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

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