Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
Scripture: Colossians 3:12-17
Good Morning. The last several weeks in our “Co-Workers in God’s Service” series we’ve been highlighting in our sermons those saints, both canonized and everyday, who show us what it means to work with God to help build the kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.
We’ve learned about Perpetua, Saint Francis, the founding leaders of United Parish- today we’re diving into the life and ministry of Mr. Rogers, or “Saint Fred the Neighborly”, as this mornings bulletin cover depicts him. I’d like a show of hands, who here has seen or listened to an episode of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood? Who here has seen or listened to an episode of Daniel Tiger? I’m so glad to see such a wonderful gathering of neighbors here today, and I bet Fred would be, too.
Fred McFeely Rogers was born to a very, very, very wealthy family in a small, small town in Pennsylvania. His parents were known in their community for their generosity and care, his father, Jim, taking the time to get to know each and every one of his employees, regularly checking in with them about their welfare and reporting any problems back to Fred’s mother, Nancy, who would then coordinate community aid efforts.
In addition to organizing a network of churches to assist families in need, Fred’s mother would regularly buy upwards of 1,500 Christmas gifts for people in the community who otherwise couldn’t afford presents, and the school nurse would regularly order clothing, shoes, etc. for children in need and simply send the bill to Nancy. As a teenager during the flu pandemic, Nancy even lied about her age to get a drivers license so that she could go and help hospitals and doctors offices by hauling away medical waste. Fred’s parents instilled in him a sense of community responsibility that went deeper than the typical ‘noblesse oblige’, and would undergird the direction of his career for decades.
As a child, Fred’s classmates bullied him about his weight, which later in life he reflected likely strengthened his sense of empathy and compassion, however at the time he often felt very lonely and isolated. He would channel his feelings into music, expressing his sadness or anger on the piano, or through the stories and scenarios he would make up for his puppets.
In fact, Daniel Striped Tiger was in many ways based off of Fred’s inner child- those fears, insecurities, and delights that he felt when he was young. That we all feel as children, and even as adults, really.
Fred was raised in the Presbyterian tradition, and sitting up in the pew with his mother during the worship services he would pepper her with questions about what he was hearing and learning- questions she would always answer as best she could- Fred later reflected that “the very act of asking questions and trying to answer them honestly was the key to growing and learning.”
Eventually, Fred discovered in himself a sense of calling to the ministry, and after college, he was accepted into seminary. And then… he discovered television. He saw potential in this new medium for both destruction and edification. He hated how most children’s programming seemed geared toward selling products, turning children into consumers instead of helping to raise and nurture them. Fred became determined to use television to create and promote educational programming for children. So he put off going to seminary and took a job instead with NBC.
After a few years, he co-founded local educational TV station WQED, and eventually produced The Children’s Corner, an educational puppet show, where beloved characters like Daniel Striped Tiger, King Friday, and X the Owl made their debut.
He eventually enrolled part-time at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary while simultaneously producing Children’s Corner, AND studying at the Arsenal Family and Children’s Center with child psychologist Margaret McFarland, psychologist Erik Erikson, and pediatrician Dr. Spock.
Once he graduated seminary, Fred received a special charge from the Presbyterian church to minister through the medium of television. Not too long after, the beloved show Mr. Rogers Neighborhood was born. Fred’s commission was to evangelize for television- and evangelize he did.
Through Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, Fred used music, storytelling, and lovingkindness to teach children that feelings are mentionable and manageable. Along with neighbors like Officer Clemens, Mr. McFeely, Lady Aberlin, and many more, Fred taught children how to clothe themselves in compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. In doing so, Fred’s television show preached the essentials of Jesus’ ministry…rarely ever even mentioning God. (though one of the few times the show did was in a song that referred to god as She).
Just as his mother had modeled for him all those years in church, Fred believed children were to be respected, and their feelings, their hopes and questions and fears weren’t to be dismissed. This belief was not just rooted in his own experience of his mother’s attention and respect, but in the very fabric of his faith. Fred believed much of the miracle of Jesus Christ was his authenticity as a human being, how his experiences were genuine, authentic childhood, adolescent, and adult experiences.
He once wrote in a sermon, “Like so many other teenagers absorbed in their own pressing, growing needs, Jesus got scolded and went home with his parents. All this is to say that Jesus, the Christ, the Son of the Living God, was not only born a baby, he grew through all the stages of becoming an adult human being that each one of us grows through. He felt the pains of separations, the shames of being scolded, the joys of knowing that he was worthwhile, the frustrations of trying to convince people of the truth, as well as the angers that everyone knows”
Fred continued, You see, I believe that Jesus gave us an eternal truth about the universality of feelings. Jesus was truthful about his feelings: Jesus wept; he got sad; Jesus got discouraged; he got scared; and he reveled in the things that pleased him. For Jesus,” Rogers said, “the greatest sin was hypocrisy. He always seemed to hold out much greater hope for a person who really knew the truth about themselves even though that person was a prostitute or a crooked tax collector. Jesus had much greater hope for someone like that than for someone who always pretended to be something he wasn’t.”
Songs like “It’s Hard to Wait”, “You Can’t Go Down the Drain,” and “The Truth Will Make Me Free” validated children’s feelings, reassured them about things that may seem scary, and modeled how we can express ourselves and our feelings truthfully. It was important to teach children to name and talk about their feelings, Fred believed, because once we can name and accept our feelings, its much easier to accept ourselves, and much easier to make healthy choices about what to do with our feelings.
You see, Fred sought to encourage children not just to be in touch with their feelings, but also to develop their own sense of self-control and capacity for self-discipline. Take for example the lyrics to this song:
What do you do with the mad that you feel
When you feel so mad you could bite?
When the whole wide world seems oh, so wrong...
And nothing you do seems very right?
What do you do? Do you punch a bag?
Do you pound some clay or some dough?
Do you round up friends for a game of tag?
Or see how fast you go?
It's great to be able to stop
When you've planned a thing that's wrong,
And be able to do something else instead
And think this song:
I can stop when I want to
Can stop when I wish
I can stop, stop, stop any time.
And what a good feeling to feel like this
And know that the feeling is really mine.
Know that there's something deep inside
That helps us become what we can.
Fred taught children that it takes intention to turn thought into action – if we want to build something, or help someone, or learn a new skill, or achieve something, we need to put effort into making that happen. Similarly, Fred taught that we can stop ourselves from becoming violent or aggressive even when we have angry feelings or violent thoughts. In a letter to a pair of siblings in Pennsylvania, Fred explained, “Sometimes children think that feeling angry with another person can hurt them, but it can’t. It’s only the things we do when we are angry that can hurt.” How freeing it is to know that our feelings need not control us, and that within each of us is the power to choose healthy ways to express our feelings, to express who we truly are.
Earlier in the year, Kent preached about how repentance means to turn around, to course-correct the path you’re on. Fred was teaching children that they have the capacity for repentance, that they are in control of themselves and that it is never too late to stop, turn around, and do the right thing.
Interestingly, Fred was often criticized as being too soft or encouraging or for sheltering children from the harsh realities of life… in fact, were he alive today, I’ve little doubt that there might be politicians and pundits decrying him as the enabler of a “snowflake generation.” At the time, pundits on Fox and op-eds in the Herald decried how Fred told everyone that they’re special, that they didn’t have to do anything to be special, they didn’t have to earn it. Fred ruined a generation, they said, churning out entitled narcissists whose belief that they are indeed special is what’s wrong with the world today….
Except, isn’t that what we affirm every week here- isn’t that what we just shouted, with gusto, “AMEN!” to?? Jesus teaches us that we are all beloved children of God, and we don’t have to do anything to earn that love. The love is there. The grace is there. We all have inherent worth and value. We are all special just by being ourselves. Just the way we are. That’s the basis for our theology. God loves us just as we are, all that we are.
Mr. Rogers so valued and embodied authenticity, and yet in many ways it was his authenticity that drew a lot of criticism, disdain, and satire. Many who’d seen him on TV assumed that his television persona was just that- a persona. That Mr. Rogers was a costume that Fred put on, a character he had created and would shed at the end of the taping session. And people took offence to what they assumed was all an act.
I can’t say I’m surprised, but nevertheless, it makes me sad to think just how accustomed we are to hiding and trying to re-shape our true selves in order to fit in or achieve certain ends, that we have such a hard time accepting that someone could be their true self so publicly.
To think just how accustomed we often are to deceit, arrogance, chauvinism, boastfulness, you-name-it, that we simply refuse to believe a person could truly be the opposite, clothing themselves daily in compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. You can’t get far on the internet without encountering various myths about Mr. Rogers- that he was a tattooed, former marine, or a retired sniper who racked up ‘kills’ in the Vietnam war, you name it. Biographer Maxwell King ponders, “it’s almost as if people, afraid of the influence of such a soft-spoken, gentle, and popular man, had to turn him into the opposite.” But isn’t that typically the case with the kind of counter-cultural love that followers of Jesus are called to embody?
Jesus continuously surprised, and perhaps even disappointed people, in beautiful and miraculous ways. Many had hoped the messiah would overthrow the Roman occupation, bringing about peace through military victory. Instead, Jesus taught us how to work towards a JUST peace. A peace built through loving our neighbor as ourself.
“Love is at the root of everything,” Fred once said, “all learning, all parenting, all relationships, love or the lack of it…and what we see and hear on the screen is part of who we become.” Love, love of self and love of neighbor. Love of our neighbor as ourself. Mr. Rogers Neighborhood taught generations of children and parents what it means to live into that kind of love, that kind of neighborliness. “The greatest thing we can do,” he once said, “is to let somebody know that they are loved and they are capable of loving.”
Fred led by example, showing that loving our neighbor is much more than sharing affection or affirmations. Mister Roger’s Neighborhood was a neighborhood of radical justice and inclusion-
Whether he was inviting Officer Clemmons, the first black man to have a recurring role on a children’s program, to join him in his wading pool at a time when public pools were still segregated,
or introducing the character Mayor Maggie 14 years before a black woman would become mayor of a major US City,
or depicting Lady Elaine Fairchild flying to Jupiter 10 years before Sally Ride became the first US woman in space and anchoring the neighborhood news years before Barbara Walters became the first woman to anchor a major news program,
or producing episodes that shed light on the presence of food insecurity and hunger after Regan’s administration denied any evidence of rampant hunger in the united states, Mister Rogers depicted a neighborhood that was a beloved community striving to live into the kin-dom of God. A neighborhood where we are loved just as we are, where we are encouraged to clothe ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.
And living into that kind of neighborhood, that kind of kin-dom begins with an invitation of radical welcome. If you know this song, feel free to join in and sing out.