Sunday, April 24, 2011

Easter Sunday

John 20
11 Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb 12 and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.
13 They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”
“They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” 14 At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus.
15 He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?”
Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”
16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.”
She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”).
17 Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”
18 Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her.

Christ is Risen!

I know I was in the door, but may not have had my coat off when the questions came. I say ‘came’ rather than ‘began,’ because they came in a cookie tin, on little post-it notes, ready for me to face.

I was forewarned—Taye told me—that the confirmation class would have a few questions. They retreated to beautiful Fergus, Ontario, where they were fed and watered, given a variety of tasks, and primed to try and ‘stump the chump.’ I’m the chump.

Now, it was pitched to me as ‘filling in the details,’ answering those last minute questions that remained unresolved, maybe giving a thumb-nail sketch or two of some esoteric aspect of church life. Taye worked with them for weeks, I thought, what else could they need to know, I thought, then I opened the tin.

Question: Why do chocolate eggs and bunnies represent Easter?

How on earth should I know? “Okay kids, time to go swimming again!” They actually did swim, on April 10th, courage enough to guarantee anyone’s confirmation. But they were not to be distracted, not even by lunch, so I soldiered on. “They are both images of new life,” I said, without getting into the details that in “one season a single female rabbit can produce as many as 800 children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren” (Wikipedia). That, my friends, is new life.

The truth is, when confronted by large and mysterious things, we tend to retreat to the symbolic. The tomb was empty. His body was gone, he appeared to Mary with tender words. Most of all, the tomb was empty. And so, confronted with an empty tomb, a symbol that is hard to fathom and equally hard to represent in chocolate, we tend to eggs and bunnies.

But before I go any further, I want to talk about Donald Trump. At the very least, I want to you say over lunch, ‘boy, I didn’t see that coming.’ So here goes. Donald Trump is running, but not running, for President of the United States. How can we know? Because he is telling everyone who will listen that he is running, but not running, for POTUS.

And it seems lots of people are willing to listen, at least at this early stage in the election cycle. And he has an unorthodox strategy, a strategy that no other candidate will touch, and that strategy is helping the birthers. Birthers, you see, are people who refuse to believe that Barack Obama was born in the United States. If you are not a native born American, you cannot hold the highest office in the land. For some reason (one that I’m unwilling to investigate), the President has a Certificate of Live Birth, but no Birth Certificate. Everything spirals from there.

The reason I share all this is an interview I heard with Mr. Trump where he lays out the situation with the various certificates. The interview listened patiently, then said, “Yes, Mr. Trump, but we did a full investigation, including statements from people who were there and remember his birth.” Then Trump’s response: “And you believe that?”

Now, I’m no linguist, but I am stumped and amazed by the power of those four little words: “And you believe that?” It has become the doubter’s creed, the manifesto of a cynical age, when any evidence and any description of reality can be quickly refuted by simply saying “And you believe that?”

How does it work? How does this little phrase manage to punch so far above its weight, to be so disarming, that just saying the words can cast doubt on the most certain truth? Fans of Election 2011 already know the secret: don’t attack your opponent’s argument, attack your opponent. Both the words and the tone say “don’t be naïve, don’t be so foolish, and don’t be taken in by the word of other people.

For the hearer, the audience, we immediately feel self-conscious. We’re thrown off by these four little words, not because we lack confidence, but because we know that people can make false testimony, that sometimes people make mistakes, and that time tends to reconstruct memory. We know all these things, so when someone says “And you believe that,” we’re suddenly thrown off.

Back to eggs and bunnies. When a doctrine becomes hard to believe, when the bodily resurrection of Jesus becomes a point of debate and the first thing non-believers point to when they want to highlight what’s unbelievable about the Christian faith, the resurrection is quickly thrown under the bus. How did bodily resurrection become the single-most discardable tenet of our faith? Why no cave made of chocolate?

The first answer to the question, ‘how did bodily resurrection become the single-most discardable belief’ is Jesus. Jesus is such a compelling figure, such a great teacher and healer, that most Christians are content to stop there. They don’t need trinity and resurrection to get excited about Jesus.

The second answer is historical. The early creeds of the church, the ones we seldom recite, put an emphasis on the very things we tend to ignore: virgin birth, decent into hell, resurrection of the body. Somewhere along the line we stepped away from the faith of Constantine and began to long for the days before creeds and Christendom.

The third answer is scientific. Since Newton and Darwin we have allowed science to define the extent of human experience, drawing a line between fact and superstition. Now, I’m not opposed to science, and I’m happy to be a monkey’s uncle (nephew?), but I know for certain that there is a range of human experience that is undefined, mysterious, and fully the realm of the Spirit.

Christ is Risen!

To recap then, eggs and bunnies are a symbolic substitute for something that is hard to represent (an empty tomb) and even harder to believe. And we stand in good company. If we look over at Luke’s version of the same events, the women’s testimony and the other’s response, this is what we hear:

When they came back from the tomb, they told all these things to the eleven and to all the others. It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them who told this to the apostles. But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense.

From the very first day, and among the company most likely to respond to the message of resurrection, we get the same four-word reply: ‘And you believe that?’ Even those closest to Jesus, those that received the promise that after death he would return, were lost in doubt. What hope is there for us?

One of the most remarkable things about our tradition, and the Jewish tradition that gave birth to our tradition, is the willingness to portray weakness, failure and doubt. If I’m going to create a portrait of the ideal king, I’m unlikely to include every embarrassing detail we learn about King David. If I’m going to compose a collection of 150 sacred poems, I’m unlikely to include angry lament toward the object of my worship. And if I’m recounting a story about the very first Christian testimony, and I put the works “I have seen the Lord!” on the lips the very first witness, I’m unlikely to follow this with the words “I cannot believe” from Thomas. But John did.

John did because John’s gospel is personal: it is a recounting of a time and place and a series of events that reflect John’s experience of Jesus. And that experience included triumph and longing and even doubt. It is permission giving, carefully crafted to allow us to suspend our disbelief and imagine ourselves among the disciples. We are permitted to weep in Gethsemane, peer into the empty tomb, and even express some uncertainty and still remain faithful.

I want to conclude with John’s last word, when he steps out of the role of narrator and adds a little commentary. It is the last verse of his gospel:

Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.

In other words, he says ‘if you found that amazing, and even a little hard to believe, you should hear my other stories.’ This is the world I want to inhabit, where the best stories of Jesus go unwritten, where the empty tomb is only the beginning, and where the open-ended invitation is walk with the Risen Christ each day. Thanks be to God, amen.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Good Friday

Hebrews 10
19And so, dear brothers and sisters, we can boldly enter heaven’s Most Holy Place because of the blood of Jesus. 20This is the new, life-giving way that Christ has opened up for us through the sacred curtain, by means of his death for us.
21And since we have a great High Priest who rules over God’s people, 22let us go right into the presence of God, with true hearts fully trusting him. For our evil consciences have been sprinkled with Christ’s blood to make us clean, and our bodies have been washed with pure water.
23Without wavering, let us hold tightly to the hope we say we have, for God can be trusted to keep his promise. 24Think of ways to encourage one another to outbursts of love and good deeds. 25And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage and warn each other, especially now that the day of his coming back again is drawing near.

It has been thirteen years since the Good Friday Accord was signed in Belfast, Northern Ireland. The troubles have largely ended, but tensions remain, with the famous murals and the so-called “peace lines” that continue to divide neighbourhoods.

Looking back over the thirteen years, it is ironic that what began as an all-too-familiar act of violence became a turning point in the history of this troubled country. It began early in 2005, when members of the IRA murdered a young man named Robert McCartney outside a pub in Belfast.

Such events are most often met with silence: in this case all 70 witnesses claim they were in the bathroom when the altercation began. Families of victims were usually too intimidated to press the police, and another death was ascribed to "the troubles" that have beset the province since 1969.

What made this case unique was the response of six remarkable women: Robert McCartney's fiancée Bridgeen and his five sisters Gemma, Paula, Donna, Catherine and Claire. Rather than silently accept their brother's death, these six women publicly and persistently denounced the IRA and demanded that the killers be arrested and tried in court.

They were fearless. According to Gemma, her sister Donna "wouldn't be afraid of the devil," much less the Irish Republican Army. The IRA was so shaken by the publicity generated by these six women that they offered to shoot the members responsible, which, of course, only served to cast the IRA in a worse light.

What is it that led these six seemingly ordinary women—one is a shop owner, another a mature student—to such extraordinary places, including a visit to the White House? What did they discover within themselves in the face of suffering and loss that allowed them to begin this process of transformation? And how is death redemptive, bringing new life from the pain of separation from a loved one?

3He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not. 4Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. 5But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.

We turn to Isaiah, who wrote these words, as we try to get our minds around the cross of Jesus. It makes sense that we would read backwards, into the Hebrew Scriptures, for clues on how to understand it's meaning for us and for our lives. The cross remains the central symbol of our common faith, the thing that defines us and makes our faith unique. We need to understand.

And today, on this most vexing of days in the Christian calendar, we gather at the foot of the cross once more. Troubled and anxious, confused and weary, we live at the intersection of brutal violence and ultimate meaning. We can ignore it, we can hide it, we can even disown it, but the cross remains here, in our midst, for all to see.

Examples of human suffering are far from unique. We give them distinct names—Darfor, Auschwitz, Columbine, Bhopal—but the substance is the same: needless suffering and undeserved death. In each case we file away the feelings in a folder labeled "too painful to face" and we try to live without the constant consciousness that such things exist.

But suffering is everywhere. We even have anticipatory suffering, news that the death we thought we could defeat is making a comeback and closer than ever. Two news items—one old, one new—that highlight the malady of our time.

The life expectancy of the average Russian is dropping: almost every year in the last 10, the forecasted life span of Russians has dropped. Deaths outpace births as poverty and government corruption only makes it worse. Some analysts are describing it as "the Russian cross."

A world away, the life expectancy of North American children is dropping. For the first time in two centuries the projected life span of our children is being shortened due to an increase in risk factors related to obesity and inactivity. Under the headline "Fat kids to take a bite out of average life span" there is growing concern that heart attacks, diabetes and cancers will increase as children continue to get bigger.

On the surface, at least, there is little to link these two stories aside from the grim statistical conclusion they draw. We might be able to point to some sort of human failure in either story, but it certainly wouldn't be any kind of related failure. The link is suffering, and suffering is the defining theme of our kind.

Suffering is redemptive because it links my pain to your pain to the pain of the world and the pain that lives in the very heart of God. Suffering is redemptive because it causes us to live outside ourselves—if only for a moment—and imagine that we can aid the others that walk in our way. Suffering is redemptive because God is not a distance force or a passive voice but rather the connective tissue that binds the suffering one to another. Listen to the author of Hebrews as he tries to describe this:

My friends, the blood of Jesus gives us courage to enter the most holy place by a new way that leads to life! And this way takes us through the curtain that is Christ himself.

Jesus is a curtain of flesh that leads to the holy place where God resides. The blood that flows through my veins and your veins is the same blood that fell to the ground that day and flows yet in the heart of every creature that has life. The human condition of suffering and loss is diminished by the very symbol that represents the suffering and loss in our Christian story.

We are linked, you and I, by a common experience of life on earth and a common moment in time when the shadows grew and the sky darkened and the earth trembled beneath the enormity of what happened that day. Death became a route to new life, not through a Resurrection that remains alarmingly distant, but through the solidarity that exists when suffering humanity and suffering servant meet.

One of the great gifts of this life that God has given me is a segue into the intimate details of people's lives. Yet it is not my gift alone. Each of you, through your active participation in a community of faith has been given the same entry into the individual stories of those around us. We know the emotional texture of marriages and friendships, we know the defining moments and we know the face of loss that looks in on many of the lives we cherish.

Hebrews has advice for us, to safeguard the community we share and always remember the cross that binds us:

And since we have a great High Priest who rules over God’s people, let us go right into the presence of God, with true hearts fully trusting him. For our evil consciences have been sprinkled with Christ’s blood to make us clean, and our bodies have been washed with pure water. Without wavering, let us hold tightly to the hope we say we have, for God can be trusted to keep his promise. Think of ways to encourage one another to outbursts of love and good deeds. And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage and warn each other, especially now that the day of his coming back again is drawing near.

Six Irish woman, suffering people in distant lands, the three congregations gathered here: we have the same High Priest, the same friend willing to lay down his life, the same veil of flesh open to the very heart of God. We have a gift and a connection and a mission and a powerful symbol that binds them all. May God be praised. Amen.


Sunday, April 10, 2011

Fifth Sunday of Lent

Ezekiel 37
1 The hand of the LORD was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the LORD and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. 2 He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. 3 He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”
I said, “Sovereign LORD, you alone know.”
4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the LORD! 5 This is what the Sovereign LORD says to these bones: I will make breath[a] enter you, and you will come to life. 6 I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the LORD.’”
7 So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. 8 I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them.
9 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’” 10 So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet—a vast army.
11 Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ 12 Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13 Then you, my people, will know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. 14 I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the LORD have spoken, and I have done it, declares the LORD.’”

Tell me again what happened on May 24, 1738 at 8.45 pm?

Yes, of course, John Wesley’s heart was strangely warmed. Here, in our near-cathedral of Methodism, 190 years after a few rough-hewn logs were piled one atop the other to create a place of worship, we can know with some certainty that the story of Wesley’s conversion has come up more than a few times.

I like to pair it with confirmation. And this year’s class, a small but mighty group of three confirmands, isn’t even here to hear it. Over the last few weeks they have been back there with Taye, learning, discussing, and preparing to make a profession of faith.

Today the group is in an undisclosed location somewhere near Fergus. Undisclosed only to me of course, because I haven’t asked for directions yet. It’s a guy thing.

It seems I have been summoned to Bob and Barb’s to put the finishing touches on their preparation, and so, immediately after the service Jenny and I will travel to Fergus and complete this important work. I’m not sure where the conversation will lead, but I’m certain May 24, 1738 at 8.45 pm will come up.

John Wesley, you see, was a prophet in the biblical tradition, filled with the Spirit and empowered to speak for God. He traveled a quarter-million mile on horseback, it is recorded, bringing a new vision of Christianity to a tired religion. It has even been suggested that he saved the United Kingdom from the experience of revolutionary France, addressing the inequality that existed before it came to an armed revolt.

And like the prophets of the bible, there is the sense that this is not the life Wesley chose, rather the Spirit decided that he would become the prophet needed at a particular time and place. The life he chose, that of parish priest, was a path of quiet comfort and obscurity. Without the intervention of the Spirit, we likely wouldn’t even know his name.

In Wesley’s time, eighteenth-century England, the role of minister was very different from today. In his time, young men of some means would attend college and “read theology,” accept ordination, and settle into a parish under the patronage of some other person of means. Leading services of divine worship was the extent of the job, which meant there was lots of time leftover to pursue other interests.

Indeed, many of the names we do know from the eighteenth and nineteenth century such as the author Jonathan Swift and the early social scientist Thomas Malthus were priests with extra time on their hands to write and study the world around them. Even Charles Darwin was headed for the life of a parish priest until he got sidetracked on the Galapagos Islands.

All that ended for Wesley on May 24, 1738. His relationship with God had become troubled and confused, filled with fear and the abiding sense that he was on the wrong path. His conversion, the feeling of having his heart strangely warmed, was a reboot, a timely intervention that gave Wesley a certainty of purpose and a new worldview. Everything changed.

Our other prophet of the day, Ezekiel, has much in common with our friend John Wesley. He is a biblical prophet and comes from a background that finds parallels in another century.

The first thing we learn about Ezekiel is that he lives in exile. Carried off from the land of Israel, Ezekiel was part of a group of exiles forced to settle in Babylon. They settled in, some dreamed of return, but most simply got on with their lives.

Before we take a closer look at Ezekiel, there are a few things about the exile to consider. First, we know that some time around 587 BC the Kingdom of Judah was defeated, and the people that mattered were carried off to Babylon. There is lots of debate about who and how many ended up in exile, but we know for certain that the most learned and the most connected were taken away.

There is a sense, when we speak of exile, to imagine the life of dislocated peoples in our time. Poverty and violence usually mark this type of dislocation. Ezekiel’s exile, however, was different insofar as the exiles were useful to their captors and settled in to a life of relative comfort. The Jewish exiles were literate and worldly, having lived at the conjunction of a few trade routes and noted for reading the law.

And we know from the story of other famous exiles, like Daniel, that the life of a young exile in the court of a foreign king could be exciting and profitable. We learn that Ezekiel lived on the banks of the Chebar River among other wealthy exiles, and that even though he came from a priestly lineage, he likely didn’t spend much time thinking about his religion.

So like our friend John Wesley, he has a life of relative ease, he has somewhat meaningful work, and he has a relationship with God about the change. Ezekiel gives us his moment, in his own words:

I looked, and I saw a windstorm coming out of the north—an immense cloud with flashing lightning and surrounded by brilliant light. The center of the fire looked like glowing metal, and in the fire was what looked like four living creatures. In appearance their form was human, 6 but each of them had four faces and four wings. (1.4-5)

This vision continues on for a few paragraphs, getting more and more intense, until God speaks:

“Son of man, I am sending you to the Israelites, to a rebellious nation that has rebelled against me; they and their ancestors have been in revolt against me to this very day. The people to whom I am sending you are obstinate and stubborn. Say to them, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says.’ (2.3-4)

Once again, we are struck by the parallels between two disconnected times. Ezekiel is commanded to prophesy to disobedient people, based on the assumption that that the exile was the result of their failure and that even in exile they continued to follow their own way. Wesley’s setting is equally troubling: think of the dark, satanic mills described by Blake and later Dickens, and think of the social decay described by Samuel Pepys in his famous diary.

And all of this leads to chapter 37, the crowning moment in Ezekiel’s ministry:

Then the LORD said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the LORD! This is what the Sovereign LORD says to these bones: I will make breath[a] enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the LORD.’” (37.4-6)

The Lord has shown Ezekiel an entire valley filled with dry bones, a multitude that was once a great nation, now reduced to near dust. The command is to prophesy, to preach the word of the Lord, and trust that they will live once more, that flesh will return, that Spirit will descend, that these bone will live and return to the Lord. He does, and they do.

So we’ve covered Ezekiel and his century, and we’ve covered Wesley and his century, so what about our own, what about the century that belongs to the young people we will confirm in just a few short weeks from now? Exiles enjoyed Babylon too much, Georgian Britons saw the growing divide between rich and poor, so what about today?

Setting aside to obvious ones, like global warming and unrest throughout the world, what will these young people face here, in Canada and in the culture that surrounds us from south of the border?

Recently there were three songs on the list of top ten most popular songs that had the f-word in the title. In the title. I don’t even know what to say about that. A study discovered that fully fifty-percent of young people has experienced some sort of “digital abuse,” defined as bullying, teasing, or some form of inappropriate contact. And don’t even get me started on the income gap. Forbes revealed that in the US there are 400 individuals that control wealth equal to the lowest 60 percent of the population. Let me restate that: 400 people, who could all fit in this sanctuary, control wealth equal to nearly 200 million people. This is the century that the kids live in, the century that is also turning away from religion in droves.

Now I’m not going to suggest that confirmation is a going to somehow save them from the sometimes scary world outside our doors. I’m not suggesting that confirmation will save them from the anxiety and the uncertainty that every young person faces. I will suggest, however, that confirmation, and the time they are spending in preparation, and the relationship they have formed with their mentors, will give them two things: a new vision and a sense of the Spirit.

The new vision is the very same vision that Ezekiel was shown and the same vision that Wesley saw, a candid vision of both the problem and the potential of human life. They will receive a sense that the world is troubled but they belong to a community that is attempting, with God’s help, to do something about it. They will receive the understanding that this is God’s world, and that we accept together the gift and the responsibility of living in this world and trust that God is present to us.

So follows the gift of the Spirit. Together, on May 1st, we will confirm these young people, and together we will lay hands on them and together transmit the gift of the Spirit that we received when we made the same profession of faith. We will remind them that they stand in a long tradition, that the faith we pass on to them is the faith we received from other saints and prophets, and live in the hope that they will someday pass it on too.

And we trust that dry bones will live again. We trust that they will understand the place of God in their lives, that God loves and forgives them, that God has a plan for their lives, and that God seeks to act through them for a world made new. May it always be so, Amen.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Fourth Sunday of Lent

John 9
1 As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2 His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
3 “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him. 4 As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. 5 While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”
6 After saying this, he spit on the ground, made some mud with the saliva, and put it on the man’s eyes. 7 “Go,” he told him, “wash in the Pool of Siloam” (this word means “Sent”). So the man went and washed, and came home seeing.
8 His neighbors and those who had formerly seen him begging asked, “Isn’t this the same man who used to sit and beg?” 9 Some claimed that he was. Others said, “No, he only looks like him.” But he himself insisted, “I am the man.”

If you want to sound smart in conversation, I can recommend nothing more highly that words in French. Not speaking French, though I salute you if you can. I’m talking about many of the words in English that began their life as words in French. Some examples:

The kids were fighting in the backseat, a melee broke out.
We were all sad, a malaise settled on the room.
This setting is special, it is a unique milieu.

Or taken together, the melee caused a malaise in my milieu. I’m practically fluent. And like our old friend schadenfreude (taking pleasure in the misfortune of others), there are words in French (English) that say more than our language can say and say it better.

Like bricolage. Bricolage is the art of cobbling together a variety of found objects and assembling them into something new. Bricolage. That’s sixteen words in one, bricolage. And someone engaged in bricolage is called a bricoleur. Someone who practices the art of cobbling together a variety of found objects and assembling them into something new is a bricoleur. That’s nineteen words in one, if you’re keeping score at home.

Now, to be fair, we do have a word that is native to English that pretty well sums up the art of bricolage, and that would be to tinker. A tinkerer takes objects that we wouldn’t normally put together, say found objects, and creates something new. And tinker actually conveys the playful nature of bricolage, where the action of making something new is seldom planned, it means trying different things and trying them in different ways until something new, and perhaps useful, is born.

And so, in a bible story about our Lord the bricoleur, I give you dirt and spittle. Dirt and spittle are not the first things that come to mind when we imagine the healing arts. And certainly dirt and spittle are not the first things to come to mind if we are applying something to the eyes. And I don’t even need to explain, with muddy ground all around us, and after a long winter.

But dirt and spittle it is, and why? Because it is the only thing that Jesus had at hand. And if bread and wine can become his body, and ordinary well water can become a cup of eternal life, then surely dirt and spittle will become the kind of medicine that can heal a man born blind.

A man born blind. Notice that the very first detail of the story is the entire medical history of this young man. “As he went on his way,” John tells us, “Jesus saw a man blind from his birth.” Already we know that this will be no ordinary healing. Temporary blindness, that seems reasonable. Blind from some childhood illness, or some terrible accident at work or play, that seems possible for Jesus to heal. But the man born blind is another matter altogether, born blind is the next level.

But that’s jumping ahead. Jesus only sees the man, and somehow the disciples see him and know too. We know they know too because they have only one question: “Rabbi (teacher), who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?” And the answer? “Neither,” Jesus said, “he was born blind so that God’s power to heal might be displayed today.” With this, Jesus the bricoleur assembles some dirt and spittle and heals the man born blind.

Now I have to confess that I have trouble with this passage on at least two levels. The first level is the doubt that enters my mind whenever we hear a story about the healing ministry of Jesus. It’s not crushing doubt, it’s not faith-threatening doubt, it’s just the doubt that comes from living in the modern world. It’s the doubt that comes from living in the age of medical advancements, of transplants and the human genome project. Healing stories defy what we know about the physical world, and the scope of science, and so doubt enters the mind.

The second thing that troubles me is the way Jesus chooses to describe the purpose of this disability. In effect, Jesus suggests that the young man endured lifelong blindness waiting for the day that had finally arrived, and the healing could commence. Taken this way, the story plays into all the talk we hear about “God’s will” and the unfortunate argument some make that misfortune is a test somehow, or a character-building exercise.

The truth is I cannot do anything about the first trouble, since it is impossible to unlearn the marvels of the modern world or our skepticism about anything that wasn’t tested in a double-blind trial. On the second trouble, I think I need only look again at the passage and reconsider Jesus’ response. “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?” And Jesus answered “Neither.” So we stop there.

With that simple one word answer, with an answer that refuses to enter a debate as long as time itself, Jesus made a revolution in religious thinking. With a word, and no more, Jesus signaled the end of a worldview and the birth of another.

It happened like this: Long ago, and perhaps from the first moment of human consciousness, we were conditioned to see cause and effect. The rains come and the seeds germinate and life returns to the barren places. Eat those berries over there and you will get very sick. Leave your cave for the weekend in the care of your teenagers, and they will likely have a cave party. The brain is a connecting organ designed to help us remember the things vital to our survival, cause and effect being at the top of the list.

And so, in the primitive mind, it seemed obvious early on that if we fail somehow, something bad will surely follow. Before long a natural association developed between conscientious behavior and good fortune. Ditto for carelessness and misfortune. And when the primitives began to ponder the world of the Spirit, the same assumptions came into play. The gods would reward good behavior and punish the opposite. By the time the gods gave way to God, these ideas came to full flower, and no where more than the Psalms.

Part wish and part expectation, the Psalms are filled with the assumption that the good will prosper and the wicked will fail. It is called “classical wisdom thinking,” that oft stated belief that a good harvest is based on faithfulness and empty barns must indicate the opposite. “Who sinned,” the disciples asked, “this man or his parents that he was born blind?” It was obvious to the twelve that someone was to blame, someone committed some secret sin, someone was guilty of moral failure because the young man was born blind.


Before I go on, I want to pause and acknowledge the extent to which we remain in this primitive state and why it is so important to our sanity that we do. The truth is, we fear few things like random things. Random things scare us because random things are beyond our control, they don’t obey any set rules and they defy all the careful planning we like to do. They are random.

If I fall down and scrape my knee, I immediately seek to understand why. I want someone to blame, even if the person to blame is me. I want to know how this misfortune came upon me so that it will never happen again, even though I know that “never again” is a vain hope in a world of uneven sidewalks and distractions and inattentiveness. It’s a small example, but a good one, because no one plans on scrapping their knee and so it ends up seeming rather random.

And it’s rampant in the land. Someone dies at 115 and we want to know how they died. An earthquake and a tsunami hit minutes apart and we want to know why they weren’t more prepared. A child flunks out of school and we want to know what the parents did wrong to raise a kid somehow predisposed to flunking out. “Who sinned,” the disciples asked, “this man or his parents that he was born blind?”


It may not seem obvious at first glance, but John was a bricoleur too. He took the various pieces of a family and sad circumstance and an itinerant healer and threw together a story about the end of a way of thinking. He took the immediate understanding that the man was born blind, he took the obvious question the primitive disciples might ask, and he took a religious revolutionary to put together an utterly new story. He took dirt and spittle, and the power of God, and he demonstrated that the question that everyone thought was the question was never really the question at all. John, bircoleur, put together a story of new life.

Washed in the pool of Siloam, the man born blind received the revolution of healing and the new life that only Jesus can bring. To the twelve, and to each of us who stand in the place of the twelve, Jesus gave a new mind and a new understanding, a way beyond cause and effect that looks more like cause and forgiveness or cause and understanding or even cause and great love. May we be dirt and spittle to each other, a source of healing and a source of new insight, Amen.