Won’t You Be My Neighbor?: I Like You As You Are

Scripture: Matthew 3:13-17; Psalm 139

[Begin with the theme song to Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood][1]

How many of you here have some sort of connection to Mister Rogers? Either you watched him as a kid, or your kids watched him? (Or maybe you watched him not as a kid; not judging.) I know not all of you here grew up in this country, and so our levels of familiarity may vary: Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was a children’s public television program that ran from 1968 to 2001, and you’ve just seen its theme song.  It’s likely that even if you didn’t grow up with Mister Rogers you’ve been introduced to him in the past couple of years through the massive comeback he has been enjoying in popular culture, including the movie that just came out this fall starring Tom Hanks.

I watched Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood growing up.  And then a couple years ago, when Mister Rogers was first starting to become cool again, I went back to watch a couple old episodes, and the first thing that struck me was just how slow they were.  There was nothing loud or flashy or really funny, just a guy sitting there and talking to the camera as if he were talking to the kids on the other side of it in real life.  He changes his shoes and feeds his fish and plays with puppets.  And to be honest, I was a little bit bored.  But I also kind of got it.  Because we live in this world where anxiety is high, news is fake, and everyone is always trying to sell us something; and there’s something in us that longs for something that’s not gimmicky, and someone we can actually trust to be honest with us in a gentle sort of way.

Basically, Mister Rogers is cool by virtue of being profoundly uncool.

One of his big draws is that, watching Mister Rogers, you get the impression that there on the other side of the camera is someone who cares about you as a person.  In fact that’s one of Mister Rogers’ most consistent messages to the kids, and others, who watched his show: I like you as you are.

Let’s listen to the song.  [Song: I Like You As You Are][2]

The messages of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood were never overtly religious, but they were often deeply theological.  Many of you probably know that Fred Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister, called to a ministry of media.  When he says he likes us as we are, we may hear echoes of Genesis 1, in which God creates the heavens and the earth and all that is in them and calls them good, and then God creates humankind in God’s own image, and looks on everything God has made and calls it very good.

We hear this assertion of goodness echoed again in Psalm 139, which we read together.  Here the Psalmist is reflecting on the impossibility of being able to escape from God’s presence  – God knows them completely, all their comings and goings, every word on the tip of their tongue. And in fact, we learn, God has known the Psalmist from long ago: For it was you who formed by inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.  I praise you, the Psalmist writes, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.

How many of us can affirm that: that we are God’s own good creation, that God created each of us just as we are and looked at the finished product and called us good?  Is it hard to believe, sometimes, that God actually made you as God meant to?  Not to be thinner or stronger or funnier or smarter or more put together – but just as you are?

My guess is that this isn’t a hard thing to believe in general, that God knew what God was doing when God made us.  But it’s the kind of thing that can be hard to believe in particular.  God created me just as God intended.  You (yes, you) are fearfully and wonderfully made.

It’s one of those things we need to be reminded of, because we spend a lot of our lives hearing the opposite: Lose weight.  Get clearer skin.  Marie Kondo your house. Get the A.  Be a perfect parent.  Grow your church.  Don’t forget to save for retirement.

Maybe if you do all those things you’ll be good enough.

But God says you are good, and you are loved.

It’s likely that Fred knew this is something kids needed to hear because he needed to hear it as a kid himself.  As a boy he was shy, overweight, and frequently sick, and he was bullied.  One particular day school was dismissed early and he decided to walk home, and not far into his walk he heard footsteps behind him and then a cry of “Hey, Fat Freddy! We’re going to get you!”  He started to run, and they ran too, and finally he sought shelter at the house of a family friend that was on his route home, and the bullies gave up and left him alone.[3]

Even at the height of his popularity, Fred Rogers never forgot that day when he narrowly escaped the school bullies.  I think the experience of being bullied as a kid is one you never really do forget.  I know as I read that story, I was transported back to my fifth grade bus stop, where a sixth-grade boy in my neighborhood made sure to make every morning as terrible as he possibly could for me by making fun of my weight, which wasn’t actually that much above average, and my acne, which certainly was.  I tried to laugh it off, which is what they always taught you to do in elementary school so as not to give the bullies more ammunition, but that never seemed to go like it was supposed to.  It got to the point where my mom had to start driving me to another bus stop a mile away just so I wouldn’t have to wait there anymore.

I only remember a handful of the things that bully actually said to me, but I do remember very clearly how it felt to walk to the bus stop each morning wondering what D__ F_____ was going to say today, and even worse, the worry that lingered far beyond that year, that maybe he was right.

Like Fred Rogers, I was lucky to be surrounded not only by a loving family and friends who legitimately liked me, but also by a supportive church community, where I always felt like I was valued and my gifts were honored and celebrated, even from a young age.  I think I picked up implicitly what Fred Rogers said once in an interview: “Christianity to me is a matter of being accepted as we are.  Jesus certainly wasn’t concerned about people’s stations in life or what they looked like or whether they were perfect in behavior or feeling.  How often in the New Testament we read of Jesus’ empathy for those people who felt their own lives to be imperfect, and the marvelous surprise and joy when they felt his great acceptance.”[4]

There might be some of you who are shaking your head at the idea that all Christianity is about is acceptance as we are.  And actually, I agree.  Christianity is about acknowledging our brokenness, and God’s grace and mercy that are greater than our brokenness.  Christianity is about confession and repentance, letting go of the old in order to live into something new.  Christianity is about recognizing the one who saves us when we can’t save ourselves, and, for Methodists in particular, accepting and responding to the grace God offers us to grow in holiness over the course of our lives.  Yes, God loves and accepts us even in our brokenness, but if I were able to bring Fred Rogers back from the dead and have a conversation with him today, I think I might ask him about his theology of sin.

Even the Psalmist back in Psalm 139 doesn’t stop at “fearfully and wonderfully made.”  They move on to ask God to search them and know them.  “Test me and know my thoughts,” they write.  “See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”  We can choose to read this as an earnest prayer or a challenge, but for now, at least, I choose earnest prayer.  “Fearfully and wonderfully made” is the truth, but not the whole truth – it is still possible for there to be “wicked ways” in us. “I like you just as you are” is a nice and necessary message, but it is not, on its own, deep theology.

But I don’t actually think that Mister Rogers – shall I say Reverend Rogers – was a shallow theologian, or that he was naive about the “wicked ways” that exist in us as humans.  There is a difference between the goodness of how we are made – what we look like, our loves and hopes, our strengths and weaknesses – and the ways we reject God’s love and goodness – our prejudices, the ways we look out for Number One.

But what if the two are connected?

Fred Rogers remembered a favorite seminary professor saying this: “Evil will do anything to make you feel as bad as you possibly can about yourself, because if you feel the worst about who you are, you will undoubtedly look with evil eyes on your neighbor and you will get to believe the worst about him or her.”

“Jesus,” Fred added once in an interview, “would want us to see the best of who we are, so we would have that behind our eyes as we looked at our neighbor, and we would see the best in him or her.  You can be an accuser or an advocate.  Evil would have you be an accuser in in this life.  Jesus would have you be an advocate for your neighbor.  That statement undergirds all of what I do through the Neighborhood and everything I try to do in living.”[5]

In my own words, as I try to put all of this together, knowing that we are created good, that we are both loved and loveable, is the starting point for being reconciled to God and to our neighbor.  Everything else – confession, forgiveness, sanctification – begins from there.

We opened worship today by reading Matthew’s account of Jesus’ baptism, which was itself a starting point: the beginning of his ministry. Maybe it’s no coincidence that that ministry begins with an affirmation: “This is my Son whom I dearly love; I find happiness in him.”

Baptism is a starting point for us, too.  It’s the official beginning of our faith journey, the taking on of a new identity, one that says we are God’s children first and foremost, before anything else, and no matter what the world may tell us.  And while we are not Jesus, and the words perhaps mean something different for him, I believe those words are meant for each one of us too: You are God’s beloved, and God delights in who you are.

From there, the journey begins: a journey of repenting, over and over, of everything that prevents us from believing that about ourselves, and everything that prevents us from believing that about our neighbor.

It’s not as easy as it sounds. But God’s grace is abundant along the way that Jesus shows us.

In a moment, after we sing, I’m going to invite you forward to remember your baptism, or if you have never been baptized, then to consider accepting God’s invitation to live as God’s beloved child.  And as you do maybe you will think of these words:

I like you as you are
Exactly and precisely
I think you turned out nicely
And I like you as you are

I like you as you are
Without a doubt or question

Or even a suggestion
‘Cause I like you as you are

I like your disposition
Your facial composition
And with your kind permission
I’ll shout it to a star

I like you as you are
I wouldn’t want to change you
Or even rearrange you
Not by far

I like you
I-L-I-K-E-Y-O-U
I like you, yes I do
I like you, Y-O-U
I like you, like you as you are[6]

 

You are fearfully and wonderfully made by a God who loves you just as you are.

Your job is to go out there and live like it.

 

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eInUUfyqa5o

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uww5Izgfack&t=6s

[3] Shea Tuttle, Exactly As You Are: The Life and Faith of Mister Rogers, p. 10

[4] Exactly As You Are, p. 24

[5] Exactly As You Are, p. 58-59

[6] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uww5Izgfack

Holy Strangers

Scripture: Matthew 2:1-12

When I was growing up, I thought my grandmother was the most faithful Christian I knew.  I thought this primarily because of her piety.  She was a devout Catholic who was old enough that she had a hard time getting out of the house, increasingly so as I grew up, but she made sure to watch mass on television each week. I would often watch her sitting on her chair praying the rosary, beads in hand.  And when we talked she would add “God willing” onto the end of any future plans, no matter how simple.  It may have been mostly force of habit, but it was also an acknowledgment of the truth I so rarely thought about as a child, that the future isn’t entirely up to us.

When I was in college, my campus minister, David, became my mentor and model of a faithful Christian.  Among many reasons, one was his knowledge.  I admired the way he could quote C.S. Lewis or Dietrich Bonhoeffer just like that, not just as a matter of trivia, but always bringing something new into the conversation.  David opened up new and richer ways for me to think about my faith, bringing in the wisdom of people who had traveled this path before, always inviting reflection and conversation in a way that helped me to experience the call to follow Jesus in an entirely new way.

When I was in seminary I once heard a sermon preached by a United Methodist deacon named Nancy, who had served as a missionary overseas and was then working at a church in Atlanta.  Part of her job at the church was receiving people who showed up asking for help, and in the sermon she talked about a time a young woman showed up at the church in tears.  This young woman was an immigrant from Pakistan who had found herself here in a bad situation with no place to go, and so Nancy brought her home, and she ended up living with Nancy and her husband for six months.  One of my favorite Bible passages even then was Isaiah 58: Isn’t this the fast I choose: …to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house? And as I listened to Nancy tell this story, I thought, wow, that’s not just rhetorical – people really do that.  In just one sermon, she challenged me to practice my faith more boldly and more literally – and I thought she must be the epitome of a faithful Christian.

Do you know people like that?

The truth is that no one of these people was probably a perfect model of faith in all its aspects, but my own faith was blessed by each of them in turn, and by their commitment to prayer, to thoughtful theological reflection, and to boldly living out the Gospel.  And of course, my faith has been formed and defined and deepened and challenged by many other faithful Christians along the way, all of whom have blessed me with the particular gifts they had to impart.

Today is Epiphany, the Sunday of the church year when we read the story and sing songs of some people who ride into the Christmas story bearing gifts of their own.  It is the end of the Christmas season and a time to celebrate God’s unfolding self-revelation in Jesus.

The three wise men, or magi, or sometimes kings (and actually Matthew doesn’t even say there were three of them) who come from afar are familiar faces in most of our nativity scenes.  They roll into Jerusalem asking the Roman-Empire-sanctioned puppet king Herod for information on the whereabouts of this new king whose star they have seen at its rising.  They find him in Bethlehem, where they kneel in front of the manger and worship. They return home by another route, careful to avoid giving the current king any information on where to find the new one.

The story doesn’t end there, because when Herod realizes they’re not coming back, he gets angry, and vows to kill all the children in Bethlehem who are under two, just to cover his bases; and the Holy Family flees to Egypt, leaving home to seek safety across borders and risking their lives on the welcome they will receive in a foreign land until Herod dies. That’s our obligatory reminder that the charming and rustic Christmas story is actually shrouded in violence, which probably makes it more relevant to today’s world than we usually care to remember.

But before they go and set all that in motion, the wise men impart gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh (possibly the strangest baby shower ever.) Whether or not Matthew intended it, tradition has given these gifts meaning, as we sang about in the song: gold for a king; frankincense for a god; myrrh, the embalming spice, foreshadowing death.  Their gifts give us new information about who this baby is.  Somehow, it seems, from their reading of the stars, they knew something others did not.

That’s all the more interesting for the fact that these wise men are not Jewish.  We don’t know where they are from except that it’s somewhere in the east, beyond the borders of Israel and Judah. The hope for a Messiah born among the Jewish people is not their hope.  The Scriptures that are said to foretell his coming are not their Scriptures.  The kingdom over which he will be king is, as far as they know, not the kingdom or empire or land in which they live.

In the words of Barbara Brown Taylor in her book Holy Envy, “their appearance in Bethlehem is as surprising as a delegation of Methodist bishops arriving in Dharamsala to recognize the next incarnation of the Dalai Lama.”

I imagine the wise men were blessed by this encounter, their epiphany.  How could they not have been?  Whether they knew all the details or not, they got to look in the face of God.  Their appearance at the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel immediately opens up the significance of this child’s birth, taking it from local to global – the blessings of Emmanuel, God With Us, extend beyond our cultural identities and borders.

But the wise men bring their own blessings to the story, too.  Not just precious metal or incense or spices, but new insight into who this child is and how to honor him that potentially even goes beyond that of those closest to him.

And yet, as Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, “Once they deliver their gifts to the starlit baby boy, they go back to where they came from, presumably to resume their vocations as Zoroastrian priests.”  They come into the story as outsiders, and as far as we know, that’s how they leave it, too.  They “enter stage left,” Taylor says, “deliver their blessing on the Christian gospel, and exit stage right, leaving their mark on a tradition that is not their own.”

I opened today by telling you three stories of faithful Christians who gave me gifts that shaped and transformed my faith.  But now let me tell you about three other people who have done the same.

When I was in high school, I knew a girl named Alisa, who was Muslim.  I never knew Alisa very well, to be honest; I’d be surprised if she remembered me now.  But we were in Model UN together, and one day we stayed after school to set up for a Model UN conference together.  As we set up, the time came for her to pray, as Muslims are instructed to do five times a day, and I watched her find an empty corner of the room, kneel facing Mecca, and bow as she said the prayers.  In the years since I have traveled to majority-Muslim countries on multiple occasions and heard the call to prayer sounding from mosques at the appointed times throughout the day, and I have always thought it was beautiful to be reminded to stop and remember God in the chaos and busyness of one’s day.  But I also remember Alisa, who did it on her own, who made that time when no one around her was reminding her or making time, and I wished that my Christian commitment could be as great as her Muslim one.

When I was a sophomore in college, I took my first class in the Religious Studies department, called History and Religion of Ancient Israel.  It was basically an overview of the Hebrew Bible and its historical context, taught by Julie Galambush, an American Baptist pastor turned Reform Jew.  I had always considered the Old Testament to be a little on the dry side, to be honest, but the way Professor Galambush told its stories and filled in the gaps made it come alive for me.  I can still hear her voice telling us about the debate we can read in the pages of 1 Samuel about whether or not the people of Israel should be ruled by a king: We want a king! We want a king! the people said, to the prophet Samuel’s chagrin.  Despite having learned all the top Bible stories in Sunday School as a kid, I honestly don’t know if I would be here in front of you today if I hadn’t fallen in love with the Bible for the first time in Professor Galambush’s class.

When I moved here to Arlington, I met a local imam named Mehmet.  Maybe some of you have met him, too, at the dinners we were sometimes invited to at his mosque during Ramadan.  Mehmet’s job has since changed, but his calling has remained the same, and that is to work for friendship and understanding among people of all faiths and to work together for peace and justice in our world.  Mehmet, as far as I can tell, lives his faith with such consistency and integrity that nearly everything he does, even everything he posts on Facebook, points toward this purpose, and I have found myself challenged and inspired to be that committed to these things I also believe in.

My Christian faith has been deeply shaped by other Christians who have showed me in different ways what it looks like to love and follow Jesus.  But it has also been blessed by the gifts of these Jews and Muslims, among other people of other faiths, and sometimes people who profess no faith as well.

None of that is to say that our differences don’t matter, or that we’re really all the same when you get down to it anyway.  These are people who told a somewhat different story than I do, who believed some different things, and practiced their faiths and lived out their core values in ways that I do not, and yet they had gifts to give to me that have made my own faith richer, just like my grandmother and my campus minister and a Christian preacher did.

It seems to me that as the world stands on the brink of war, as our denomination stands on the brink of schism, as all the cultural forces around us demand that we see ourselves as “us” and “them,” creating enemies out of people who don’t have to be, that it couldn’t hurt to move through this world with our eyes a little more open to the gifts of holy strangers.

And maybe along the way I’ll part of someone else’s story, too – someone who will perhaps never quite tell the story the same way I do, but who will know a little more of God’s love and mercy and welcome through me; who will be richer for the gifts I have to offer, from my Scriptures and my beliefs and my spiritual practice and my faith.  I at least hope that that might be the case.

I know the story I have to tell.  It’s the story of a God who became one of us, who embodied love and broke barriers and invited us into bold, sacrificial, abundant life.  And it’s a story that’s big enough for all of us – faithful friends and holy strangers alike.