Sermon: "What Can I Do For You?" October 28, 2018

Reformation Sunday
The Rev. Ryan Slifka

This sermon was preached on the 501st anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. While it’s not explicitly mentioned, it is nonetheless rooted in the retrieval of the radical doctrine of grace set in to motion by this event.

They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Jesus stood still and said, ‘Call him here.’ And they called the blind man, saying to him, ‘Take heart; get up, he is calling you.’ So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ The blind man said to him, ‘My teacher, let me see again.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go; your faith has made you well.’ Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.
— Mark 10:46-52 (New Revised Standard Version)

Today’s scripture passage hinges on, depends upon, one single question: “What can I do for you?” “What can I do for you?”

Jesus asks this question when he’s flagged down by a blind panhandler named Bartimaeus. Jesus and co. were on their way out of the city of Jericho, surrounded by crowds. Trying to get to him before it was too late, Bartimaeus cried out to Jesus “have mercy on me, son of David!” The crowd, embarrassed by this street-type person, tried to shut him up. He was the last person they wanted at the head of the welcome wagon committee for the famous miracle worker and prophet healer Jesus.[i]

They tried to drown him out. But he kept calling, “have mercy on me, son of David!” “Have mercy on me, son of David!” Until Jesus took notice of him, called him to himself through the crowd, and then asked that single, important question. “What can I do for you?” Blind Bartimaeus simply said “I want to see.” In response, Jesus told him to get up and go. “Your faith has made you well,” he said. And the man jumped up, sight returned, and joined Jesus and his merry band on their way.

This man could see again, he’s been healed. And it wouldn’t have happened without a single question from Jesus. “What can I do for you?” That one question, an answer then BOOM, sight. He gets what he wants.

Funny enough, when I first heard this scripture passage, I was reminded of the McDonalds’ Drive Thru. Probably one of the last places that one might associated with spiritual or physical health. But when we pulled up to the Drive Thru, I heard the voice of Jesus come through the scratchy Drive Thru speaker:

“Good afternoon,” she said. “Welcome to McDonalds. What can I get for you?” Well, almost the words of Jesus. But you get what I mean.

It got me to thinking about how we think about faith, about how we think about the spiritual path. We tend to think of it like the McDonald’s Drive-Thru. That there is something we want out of life, and that if we ask for it, we pursue it, if we follow the right steps, do the right things, drive to the first window and pay. Then at one point we’ll get what we ordered. Pick it up at the next window.

Simply walking through the “Self-Help” and “Spirituality” sections in the local book store says it all. “Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential.” “Reinventing Your Life: The Breakthough Program to End Negative Behavior.” “The 7 Principles for Making Marriage Work.” The classic “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” is also still there, apparently.  And my personal favorite title, “You Are a Badass: How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Start Living an Awesome Life.”

These titles suggest that we’re looking to become better. And so when we’re asked the question “what do you want me to do for you?” We want to be happiness, success. Wealth, influence, more friends. We want to be better spouses, parents, and partners. We want to be more attractive to friends and members of the opposite sex (or the same sex). And so when we look at life’s menu, we’re inclined to choose “being Badasses who live awesome lives.”

There’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting any of these things, of course. Though I guess a few weeks ago Jesus did say there is a problem with being driven by the acquisition of wealth. So maybe take that off the list. But for the most part, these are natural, human inclinations. It’s natural to want love, security, friendship, and meaning. It’s natural to want to be better than we are.

The problem is, though, that these things never seem to actually deliver on what they promise. At least not directly. I mean, I’ve read plenty of these books. Tried the techniques. Certainly, there are things that have made my life easier. Helpful advice, sure. But still not living at my full potential. Still have negative behaviors. Still not a world-renowned preacher writing brilliant sermons in an hour a week. Still not an awesome badass as of yet. And really, my marriage is only good thanks to my wife, Cheyenne, and by God’s sheer grace. Certainly has nothing to do with sagely advice from Deepak Chopra.

Like the Blind Man I’ve asked for plenty of different things plenty of different times. But so far, unlike the blind man, Jesus has yet to deliver on my order at life’s second drive-thru window. I haven’t got what I’ve wanted. And I’m willing to bet that I’m not the only one here who can say that.

We rarely get what we want out of the spiritual path. We rarely get what we want out of God. It’s the unfortunate truth.

But maybe the problem isn’t with God. Maybe the problem’s actually with us. Maybe the problem is what we’re asking for. The problem is our answer to the question “what do you want me to do?” The root problem is what we want. What we want.

You’ll remember that Jesus asked this same question last week. He asked the same question of two of his closest disciples, James and John. They came to him saying “we have a request.” Jesus responded “what do you want me to do for you?” just like he did in this text. And they responded like any of us would. “Jesus, we wanna sit at your right hand and your left.” Which is to say, when you come in to your glory we want power, we want prestige. We want wealth, to win friends and influence people. We wanna be badasses who live awesome lives!

But the most interesting thing, is what Jesus says in response. Money, success, influence, prestige, career advancement, fulfillment, happiness. Achieving our full potential. “None of these are mine to give,” he says. Basically, Jesus says that these aren’t things that God is in the business of giving. Throughout Mark’s gospel Jesus has been saying over and over and over that his way is the way of the cross. A willingness to give up what we consider most important to inherit eternal life. Both things physical and spiritual. Wanna be great, become a servant. Wanna truly live? Die to yourself. And it’s something that they keep forgetting. And something his followers always seem to fail to understand. It’s also something that we forget. And that we always seem to fail to understand.

None of those techniques to attain our best lives, or reach personal enlightenment work. They don’t work because it’s not the way God works. You can’t get it because none of that stuff was even on the menu to begin with.

Of course, the question is, then, what is on the spiritual menu? To find that out, we need to go back to blind Bartimaeus, the panhandler who cried out to Jesus. Because you remember, unlike his James and John, Jesus actually gave him what he wanted. “What can I do for you?” Jesus asked. And he received his sight. Why did Jesus grant one request and deny the other? What’s the difference?

I think the difference between the two is well illustrated by the words of that great theologian, Sir Mick Jagger. Contained within that great hymn of 1968, the one that goes like this “you can’t always get what you want… but if you try sometime you find you get what you need.” I can’t vouch got the rest of the song, but these words are right.

The difference between the two is one is only being able to see and seek for what we want, versus being able to see and seek out what we need.

The first request from James and John, comes out of our desires. Our personal view, our vision of what a full and good life for us looks like. It comes from what we want out of life.

The second request, from Blind Bartimaeus, is different. It’s a longing for salvation. A longing for wholeness. A longing for life as God has always intended for us, which isn’t always what we want. In fact, it’s rarely what we want. Salvation means several things, but the primary one, the one that’s rooted in the Latin word “salve” is healing. And it’s not just physical healing. As the great Reformer John Calvin writes, salvation is “not limited to an outward cure. But it includes also the healing and the health and safety of the soul.”[ii] When you read it like this, Bartimaeus isn’t actually the blind one to begin with. The disciples are the blind ones. Because they aren’t able to see that God isn’t about rearranging our lives and the world for our benefit. God is about rearranging our souls, about re-aligning everything in us, and healing us from the outside in. Opening our eyes, resetting our hopes and dreams. For the benefit of the world God loves.

Bartimaeus is given what he asked for, not because he wants the perfect life. He’s healed because he’s able to see what he needs, the healing that God gives. In fact, he wants what he needs. So much so that he casts his cloak aside. His only possession, the source of his livelihood to collect money. He’s willing to cast everything aside to receive it. Here we also see that God’s way is less fast food consumer, and more like artisanal, small farm slow food. Because he’s joining Jesus on a lifelong path. What Jesus gives takes longer to prepare, costs an arm and a leg, but better food for the spirit. No easy shortcuts.

That’s the difference between the two. And why one order was filled, and the other went unfulfilled entirely. Because the spiritual path, the Way of Jesus Christ, is not about us attaining the success, the power, the fame and the glory that we think characterize a good and full human life. It’s not about finding the life we’ve always wanted. Because that’s not God’s to give. It was never on the menu to begin with.

No, it’s about salvation. It’s about putting everything else aside in order to see the world the way God sees it. To find healing, to experience transformation. The spiritual life begins from square one. It begins with having our eyes opened to our need for re-creation at the deepest parts of our lives. From the inside out, from the bottom up. This is what is God’s to give us. This is the only item on the heavenly menu.  And the promise is that if we want it, we’ll get it. Ask and ye shall receive. Seek and ye shall find.

So, friends. The good news is that we can give up on all the exhausting techniques, easy fixes and techniques to try to attain the lives we’ve always thought we wanted. We can give up on all those things that we have put all of our time and energy on reaching for, and aspiring to. Not only because they never really deliver on the things they promise us. But simply because there is a better way. A way that begins not with our wants and desires. But with seeing our need for God to make all things new. Beginning with us.

It's not the easy way. But it’s the right one. One that’ll take our whole lives to learn.

We can’t always get what we want. But if we try some times, we’ll get what we need. If we want it, anyway.

Amen.

[i] Andre Resner, Jr., “Mark 10:46-52,” in The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Texts, vol. 3: the Gospels (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 262-3.

[ii] John Calvin, Commentary on the Harmony of the Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, vol.2, trans. William Pringle (Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library) https://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom32.ii.lxxvii.html