Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
He was a lifelong Republican and an ordained Presbyterian minister. He graduated from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. He never had a church, but millions of young congregants watched him on tv from the late 1960s until the turn of the century. Fred Rogers show was an expression of the type of mainline Protestantism that was once the dominating morality in American life.
Mr. Rogers is preaching to America again. Fred Rogers, who died in 2003, is the subject of two major movies, one starring Tom Hanks coming out next year, and the other is a documentary playing now, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” For decades, his message was essentially one of grace: You are special just the way you are. God’s grace means you are loved just as you are; and at the same time, God’s grace means you are called and equipped to become more than you ever dreamed you could be.
On a trip to California in 1998, Mr. Rogers met a 14-year-old boy whose cerebral palsy left him sometimes unable to walk or talk. Mr. Rogers asked the boy to pray for him. The boy was stunned. He had been the object of many prayers, but nobody had asked him to pray for them. He promised he would try.
Afterward, a reporter named Tom Junod from Esquire Magazine complimented Rogers on finding a clever way to boost the boy’s self-esteem, but Rogers didn’t look at the situation that way at all: “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.”
And here is the gospel radicalism that infused that show: that the child is closer to God than the adult; that the sick are closer than the healthy; that the poor are closer than the rich and the marginalized closer than the celebrated. “In the gospel of Fred Rogers, children are our superiors in the way they trust each person they in the way they trust each person they meet, the way they lack guile, the way a child can admit simple vulnerability.” (By David Brooks, “Fred Rogers and the Loveliness of the Little Good,” NYT, July 5, 2018)
Famously, on May 1, 1969, Fred Rogers went before the Senate Subcommittee on Communications to argue against a proposed funding cut to Public Broadcasting System (PBS). Sen. John O. Pastore, the subcommittee chairman, had never heard of Mr. Rogers or seen any of his shows, but after only six minutes of testimony (including one song, recited from memory, about anger management), the politician went from being a dismissive foe to a lifelong fan. Morgan Neville, who directed the documentary in theaters now said, “Many people would call Fred a wimp, but what you realize in that moment is that Fred was the most iron-willed person out there… It’s Mister Rogers goes to Washington. It’s the perfect example of somebody speaking truth to power and winning.”
Fred Rogers was an unlikely hero just like every other hero in the bible. King David was the least regal of Jesse’s sons. The Apostle Paul wasn’t a good public speaker. His own townspeople dismissed Jesus as a simple carpenter, the son of Mary—implying Joseph was dead or had fled the scene, or perhaps that they knew about Jesus’ questionable parentage. (Mark 6:3)
Each of us is born into a place and story that identifies who we are and sets boundaries on who we can become. But rather than identify with any of these stories, our bible heroes instead live out the story of who they are—who each of us is—in God.
St. Paul writes that in Christ “power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor. 12:9) While the world jockeys for control, the church is called to reach out in service. While others work furiously to become invulnerable, the church is called to open its hand and heart to the least among us. While everyone else strives to be strong, the church prays for that power perfected in weakness, for power rooted in compassion and love. Only this kind of power can inspire trust and kindle faith. Only this kind of power builds up, draws people together, and makes room for the work of our hands for ourselves and each other.
Jesus, remember your place. You’re no Rabbi. You’re no Messiah! Barbara Brown Taylor calls our gospel and un-miracle story. The sad and astonishing thing about this story is that the townspeople’s resentment diminished Jesus’s ability to work on their behalf. “He could do no deed of power there,” Mark writes grimly. In some mysterious and disturbing way, the people’s small-mindedness, their lack of trust, and their inability to embrace Jesus life and mission kept them in spiritual poverty. We too must guard against becoming too certain in what we think we know to let ourselves be drawn by the Spirit into what we don’t. We too must continually cultivate the curiosity, openness, and vulnerability of a child.
First Jesus was rejected by those he loved and grew up with. Then he sent out the disciples to risk rejection for the sake of those God loves too. Jesus sent the disciples out even though they’re amateurs. Peter has not yet said, “You are the Messiah.” They have not yet experienced the Lord’s supper, or the crucifixion, or witnessed the resurrection. They have not yet been anointed by the Holy Spirit.
Jesus called the twelve and sent them out two by two to preach and heal and call others to repentance. They didn’t really know what they were doing, but Jesus sent them anyway, to learn by doing and by failing. And so, it is with life, we are all amateur human beings. We bumble along generation by generation and sometimes stumble into our humanity. Not by being safe. But by trying to emulate the one who gave his life in compassion. (Debie Thomas)
Holiness is often confused with personal power. A holy person is construed as one who is disciplined. He or she is a person with a rigorous code of conduct. Holiness is believed to be the expression of religious fervor, the measurement of oneself and others by a demanding litany of religious criteria. The problem with this way of seeing holiness is that it misses the very heart of what holiness is all about in the first place. (Daniel Clendenin, Journey with Jesus)
Don’t think you need a lot of special equipment or training in holiness to accomplish this task. You are the equipment. You and the Spirit within you to open your heart and fill you with the curiosity and compassion of a child.
With ordinary words and a gentle welcoming spirit, Mr. Rogers proclaimed the gospel. He taught us the last shall be first. We hear so much today that winners are better than losers, the successful are better than the weak. Somehow morality got reversed by an achievement-oriented success culture. But now there’s someone new in the neighborhood, someone who knows you and welcomes you like an old friend. Someone who loves you just as you are and calls you to become more than you ever thought it possible to become. “In Christ is our calling, in Christ may we grow.” (ELW # 575) In Christ is our home, our family, and nation. Like, little children, we pray that it may be so. Amen.