Two blind men teach us to pray

Sermon for Sunday, July 26/August 8

At that time, two blind men followed Jesus, crying out and saying, “Son of David, have mercy on us!” And when He had come into the house, the blind men came to Him. And Jesus said to them, “Do you believe that I am able to do this?” They said to Him, “Yes, Lord.” Then He touched their eyes, saying, “According to your faith let it be to you.” And their eyes were opened. And Jesus sternly warned them, saying, “See that no one knows it.” But when they had departed, they [a]spread the news about Him in all that country. As they went out, behold, they brought to Him a man, mute and demon-possessed. And when the demon was cast out, the mute spoke. And the multitudes marveled, saying, “It was never seen like this in Israel!” But the Pharisees said, “He casts out demons by the ruler of the demons.” Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every sickness and every disease among the people. (Matthew 9:27-35)

Glory to God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

In the weekly Gospel readings since Pentecost we have seen several different people who were healed, not because of their faith, but because of the faith of the ones who brought them to Christ – or simply because it pleased the Lord to make them whole.

This week is something different: These two blind men follow Christ around, shouting, “Son of David, have mercy on us!” They follow him right into the house where he’s staying. There’s no ignoring them — you can’t have a conversation when there are two strangers in the living room with you, shouting, “Son of David, have mercy on us!”

Now, “Son of David” is an interesting thing to call Jesus. He was raised in the household of Joseph, the builder, and in a few places in the New Testament, people who don’t know Jesus call him “son of Joseph” (Luke 3:24; John 1:45; 6:42).

But a thousand years earlier, King David had received a promise from God that after his death, a son of his would sit on the throne of Israel forever (2 Samuel 7:12-13).

At the beginning of the first century, there was a King of the Jews – Herod the Idumean – a foreigner appointed as king by the Romans. Not a drop of Israelite blood in him, and definitely not a descendant of David. For a couple of centuries before and after Christ, various rebel leaders arose, claiming that they were the new Son of David, the anointed king sent by God to lead Israel to freedom. In fact, 135 years after Christ, the last of these leaders, Simon bar-Kochba, led a rebellion so serious that the Romans permanently expelled all Jews from Judea. All these rebel leaders claimed to be the heir of David, who was anointed to be king. That word, anointed, in Hebrew is haMashiach (Messiah) and in Greek Hristos (Christ.)

Our two blind men are more perceptive than many people of their generation. They can’t see, but they can add up the facts and conclude that Jesus of Nazareth, the itinerant prophet and teacher, who is not leading a rebellion against the tyrants, is nevertheless the Son of David, the King anointed by God, the Messiah and Christ. You won’t find very many others in the Gospels making this confession so openly.

When the Pharisees questioned Jesus, he turned around and questioned them: He asked them,

“What do you think about the Messiah? Whose son is he?” “The son of David,” they replied. Jesus said to them, “How is it then that David, speaking by the Spirit, calls [the Messiah] Lord? For David says [in the Psalm], “The Lord said to my Lord: ‘Sit at my right hand until I put your enemies under your feet.’ (Ps 110:1) If then David calls [the Messiah] ‘Lord,’ how can [the Messiah] be his son?” No one could say a word in reply, and from that day on no one dared to ask him any more questions (Matthew 22:42-46).

In a culture with reverence for elders, this was a confusing question. In the Vietnamese church I had one elderly man who was genuinely scandalized by this very question: if the Messiah is the Son of David, then he must call David his lord and master — but the son of David turns out to be David’s God! He couldn’t process that. We hear these verses so many times that our brains don’t melt when we process these contradictions. And of course we live in a culture where parents and the elderly are not automatically respected.

I recently ran across something written by the Orthodox theologian Olivier Clément:

In the Christian East… we love old age because we think that it is made for praying. When one is old, and feels the nearness of God across the increasingly transparent surface of biological life, one becomes in consciousness a child, returned to the Father, made light in spirit by the nearness of death, transparent to another kind of light.

A civilization in which one no longer prays is a civilization in which old age has no meaning. People walk backward towards death, pretending to be young. It’s an agonizing spectacle – because a wonderful possibility is offered, a journey towards ultimate relinquishment, and it is not taken advantage of.

We need old people who pray, who smile, who live with a non-possessive love, who have a sense of wonder. They alone can show young people that that living is worth the effort, and that oblivion is not the last word.

Every monk whose spiritual practice has born fruit, whatever his age, is called “a beautiful elder.” He is beautiful with the beauty that rises from the heart. In him all the periods of his life have come into harmony, as with a symphony, one might say. And, especially, the original child is found again: shining with a transfigured shining, the beautiful old man has the eyes of a child.”

Not every one of us will be that kind of elder, even if we become quite old. But we can set our feet on the path to become that kind of elder. And it’s not a requirement that we be old: if you want, at any age, you can be purified, illumined, and united to God.

Our two blind men have gained this kind of simple, even childlike faith. Like a pair of four-year-olds demanding snacks, they crowd Jesus, shouting their prayer. There’s no elegant speech here; no “O our almighty most holy Creator, yea verily do we beseech thee…” They are loud and straightforward: “Son of David, have mercy on us!”

Of course in their prayer we recognize the roots of the Jesus Prayer. We have our prayer rope, with some number of knots, and we spend a few minutes each day simply repeating “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us.” Like the blind men, we don’t need to lay out a specific strategy and micromanage the God of all creation. We offer up our hearts, splattered with the mud of our sins, and we offer up our budget and health and family and community. We lift them up to the Lord who already sees and knows what we need — better than we do — and we just say, “Have mercy on us!”

You’ll hear Orthodox people in the Old Countries sometimes saying “I’ll pray a prayer rope for you.” Aside from your own rule of prayer, you can take a 33- or hundred-knot prayer rope, or whatever, and turn your attention to the one who’s in need and to the Lord who loves them and just say for a few minutes, “Have mercy on us.”

You know, mercy in Greek and Hebrew is a bigger word than in English. It comes from a Hebrew word that means steadfast love, stubborn love. In Greek it’s a verb, meaning to feel and act in compassion. In English, “Lord, have mercy” can sound like “Stop hitting me!” but it should make us think, “Lord, see what I need, and come and Jesus heals two blind men what I need.” And so we say a few dozen times on our prayer rope, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me!”

What are the first words out of your mouth in the morning? I spent most of my life waking up to an alarm clock (or a cat) and saying “Ugh, go away, I don’t wanna!” But then I realized that with these words I was dedicating my day to my own sloth and self-pity. So I made the decision to make the first words out of my mouth every morning, “Glory to God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit! Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.”

Are you waking up from a bad dream, and you’re confused or darkened by something you only half-remember? Clear away the cobwebs and bless the new day: “Glory to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit! Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.”

The Jesus prayer isn’t the only prayer we have. In fact there’s a whole prayer book, plus the other 23 or more hours every day when you’re not in your prayer corner, yet you’re trying to obey St Paul’s instruction to “rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18).

But the Jesus prayer is the single, short thought that is meant to become the baseline, the norm, the soundtrack to your life. When you’re standing in line at Safeway, you’ve got a minute of downtime. Will you read the celebrity headlines, or have an empty exchange with your neighbor in line about how slow the cashier is, and how awful this weather, “At least it’s a dry heat…” Instead, put that minute to use for your profit and salvation: Let the Prayer of Jesus start in you. “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me!” We’ve all had a day where a song was stuck in our head for hours at a time; let the name of Jesus be the thought that arises whenever you stop talking to yourself. That will start to happen, if you’ll devote a little time to the Prayer. How many knots in your prayer rope? 300? 100? 33? If you don’t rush, 33 Jesus Prayers will take you maybe three minutes. That’s a discipline you might be able to fit into your schedule. All those gigantic hundred-year sycamore trees at the park grew from small, unimpressive seeds.

We’re a people who love what’s new and grabs the attention. Repetition is strange to us. If we repeat the same words, is our prayer still alive? Is it even prayer? G.K. Chesterton wrote,

A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, ‘Do it again’; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony.

It is possible that God says every morning, ‘Do it again’ to the sun; and every evening ‘Do it again’ to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we (in Orthodoxy, pg 60-61).

Richard Schmidt wrote in his book Motor Learning and Performance, “It takes 300-500 repetitions before a new movement is learned, but 10 fold (3000-5000 repetitions) to learn a new movement that has to replace the old.” He’s talking about martial arts — but I’d say the same applies to spiritual work.

I know monks who have a prayer rule that takes an hour or two every day, in addition to all the services they attend. If that’s you, then glory to God! Pray for me! But many of us look at that kind of discipline, which comes from a lifetime of grace and practice, and we shrug sadly and say “That’s not me.” So we settle for feeling guilty and not really praying at all. Chesterton again: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried” (in What’s Wrong with the World, Part 1, Ch 5).

I want to be like these two blind men. They won’t leave Jesus alone! Remember the Lord’s parable:

Which of you shall have a friend, and go to him at midnight and say, “Friend, give me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has come to me on a journey, and I have no food to offer him.” And the one inside answers, “Don’t bother me. The door is already locked, and my children and I are in bed. I cannot get up and give you anything.” I tell you, even though he will not get up and give you the bread because of friendship, yet because of your persistence he will get up and give you as much as you need (Luke 11:5-8; see 18:1-5).

Like the blind men, without stopping, we keep coming back to the Lord saying, “Son of David! I did it again. I spoke in fear or annoyance or envy, inconsiderate and selfish, I just did the exact thing I said I wasn’t going to do again. I’ve let my fears or appetites live in my thoughts, I’ve made them welcome guests in my head. Forgive me and give me clean hands and a pure heart that I can offer you! Son of God, have mercy on me! Lord, you know there’s too much month left at the end of the money. You see my family is sick and my body hurts. Have mercy on me! You see that my neighbor is full of grief and my friends are hungry and my nation can’t tell its right hand from its left. Have mercy on us!

At least, I hope we keep coming back that way. Because, unlike Facebook or bourbon or our co-workers, when we pray, there’s Somebody listening who hears, with perfect mercy and almighty power, Someone who sees our heart and understands what we can’t put into words. He may or may not fix the problems we bring him on our schedule, but in his time he will change us.

Tip over a glass of water and watch. It is the nature of water to dribble away and not change anything. But what was the irresistible force that cut the Grand Canyon a mile wide into the crust of the earth? Drops of water — flowing continuously, over time. The fact that we prayed this one morning may not make any visible change in us. But with perseverance each of us may become a person of prayer.

On the odd day when we wake up full of the Holy Spirit and hope and faith, prayer is a joy. The rest of the time? It’s work. Our heart and our will and our understanding of what’s needed are all disconnected, they’re on different channels, so that we don’t do, or even want to do, what we know we need. So if my five minutes on a prayer rope is a chore I do with a grudge, is it still prayer? Sure. “When we carry out our ‘religious duties’ we are like people digging channels in a waterless land, in order that when at last water comes, it may find them ready.” (C.S. Lewis in Reflections on the Psalms).

Whether you use the Prayer of the blind men, maybe on a prayer rope – or you have a path you walk every day, through Holy God, Holy Mighty to Our Father and the rest – and whether that means five minutes before you put the coffee on, or it fills your whole sleepless midnight – prayer begins with the grace and call of God in Christ. He’s the reason you feel like you ought to begin the day with some kind of prayer, at least as much as you say hello to your husband or your dog first thing in the morning.

Schemamonk Gabriel (Bunge) wrote:

If you want to learn to swim, jump into the water. Only that way you can learn. Only the one who prays will feel the meaning, the taste and the joy of prayer. You can't learn to pray sitting in a big warm armchair. If you are ready to kneel, to repent sincerely, to raise your eyes and hands to Heaven, then many things will be revealed to you. Of course you can read many books, listen to lectures, talk to people – these are also important and help to understand more. But what is the value of all these things if we don't take any real steps afterwards? If we don't start praying?”

Therefore, “Be anxious for nothing; but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:6-7)

To the glory of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.