lives, they were able to remain steadfast in their faith by reciting the prayer. He also discovers that the prayer is especially useful in those dry moments in our spiritual lives. When it seems that God is absent or simply not listening, being faithful in the praying of the Jesus prayer somehow gets us through. Certainly, I find this kind of praying helpful in my own life. When I have suffered with various illnesses, both physical and otherwise, in those moments when I just can’t quite articulate exactly what to pray for, I have found a huge comfort in praying the Jesus prayer. While the rest of my life sometimes seems to crumble into chaos, I am often able to find a calm oasis in the middle of it all by praying the Jesus prayer quietly to myself. To be honest, sometimes it all that I can pray. All I am sometimes capable of in some of those difficult moments is repeating to myself, Lord Jesus, have mercy on me.

I have heard other stories as well of people for whom the Jesus prayer has made all the difference in the world. It has also been helpful in praying for others as well. How easy it is to simply pray:

Jesus, have mercy on her, or him, or them.

It’s wonderful isn’t 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.

So, like Bartemeaus, let us pray what is in our heart—let us open ourselves completely and humbly to Jesus. And when we do we will find the blindness’s of our own lives—that spiritual blindness that causes us to grope about aimlessly—taken from us and, with a clear spiritual vision granted to us, we too will follow him on the way.

[1] Neal, Emily Gardner. In the Midst of Life. 1963. Morehouse-Barlow. New York.
[2] ibid
[3] ibid.

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