What do you want me to do for you? A Sermon…

Stuart Higginbotham

October 24, 2021

See the source image
Image of “Christ Healing the Blind”

“What do you want me to do for you?”

I catch myself more often now, I think–I hope. I catch myself when the anger and fatigue and, honestly, disillusionment that seems to have soaked the atmosphere begins to rest heavily on me. I bring myself back to my awareness and pay attention. I take a few moments and follow the thread of my own emotional reactivity to see if I can find the root of why I am feeling angry or frustrated at any given moment. This is where my Vipassana practice and prayers become embodied and have a positive effect on my life.  This is why practice matters.

It’s important for us all to be aware of what we are really feeling and see if we can discern why this is or where this reactivity is coming from.  This past week, I had conversations with many of you who shared common experiences of anger, frustration, fear, anxiety, and deep exhaustion. Some shared a cynicism with the way things are, with the way the world seems broken.  A few even shared that they honestly have slid from anxiety into despair, wondering if anything can get better.  I keep being brought back to this grounding experience that we all share: that we are struggling to make or find meaning in the circumstances of our lives these days. What do our lives mean?

Jesus’ question that we see in today’s Gospel text, “What do you want me to do for you?” shines a light on these questions of how we are seeking to make meaning. Jesus is not a Jin, or genie, that comes swirling out of a lamp in a cloud of purple smoke to grant our wishes (although, if we’re honest, we treat Jesus that way a lot of the time, don’t we?). Jesus is not a deity-for-hire, if you will, that we can summon when we have a job that needs completing; rather, I think Jesus is like a spiritual catalyst for our own heart that invites a transformation within us–a transformation that challenges us to be aware of what we deeply desire in our lives. The wisdom of Jesus challenges us to ask core questions: What do we really desire? What is our motivation? What is our intention?

Jesus is a presence within our hearts, within our lives, that invites us to explore a deep, inner soul work.  Jesus–through the wisdom of his life and his presence in our own lives—inspires us to nurture the transformative work that helps us find meaning.

Perhaps it helps to take last week’s Gospel and this week’s and lay them side by side, because this isn’t the first time Jesus asked someone “What do you want me to do for you?”. 

Remember back to last week’s Gospel reading when Jesus is with James and John, the brothers who followed Jesus as disciples. Jesus asks them, “What do you want me to do for you?” They respond, “grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in glory.” Jesus tells them, “You do not know what you are asking.” Then, he goes on to give them a teaching that culminates in “the last shall be first and the first shall be last.”

So what is the teaching here? James and John asked for power and prestige. They wanted Jesus to let them share in what they perceived to be a glorious position, flanking the Lord in honor. Jesus challenges their presumptions and we, through this story, are invited to see that our practice of faith is about far more than some perception around prestige or accomplishment.  

Interestingly, the text says that, when they heard about this, the other ten disciples began to get angry with James and John. I wonder if it is because they were frustrated with their short-sightedness or misguidedness, or if they wanted prestige and the position themselves and were upset that James and John asked for it before they had a chance to. 

The text picks up today with the next scene in the story. Jesus and all twelve of the disciples enter Jericho. There, they see a blind man named Bartimaeus on the side of the road. When Bartimaeus hears that Jesus is coming, he begins to cry out to him. Some try to make him be quiet (have you ever wondered why?), but Jesus calls him over. Then, Jesus asks him, “What do you want me to do for you?” and the man answers “Let me see again.”

“Let me see again.”

Jesus tells him he is healed, his sight is restored, and the text says that Bartimaeus immediately began following Jesus. Bartimaeus became a disciple, following Jesus, we read, “on the way.”

“What do you want me to do for you?”–Jesus asks the same question, but he receives very different answers from his own disciples and then from bind Bartimaeus. 

What wisdom is there for us in this story? We might immediately say that the disciples only wanted power or prestige while the blind man wanted something deeper. But what is that something deeper that Bartimaeus sought? What did he desire?

How would you answer the question? If we imaginatively engage the text and see Jesus coming toward us, pausing in front of us, and asking us “What do you want me to do for you?”, what would you say? 

When we look at the world around us, when we look at our lives as they are now with the anxiety and fear or anger that we may feel, I hear some folks saying that they want things to be “normal” again. I can understand the sensation, the emotion, if you will, but what is it that we really feel? Can we spend a little time in prayer and ask ourselves what we really desire in our struggle to find meaning right now?

What is underneath this desire for what we quickly call “normal?” Can we sit with this for a bit and follow the thread back, as it were, to a deeper root longing in our heart? Is it a desire for things to be calm, for us not to have the pressure and stress of the pandemic? Do we want just plain old relief? Is it a desire for things to be more predictable, to be able to rely on the patterns we once had in our lives? For some of us, I hear a deep desire for there to be a greater sense of safety or security.  Many people feel at risk right now, with health concerns. Others feel oppressed by restrictions. So, if you imagined Jesus sitting beside you at this moment asking you “What do you want me to do for you,” some of us might ask for comfort. 

Some may just want things to be functional. They are tired of things feeling so much in flux and erratic. Others may want there to be a greater sense of peace and collegiality. They are tired of the anger and vitriol that they see in the world around them.  Some are afraid of the stories they hear and the things they see.

When it comes to social pressures and the way the world seems broken, some want things to go back while others want things to speed up and move forward. If you can dare to be honest with yourself, what do you desire in this search to find meaning?

I sat with this question for a while myself, wondering just how I would answer if Jesus asked me, “What do you want me to do for you?” Because, my friends, I truly believe Jesus asks this of each one of us. Jesus wants our healing and wholeness, and his deep desire for our own health enables the prayers of our own hearts.  

When I sat with this prayer myself, I noticed that the words of the earlier readings both from Jeremiah and the psalm really resonated with my heart.  Look again at those readings, if you will.

Remember that the readings from the book of Jeremiah come from before, during, and after a time of exile. They are reflections of a prophet who struggled to make sense of where the people were in the world, as they grappled with enormous loss. Toward the end of the book–which we have assigned today–the tone shifts away from warning or impending doom, and we have gratitude and even glimpses of joy.

Thus says the Lord:

Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob,

and raise shouts for the chief of the nations;

proclaim, give praise, and say,

“Save, O Lord, your people,

the remnant of Israel.”

See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north,

and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth,

among them the blind and the lame, those with child and

those in labor, together;

a great company, they shall return here.

With weeping they shall come,

and with consolations I will lead them back, (Jeremiah 31:7-8)

When I read this, I imagined that this was the deep yearning within Bartimaeus’ own heart when he heard Jesus ask him “What do you want me to do for you?”. When he opened his mouth and said, “I want to see again,” this is what he was feeling, to remember seeing the joy and fulfillment of life and longing so deeply to experience it again. Not just “normal,” but a deep joy and fulfillment that comes from a healing of his sight so that his spiritual heart is made more aware of the true meaning of his life. 

We hear this desire in the portion of Psalm 126 for today as well:

1 When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, *

then were we like those who dream.

2 Then was our mouth filled with laughter, *

and our tongue with shouts of joy.

Oh that all our mouths could be filled with laughter and shouts of joy rather than the hatred and arrogance that we experience today. 

But they can be, can they not? We can nurture this, can we not? We can pay attention to this deep desire in our hearts and make choices that encourage and support our souls. This is our practice right now, I think, to pay attention to how we feel, to prayerfully listen to the desires of our own hearts, and to vulnerably name how we yearn for joy. 

Jesus gazes at each one of us, as he sits with us, and he asks us, “What do you want me to do for you?” 

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