A Native American tells the story about a brave who found an eagle’s egg and put it into the nest of a prairie chicken. Once the egg hatched, the eaglet grew up right along with the brood of chicks. All its life the changeling eagle, thinking it was a prairie chicken, did what the other chickens did. It scratched in the dirt for seeds and insects to eat. It clucked and cackled. And it flew in a brief thrashing of its wings and flurry of feathers no more than a few feet off the ground.
One day the changeling saw a magnificent bird soaring far above in the cloudless sky. “What a beautiful bird!” said the changeling to a neighbor. “What is it?” “That’s an eagle—the chief of the birds,” the neighbor clucked. “But don’t give it a second thought. You could never be like him.”
How often we hear, or speak, words of discouragement rather than encouragement. Sometimes, the words we hear or speak can make a world of difference.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the famous nineteenth century poet and artist, was approached one day by an elderly man. The old fellow had sketches and drawings that he wanted Rossetti to look at to find out if they were any good. Rossetti looked at the drawings closely and found in the first moments that they were worthless, showing hardly any talent. The visitor was disappointed, but expected the evaluation. Then, he asked if Rossetti would look at another set of drawings—these done by a young art student. This time, Rossetti looked at the drawings with excitement, enthusiastic about the budding talent they revealed. “These are good,” he said. “The young man has obvious talent and should be given every opportunity to study. Who is he?” The visitor responded, "It's me, forty years ago. If only I had heard your praise then. For, you see, I was discouraged and gave up—too soon.”
Let’s now turn to the gospel reading for this Fourth Sunday of Lent, the story of the cure of the man blind from birth. Consider some of the things that are said, either about or to the blind man. Jesus’ disciples ask, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Responding to this idea that has been around for a very long time, Jesus says, “Neither he nor his parents sinned; it is so that the works of God might be made visible through him.”
Later, the Pharisees, who are convinced that Jesus is not the Messiah because he has done work that was forbidden on the Sabbath (making a mud paste and smearing it on the man’s eyes), approach. They confront the man, hoping to get further evidence against Jesus. The man, however defends Jesus and says, “This is what is so amazing, that you do not know where he is from, yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but if one is devout and does his will, he listens to him. It is unheard of that anyone ever opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he would not be able to do anything.” Then the Pharisees respond, “You were born totally in sin, and are you trying to teach us?” The text then tells us that “they threw him out.”
Thus, both the disciples and the Pharisees are blinded by the “wisdom” of the day, as well as their own limited way of seeing. And instead of showing any kind of compassion, they write the blind man off and cast him aside, leaving him at the margins, where he can eke out an existence by begging from the devout in the Temple precincts.
One of the enduring Christian hymns, “Amazing Grace,” has this memorable first verse: “Amazing grace! How sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me! I once was lost, but now am found. Was blind, but now I see.” The words were written by John Newton, who for many years had been involved in the slave trade. Since the age of eleven, he had lived a life at sea. Sailors were not noted for the refinement of their manners, but Newton had a reputation for profanity, coarseness, and debauchery which even shocked many a sailor. At a certain point, he and his crew were battling a fierce storm, so mighty that Newton had to be tied down so he could still steer the ship and keep it afloat. This experience started him on a new journey. He gave up the slave trade, eventually became a clergyman, and wrote the words of Amazing Grace. He had been blinded by his abhorrent life, unable to see the misery he was causing others—until he was shaken up enough to see that he had become the wretch who needed saving. He had been blind, but now was able to see.
One wonders why John Newton’s life took the turns it did. What were the voices that had led him in such a negative and destructive direction? We all need voices that will guide us, encourage us when we are down, sympathize with us when we are overwhelmed, soothe us when we are frightened, teach us to laugh a bit when we take ourselves too seriously, and inspire us to seek what is good and beautiful and true.
One area of our life that currently seems to have a profound impact on us is the media. The cable news networks feed us, hour after hour, with news that is repeated over and over again. When the binge watching about all the divisions in our society, and now all the ramifications of the corona virus, becomes excessive, it can create a sense of sadness, pessimism and dread. Certainly, we do not want to stick our head in the sand and be ignorant of what is happening. The media remind us that many parts of the world lack the blessings we have, and some of our fellow human beings suffer far more than we do. However, when we have a steady diet of scary information, we have to find a way to distance ourselves from time to time, clear our minds, and make sure that we are not robbed of our inner peace. When we panic and find ourselves tossed about, as if on a stormy sea as John Newton was, or in the grip of a world-wide pandemic, it is then that we need to remember that (as we learned in our previous Lenten readings) we are God’s beloved sons and daughters, that our names are written in the palm of God’s hand, that Jesus came that we might see the goodness of God, and hear once again of his amazing grace…
The Lord has promised good to me,
His word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be
As long as life endures.
Through many dangers toils, and snares,
I have already come;
‘Tis grace has brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.
Finally, let me share a story about an experiment that a young man tried (I recently came across this on YouTube). The young man, pretending to be blind, approached random passersby and asked if they had change for a five dollar bill. But instead of holding a $5 bill, he offered them $50. Sadly, some took the fifty and silently walked away. Others, however, apparently believed that it was wrong to take advantage of a blind person, and they pointed out his error. I would hope that in the midst of our fears about the corona virus we not lose our moral bearings. Instead of thinking only of ourselves, let us remember that we are in this together on a world-wide scale, and the commandments to love are not suspended by trying circumstances. By thinking of, praying for, and assisting others, we can place our own fears in a broader perspective.