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/

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