October 24, 2021, Knock, Knock, Knocking on Heaven’s Door, Mark 10:46-32 – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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Prayer is such a mysterious thing. Of all religious practices it can be the most intimate. We bare our souls before God in prayer. Sometimes we plead for God’s mercy. Sometimes we cry out in fear or desperation. Sometimes we weep for shame and regret. Other times we weep in an overflow of thankfulness or relief. Sometimes we’re just speechless, unable to find words for the pain or joy in our hearts.
But then there are times when prayers are just printed words on a page, when prayer seems to be nothing more than going through the motions of religiosity. Sometimes our lips move but our hearts are cold. Sometimes we don’t feel any hope at all that God is hearing us, and we have exactly zero expectation that our prayers will have any real effect.
It’s easy for us to feel like our prayers will “work” better according to the honesty and intensity of our feelings. If we’re just going through the motions, we tell ourselves, we might as well hang it up and go watch TV or clean the house, because our cold, stiff prayers can’t possibly do anybody any good. And so, sometimes we decide to give up and leave prayer to the experts. Other times, we try to pray harder: more sweat, more tears, more intensity – like the pagans Jesus described, who “think the gods will hear them because of their many words.”
How can we understand it when we have cried out to God with all our hearts and our prayers seem to fall on God’s deaf ears? Because hasn’t that happened to every one of us? Many years ago our church was praying for my sweet friend Cathy, a young woman who lost her battle with cancer, so that her six little children had to grow up without their mama. Why didn’t God heal her? Did we somehow fail in our prayers? If we had prayed harder, if we had fasted more, if we had wept more, would God have healed her? Or should we conclude that prayer is really just a therapeutic exercise for our benefit; that prayer doesn’t really have power to change the course of events? God will do what God will do, or it is what it is, or however we want to express it.
On the other hand, how do we understand it when beyond the shadow of a doubt we do encounter God in our prayers, when wonderful things happen – and again, I think most of us have also had that experience? Why does prayer “work” so well sometimes and just not “work” at all other times. I don’t believe that there are any easy answers to any of those questions. But I want to talk today about what we can know, because the readings for today, I think, open some windows into the mystery of prayer.
“Say this,” God tells his people through Jeremiah. “Save, O Lord, your people, the remnant of Israel!” Here’s the setting: God has punished his people for falling into sin and idolatry. Foreign armies have overrun their land, and the people have been carried off into captivity. But God calls out to them, and he gives them a prayer. He tells them to cry to him for help. And he promises that he will hear them, as a Father hears the cry of his children. He singles out the weakest, the most vulnerable: the blind and the lame, pregnant mothers and mothers in labor, the sorrowful. He promises to sustain them, to keep them from stumbling, to bring them home. “I have become a Father to Israel,” he says.
God the Father is reaching out in love to his children. Even though he’s had to discipline them, even though they have been disobedient and unfaithful, he hasn’t given up on them. He comes to them in their shame. He tells them to cry out to him, and he promises to hear their cry. He wants them to pray to him, because he loves them like a Father loves his children. He wants to speak to us, and he wants us to listen to him. But he also wants to listen to us. Answered prayer isn’t a kind of reward for good behavior. Prayer is a way of growing our relationship with God. Prayer is two-way. Prayer is communication, and trust, and love, like the relationship between a parent and a child.
And that helps to explain why Jesus says such a very strange thing to Bartimaeus in the gospel reading today. He is a blind beggar, and he makes a huge commotion to get Jesus’s attention. People are trying to shush him up, but Jesus hears him. So Bartimaeus goes to Jesus, and what does Jesus say to him? He asks him a question, “What do you want me to do for you?” Now, Jesus doesn’t ask stupid questions, but really, we wonder what he was thinking? First of all, he’s God – he knew what this man wanted. Any six-year-old kid in the crowd could have told Jesus what the man wanted. He was blind. His life was reduced to sitting on the curb waiting for people he couldn’t see to toss him coins so he wouldn’t starve. Obviously he wanted to be able to see.
But the thing is, Jesus wasn’t just interested in fixing this man’s problem. He received him as a human being, who needs and deserves to be heard. He gave Bartimaeus the opportunity to speak what was in his heart. He listened to him. And then he healed him, saying, “Go, your faith has made you well.” Faith is that meeting between our need and God’s love. And prayer is faith in action.
I think it’s really important in this story that our blind beggar has a name. It’s very unusual. We almost never hear the names of the people meets in his ministry. We read about the woman with a bleeding disorder or the boy who offered his loaves and fishes or the man who was born blind. But here we are told the name of a man who ranked pretty much at the bottom of the social order. Not only does Jesus give him the opportunity to speak what was on his heart, but we are given his name, as if he were a person of significance. Which he was. It may be that Mark records his name because Bartimaeus, after he was healed, became a well-known person in the church. Even if that is the case, it began with this: that Jesus turned to him and asked him what he wanted. It began, really, with a meeting between Bartimaeus and Jesus, an encounter of communication and respect and love. It began with prayer.
In pagan religions, prayer is basically a way for humans to exercise control over a capricious and unreliable god (small “g” god, you understand). People recite long prayers or they perform rituals or they make sacrifices to win the favor or get the attention of the gods. Desperate needs call for increasingly desperate sacrifices, which is why human sacrifice, like the burning of children to appease the god Molech, has formed a part of so many pagan religions. But it is perilously easy for us to fall into age-old human habits of thinking of prayer in a pagan mindset. We make bargains with God: if you heal my child I promise I’ll stop smoking. If you give me this job I’ll make a huge donation to the church with my first paycheck. We try to sway him with our intensity. We try to impress him with our sincerity by inflicting hardship or pain on ourselves as if that would please him. But nothing could be further from the true nature of prayer, which is an encounter of respect, of mutual listening, of love.
The problem is, because prayer is two-way communication between an infinite, eternal, omniscient God, and our finite, short-sighted, ignorant selves, there’s always going to be a lot we can’t know about the situation we are bringing to God. God, who sees into our hearts, knows our words before they are even on our lips. He knows the fears and the hopes and the motivations of our inmost hearts. He knows the beginning and the end. Of everything. And he allows his creatures freedom to choose, which really complicates things. And because our understanding is so limited, so finite, prayer always involves a great deal of trust, which is to say, faith. God invites us to pour our hearts out to him. We place ourselves and our needs in his hands. He always hears us. He always cares, which is incredibly important to remember. “Cast all your cares upon God, for he cares for you,” Peter wrote. God will always respond. He will always work things together for our good. He always loves us. Those are truths we can rely on absolutely. But on our side, prayer also calls for a lot of trust, and a lot of patience. And that can be the hardest part of all.
But there’s one more word on prayer that we read about this week. The writer to the Hebrews speaks of Jesus’s role as our high priest. It’s something that the Jews he was writing to, would have understood better than we do. The high priest’s role was to stand before God as a representative of the people. Once a year, on the day of atonement, the high priest offered the blood of the ritual sacrifices on behalf of all of the sins of all of the people throughout the year. Only the High Priest was allowed to enter the Most Holy place once a year, and to stand before the Mercy Seat of God, standing there to represent the whole people. But Jesus, the writer tells us – when he had given himself on the cross as a once-for-all-time sacrifice for the sins of all people everywhere – Jesus became the first, one and only, perfect high priest, who stands in the presence of God on our behalf now and forever.
When my phone rings, and I see the name of one of my kids, Emily or Roseanna or Colin or Victoria or whichever, it fills me with joy. I love to hear their voices. I love it that they chose to call. I love it that they want to share something with me, big stuff and little stuff. If it’s Isaac calling I feel specially excited because he hardly ever calls. God has let us know that he loves to hear from us, from every one of us, that he wants to hear our voice.
He is always there to listen to us. And we have been given a treasure-trove of prayers that we can use. We have the psalms, that give words to express pretty much every human situation and emotion: joy, gratitude, anger, despair, desperate need. And we have the prayer book, too, that provides a wealth of beautiful prayers. A lot of times I find prayers in the psalms or the prayer book that give me the words I need. But we don’t need to always have words that are beautiful or fancy. Our prayers can be a simple and direct and obvious as the prayer of blind Bartimaeus, “Lord, I want to see.” The Father is listening.
There are times when we aren’t able to pray, in our weakness, when we are too sick, or too tired, or too sad. In those times, maybe more than any other, we find that prayer isn’t what we do; it’s what holds us up. When we can’t pray for ourselves, we are lifted up by the prayers of God’s people, all around us. It’s in our very weakest times that we realize how very strong prayer is.
And there is one whose prayer we can count on absolutely without fail. Jesus, our brother and friend and our great high priest holds you in prayer night and day. He knows your needs. He lifts you up. He calls you by name. No matter how weak or how strong your prayer life is right now, there is never a time, ever, when Jesus is not representing you, bringing your cries of sorrow or joy, thankfulness or hopelessness near to the heart of the Father. And there is never a time, ever, when the Father is not listening to you.