Mr. Rogers and Isaiah: December 8, 2019

December 24, 2019

Year A, Advent 2                                                              
Isaiah 11:1-11                                                                                 
            Lately my son has been talking a lot about good guys and bad guys (mostly bad guys).  Not only do humans fall into these categories, but animals do as well. Once we were playing a game where we were running from a lion.  Joshua decided to shoot the lion.  We don’t let Joshua have toy guns, but he can make anything into a gun.  I explained to him that I didn’t want him shooting a lion.  He replied, “But lions are mean.”  I then tried to explain to him that while lions are dangerous, they are not innately bad.  We then had to discuss whether there would be any circumstance where shooting a lion would be appropriate and it all got very muddy.  I decided perhaps we should avoid a safari for a family vacation.     I have noticed that in most popular children’s shows and almost all movies, there is always a bad guy or bad animal.  I guess it makes things interesting for a young mind.  But it makes me sad that at the age of 3, my son is already categorizing people into good and bad and thinking about injuring people and dangerous animals.  I have attempted to explain to him that God created us all good, but so far, that’s just not working.  If a 3 year old is already programmed to perceive people as good and bad and talk about shooting people, imagine how we adults have been programmed. Even if we intellectually have moved past that, it’s still there in the back of our minds lurking, like an unwanted intruder. 
            This reading from Isaiah (our first reading) is often referred to as “the Peaceable Kingdom.”  It’s a beautiful and poetic passage with a moving message. There are many works of art modeled after the image that Isaiah paints.  The reading from Isaiah last week was another famous passage.  It read: They shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”That passage is about peace between the nations, which is a fairly lofty dream.         This week the dream seems even more unfathomable.  The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.” Instead of peace between the nations, Isaiah is now envisioning peace within nature. All the animals are vegetarians.  The laws of evolution are basically tossed out. There is no longer survival of the fittest.  Every person—every animal—survives and lives together in harmony. It’s basically the Garden of Eden before the fall.  It’s a place where there are no good or bad people.  There are no good or bad animals.  All are just as God intended, inherently and permanently good.  
            This is the image that should be planted in our children’s mind. I’m not saying we should shelter them from all that is bad.  We can’t.  But it’s like we don’t even try to create this peaceable kingdom in our books or our movies.  It’s not even worth dreaming about or imagining.  That’s a sad thing.  It means that not only has hope died, but the dream that carried the hope is buried under our low expectations.    You might think, well that’s just too depressing. There is no point in dreaming or hoping for something that cannot be.  Isaiah didn’t think so when he wrote this text.  And if you think that the prophet Isaiah was some kind of Pollyanna, just read virtually any chapter in the book of Isaiah and you will see that this guy was living in a very precarious situation.  He was living in a land about to be invaded, preaching to a people who were miserable, angry, and scared.  It wasn’t exactly a utopian paradise. Isaiah called for repentance and spoke of the need for change.  He spoke the truth, even when it was unpopular. Yet in the midst of his dire warnings about the fate of Israel, he stopped and painted pictures like the one we heard today, a picture of the peaceable kingdom.  He wanted people to remember that God’s vision for our world was audacious and bold.  It wasn’t just meant to be a dream or vision but a reality, a goal to strive for. 
            Therefore, we can never stop painting these pictures, telling these stories of goodness and peace.  You might think, “That’s not effective. Then you’re just living in a fantasy.” However, consider the resurgence of Mr. Rogers. There are books about him, a documentary and now a film starring Tom Hanks.  Mr. Rogers didn’t fight bad guys.  He was just good.  He created a world of make believe where animals and people lived alongside one another in peace and harmony. He invited people into that world so they could see glimpse of what could be.  And he did more than just provide a dreamscape.        
         In the late 1960’s racial tension in America was high.  Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968 and race riots followed.  Segregation was technically illegal, but many places were still not integrated. One of those places was public pools.  Near the one year anniversary of Martin Luther King’s death, Mr. Rogers invited one of his neighbors over, a friendly black police officer.  They decided to cool their feet in a plastic kiddie pool.  Then they shared a towel.  Mr. Rogers never said a word about integration or race relations, but the image was clear. This is the peaceable kingdom.
What is amazing about that image is that when we look at it now, we don’t see anything remarkable about a white man and black man sitting beside one another with their feet in the same water.  That’s because it’s our new normal.  I’m not saying we have eradicated racism, we have a long way to go. But we have made progress.  We’re swimming in the same water now.  I’m not saying Mr. Rogers fixed the problem single handedly.  Many of our African American brothers and sisters suffered and died in that fight. But, it played a small part.
            Most of the time, a small part is the best we can do.  Yet we fear even doing that because we think, it won’t make any difference.  Despite everything Mr. Rogers accomplished in his life, he still wondered if he made any difference at all. But  we know he did.  On Friday, the church commemorated the life of St. Nickolas.  We do every year on December 6th.  He was a bishop and probably attended the Council of Nicea, which was a big deal.   But what he is remembered for his kindness toward strangers in need. The church is not just hear to worship God serve others.  We are also hear to support one another be the people who God created us to be and build the world that God intended, the Peaceable Kingdom.