Won’t You Be My Neighbor?: Sometimes People Are Good

Guest preacher: Rev. Sarah Harrison-McQueen

Scripture: Philippians 2:12-16

 

Video clip: Sometimes People Are Good: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ro2qQuWUEs0

Sometimes people are good
And they do just what they should.
But the very same people who are good sometimes
Are the very same people who are bad sometimes.
It’s funny, but it’s true.
It’s the same, isn’t it for me…
Isn’t it the same for you?

 

Many of us want life to be simple – to be able to divide into categories: good people and bad people. That’s what we see so often today in the polarizations of society, politics, and our churches. We want people who are good to be all good. And we act like people who are bad are all bad. But, Fred Rogers knew it was more complicated than that, as you heard him sing in the song he wrote in 1967.

In the last few years there have been numerous books written about the life of Mr. Rogers, who was ordained in the Presbyterian church so he was also Rev. Rogers. Two films were released in the last two years about his life and television ministry. There are some people so enamored with the way that Mr. Rogers lived, and with the wisdom that he shared with generations of children here in the U.S., that they might consider him a saint – some type of perfect person, different from the rest of us.

An artist created this icon of Mr. Rogers. He appears in his iconic red sweater, and is pictured along with the puppet, King Friday, and the neighborhood trolley. This icon labels him, “Saint Fred.” When we call someone a saint we are recognizing God’s light shining in them so brightly is it as though they are “like stars in the sky” to use Paul’s words from his letter to the church at Phillipi. Too often when we hear the word “saint” we conjure an image of someone so holy that we can’t imagine living that way ourselves.

The filmmakers who created the movie, “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” asked Mrs. Rogers for her blessing on the project. They stated to reporters, “She really only had one request: that we not treat her husband as a saint.”[i] Let’s listen now to a short clip of an interview with Joanne Rogers as she shared why she doesn’t like it when people call her husband a saint:

Video clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9W7eF26jzEA

So, Mr. Rogers wasn’t a saint in some unattainable way. He was a saint in the same way you and I are saints: when we say “yes” to the work of God in us and when we choose to “walk the walk.” Joanne Rogers said there was, “a sense of hard-work and inner discipline to his work.”[ii]

I believe that what Mrs. Rogers describes was the way that Fred Rogers worked out his “salvation with fear and trembling.” (Philippians 2:12b) He said “yes” to the work that God wanted to do in him and to do through him.

Paul is clear in his letter to the church at Phillipi. When we work out our salvation we are not working for our salvation. We cannot earn God’s love. Nothing we can do can cause God to love us any more – or to love us any less. Instead, when we say, “yes” to the work that God wants to do in us and through us, we acknowledge that we are working out our salvation because as Paul wrote, “for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.” (Philippians 2:13)

Allowing God to work in and through us allows us to become more holy – sanctified – more perfect in love. It’s not the kind of perfection that means we won’t ever make a mistake. Instead, it simply means that our hearts and lives are overflowing with the love of God which pushes out the room sin was taking up in our life. This is the only way that we could possibly, “Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that [we] may become blameless and pure.” (Philippians 2:14-15a)

From the accounts of Mr. Rogers that I’ve read and the ones I’ve seen portrayed on film he was a gentle and kind person.

But, he wasn’t one-dimensional. A Washington Post article about the 2018 Mr. Rogers documentary stated:

…the documentary doesn’t deify Rogers. It shows him as someone who struggled at times — with his lonely upbringing, and with the enormity of the problems that he hoped to explain to kids, such as the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

“He wasn’t . . . this being of pure goodness who sort of existed on some other plane,” [Nicholas] Ma said. “He was someone who said, okay, well, what’s the best version of me that I can bring to the world, and how do I really make sure that I create that?”[iii]

We might think it was easy for Fred to be “blameless and pure” as Paul put it, but Mrs. Rogers shared in an interview that it wasn’t easy for Fred. He worked at it. He had a number of spiritual disciplines that were foundational for his life. He got up every day by 5:30 a.m. for prayer, reflection, and Bible reading. He kept a long list of names and prayed for people individually.

His prayers didn’t end there but continued into his daily swim. Before diving into the pool, he would sing (out loud but not too loud) “Jubilate Deo,” a song Henri Nouwen had taught him from the Taizé community in France. “Jubilate Deo, jubilate Deo, alleluia (Rejoice in the Lord, rejoice in the Lord, alleluia),” he would sing and dive in. He emerged from the pool ready to face a new day with a fresh slate, as if wet from baptism.[iv]

Mr. Rogers embraced a disciplined life of prayer. So what we see in his life and in the show that was his ministry is the spiritual fruit of that discipline. Every morning he woke up and said, “yes” to God at work in him. That is how he worked out his salvation with fear and trembling. Those words might seem a little scary for us, so I looked in another translation, and that translator put it: with “awe and reverence.” Mr. Rogers worked out his salvation with awe and reverence. He not only prayed for others, but he believed so strongly in the power of prayer that we would ask other people to pray for him. His wife stated in another interview:

He would ask people who were very disabled, challenged. He would ask those people to pray for him. And, Tom Junod, who was the real journalist in the story, asked him: “Oh, are you doing that just because you want to make them feel good?” And he said, “Oh, oh, not at all. Not at all. I just feel that people who have gone through as much as they have are very close to God.”[v]

This journalist, Tom, whose life was changed by his friendship with Mr. Rogers tells of another time when he visited Mr. Rogers at his office in Pittsburgh. There he got to meet Deb. She was a minister at Fred Rogers’s church. Tom wrote:

She spent much of her time tending to the sick and the dying. Fred Rogers loved her very much, and so, out of nowhere, he smiled and put his hand over hers. “Will you be with me when I die?” he asked her, and when she said yes, he said, “Oh, thank you, my dear.”

Then, with his hand still over hers and his eyes looking straight into hers, he said, “Deb, do you know what a great prayer you are? Do you know that about yourself? Your prayers are just wonderful.” Then he looked at me. I was sitting in a small chair by the door, and he said, “Tom, would you close the door, please?” I closed the door and sat back down. “Thanks, my dear,” he said to me, then turned back to Deb. “Now, Deb, I’d like to ask you a favor,” he said. “Would you lead us? Would you lead us in prayer?”

Deb stiffened for a second, and she let out a breath, and her color got deeper. “Oh, I don’t know, Fred,” she said. “I don’t know if I want to put on a performance….”

Fred never stopped looking at her or let go of her hand. “It’s not a performance. It’s just a meeting of friends,” he said.

He moved his hand from her wrist to her palm and extended his other hand to me. I took it and then put my hand around her free hand. His hand was warm, hers was cool, and we bowed our heads, and closed our eyes, and I heard Deb’s voice calling out for the grace of God.

What is grace? I’m not certain; all I know is that my heart felt like a spike, and then, in that room, it opened and felt like an umbrella. I had never prayed like that before, ever. I had always been a great prayer, a powerful one, but only fitfully, only out of guilt, only when fear and desperation drove me to it…and it hit me, right then, with my eyes closed, that this was the moment Fred Rogers—Mister Rogers—had been leading me to … the prayer I’d been waiting to say a very long time.[vi]

When we allow God’s grace into our lives; when we cultivate habits that allow us to say “yes” to grace again with every new day we allow God’s light to shine in us, just like the stars in the sky that Paul wanted us to be. We become beacons of God’s grace in this world. We allow others to encounter God’s light and love for themselves, just by being who we are when we say “yes” to God’s work in us and we choose to walk the walk.

I don’t know what spiritual disciples were important to Pastor Deb. All I know is that she must have been saying “yes” to God’s grace on a regular basis so that God’s light would shine in her. She was the beacon of light that day for the journalist, Tom, so that he could discover God’s grace in his life.

Paul wanted the Philippians to shine like stars. The phrase “shining as stars in the universe [can also be translated], “appearing as luminaries in the world.”[vii] Sometimes, thinking of shining like a star in the sky is like thinking of Saints – far away and untouchable. But, when we think about appearing as a luminary in the world that’s easier to imagine.

Paul wanted the Philippians “to be luminaries (light-bearers) in the world … and thus be witnesses for Jesus Christ.”[viii] This means allowing God’s light to shine through us, whether that light is like a small candle, a flashlight, or torch, or a bonfire as we are ablaze with the light and love of God in us.

For most 21st-century people, stars are merely beautiful objects in the night sky; but for people in the first century, stars were not only beautiful, … stars were also indispensable in navigation. The movements and patterns of the stars showed direction, and travellers [sic] studied and watched them carefully on their journeys.[ix]

By holding close to the light and love of God we become like the stars in the sky, helping others navigate a path to God. We can be beacons of God’s light and love in this world.

Mr. Rogers allowed the light of God to shine within him. And, he invited us to also be light-bearers. By reminding us that we are loved and are capable of loving others he invited us to live a life modeled on Jesus Christ.

[His] faith surfaced in subtle, indirect ways that most viewers might miss, but [his faith] infused all he did. He believed “the space between the television set and the viewer is holy ground,” but he trusted God to do the heavy lifting. The wall of his office featured a framed picture of the Greek word for “grace,” a constant reminder of his belief that he could use television “for the broadcasting of grace through the land.” Before entering that office each day, Rogers would pray, “Dear God, let some word that is heard be yours.”

Mr. Rogers told kids they mattered, that they were worthy of love, and that emotions were to be embraced, not buried. He spoke to children like grown-ups, and helped them tackle topics such as anger, trust, honesty, courage, and sadness.[x]

He gave children the gift of acknowledging that life is complicated. We want good people to be saints without any flaws. Friends, when you and I open our lives to the work of God’s grace in us we are then counted among the saints of God.

That means the very same people who are good sometimes are the very same people who are bad sometimes. My prayer for us today is that we are brave enough to say “yes” to God at work in us, so that we too can “work out our salvation” and allow God’s light and love to shine brightly in us as we beacons of grace that Paul calls us to be.

 

[i] https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/movies/story/2019-11-26/mister-rogers-widow-legacy-a-beautiful-day-in-the-neighborhood

[ii] History, Captivating. Fred Rogers: A Captivating Guide to the Man Behind Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood (p. 27). Kindle Edition.

[iii] https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/my-family-knew-mr-rogers-and-yes-he-was-like-that-in-real-life/2018/06/07/095503f0-6815-11e8-bf8c-f9ed2e672adf_story.html

[iv] Hollingsworth, Amy. The Simple Faith of Mister Rogers (pp. 20-21). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.

[v] https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/social-issues/mister-rogers-widow-talks-about-her-husbands-lived-faith-love-of-routine-and-view-on-death/2019/11/22/95069338-0d40-11ea-97ac-a7ccc8dd1ebc_story.html

[vi] https://www.esquire.com/entertainment/tv/a27134/can-you-say-hero-esq1198/

[vii] https://margmowczko.com/philippians-2_12-18/

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/11/mister-rogers-saint/416838/

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?: What Do You Do With the Mad That You Feel?

Scripture: Psalm 137

I’ll come out and say what you might be thinking: this Scripture reading ends kind of heavy for a sermon series on Mister Rogers.  I’ve always felt that this is one of those psalms that gets off to a good start – the beginning is sad but beautiful, with this image of hanging up harps on the willows by the rivers of Babylon – but then we get to the last line and read something about dashing babies against the rocks and you think, wow, maybe we shouldn’t be reading this in church.  And certainly not on Mister Rogers day.  The man hosted a children’s television show, for goodness sake.

It may be tempting to think of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood as an opportunity for a bit of escapism.  Here we can put away the roughness of the real world for a while and enter into a nice neighborhood where days are always beautiful and people are kind and wear cardigans.  But the Neighborhood was never meant to be a place where children went to get away from the real world. Rather, it was a place where children were given tools to process the real world at a child-appropriate level.  Mister Rogers talked about things like death and divorce.  His puppets in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe acted out scenarios related to nuclear proliferation and preparing for war, always connected to things going on in the news at the time.  And, always, he talked to kids about their feelings, including anger, fear, sadness.

Last week we talked about Mister Rogers’ gospel of acceptance: that we are created good, and both he and God like us just as we are.  For Mister Rogers, part of being accepted as we are is knowing that our feelings are accepted too.  All of them, even the ones that don’t always seem so good or holy.  One of the songs Mister Rogers came back to again and again on his show was this one, What Do You Do With The Mad That You Feel.  Let’s listen to it now.

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.
For a girl can be someday a woman
And a boy can be someday a man.[1]

Like most things on the show, this song is addressed to kids, but its message is not just for kids.  Plenty of adults have trouble naming and expressing their feelings too.  I wonder sometimes if the church doesn’t make this problem worse: we may get the message, intended or not, that as faithful people we’re not supposed to feel certain kinds of ways.  If we are sad or mad, we’re not grateful or joyful (2 Blessed 2B Stressed)!  I know I’ve found myself buying into that idea kind of subconsciously at times – when I’ve gone through periods of depression or just had bad days, I end up feeling guilty that I’m not more grateful, when God has given me so much.

Unfortunately, when we can’t acknowledge and process our feelings, we often end up expressing them in unhealthy ways.  We bottle our anger in until we explode.  We suffer our sadness in silence, adding isolation to the mix.  We take our stress out on people who didn’t cause it in the first place.

That’s what Mister Rogers wants us to avoid.

It may be hard for us to believe that Mister Rogers ever got angry.  But he did.  One particular example involves a traumatic experience that happened to his son when he was young.  Johnny Rogers wasn’t even a year and a half old when he needed a hernia repair surgery.  It wasn’t supposed to be that big a deal, but when they got to the hospital, a nurse brought a crib on wheels that looked like a cage, grabbed Johnny, and wheeled him down the hall as he screamed, while Fred Rogers and his wife Joanne looked on helplessly.  They learned later that it took 45 minutes to get him sedated for the procedure, and he ended up needing extensive therapy on the other side of this surgery – not for anything physical, but for this traumatic experience of separation (which probably brings up lots of current events today.)  Even 25 years later, Fred Rogers said, “To this day I have nightmares about it, and I get so angry when I talk about it that I find it hard to be the least bit charitable.”[2]

Mister Rogers isn’t alone.  As much as we might like to imagine the Bible is full of holy, faithful people who simply close their eyes and say that everything happens for a reason, the truth is the Bible is full of stories of people unapologetically and unrepentantly feeling feelings, from brothers and sisters jealous of a more favored sibling to prophets afraid to fulfill their prophetic commissions to mothers who refuse to be consoled over the loss of their children.  Jesus himself got annoyed at people bothering him (and at his disciple’s inability to ever understand what he was trying to tell them), burned with anger at the hypocrisy of religious leaders, wept at the death of a friend, sweated drops of blood the night before his death as he begged for this cup to be taken from him, and cried out in abandonment from the cross.

Some of our most vivid examples of feelings as part of our holy story come from the part of the Bible meant to lead the congregation of God’s people in prayer, individually and together: the Psalms.  The Psalms run the gamut of human emotion: there are joyful songs where every line begins with “Praise the Lord,” Psalms that speak to calming an anxious soul (“Be still and know that I am God”); Psalms that cry out in forsakenness (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” quoted by Jesus on the cross); Psalms of confession and grief (“Cast me not away from your presence”); and angry Psalms (“may my enemies be like chaff in the wind.”)  All of these psalms and all of these feelings are included, not just to tell us how someone else might have felt a long time ago when they were writing them, but for our use in prayer, because undoubtedly over the course of our lives and sometimes even over the course of our days, we will feel all these ways, and at all those times, we are invited to pray.

Psalm 137 is in my opinion one of the best examples of the angry Psalms, also called imprecatory Psalms – the ones that wish smiting on the Psalmist’s enemies.  Of all the Psalms, these are the ones that are hardest to use in church.  When I am choosing Psalms to use for our call to worship I often find myself doing a little bit of selective editing, a little cut and paste, when we get to these parts, because the tone of a Psalm can turn on a dime sometimes, and we just don’t need to open worship asking God to zap our enemies.

I also believe that these Psalms have their place.

In 587 BCE, the Babylonian army rolled in Jerusalem, cast its leaders and elites into exile in other parts of the empire, and turned the city to rubble.  Psalm 137 is the prayer of grieving people who have been exiled from their homeland, who have seen God’s Temple lying in ruins as they were led away in chains, who are still vulnerable and afraid at the hands of their captors.  Sing for us, those captors taunt them, but how can they sing God’s song in a foreign land?  It’s not time for singing, it’s time for devastating grief.  And so that leads us to the final lines of this Psalm, which I hear as filled with anguish and helplessness: Daughter Babylon, happy are those who will repay you for what you’ve done!  Happy are those who take your babies and dash them against the rocks.

I’d be careful about how I prayed this one.  But it’s there.  No scribe surreptitiously took it out and put something else in its place.  There’s no footnote telling us how the Psalmist didn’t really mean it.  It’s just there, in all its big and raw and painful feeling.  Feelings like that are part of human life, and that makes them part of a whole and honest relationship with God.

Fred Rogers often quoted a mentor of his when he said “Everything human is mentionable, and everything mentionable is manageable.”[3]

In other words, it doesn’t help us to pretend that strong people, or grown up people, or good people, or faithful people, are above sadness and anger and pain.

What does matter is what we do with those feelings.  That’s the whole question Mister Rogers asks – what do you do with the mad that you feel?

The song gives us some options – do you get out your aggression by punching a bag – instead of someone’s face? Do you pound some clay or some dough, channel it all into creativity? Find some friends to do something fun and help drag you out of the pit of rage and self-pity?  Work off some energy by running really fast?  In real life, Fred Rogers talked about music being an outlet for his feelings, and in fact if you saw the recent Tom Hanks movie about him, that’s what we see in the very final scene –  Fred Rogers sitting down at the piano, mashing on some keys. He channeled his anger over his son’s traumatic hospital experience into his advocacy for children that went far beyond the screen, that even took him to Congress.

Feelings are human, he tells us, but they don’t have to control us.  We can (with God’s help, I would add) redirect our pain and our anger; they are a part of our story but we don’t have to let them write the next part of our story on their own.

When I think of Jesus getting mad, the first story that comes to mind for me is when he goes into the Temple at Passover and sees the moneychangers and knocks over their tables and fashions a homemade whip to chase them out.  It’s the kind of scene where if it were anyone but Jesus, I might tell them to go watch some Mister Rogers.  But there’s another scene that comes to mind, too, a very different one.

It happens in John, when Jesus has already begun to get into some public disagreements with the religious leaders.  They are caught between wanting to arrest him for blasphemy and rabble-rousing, and knowing the crowds love him.  One morning he is teaching in the Temple and the religious leaders bring in a woman who has been accused of adultery – caught in the act, so they say – and make her stand before him.  “Teacher,” they say, “this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery.  The law says we should stone her.  How about you?”

It’s a trap, you see.

How do you imagine Jesus must have felt at this moment? Far be it from me to enter into the mind of Jesus, but I think if I were him I’d be mad.  Mad that they are doing this, the very people who are supposed to represent God; mad that they are using this woman as a pawn in a conflict that has nothing to do with her.  And maybe sad that it has all come to this; afraid, even, of what comes after his answer.

So what does he do with all those feelings?

He is quiet for a moment, and then he looks down, and begins to write something in the dust of the ground.  They keep talking, trying to get him to take the bait, he keeps writing, and then finally he looks up and says, “Let anyone among you who is without sin cast the first stone.”  And then he bends down to write again.

No one really knows what exactly Jesus was doing.  Was he writing something for them to read?  Was he just doodling, refusing to engage?  Was he buying time?  No matter what, he acts in a way that changes the narrative.  He doesn’t let his feelings control him or his response, instead he pauses, and he thinks, and he catches them off guard with his refusal to be trapped, and in the end, his words are intentionally chosen, and one by one, the leaders leave.

This is the kind of transformative story you don’t get by denying or bottling up your anger, but by acknowledging it and deciding where to go from there.

Back by the rivers of Babylon, the captives from Jerusalem are grieving.  They are sad and angry enough that they hang up their harps on the willows; they can’t sing the old songs anymore.

The ironic thing is – what do they do with all that? They take a page right out of Mister Rogers’ book, and they write a song about it, and we call it Psalm 137.

And it’s a sad song, and an angry song, and it includes lament and curses and unspeakable wishes that as far as we know will never be acted upon, and that’s maybe even the point. This song isn’t a call for revenge.  It’s a real, raw offering of everything they have right now to God.  Because when you can’t sing the old songs anymore, sometimes you have to sing a new one.  And if you do, sometimes, if you make that offering because it’s the only one you can make, it will lead you back to the old songs again.  Or at least, some new ones in a major key again.

I’ll let Mister Rogers have the last word here in another song, The Truth Will Make Me Free:

What if I were very, very sad
And all I did was smile?
I wonder after awhile
What might become of my sadness?

What if I were very, very angry
And all I did was sit
And never think about it?
What might become of my anger?

Where would they go,
And what would they do,
If I couldn’t let them out?
Maybe I’d fall, maybe get sick
Or doubt.

But what if I could know the truth
And say just how I feel?
I think I’d learn a lot that’s real
About freedom

I’m learning to sing a sad song when I’m sad
I’m learning to say I’m angry when I’m very mad
I’m learning to shout, I’m getting it out
I’m happy learning exactly how I feel inside of me
I’m learning to know the truth
I’m learning to tell the truth
Discovering truth will make me free [4]

When we discover that truth about ourselves and aren’t afraid to tell it – then, with God’s help, we can write the next part of our story.

 

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F9E-I7yBwIc

[2] Shea Tuttle, Exactly As You Are: The Life and Faith of Mister Rogers, p, 66

[3] Exactly As You Are, p. 149

[4] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jEV51aU8R1Q

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.