God’s Neighborhood: Spiritual Wisdom from Mister Rogers

Sermon preached at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church on All Saints’ Sunday.

Ecclesiastes 4:9-12

Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help. Again, if two lie together, they keep warm; but how can one keep warm alone? And though one might prevail against another, two will withstand one. A threefold cord is not quickly broken.

 

1 John 4:7-21

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.

By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world. God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. So we have known and believe the love that God has for us.

God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us. Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.

***

It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood,
A beautiful day for a neighbor,
Would you be mine? Could you be mine?

It’s a neighborly day in this beautywood,
A neighborly day for a beauty,
Would you be mine? Could you be mine?

I have always wanted to have a neighbor just like you,
I’ve always wanted to live in a neighborhood with you.

So let’s make the most of this beautiful day,
Since we’re together, we might as well say,
Would you be mine? Could you be mine?
Won’t you be my neighbor?

Won’t you please, won’t you please,
Please won’t you be my neighbor?

 

This was the song that Mr. Rogers sang at the start of every episode of his children’s television show, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. Over the course of 31 seasons, he sang that song nearly 900 times, while he exchanged his suit jacket for a red sweater and his dress shoes for sneakers. And while he sang, he looked directly into the camera, so that each child sitting in front of their television screen would know he was talking directly to them, inviting them to be his neighbor, that they were loved and wanted just the way they were.

 

As one of those children he spoke to, I fully believed it.

 

I came late to Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, as a child in the 90s. For children of my generation, he was a grandfather as well as a teacher, a neighbor, and a friend. For thirty minutes a day, Mr. Rogers introduced me to different kinds of people and professions—and puppets!—, showed me how things were made, played make-believe games with me, taught me how to express and handle emotions that sometimes seemed too big for my child’s body, and mostly, reminded me over and over and over again that I was loved and wanted in the world. Those messages, planted so deep in me by Mr. Rogers and by others who followed in his way of love, acceptance, and kindness, carried me through dark days when I wasn’t so sure I had a place here at all.

 

You see, Mr. Rogers was far more than a television star. In fact, that was probably the title he would least prefer. Many people do not know that Mr. Rogers was, in fact, Reverend Rogers; he was ordained a Presbyterian minister in 1963—ordained specifically to the ministry of children’s television! Sadly, Mr. Rogers is not the kind of person we tend to think of when we hear the word televangelist—yet surely he preached the good news of God’s love, faithfulness, and kindness better than most who have claimed the role. Mr. Rogers never talked directly about his faith on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, yet every choice he made was born out a deep and lasting sense of God’s call.

 

It is often joked that if Presbyterians canonized saints, Fred Rogers would be at the top of the list. And on this day when we remember all the saints—who, for us protestants, are all those who sought faithfully and imperfectly to live as God’s children—I am glad to lift up the life and legacy of “Saint Fred.”

 

Fred Roger’s shows are suffused with the language of faith and spirituality—perhaps most obviously in it’s very title. The idea of the neighborhood, and of neighborliness, comes directly from scripture. “From referring to the setting of his show as a “neighborhood,” to starting each show by greeting the viewers with “hello neighbor,” he made the word “neighbor” a keyword in the vocabulary of the show, and the children who watched it. … The Old and New Testaments both speak regularly of how we treat our “neighbor” as an essential part of God’s law, and multiple gospels tell us that when Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was, he pointed to two verses from the Torah: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and strength” (Deuteronomy 6:4), and “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18).” (Rev. Emily Brown, “Be My Neighbor”)

 

In a time of segregation, Fred Rogers was deeply aware that many actual neighborhoods did not stretch the capability of children to love those who were different from them. Mr. Rogers worked to create a kind of neighborhood where all were welcome—people of different ages and races, professions and abilities, talents and flaws. Knowing that the television could bring a new face right into a child’s home, Fred aimed to turn strangers into neighbors, and enemies into guests.

 

Mr. Rogers Neighborhood is a slow show. A gentle show. Fred made a point of speaking slowly, of doing small, quiet, repetitive things, to make his show an oasis for children in need of gentleness of solace. But it was from this very gentleness that he was able to address some of the hardest and harshest issues from his day.

 

Mr Rogers debuted in February of 1968, when frustration—sometimes violent frustration—over America’s long and unjust practices of segregation and legalized racism was at a boiling point. Just two months later, in 1968, James Earl Ray murdered Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis. There were riots and uprisings in black neighborhoods all across the country. In response to the televised images of white police officers confronting and sometimes beating young black men and women, Fred Rogers decided to introduce a new character to the neighborhood: Officer Clemmons.

 

In this video, singer and actor Francois Clemmons tells the story in his own words.

Our scripture from 1 John today reminds us that Love is another name for God; that we are called to love our brothers and sisters not just with words but with actions. I don’t know if you caught in that video the moment when Fred and Francois soaked their feet in a little swimming pool. It looks like nothing more than two friends enjoying a moment’s rest; but it was aired in a time when in many parts of the country, black and white people could not swim in the same pool. Not long before the show aired, a white hotel manager had poured acid into his pool when he found black folks swimming there. Against news reels of burning black bodies, Mr Rogers’ cameraman pans in slowly so America’s children—black, white, Hispanic, Asian, native, and all other races—could see his tired black feet resting near Mr. Rogers’ white ones.

 

The moment was so powerful that the two repeated it thirty years later, on Officer Clemmons last appearance in the show.

 

Our Old Testament scripture today from Ecclesiastes, reminds us of the power of two—although often read at weddings, it says nothing about romance, but about the power of two friends to lift each other up, keep each other safe, bear each other’s burdens. On Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, Fred sought to connect people together, across distances and airwaves, across races and cultures, across religions and lifestyles. Because he knew that wherever there are two—wherever there are two people learning about each other, playing together, loving each other—then God is front and center. A threefold cord, as scripture says, is not easily broken.

 

Mr. Rogers was, in many ways, a radical man. A radical saint. Not loud or flashy, but quietly working for decades to shape America’s children in the paths of love. And there are stories—thousands of stories—of children who took the lesson of love, and ran with it, surviving abuse, setback, or hatred, to live lives that shared the gospel of Mr. Rogers—which was, really, just the gospel of Jesus—with others.

 

Mr Rogers Neighborhood went off the air in 2001, and the Reverend Fred Rogers himself died just two years later. But the values he lived—abiding in God’s love for all—are needed now just as much as ever. I wonder who I think about as my neighbors, and if my heart is as expansive as it should be.

 

Mr. Rogers said, “We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility. It’s easy to say ‘It’s not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem.’ Then there are those who see the need and respond. I consider those people my heroes.”

 

Who should I be inviting into my home and my heart, if I am to truly live out love the way my saints and heroes have? How can I be the kind of hero Mr. Rogers would be proud of?

 

For saints in scripture and saints on screen, I give thanks. Amen.

 

 

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