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.


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