What do You Want?
Proper 25B (Pentecost 23)
A few years ago, one of the arms of our dining room chandelier broke. Betsy and I go to the ReStore in Randolph, a store that sells used furniture and fixtures as a fundraiser for Habitat for Humanity and find a perfectly fine polished brass chandelier for only $30.
I call an electrician to do the deinstallation/reinstallation. When I bring him to the dining room and show him the new chandelier, he says “Do you have a canopy for this?”
“What’s that?” I ask.
“You know, the thing on the celling that the chandelier hangs from.”
“No, I don’t.”
“Well, the one that’s there is black, maybe wrought iron. That was OK for the old crystal one, but if you’re hanging a brass chandelier, you really want to have a matching canopy.”
“Is it the sort of thing they sell at hardware stores?”
“You can try.”
So I hop on my bicycle and go to Dreher’s, about a half mile from my house.
“Do you have canopies to hang chandeliers?”
“I donno”, he says, “but if we did they’d be in aisle 7.” I check. There are switches and outlets and switch plates and those little red and yellow caps that you use to connect copper wire, but no canopies. I go back to the front desk.
“Is there any place else local that might have them?”
“Well, there’s an electrical supply store down Morris Avenue across from Marco Polo.”
So I pedal there.
“I need a brass canopy to hang a chandelier. “
“I can get you one by Wednesday.”
“Yeah, we don’t stock them. Canopies are special-order items.”
“Anyone else local that might stock them?”
“Well, you can try the Lamp Shop. All they sell are lamps and lighting fixtures.”
“Where are they?”
“Just across River Road down Chatham Road about a quarter mile.”
So I ride there. And lo and behold, adjacent to the front desk, there is a whole display of canopies: white and black, chrome, brushed nickel, antiqued bronze, satin brass and a polished brass one just like my chandelier. “I want one of those,” I say, pointing.
The guy gets one from the drawer and rings it up.
“That will be $74.96.”
“$74.96? That’s more than twice what the chandelier cost!”
“Hey,” he says, “This is solid forged brass. This is a quality item.”
“OK,” I say, tendering him my credit card.
“No, we don’t take credit cards.”
“You don’t take credit cards? But I don’t have that much cash on me.”
“No problem,” he says. “You can write me a check.”
“No, I don’t carry a checkbook around.”
“What do you want to do, then?” he says. “What do you want to do?”
And I say, “What I want to do is to take this home to the electrician who is waiting for it and who charges by the hour, and for you to trust me to come back later with the money.”
And the Lamp Shop guy says, “OK.”
So I take the canopy and head home. And that was the last I ever saw of the Lamp Shop guy.
No, just kidding. I go home and give the canopy to the electrician, get what I need from the drawer where we keep petty cash, go back and give the Lamp Shop guy his $75. And that was the last time I ever saw him.
Hearing this story, you might assume “Oh, I know what this sermon will be about. It’s ‘Ask and ye shall receive’.” But it’s not.
That’s not exactly what’s in today’s Gospel reading. There are ten times in the New Testament where “Ask and ye shall receive” or something equivalent to it appears, including in all four Gospels. Three of those times are in our Sunday lectionary, but not today or even this year. The next time we will hear it on a Sunday will be sometime in the middle of next year, when Jesus says in Luke Chapter 11 verse 9: “So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you…”
And that’s a bit of a relief for me because I think it’s hard to make a case for that. What I think can be more easily seen is the inverse: although in my experience there is no guarantee that we will get whatever we pray for, there is, I think, a near guarantee that if we cannot articulate what we want, we’re not going to get it. There was no guarantee that the Lamp Shop guy was going to say yes to my request, but if I had not said what I wanted, there is no way the Lamp Shop guy was going spontaneously to suggest on his own that I just take his “quality item” out the door unpaid. If we cannot or do not say what it is that we want, we shouldn’t count on getting it.
Today’s Gospel seems to be another case in point, the story of the healing of the blind beggar Bartimaeus.
All four Gospels include stories of Jesus restoring sight to the blind, but of all of the blind people he cured, Bartimaeus is the only one whose name we know. Permit me a little digression about that name: Astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson has observed that when we refer to “The Los Angeles Angels,” what we are literally saying is “The The Angels Angels”. Well, there’s something like that in today’s Gospel. In Aramaic, the prefix “Bar” means “Son of.” So when Mark refers to “Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus” he’s just repeating himself – and underscoring that his intended audience were not the locals, but far-flung folk like us whose Aramaic is maybe not so good.
As Jesus is leaving Jericho, he passes Bartimaeus sitting on the roadside, who calls out “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.” When people in the crowd tell him to be quiet, he cries out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me.” Now, that is a perfectly fine prayer. It is similar to the famous and esteemed Jesus Prayer, which reads: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” And it does get Jesus’s attention. He tells the others “Call him here.” But when Bartimaeus stands before him, Jesus does not presume to know what he wants. He makes him say it, asking him “What do you want me to do for you?” Bartimaeus replies “My teacher, let me see again.” And then, after he says that, his sight is restored.
In last week’s Gospel, Jesus asks James and John almost exactly the same question: “What is it you want to me do for you?” And they reply, with clarity, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” But Jesus does not grant them their request. And I suspect that that is at least in part because their request was all about their own aggrandizement.
Bartimaeus’s request, which was granted, was not about his greatness. It was about restoring him to wholeness. That included getting to see again – his request for that was clear – but I think that was just the outward sign of what I suspect was a much greater underlying need. However much Bartimaeus wanted his own sight restored, what I think he also deeply wanted in his heart of hearts, and what his restoration to wholeness required, was not only that he see again, but also for him to stop being invisible. I can hardly imagine anyone more marginalized, literally or figuratively, than a blind beggar sitting on the outskirts of town alongside the desolate, rocky, barren road between Jericho and Jerusalem. And the crowd treats him accordingly. When he cries out the first time, the initial attitude of the others is “Hey, you shut up. Jesus doesn’t care about you.” But Jesus makes it clear to them that Bartimaeus does matter to him. To drive home the point, he makes them call for Bartimaeus to come, which they do, saying to him “Take heart … he is calling you.” And Bartimaeus does just that, springing up and throwing off his cloak in the process. That’s “taking heart” in a big way. His cloak had to be one of his only possessions, and probably was used in collecting and holding such meager donations as he may have received. Throwing it off in such a way that, if he remained blind he might never find it again, he signals confidence that his life is going to be transformed, and a readiness to leave behind his old way of being. And it happens. Instead of staying in the margins, he gets to be part of something.
The healing of Bartimaeus is the last miracle healing that Jesus performs in the Gospel of Mark. Jesus at that point is making his final and fateful journey to Jerusalem, and, with his sight restored, Bartimaeus does what no one else whose sight Jesus restores does: he follows Jesus on the way. Maybe that’s why he’s the only one whose name we know.
And what about us? What is it that we want, what is our hearts’ desire? Well, clarity on that is certainly something worth praying for. I’m not sure how well I know it even for myself and I cannot possibly presume to know it is for anyone else. But I’ve got some pretty strong hunches. I think that what in our heart of hearts we want is to be whole, to be who God meant us to be. And more money or more toys or greatness in the eyes of others is not going to achieve that or make us feel whole. What I believe we will find will make us whole is to discern God’s will for us and to receive through God’s grace that which enables us, like Bartimaeus, to follow Jesus on the way. To be cured of the blindness that keeps us focused on our own needs and wants, and prevents us from seeing, really seeing, the needs of the unknown others around us who matter to Jesus and who should therefore matter to us. To enable us, as followers of Jesus, to be imitators of Jesus. To seek not our own aggrandizement but fulfillment in service to others. To, like Jesus, ask those we find in need alone at the roadside “What do you want me to do for you?”