The Prophetic Imagination of Mr. Rogers

Our readings today all point to a single theme: prophecy. First, we heard Ezekiel’s calling to be a prophet. Then, we heard Paul tell the story of someone with a prophetic vision. Some scholars think Paul is talking about himself. Finally, we hear of Jesus going home to Nazareth where he grew up, back to where the people knew him as a child, and there they reject him, leading Jesus to us remind us of that ancient truth: “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” 

 Three readings. Three prophets. When we talk about prophets and prophecy, typically, people have one of two ideas in mind. To some, the word prophecy is all about predicting the future, like those folks on TV with elaborate explanations of how various news events match certain biblical verses, supposedly demonstrating that the end is near.   The other common way to understand prophecy is that prophecy is all about the present, naming uncomfortable truths and fighting injustice. Both perspectives have some biblical truth within them. Prophecy in Scripture does often have a future-oriented focus. But that future-oriented perspective is not about prediction, but rather about hope, reminding people of God’s faithfulness from beginning to end. And scriptural prophecy is also about the here and now, pointing out people’s complicity with injustice and oppression. And calling them back to the twin pillars of love of God and love of neighbor. Prophecy should make us a bit uncomfortable at times. 

 But biblical prophecy goes deeper than either of these or even both put together. When I graduated from college, Bishop Ladehoff gave me a little book called The Prophetic Imagination by Walter Brueggemann. Brueggemann argues in this book that neither of these two common understandings of prophecy are the biblical understanding of prophecy. Rather, the Biblical prophecy is about imagination. The word imagination comes from the words image and nation. The word nation comes from the Latin for birth. The imagination is the birthplace of images. The prophet is not trying predict the future or simply better the world, but the biblical prophet is trying to imagine a world completely different from the world that surrounds us. The prophet is giving birth to a new vision for humanity, a vision that aligns with God’s vision. 

 Ezekiel prophecies in this way when he doesn’t just get God’s word spoken to him, but he eats a scroll to show that he has become one with God’s word. Ezekiel prophecies this way not because he predicts that everything will get better soon, but because he shows the people a vision of the breath of God re-entering the dry bones of the people and giving them a new life. Paul prophecies in this way in our reading today by taking the image of the man entering into God’s glory, then taking the image of a thorn in his own flesh, and holding up these two truths, he births a new image of the sufficiency of God’s grace. Jesus prophesied this way not by predicting his crucifixion and resurrection, but by re-imagining suffering and death as hope in resurrected life. Jesus engaged in prophecy by eating with the wrong sort of people, re-imagining who is a part of God’s community. Jesus used his prophetic imagination by teaching through storytelling, by challenging our understanding of neighbor in the parable of the Good Samaritan, and demonstrating true forgiveness in the parable of the Prodigal Son. Jesus was a prophet who re-imagined leadership by getting down on his knees to wash the disciples’ feet, and by breaking bread with them right before his own body was broken. 

 One of the great prophets of the 20th century might just have been a Presbyterian pastor named Fred Rogers, the host of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. I recently watched the new documentary of his life and was struck by the power of his robust prophetic imagination. In a world that valued children only for what they would become, Mr. Rogers birthed images of an alternative world, a neighborhood in which children are offered dignity and respect for who they are, not who they will be. This vision built upon the imagination of Jesus who called the little children to him and blessed them and who said that the only way to enter the kingdom of God was if we did so like a child. 

 Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood started in the middle of the struggle over integration. One of the battlefields of that struggle was swimming pools. The imagination of segregation said that people of color could not swim in the same pool as white people. In the documentary, they show a shocking video from the news of a white pool owner pouring chemicals into a whites-only swimming pool in which some black people were swimming. In response to this evil imagination of the world, this imagination of segregation, Mr. Rogers, in his robust prophetic imagination, offered an alternative vision. One day, while soaking his feet in a little kids pool, Officer Clemmons comes by. Officer Clemmons is black. And Mr. Rogers invites him to put his feet into the pool. Officer Clemmons is hesitant because he does not have a towel. Mr. Rogers offers to share. And so, Officer Clemmons takes off his boots, and puts his feet in the pool with Mr. Rogers. Projected around the country, Mr. Rogers and Officer Clemmons, feet side by side in a swimming pool, shared their alternative imagination to the world. 

 As the Body of Christ, we are called to offer a prophetic imagination. We are called to imagine a world different from the world that surrounds us, a new re-imagined world that embodies God’s love and mercy and grace. The world around has such a different imagination than we do, than Christ does. For example, the world teaches us that strength and power and success are linked, and yet we proclaim Christ crucified, placing the cross at the center of our communal life, saying “[God’s] grace is sufficient for [us], for power is made perfect in weakness,” as Paul teaches us today.

 The world around us teaches us to separate from one another, to become islands unto ourselves. And more and more, we are doing just that as a society, shrinking our world to people who are just like us. Robert Putnam in his classic Bowling Alone warned us nearly two decades ago of the growing trend to isolate. That trend has only continued. Yet our weekly practice of the Eucharist is a prophetic imagination of communion, pulling us back together to each other and to God. The Eucharist is an act of prophetic imagination that resists the world’s atomization and individualization. The Eucharist says to us and the world to pull together, not apart. The Eucharist says to us and the world to unite, not isolate. The Eucharist says to us and the world to build bridges across our divisions, which are but a facade in God’s imagination.  In God’s imagination, each one of us is a beloved child of God made in God’s very image, given intrinsic value and worth, just as we are, not for who we will be. Regular participation in the Eucharist is not about obligation, but about resisting the world’s imagination and participating in God’s imagination of Communion.

 Like the prophets of old, we are called into this work of prophetic imagination, discerning God’s imagination and imaginatively sharing it with the world. Like the disciples in today’s Gospel, we are sent into the world to offer alternatives to its imagination, to birth new images of how life could be based in God’s mercy, love, and grace.