I Like You Just the Way You Are: Spiritual Wisdom from Fred Rogers

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

Psalm 139:1-18

O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
O Lord, you know it completely.
You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is so high that I cannot attain it.

Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light around me become night,”
     even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to you.

For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.
My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written
all the days that were formed for me,
when none of them as yet existed.
How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
 I try to count them—they are more than the sand;
I come to the end—I am still with you.

***

Mister Roger’s Neighborhood aired its last show in 2001. Just two years later, the Reverend Fred Rogers himself died of stomach cancer. Children and adults nationwide grieved the loss of a man whom most had never met, and yet who had been truly their friend.

Four years after that, a cable news show aired a series of segments attempting to pin on Mister Rogers all the supposed problems of a generation. Calling the Reverend Rogers an “evil, evil man,” the talking heads blamed him for everything they’d decided to hate about the burgeoning millennial generation—laziness, narcissism, self-centeredness, entitlement. Never mind that Mister Rogers’ show had run for nearly 40 years, beginning in the childhoods of the baby boomers. Never mind that the “expert” they cited, a professor from Louisiana State University, was a finance analyst who had merely mentioned Mister Rogers as a convenient cheap punch, rather than run any kind of scholarly research or sociological study. Never mind that every generation in human history has criticized the next for being lazy, selfish, and entitled. The network knew that division and hostility sell. They wanted to stir up hatred, and they decided to use Mister Rogers to do it.

Mister Roger’s fatal flaw? Love, of course. The pundits claimed he had been too loving, encouraged kids to like themselves too much. For forty years, he closed each show with the same words: “You’ve made this day a special day just by your being you. There is no person in the whole world like you. And I like you, just the way you are.”

I believe these words were at the heart of Mister Rogers’ theology. They come directly from his Christian faith, from his trust in a God who so loved the world that he sent his only son. Fred Rogers “was grounded in the certainty that each human is made in God’s image and likeness, beloved beyond measure, imperfect though we are. And he was grounded in the story of Jesus, who ministered to the influential and well-to-do, and to the marginalized and despised, with great love and care, and who told stories about the abundant love of God” over and over, hoping the message would at last break through.[1]

As an ordained minister of Christ’s gospel, Mister Rogers preached love, every single show. Mister Rogers knew each child he spoke to, each adult he worked with, was fearfully and wonderfully made. He was as reverent towards God’s creations as he was towards God. He loved people because God loved them.

Perhaps those cable talk show hosts were confused about what love means. I can understand why. For as much as we talk about it, share it, crave it, true love—love like God’s love—is an elusive concept to grasp.

Mister Rogers famously said, “Love isn’t a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun like ‘struggle.’ To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now” including “the lovely with the unlovely, the strong along with the fearful, the true mixed in with the façade[;] and of course, the only way we can do it is by accepting ourselves that way.”[2]

Our Psalm this morning reminds us that God knows us, inside and out. It begins with a humble admission:

“O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
O Lord, you know it completely.”
When God loves us, it is not a blind love; God knows every bit of us, every thought and word and choice, and loves us still. Not despite of who we are, but because of who we are: the artwork of God’s own design, knit together on God’s own loom.

Fred Rogers knew that Godly love is not the same as fawning adoration; not the same as telling someone the are perfect and sinless and don’t need to mature or work or strive. Both God and Mister Rogers, in episodes apparently missed by the cable talk show hosts, frequently encourage their children to learn and grow, whether that’s learning to tie their shoes, manage anger in healthy ways, or grow more deeply in faith. Godly love does not circumvent human growth; rather, it encourages it. When God loves, it is as a foundation, not as a reward. As Mister Rogers knew, from both his faith and his extensive study of child psychology, “Knowing that we can be loved exactly as we are gives us all the best opportunity for growing into the healthiest of people.”

You can scare a person into growing, but that growth will be stunted and half-hearted. You can shame a person into growing, but that growth will be uneven and resentful. Or you can love a person into growing, and that growth will be constant and confident. That is the kind of love with which God loves each of us.

It’s not a selfish love. Real love grows and multiplies; it’s in its DNA. Studies have shown that children who are neglected or abused growing up struggle to create loving relationships as adults—it is possible, but so much harder. Children who are loved, conversely, have a great store of love to give away. Mister Rogers sought to store up love in the hearts of American children, in the hope of creating a more loving world when they grew up.

“The underlying message of the Neighborhood,” Rogers once said, “is that if somebody cares about you, it’s possible that you’ll care about others. ‘You are special, and so is your neighbor’—that part is essential: that you’re not the only special person in the world. The person you happen to be with at the moment is loved, too.”[3]

Perhaps the cable news pundits only need to actually watch Mister Rogers show a little bit. I have a feeling they need to hear this message as much as anyone else; that they are loved, and so is their neighbor.

Mister Rogers was committed to showing children how to love themselves, and how to love others, especially others they might find instinctively strange or scary. In 1976, he received a letter from the parents of a five year old named Jeffrey Erlanger. As an infant, Jeffrey had a brain tumor that left him with severe physical disabilities and confined to a wheelchair; he about to undergo spinal fusion surgery. They had asked him if there was anything he wanted to help bring him hope before he went into the hospital; he said he wanted to meet Mister Rogers. And he did.

Five years later, in 1981, Mister Rogers invited Jeffrey and his wheelchair onto the show, as part of a week exploring how machines and technology can be helpful. Mister Rogers scripted most of the show, but he never scripted children, so the scene was shot unscripted and unrehearsed.

 

Jeffrey Erlanger knew he was loved, just as he was. Knew it deeply through the words and music Mister Rogers had taught him, so deeply that the words burst out of him when Mister Rogers began to sing.

He took that love and he multiplied it, becoming an advocate for people with disabilities.

And twenty years later, he and Fred Rogers met again, when he rolled onto another television stage to induct Mister Rogers into the Television Hall of Fame. The look of pure joy on Fred Rogers face when he recognizes his old friend is the very best of what love has to offer.

“On behalf of millions of children and grownups,” Jeffrey said as Mister Rogers knelt down to be eye-to-eye with him, “It’s you I like.”

Entitlement and narcissism may be issues in our world—I believe they have been issues in our world since far before Jesus stepped foot in it—but they are the fruits of fear and insecurity, not love. True love—Godly love—bears only the fruits of joy, acceptance, and more love.

Mister Rogers taught me I was loved, just the way I was. I have held onto that, and it has given me courage to grow into the person I am, and confidence to keep growing into whoever I might become. Mister Rogers taught me that everyone was loved, fearfully and wonderfully made my God, whatever their skills, whatever their personality, whatever their hair or skin or language, whether they ran or walked or flew, whether they lived near me or very very far away.

If I am doing anything in my work, if I am saying anything in my preaching, if I am hoping for anything when I leave the sanctuary Sunday mornings, it is always that you walk away knowing that you are loved just the way you are, and that you will go out to do the same for others.

That is what it means to preach the gospel. For God so loved the world.

For God so loves you just the way you are.

And I do too.

Amen.

[1] Rev. Emily Brown, It’s You I Like

[2] The World According to Mister Rogers.

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

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