“The Gospel According to Mister Rogers”
Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Park Avenue Congregational Church, UCC
November 3, 2019
“For the mountains may depart
and the hills be removed,
but my steadfast love shall not depart from you,
and my covenant of peace shall not be removed,”
says the Lord, who has compassion on you.
“For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Today is Memorial Sunday, the day when we remember loved ones we have lost over the years. It’s also the day the church celebrates All Saints’ Day, when we remember the saints whose lives have touched ours, who have shown us by their loving, often courageous, examples how to follow in Jesus’ way.
And I bet you can guess which saint we’ll be learning from and celebrating today!
Fred Rogers is an iconic figure to many of us. If you were a child, or raised a child, any time from 1968 to 2001, you likely watched many episodes of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. He’s been the subject of multiple books and documentaries, including the hugely popular “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” (and he’s the subject of an upcoming movie starring Tom Hanks). If you have read or watched any of those, you’ll know that Mr. Rogers wasn’t only a children’s television presenter, but also an ordained Presbyterian minister. Despite never once mentioning God in his programming, Fred’s belief in God’s unending, compassionate love for each of God’s children saturated each episode.
This vibrant sense of God’s love for each person led to Mr. Rogers’ stance on issues of justice. In his first week on the air, he talked about the Vietnam War – in the land of Make Believe, King Friday the Thirteenth had built a wall to keep out the enemy, but his subjects breached it with messages of kindness and compassion, reminding his audience that is better to connect than dehumanize. At the height of desegregation, he shared a cooling foot bath in a kiddie pool with Officer Clemmons, one of the first Black characters to be featured regularly on a children’s television program. François Clemmons, the actor who played the officer, was gay and a lifelong friend of Fred and his wife Joanne, who embraced him as he was.
These stances make me appreciate Fred Rogers even more. But what I want to focus on today is what those stances grew out of: his unerring belief that each person is worthy of love and acceptance, and that knowing you are loved deeply for exactly who you are allows you to love others deeply, exactly as they are – certainly the work of the Gospel.
In Fred’s words, “You know, I think everybody longs to be loved, and longs to know that he or she is lovable. And, consequently, the greatest thing that we can do is to help somebody know that they’re loved and capable of loving.”
“The underlying message of the Neighborhood,” Rogers once said, “is that if somebody cares about you, it’s possible that you’ll care about others. ‘You are special, and so is your neighbor’—that part is essential: that you’re not the only special person in the world. The person you happen to be with at the moment is loved, too.”
He had a great philosophy on just how to do that, to live into the belovedness of those around us:
“I believe that appreciation is a holy thing, that when we look for what’s best in the person we happen to be with at the moment, we’re doing what God does; so in appreciating our neighbor, we’re participating in something truly sacred.”
“The more experiences I’ve had,” he said, “the more chances I’ve had to see the uniqueness of each person…as well as each tree, and plant, and shell, and cloud…the more I find myself delighting every day in the lavish gifts of God, whom I’ve come to believe is the greatest appreciator of all.”
I love that idea: God as the Great Appreciator. The One who not only sees us in our entirety, but loves us in our entirety, like a parent filled with tender affection for a child she knows is imperfect but can’t help loving anyway.
Isn’t that what we all long for – to be truly, deeply known, to be seen for who we are? Or maybe, rather, to be loved not despite someone knowing us fully, but because of knowing us fully, our dark places as well as our highlights?
“When I think about heaven,” Mister Rogers said, “it is a state in which we are so greatly loved that there is no fear and doubt and disillusionment and anxiety. It is where people do look at you with those eyes of Jesus.”
It’s transformative to be loved this way, and Fred Rogers knew that. I don’t think he necessarily cared whether the children watching his show knew or named that it was God who loved them; I think he simply wanted them to experience that love, God’s love – full stop. He hoped that this experience of love would translate over the airwaves, and he was right. There are countless stories of what Mr. Rogers’ TV program has meant in the lives of those who grew up with him, and those who encountered him as adults. I want to share two of them this morning, both from Amy Hollingsworth’s book The Simple Faith of Mister Rogers.
The first is about a child, and it’s told by Mr. Rogers:
“I have a young friend who was terribly abused as a child. He’s now nineteen years old. And his parents wouldn’t even give him a winter blanket and wouldn’t give him a bed to sleep in, and he found the Neighborhood and watched that program as he was growing up. His parents abused him so terribly that they finally reported, and both of them were sent to jail. And this young man…finally called [an abuse] hotline and was adopted.”
How did the Neighborhood help him? [Amy] asked.
He said that it gave him hope. He never knew that there were such kind people until he tuned into the Neighborhood. And you know we do treat each other with respect, naturally. Everyone should be treated with respect, but somehow people [understand], If it can happen here, maybe it can happen someplace else,” too.
We all have places – work, volunteer commitments, school, our own neighborhood – where we can model that respect and care and let someone else know that that is how they deserve to be treated as a child of God.
The second story is about an adult, and it’s told by Amy, the author.
“Cathy’s story began when she was in her late forties and finding it difficult to wrap up the work for her master’s degree. She had completed the research for her thesis, but the prospect of committing it to paper—and exposing it to the scrutiny of advisers and colleagues—proved daunting. What she perceived at first to be laziness, she says, after applying for several extensions, grew to be ‘more akin to terror.’ Attached to the completion of her degree were some childhood fears about being the ‘smart girl’ and some adult fears about the lovability of intelligent women: ‘Achieving meant being disliked and sometimes being hurt.’ …[S]he turned on the television one morning looking for distractions. She found Mister Rogers. ‘He was making a greeting card out of construction paper, carefully cutting pictures out of a magazine, planning how to paste them nicely and what message he would write. Then he looked directly into the camera and said, “It’s fun when you have a project. You have an idea for something you want to do, and then think about how you want to do it. It takes a lot of planning. I know it’s hard work. And I’m so proud of you for trying.” Mister Rogers’ gentle words sent a beam of light into the darkened room in my spirit where I’d been hiding in fear. I cried like a child that morning, snuggled in the La-Z-Boy by the TV, feeling old hurts melting away.’ He had said exactly what she needed to hear… Cathy began to watch every day. ‘It was uncanny how the simple messages of acceptance and encouragement helped me to write and be productive. I would almost hold my breath while Fred sang his songs, for so often they soothed some tender place in my heart.’ When [Amy] asked Cathy about her experience, she summed it up this way: ‘I feel like he did such a wonderful job of aligning himself with love and compassion—[with] God, in a word.’ Making a greeting card out of construction paper and a simple encouragement was somehow translated into the assurance of a loving, compassionate God.”
I had a conversation the other day about how so many of us, sometimes on a level so deep we’ve hidden it even from ourselves, don’t really believe we’re worthy of love. Or we believe that the good parts of us, the kind, caring, generous parts of ourselves are worthy of love – but not so much the difficult, selfish, darker parts.
The idea that we aren’t entirely lovable is responsible for a lot of the harm done in this world. From small-scale things like the critical, belittling voice in our heads or a hurtful word hurled at a spouse, to more complex things like abuse and addiction, to far-reaching problems like wars and dictatorships, we have difficulty accepting that anyone – let alone God – could possibly embrace us just as we are, with all our faults and rotten places. It’s, well, radical. Maybe even unbelievable.
Maybe it’s why we have, at the center of our faith, the unbelievable story of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
In the words of Mr. Rogers, “I believe that at the center of the universe there dwells a loving Spirit who longs for all that’s best in all of creation, a Spirit who knows the great potential of each planet as well as each person, and little by little will love us into being more than we ever dreamed possible. “It’s a mistake to think that we have to be lovely to be loved by human beings or by God. [Because] that loving Spirit would rather die than give up on any one of us.”
Can you imagine someone loving you – you – all of you – so much that they would die rather than give up on you?
As Tom Junod, the author of the Esquire article that is the basis for the upcoming Tom Hanks movie, wrote:
“Once upon a time, a man named Fred Rogers decided that he wanted to live in heaven. Heaven is the place where good people go when they die, but this man, Fred Rogers, didn’t want to go to heaven; he wanted to live in heaven, here, now, in this world,” so he shared that kind of love.
And if we can – if we can imagine that – or maybe even just catch a glimpse of it – that kind of love becomes reparative. It heals, it transforms, everything from abuse to shame to faulty stories about our worth we’ve been told all our lives. When we are convinced, at the most primal level, that we are loved, then things really get interesting – then we begin to live that love. To share it with others. To live not in judgment of ourselves or others, but in awe. In appreciation. And someone else feels seen, and loved, and liberated. And it goes on, and on, and on.
I could go on – and on! – about Mr. Rogers. But we only have so much time, and we have important things to do regarding Communion. But since it is Memorial Sunday, I’m going to close with Mr. Rogers’ invitation, given at so many convocations and awards ceremonies, to his audiences:
“All of us have special ones who have loved us into being. Would you just take, along with me, ten seconds to think of the people who have helped you become who you are? Those who have cared about you and wanted what was best for you in life. Ten seconds of silence. I’ll watch the time.”
“Whomever you’ve been thinking about, how pleased they must be to know the difference you feel they’ve made.”
I’ll have a few more of Fred’s words to share with you as we conclude the service – but for now, Amen.
“You know, we were just taping this afternoon about sharing. And as I broke that fig bar in two…and as I said, ‘I wish I could pass this through the television set,’ it just dawned on me – that was very much like the Eucharist, how it could be broken and offered to nourish others.”
“You don’t ever have to do anything sensational for people to love you. When I say ‘it’s you I like,’ I’m talking about that part of you that knows that life is far more than anything you can ever see or hear or touch…that deep part of you that allows you to stand for those things without which humankind cannot survive: love that conquers hate, peace that rises triumphant over war, and justice that proves more powerful than greed. So in all that you do, in all of your life, I wish you the strength and the grace to make those choices which will allow you and your neighbor to become the best of whoever you are.” Go in God’s peace.