Numbers 11:24-30 † Ps. 104:24-34, 35b † Acts 2:1-21 † John 20:19-23
I have on the shelf of my study at home, right above my computer screen, a little book. It’s mostly red—suitable, I suppose, for this day of Pentecost, but the red is muted—not aflame so much as glowing, warm, like its subject. It’s not high risk red—a Pantone color that’s a favorite of my wife Barb’s—or a Fire Truck Red. It’s closer to Velvet Red, Pantone 194 for those of you keeping score at home. It’s gentle. The book’s title is also simple and understated: The World According to Mister Rogers and the subtitle, like its subject, simple and humble: Important Things to Remember.
For those of you who don’t know, Fred Rogers was a Presbyterian minister before he became a friend to millions and millions of children of my generation as the host of Mr. Roger’s neighborhood. I watched the program quite a bit as a kid, I think. But I came to know and appreciate Fred Rogers—I still feel like I need to call him Mr. Rogers—more as an adult and as a parent. His gentle, consistently loving, kind presence brings up something in me that is deep, a peace that somehow coexists with an aching longing for our better angels, for the more generous world that as far as I can tell, he modeled without fail.
He died a few years ago, but I found myself thinking of Mr. Rogers this week because of a video traveling the internet circuit. Perhaps you saw it. It was inspired, I suspect, by the release of the President’s budget, that included elimination of funding for Public Broadcasting and the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities.
This is not new with the current president. As many of us know, these institutions are commonly identified for elimination, especially among those who have a strong free market philosophy. I don’t think they are against good programming as much as they are opposed to the idea that the government should be in the business of making it.
My point isn’t so much about the funding cut, although I trust and hope our congressional representatives will recognize that the value of public television and radio as well as the Institute of Museum and Library Services and support for the Smithsonian Institution is worth far more than the .02 percent of the US Government’s budget that it receives.
My point is about Mr. Rogers and his voice and ours and the Spirit in it all.
The scene is 1969. Mr. Rogers—sorry, Fred Rogers, testified before the Senate Subcommittee on Communications to argue against President Nixon’s funding cut plan for PBS. Nixon wanted to cut funding in half—from $20 million to $10 million to help pay for the Vietnam War.
Speaking to Senator John O. Pastore, Rogers began, “One of the first things a child learns in a healthy family is trust. And I trust [you].” And on he went talking to Senator Pastore and the august panel of senators before him in much the same way he spoke to children through the television for many decades—simply, gently, honestly, in a straightforward and respectful way.
“This is what I give,” he continued:
I give an expression of care every day to each child, to help him realize that he is unique. I end the program by saying, “You’ve made this day a special day, by just your being you. There is no person in the whole world like you, and I like you just the way you are.”
And then, looking steadily at the senator, he made a case that I think speaks powerfully to our own time:
And I feel that if we in public television can only make it clear that feelings are mentionable and manageable, we will have done a great service for mental health. I think it is much more dramatic that two people could be working out their feelings of anger—much more dramatic—than showing something of gunfire. I’m constantly concerned about what our children are seeing.”[i]
Fred Rogers had six minutes, and at the end of it, the senator was moved—enough to announce: “Well, I’m supposed to be a pretty tough guy, and this is the first time I’ve had goosebumps for the last two days.” And funding for PBS was restored.
The miracle of Pentecost is that it was a joining of people. It wasn’t about new revelation. It was about new relationships.
Beyond the fireworks, beyond images of supernatural pyrotechnics the Acts story goes to great lengths to communicate that there is a spirit in the life of the people—in our life—that leads to transformation. Three verses are devoted to detailing all of the places of the world these people were from, the different languages they spoke, the different races that came together, the different world views they carried with them, the different religious backgrounds—and with it, the seeming impossibility of it all. But they all share something in common. There is a coming together, a transformation that defies our modern assumptions that the differences between us are insurmountable.
If we are to understand what happens in this Pentecost story and the happenings it suggests for our own stories, we will recognize it as an undoing of the tower of Babel, a reversal. Different languages there stopped the dreams of a people filled with themselves and not with God, but here the Spirit of God hovers over a sea of humanity, to form a new creation, a single people drawn together and filled with a spirit that is one as God is one.
The result of all the division and babbling here is not chaos as in the Genesis story, but precisely the opposite; the surprising result is the common understanding of a common belonging. It is the miracle we need these days when our reds and blues are so deeply rutted that we can’t even speak with our families anymore.
We need the miracle that allowed Fred Rogers to see the powerful senator from Pennsylvania not as a partisan, or an enemy, but as a child of God who made this day special, just by being him. We need all the Lord’s people to be these kinds of prophets no matter where they are—inside or outside the camp, in cities or coal country or somewhere in-between. We need that fire of love that is the only thing that will get us out of this mess we are in and dealing with what will make us whole.
The risen Jesus shows up and says “peace,” in the scene in John’s gospel. Then he shows them his scars. Scars that they, in their betrayal, had a hand in. It is as if to say peace has its scars. The way to peace is going to involve a little suffering, a little giving, a little pain, but there is something beyond. And if you don’t go through it, you don’t get there.
And then, sending them to be the difference the world needs, he breathes his spirit on them and one more thing happens. There is this strange line at the end of the scene. He says, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”[ii]
Forgiveness, too, is not an easy thing. It is a work. A hard work. It takes time. Sometimes it requires a miracle. It is, after all, a giving up of power—a giving up of what we’ve been holding onto. And sometimes it is the key to making it from one place to another, from death to life, from bondage to freedom: If you retain the sins of any they are retained, but if you forgive, they are forgiven and the new suddenly becomes possible.
The miracle of Pentecost is “a revolution of the intimate.” It is about a deep knowing, a deep understanding, a deep longing across all sorts of differences. It is about our ability to be a part of a coming together that is nothing less than a miracle, a thing of the Spirit that may be the only thing that can overcome evil. The radical joining of people without losing the truth of who we are.
It is what we need, and it is our work. Pray for a miracle. Pray for the Spirit. And act as if it depends on you.
[i] See “Watch Mister Rogers’ Heart-Melting Plea to Save Federal Funding for PBS in 1969 at thewrap.com. Retrieved June 3, 2017 at http://www.thewrap.com/watch-rogers-plea-to-save-federal-funding-for-pbs-47-years-ago-video/.
[ii] John 20:22b-23.
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