Blessed Are the Fully Human: Spiritual Wisdom from Fred Rogers

Sermon preached at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church for the Twenty-Seventh Sunday of Ordinary Time.

Matthew :1-12

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

 

***

On television, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was the happiest place to be, full of friends and neighbors stopping by to chat or play, a place of safety and compassion where all kinds of people got along.

 

But the neighborhood where Fred Rogers actually grew up—Latrobe, Pennsylvania—was not quite as idyllic.

 

His actual street looked quite nice. Fred Rogers grew up in one of the wealthiest families of Latrobe, the son of one of the most successful businessmen in town. But as a child, Fred suffered from asthma, and his parents isolated him in a loving but perhaps overzealous attempt to keep him healthy. Without other children to play with, a lonely Fred’s natural introversion became full blown shyness, and he struggled to make friends at school.

 

“I used to cry to myself when I was alone,” he said. “And I would cry through my fingers and make up songs on the piano.”[1]

 

He was bullied at school, known by his classmates as “Fat Freddy.” Sometimes, when walking home, other boys chased him, saying, “we’re going to get you.” Set apart by his wealth and family name, his sickness and loneliness, and his own special, unchildlike dedication to music and the arts, Fred knew what it was like to feel like a stranger in your own neighborhood.

 

Even as Fred Rogers grew up, becoming Mister Rogers, than Reverend Rogers, he never forgot, the way some adults seem to, that children can and do experience the full range of human emotion—from elation to despair, rage to amazement, terror to determination. In his television program, he wanted to help children handle these huge feelings. In fact, Mister Rogers Neighborhood was born out of Fred’s own feelings—he said once in a CNN interview, “”I went into television because I hated it so, and I thought there’s some way of using this fabulous instrument to nurture those who would watch and listen.”[2]

 

Mister Rogers was deeply concerned that television shows aimed at children were often cartoons filled with violence and conflict. While adults might not find them very realistic, for children, being taught to handle anger by shooting a gun or even slinging a pie could be very compelling. In 1969, then-President Nixon proposed slashing funding for public television. Fred went to Washington, to testify before a senate subcommittee exactly why the kinds of messages his show championed were so necessary. He was not yet a famous national celebrity, had no particular clout among the over 10-demographic; yet he went.

 

You can watch the full hearing for yourself, but it is striking; Mister Rogers, as ever, is neat, quiet, meticulous, slow, measured, earnest—the very antithesis of your average politician. The chairman of the subcommittee was known as a bulldog for slashing budgets, and he demonstrates some impatience, even sarcasm, with Mr. Rogers deliberate testimony early on. But as Mister Rogers explained about the show, something began to change. I invite you to watch Mister Rogers testimony, 50 years later.

That last song that he quoted—What do you do with the mad that you feel?—is one that I still remember from my childhood. Too often, children are told—in fact, adults are told too—that our job is to be nice and happy all the time, never sad, never angry, never scared. Mister Rogers gave me permission to feel my own feelings, and to do something about them. Most psychologists recognize that even if we pretend not to be angry, or sad, or scared, those feelings will still come out—just sideways, and we often end up hurting ourselves or others more than if we’d dealt with them directly.

 

Like some of you, I have always loved the beatitudes, for the blessings they offer on the full range of human experience. Blessed are the poor, the grieving, the humble, the frightened, the unsatisfied, the guileless, the bullied.

 

It is a blessing to respond to painful things with sorrow, and not fake a smile. It is a blessing to respond to unjust things with anger, and not pretend everything is fine. It is a blessing to respond to amazing things with humility, and admit we don’t have all the answers. It is a blessing to live with a pure heart, and not give it up for the sake of the crowd. It is a blessing to respond to the hardships of life with the emotions God gave us to match them, and a blessing further to feel God’s love for us in such stark contrast—to feel the peace, joy, safety, richness, welcome of God’s arms even in the midst of hard moments in life.

 

Mister Rogers knew that most adults were uncomfortable with their own feelings, and impatient with those of children. He reminds us, “People have said, “Don’t cry,” to other people for years, and all it has ever meant is, “I’m too uncomfortable when you show your feelings. Don’t cry.” I’d rather have them say, “Go ahead and cry. I’m here to be with you.”

 

And he was. He was with children who were afraid they might go down the drain in the bathtub with all the water—he even wrote a song about it. He was with children who were sad or angry about parents divorcing. He was with children who were grieving the loss of a pet. He was with children the day after John F Kennedy was shot, explaining gently what the word assassination was, and allowing the puppet Daniel Tiger to mirror the fear and sadness and confusion of his audience. And even though his last episode was August 31, 2011, he came back one year and twelve days later, to reassure children who might be frightened by the replays of 9/11 footage—and frightened adults who had spent 365 days living in a world of terrorism, war, and deep uncertainty—that there might still be hope for the world, and closer than they’d thought.

 

In the TV spots, Mister Rogers’ hair is grey and his hands are wrinkled, but his voice is as sure and steady as ever, as he addresses the children he helped raise, now the adults of a new America:

 

“I would like to tell you what I often told you when you were much younger. I like you just the way you are. And what’s more, I’m so grateful to you for helping the children in your life to know that you’ll do everything you can to keep them safe. And to help them express their feelings in ways that will bring healing in many different neighborhoods.”

 

At the heart of Christianity is the story of a man named Jesus, God come to earth to walk among us, God who wept, God who was furious, God who laughed, God who had friends, God who was lonely, God who sang, God who was hungry, God who feasted, God who was harassed, God who was tortured, God who was loved. To pretend that this God can only accept us when we are nice and pleasant and happy is to underestimate God’s empathy, and to push away the full power of God’s love.

 

So one more beatitude, that I think both Mister Rogers and Jesus would sign off on: blessed are those who feel, for they will know the fullness of what it is to be a true child of our incarnate God.

 

Amen.

[1] Amy Hollingsworth, The Simple Faith of Mr. Rogers

[2] Schuster, Henry (February 27, 2003). “Fred and me: An appreciation”. CNN.com.

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