Sermon preached October 25, 2015
Texts: Mark 10:46-52
U2, “Desire” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z8rQ575DWD8
Just so you know, the second choice for a song this morning was Tame Impala, “Desire Be Desire Go.” I want you to know that I listen to music made in this century, even if my Halloween costume is from the middle of the last century.
So this is supposed to be a beatnik outfit. The entire “beatnik” phenomenon of the 1950s was, in many ways, a media creation, highlighting very shallow aspects of what was a deeper literary movement of writers seeking spiritual connection and meaning. One of the central writers of the Beat Generation was novelist Jack Kerouac, whose novel On the Road, published in 1957 was an important book for this group of writers. Just over twenty years after its publication, I discovered the book in my early college years.
The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a common place thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue center light pop and everybody goes “Awww!”(On the Road, 9) Kerouac describes something of the human condition, filled with desire.
The story of Aladdin and the magic lamp, a story familiar to us from movies or fairy tales is a story of desire. Aladdin is sent into a cave by his uncle Mustafa and there discovers an old lamp, but a special lamp. The genie of the lamp has the power to grant three wishes. Aladdin wishes to be sent home. He wished for riches and happiness. He marries well, there is trouble, but the ending is a happy one. The whole genie and the lamp idea gets spoofed often. An insurance company ad asks, “Well, did you know genies can be really literal?” A man asks for one million bucks, and what does he get but antlered animals. Desire gone wrong, but who of us would turn away a large sum of money, or a magic lamp? Among our qualities as humans is that we desire, and our desires are multiple.
Our desires are multiple and trying to follow them pulls us in different directions. We wish for a million bucks, get a million antlered animals and then have to wish them away, and with our one wish left some trivial idea makes its way to our lips and we have lost the power of the lamp. Yes, this is a folk tale, and a folk tale gone wrong, but it is also a glimpse into who we are. What do we do with our multiple desires pulling us in different directions – desires for love, for intimacy, for security, for meaningful work, for companionship, for a good meal, for a bit of notoriety, desire for some quiet time, but desire not to be lonely, for something nice to wear? What do we do?
Much of our Christian tradition is suspicious of human desire. Pleasure and distress, desire and fear, and what follows from them, were not originally created as elements of human nature…. These things were introduced as a result of our fall from perfection. St. Maximus the Confessor (Philokalia, II: 178). One cannot drive away impassioned thoughts unless he watches over his desire and incensive power. Evagrios the Solitary (Philokalia, I: 39)
Yet listen to the question Jesus asks Bartimaeus. “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus and his disciples are making their way toward Jerusalem. They are leaving Jericho amid a large crowd. Along the side of the road is a blind man, Bartimaeus, a beggar. He shouts out to Jesus, but many only wanted him to be quiet. He has caught Jesus’ attention. “Call him here.” The crowd changes its tune. “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” “What do you want me to do for you?” It seems a silly question, doesn’t it? If you are blind, wouldn’t you want your sight returned? Why even ask? Indeed, this is what Bartimaeus asks, but the pause and phrasing make us feel that something more is going on here. “My teacher, let me see again.” He is asking for sight, but also for deeper insight. “Go; your faith has made you well.” Bartimaues regains sight, but also gains insight - a deeper desire hidden within is met. He is a person of faith, discovers that, and as such, he follows Jesus on the way.
What do you want? If we ask that question deeply and profoundly enough, can we make some sense of our multitudinous desires?
Let me hit the pause button here for just a moment. Let’s acknowledge that we are fortunate to be able to be here in this place asking such questions. Mari Ruti is a professor at the University of Toronto whose writings on love and a meaningful life are wonderfully thought-provoking. In one of her books, though, she acknowledges that she can ask such questions while some suffer from “structural inequalities that make it difficult for many… to think beyond our daily survival” (Reinventing the Soul, xii) If we are starving, or realistically afraid that we will find ourselves on the verge of homelessness, or starvation, or violence against our person, what we want is a modicum of security, enough to eat, a warm place to sleep. It is a little like the psychologist Abraham Maslow’s work where he argues that “for the [person] who is extremely and dangerously hungry, no other interests exist but food” (Motivation and Personality, 37) Asking the question of what we want assumes some measure of security in having our basic needs met. That’s what drives my passion for seeking a world where everyone has enough, where no one starves, where all have adequate shelter. It is then that deeper questions might be asked, deeper desires felt.
Interestingly, Bartimaeus, a beggar, does not ask for food, he asks to see. If we ask ourselves “What do you want?” deeply and profoundly enough, I think we find a desire to be whole. I think we find a desire to live life fully. I think we find a desire to develop. I think we find a desire to connect with God and grow in that connection. I think we desire a deep connection with others. I think we desire to contribute. I would wrap all these together into a deep desire to live fully and to be whole.
The testimonies to such a profound desire in us to live fully and be whole run deep. St. Augustine, in famous words from his work The Confessions, writes: For you [O God] have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until is rests in you (Book I, Chapter 1). The nineteenth-century Danish theologian, Soren Kierkegaard, wrote a book, Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing, and what was that one thing? Genuinely to will the Good, as an individual (206). Death camp survivor and therapist Victor Frankl movingly wrote about Man’s Search for Meaning. Man’s search for meaning is a primary force in his life…. Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to live he can only respond by being responsible. (154, 172) One final testimony, Joseph Campbell, interviewed by Bill Moyers (The Power of Myth): People say what we’re all seeking is meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. It think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our own life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances within our inner most being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive. (4-5)
All these voices speak a little differently, but they point in a single direction. There is a profound and deep desire in us for life, for living well, for developing our capacities, for relating to God, for joy, for relationship – to live fully and be whole. To touch that deep yearning, that profound desire, helps us order our other desires. Following Jesus on the way isn’t to get rid of our human desires, it is to order them in light of this deepest desire. Such ordering is very important in our noisy culture that would often use our desires against us. Ads blare at us all day long, pulling at this desire or that desire, elevating it to the most important thing, while perhaps drowning out that deepest desire to be whole, to live fully and feel alive, to know God, to grow, to connect. Wendy Farley: Surging underneath our ordinary desires is a brilliant desire that makes us glisten like stars (The Wounding and Healing of Desire, 3). We want to glisten like stars.
The beat writer Jack Kerouac was not about berets or other shallow expressions that came to be associated with beatniks. He really wanted to live fully and be whole. He wanted to make that deep and profound desire of the human heart more plain in his writings. Unfortunately, he, himself got caught up in the whirlwind of human desires. He lost track of that deep desire for wholeness. Fame overcame him. Alcohol got the best of him, and he died before reaching age 50.
An eighty-five-year-old woman was being interviewed on her birthday. “What advice would you give to people who want to be as vibrant as you are when they are eighty-five?” the reporter asked. “Well, at our age it is very important to keep using all our potential or it dries up. It is important to be with people and, if at all possible, to earn one’s living through service. That’s what keep us alive and well.” “May I ask exactly what it is you do for service at your age?” “Why yes, I look after an old woman in my neighborhood.” (Anthony DeMillo, The Heart of the Enlightened, 146)
What do you want? We follow Jesus on the way to sharpen the question and to have it answered, to have our deepest desire, our most profound yearning for wholeness met, and to have our other desires affirmed and ordered. Amen.