The One About Mr. Rogers

Comments Off on The One About Mr. Rogers

Preached at St. Anne’s Episcopal Church – Tifton, Georgia

John 15:9-17

 

Love
is
the thing.

What you and I come here
week after week to do—
what we come
to talk about,
to bask in,
to bathe in,
to breath in,
to receive, and handle, and give—
is love.

Love is the nature
of the Lord our God.
Love is the lifeblood
of the Body of Christ.
Love is the hallmark
of the Christian life.

Love
is
the thing.

If you don’t believe me,
just count up how many times
you hear the word “love” today.

Between the prayers in our liturgy
and the words in our scriptures,
we’ll clock in today at a minimum
of at least twenty-five.

Twenty-five times,
you and I will hear or say
the word “love” today.

It should be crystal clear, then,
that love
is
the thing.

And yet,
how mightily
we struggle
to love.

I can’t tell you how many times people have told me,
“Fr. Lonnie, I want to be a more loving person,
but I am really struggling with . . . “
and then fill-in-the-blank.

The blank is different for everybody,
but it’s also the same.
Maybe it’s your co-worker.
Maybe it’s that person at the family reunion.
Maybe it’s the person with whom you sleep.

We like the idea of love—
the vague notion of love—
but every time you think you’ve got it figured out,
there’s always that one person
who pops up,
steps in,
pushes every button,
and makes you realize
that when it comes to love,
you definitely are not Jesus.

Unfortunately,
I think this feels more and more true
in these divided times
as we’re yelling at one another through our screens
and making each other’s blood boil,
all without getting up from our phones, laptops, and televisions.

I recently heard someone say
that the defining sin of our generation
is not sex,
or gluttony,
or greed.

It’s wrath. [1]

As a society,
we are an angry bunch of people,
and we are failing one another
when it comes to love.

So what can we do?
We have come here today
in search of an encouraging word
and the love of the living God.
What can we possibly do
in the face of all this wrath?

Well, today we’re going to do
the only thing we can do:
we’re going to talk about Jesus,
and we’re going to talk about Mr. Rogers.

*     *     *

First, Jesus.

In all the scriptures we read today—
in all those twenty-five mentions of love—
you’d think we’d find the golden key,
the perfect answer that would make love easy . . .
but I’m afraid it’s not that simple.
Or maybe it is,
just not in the way we want it to be.

Here are three things we learn from Jesus about love today:

One, we learn that
love is a commandment.
Jesus tells his disciples,
“This is my commandment,
that you love one another
as I have loved you.” [2]

That’s fine, but the sorry truth is that
we as a species have been allergic to commandments
since those very first days
and the incident with the tree
in the Garden of Eden.
We have a hard enough time keeping the Big Ten,
and to quote the Apostle Paul,
“[We] do not understand [our] own actions.
For [we] do not do what [we] want,
but [we] do the very thing [we] hate.” [3]
If love were simply a matter
of following a commandment,
we’d have it down by now.

The second thing we learn is that
love is a sacrifice.
Jesus goes on to say,
“No one has greater love than this,
to lay down one’s life
for one’s friends.” [4]

While we do often see heroic acts
of sacrificial love among humanity,
the sad truth about many of us
is that we also have a hard time
even clicking the “like” button
for half our “friends” on social media.

And lastly,
to mix Jesus and the rock band Boston,
love is more than a feeling.
Jesus says,
“As the Father has loved me,
so I have loved you;
abide in my love.” [5]

In other words:
linger in love,
wait in love,
endure in love,
remain in love,
stay in love,
live in love.

Love is more than a feeling.
It’s an abiding place.
It’s about how you live
and who you are
to your very core.

But if you’re anything like me,
you know that living a life of perfect love
is darn near impossible,
especially when it’s all up to us.

So there we have it.
Love is a commandment.
Love is a sacrifice.
Love is a way of life.
And none of those truths
make love any easier.

*    *     *

So as I was considering all of this earlier this week,
I wondered aloud,
“Lord, has there ever been
a righteous soul
capable of such love?”

Then lo and behold,
across my computer screen
came an unexpected visitor:

Mr. Rogers.

Many of you remember Mr. Rogers
and visited daily in his low-budget PBS neighborhood,
filled with puppets, pianos, and hand-knitted cardigans.

Turns out, they’ve made a documentary of his life,
which comes out this June.

If the trailer is any indication,
it’ll be a tear jerker.
I sat and watched it four times in a row,
and I blubbered like an idiot.
At a time when we’re all
yelling through our screens,
it was a balm to my soul
to hear the old, familiar voice
of a kind man and gentle man
who spoke truthfully to us
every day.

Fred Rogers—the Presbyterian minister turned children’s TV host—
had a knack for turning everything on its head
in a way that pointed to the kind of love I think we’re after.

Margy Whitmer, producer of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,
says in the trailer, “If you take all the elements
that make good television
and do the exact opposite,
you have Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.
Low production values,
simple sets,
an unlikely star,
and yet . . . it worked.” [6]

You see, Fred Rogers
was one of those rare persons
who understood the love of God
and understood what Jesus meant
when he described love as
a commandment,
a sacrifice,
and a way of life.

As for the commandment to love,
there’s a moment in the trailer
when a little girls walks up to him during a show,
taps him on the knee, and says,
“Mr. Rogers, I want to tell you something.”
“What would you like to tell me?” he asks.
“I like you,” she says.
“Oh, I like you, my dear,” he says,
“Thank you very much for telling me that.”
You get the sense that the conversation
probably carried on from there. [7]

They say that in moments like this,
the person in front of Mr. Rogers
was the only person who mattered,
especially if it was a child.
He took time and paid attention.
He tarried and lingered with people.
Maybe it wasn’t so much because
he was following the command to love.
Maybe, more simply, it was just that
love commanded him.

But not everything in Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood
was sweetness and light.
His show carried on
through some of our nation’s
most turbulent times.
He knew what it meant
for love to be a sacrifice.

In the trailer, they show footage
of an angry white man
frantically pouring jugs and jugs of bleach
into a newly integrated swimming pool
where black children were playing in the water.

It was at this moment in history,
when integration was still a hot-button issue,
that one of Mr. Rogers’ most iconic episodes aired.
On a hot summer day, Officer Clemmons,
the black police officer played by François Clemmons,
stops by Mr. Rogers’ yard where he’s soaking his feet in a kiddie pool.
Gently, kindly, Mr. Rogers invites Officer Clemmons
to sit and put his feet in the kiddie pool, too,
and the two sing a song about how
“there are many ways to say I love you.”

And at the end,
as Officer Clemmons prepares to leave,
Mr. Rogers leans down,
and in an act that should evoke every Episcopalian’s—
indeed, every Christian’s—
memory of Maundy Thursday,
he picks up a towel
and dries Officer Clemmons’ feet.

The meaning was not lost on America.

It was kind.
It was right.
But the truth is,
it could have gotten them both killed,
or at least in a lot of trouble.

Fred Rogers knew about sacrificial love.

But perhaps my favorite story is the one
that has to do with abiding in love.
Journalist Tom Junod from Esquire captures it best:

“Once upon a time, there was a boy
who didn’t like himself very much.
It was not his fault. . . .
This boy had a very bad case of cerebral palsy,
and when he was still a little boy,
some of the people entrusted to take care of him
took advantage of him instead
and did things to him that made him think
that he was a very bad little boy,
because only a bad little boy
would have to live with the things he had to live with.

“In fact, when the little boy grew up to be a teenager,
he would get so mad at himself
that he would hit himself, hard,
with his own fists and tell his mother,
on the computer he used for a mouth,
that he didn’t want to live anymore,
for he was sure that God didn’t like what was inside him
any more than he did.

“He had always loved Mister Rogers, though,
and now, even when he was fourteen years old,
he watched the Neighborhood whenever it was on,
and the boy’s mother sometimes thought that Mister Rogers
was keeping her son alive.

“She and the boy lived together in a city in California,
and although she wanted very much for her son to meet Mister Rogers,
she knew that he was far too disabled to travel all the way to Pittsburgh,
so she figured he would never meet his hero,
until one day she learned through a special foundation . . .
that Mister Rogers was coming to California
and that . . . he was coming to meet her son.
 
“At first, the boy was made very nervous
by the thought that Mister Rogers was visiting him.
He was so nervous, in fact,
that when Mister Rogers did visit,
he got mad at himself and began hating himself and hitting himself,
and his mother had to take him to another room and talk to him.

“Mister Rogers didn’t leave, though. . . .
He just waited patiently,
and when the boy came back,
Mister Rogers talked to him,
and then he made his request.

“He said, ‘I would like you to do something for me.
Would you do something for me?’

“On his computer, the boy answered yes, of course,
he would do anything for Mister Rogers,
so then Mister Rogers said,
‘I would like you to pray for me.
Will you pray for me?’

“And now the boy didn’t know how to respond. . . .
The boy was thunderstruck
because nobody had ever asked him
for something like that, ever.

“The boy had always been prayed for.
The boy had always been the object of prayer,
and now he was being asked to pray for Mister Rogers,
and although at first he didn’t know if he could do it,
he said he would, he said he’d try,
and ever since then he keeps Mister Rogers in his prayers
and doesn’t talk about wanting to die anymore,
because he figures Mister Rogers is close to God,
and if Mister Rogers likes him,
that must mean God likes him, too.” [8]

Now, all of that is wonderful,
and it speaks to what it means
to “abide” in love,
and to invite others
to “abide” in love with you.
As always, Mr. Rogers took the usual expectation,
and flipped it on its head.

But it goes deeper.

The journalist heard about this
and complimented Mr. Rogers

“on being so smart—
for knowing that asking the boy for his prayers
would make the boy feel better about himself.”

But Mr. Rogers responded with confusion, and then said,

“Oh, heavens no, Tom!
I didn’t ask him for his prayers for him;
I asked for me.
I asked him because I think that
anyone who has gone through challenges like that
must be very close to God.
I asked him because I wanted his intercession.” [9]

That, my friends,
is what it means to abide in love.
To love
so honestly,
so patiently,
so plainly,
that it happens
with zero calculation.

Fred Rogers didn’t ask for the boy’s prayers
because it would make the boy feel good.
Fred Rogers asked for the boy’s prayers
because he loved that boy,
and he trusted the boy’s innate belovedness of God
to serve as a conduit of God’s grace.
They abided in love.

*     *     *

Now, here’s the thing.

Lest you think I’m telling you
that we all have to go be Mr. Rogers,
I’m not.

That’s not the point today,
for there would be no grace in that.

I’m not telling you to go be like Fred Rogers.
I’m not even telling you to go be like Jesus.

What I’m actually telling you is that real love—
the kind of love Jesus talked about,
the kind of love Mr. Rogers sought to offer,
the kind of love that turns the world upside down—
actually isn’t something that comes from within you.
It’s not something
that you have to summon up,
or mimic,
or manufacture,
or manipulate.

No, the grace of it all is deeper and simpler than that.

What I’m telling you is that
all the love we share,
all the love we receive,
all the love we give away . . .
comes to us and through us
purely as a gift from God.

For this is fourth and most powerful thing
Jesus tells us about love today:
“You did not choose me, but I chose you.” [10]

It’s one-way love, no strings attached,
which is precisely what made Mr. Rogers’ brand of love
so inviting, contagious, and true.

So the lesson today
is not that you should go love
like Fred Rogers
or like Jesus Christ,
for none of us ever truly do anything
from the vantage point of “should.”

No, the lesson today
is simply that
this is how Jesus loves you:
love as strong as a commandment,
love that is willing to sacrifice,
love that abides.

Whether you want it or not—
whether you deserve it or not—
you get to “walk in love as Christ loved us.” [11]
Whatever good works may come—
whatever beauty emerges from your life,
whether it’s of the Mr. Rogers variety
or any other kind—
is simply the fruit of the love
that God so graciously planted in you
in the first place.

*     *     *

In this angry world,
where we’re all yelling through our screens,
it’s nice to be reminded of those
who have shown us in the simplest ways
the commandment of love,
the sacrifice of love,
the abiding place of love . . .
simply by allowing God
to love through them.

Truth is,
you’ll never be Mr. Rogers,
and you’ll certainly never be Jesus.

But you are and always will be
a beloved child of God.
What you allow God to do with that love
is pure gift.

Love
is
the thing.

And as two friends once sang
with their feet in the water
on a hot summer day:
there are many ways
to say I love you.

Amen.

 

 

 

[1] Jacobs, Alan. “Gifts (That You Didn’t Mean and I Didn’t Want).” Mockingbird Conference. 27 April 2018, Parish of Calvary-St. George’s, New York. Keynote Address.
[2] John 15:12
[3] Romans 7:15
[4] John 15:13
[5] John 15:9
[6] “Won’t You Be My Neighbor? – Official Trailer.” YouTube, Focus Features, 20 March 2018, https://youtu.be/FhwktRDG_aQ.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Junod, Tom. “Can You Say . . . Hero?” 6 April 2017, Esquire. https://www.esquire.com/entertainment/tv/a27134/ can-you-say-hero-esq1198. Accessed 2 May 2018.
[9] Ibid.
[10] John 15:16
[11] Ephesians 5:2

Special thanks to the Mockingbird Podcast for their coverage of Fred Rogers, which inspired this sermon.