- The Rev. Frank St. Amour, III
Sermon - Pentecost 22
In the Name....
A young man entered a monastery which kept a strict rule of silence. He was only allowed to say two words each year and then only to the abbot. At the end of his first year he went to the abbot's office and said, "Beds hard." The second year he said, "Food cold." The third year he said, "I quit." "About time", the abbot replied, and then muttered to himself, "all you've done since you got here is complain."
When we think there's something wrong with someone we know, we ask what it is and if we can help. These questions provide the opportunity for the other person to express their complaint or issue in words. It's an expression of our caring. But, there are some people whose suffering is so extreme that they cannot speak and whose condition is such that we are afraid to ask. We have seen pictures on TV of people for example whose families have been killed, or who have lost their homes, victims of war or famine or disaster. They sit on the ground, staring into space. Their suffering has left them numb and mute. In the face of such utter desolation you or I might feel helpless. It seems senseless for us to say anything to them. What can they say? What can you or I do?
But, the Bible teaches us that the first step to overcoming suffering is to find words, to find language that leads the victim out of silence, to find a language of pain and fear and loss. Indeed, one of the greatest of Biblical teachings is that people should express their suffering and not repress it, for to remain silent is to remain hopeless because silence does not believe in the possibility of change.
That's why there are so many prayers of lamentation throughout the history of God's people, throughout the Bible. One third of the Psalms, David’s words to God, are complaints. They are cries from the heart, shouts of suffering, groans of anguish, screams for help. They may be written on a bed of pain, but, they express hope, not hopelessness, because they are made in the hope that God will listen.
Admittedly, this is depressing stuff. But, it's real. It's life. And these words are actually more than mere complaining. Prayer-expression of suffering is more than just self-expression. Lamentation prayer is not pessimistic: on the contrary, it refuses to remain passive, it rejects the condition of powerlessness, and so it expresses longing for change. Indeed, lamentation makes a bridge between endurance and change and that can be seen vividly in today's Gospel.
We're coming to the end of Mark's Gospel. Jesus is leaving Jericho for the last time with his disciples and a large crowd going up to Jerusalem for the Passover. Jesus has a lot on his mind. Even the crowds sense something big is about to happen. There's an air of excitement, of anticipation when all of a sudden the blind beggar Bartimaeus hearing that Jesus is near, shouts out his prayer of lamentation "Son of David, have mercy on me.” Some of those following Jesus resent this unwelcome intrusion so they tell this one-man uproar to be quiet. No permission to scream, no permission to express suffering in language. They represent those who believe that suffering is to be endured with dignity - silent.
But, unless he can express himself the blind man will continue to inhabit a world of darkness. He knows that if there is going to be change he must communicate with Jesus. So, he screams his lamentation again "Son of David, have mercy on me" and it stops Jesus in his tracks. Jesus is on his way to Holy Week, to Calvary and the Cross, and he stops when he hears this cry of faith. All he says is "Call him here.” Now the crowd changes its tune "Courage”, they say, "Be of good cheer" "He is calling for you.”
And that's when the miracle happens. It says Bartimaeus, the blind beggar, the figure of pity who sat on the ground with a cloak in front of him to catch coins which passers-by might drop, throws the cloak aside, stands up, and walks straight to Jesus. He throws the cloak aside; he makes a break. God has heard him. Change is coming. There's no going back. He stands up. He has regained his dignity and self-respect. He is a man. And he walks to Jesus. It doesn't say he was led, doesn't say that he stumbled. He parted the crowd like Moses.
And so Jesus asks the question "What's wrong?", "What do you want me to do for you?" So, Jesus gives him physical sight, but, that's almost an anti-climax because when it comes to faith, Bartimaeus has 20/20 vision.
The healing in the Gospel takes place as a result of a prayer of lamentation - a prayer that expresses the pain and the faith of Bartimaeus. He did not accept his lot in life. He believed in a God who pays attention. Why bother screaming if you think nobody's listening? Bartimaeus focused on Jesus. He ignored the advice to be quiet. He gave his undivided attention to Jesus, and Jesus gave Bartimaeus God's undivided attention - even at that crucial moment in history.
Grin and bear it. Keep a stiff upper lip. These are the virtues of the Greek philosophers, not the Hebrew prophets. If we have been brought up to believe that the correct response to suffering is to 'grin and bear it' then we will find lamentation prayer to be quite undignified, even subversive. But, to lose that prayer language is to lose the faith that believes in change and the faith that desires to speak honestly to God.
When Jesus himself reaches the end of his road on the Cross he will use this prayer language for his own sense of fear and pain and loss. "Eloi, eloi, lama sabacthani!.” And the Father will hear. For this is prayer which touches the very heart of God.
In the Name...