Shepherds and Sheep: Spiritual Wisdom from Mister Rogers

Sermon preached at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church for Christ the King Sunday.

Jeremiah 23:1-6

Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the Lord. Therefore thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people: It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the Lord. Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the Lord.

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.”

John 10:14-18

I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.  For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”

***

In 1998, the magazine Esquire decided to profile Mister Rogers, as part of an issue on heroes. The editor at the time assigned the article to a writer named Tom Junod, because Tom had become known for journalistic cruelty, for being willing to say anything to make jaws drop, eyes pop, and sales soar. The editor thought it would be funny to make Tom spend time with Mister Rogers, and funny to publish whatever double-tongued takedown he might produce.[1]

 

This story, by the way, of the relationship between Rogers and the reporter, is the premise for the new Mister Rogers movie that came out this week. The details stray enough from life, however, that Tom requested his name be changed for the movie.

 

By 1998, the bulk of Fred Rogers work was done; the show would only air for three more years, and with fewer and fewer episodes each season. Tom Junod was too old to grow up watching Mister Rogers; he knew him mostly through parodies and caricatures. But unlike most reporters, who came and went, Mister Rogers took an interest in Tom, and they became friends, corresponding until Fred’s death in 2003.

 

When they wrote to each other, often through AOL accounts, it was often about faith. Mister Rogers almost never talked about God or Christianity on the show so as not to exclude children who practiced other faiths, but he was an ordained minister, and in intimate conversation he was much more direct.

 

Tom, the brash, worldly reporter, found himself with more than a friend. He found himself, for perhaps the first time in his life, with a pastor, a shepherd. He wrote to Fred with his big questions.

 

Was God good? Was I? Fred’s faith in God was unshakable, and so was his faith in goodness itself. “God’s nature has grown and grown and grown all through the ages,” he wrote on October 25, 1998.

 

“Yet at the heart of the original creation is that Word (call it Love, call it Grace, call it Peace …) that essence which is lodged somewhere within each of us that longs for ultimate expression. If we choose to allow it to grow we’ll be given help. If we choose otherwise we won’t be forced. If there is such a thing as a “dark corner” of God’s nature then I think it’s God’s refusal to go back on the promise of “the creation’s freedom to love or not.”

 

He was more overtly religious in his emails than he was in conversation or on television. “You’re moving very close to the Eternal, Tom,” he wrote on November 11, 1998. “And what’s more you’re recognizing that presence.”[2]

 

Reverend Rogers, Tom came to find out, kept notes on his friendships, legal pads full of important names and dates, people and situations to pray for. He was conscientious about caring for the ones he loved, not willing to forget a detail by way of faulty memory.

 

This is the side of Fred Rogers I did not see growing up—his exacting standards for himself, his preparation, his, if I can use this word, perfectionism. Mister Rogers told me every day that he liked me just the way I was—but I don’t know if he always believed it himself.

 

Mister Roger’s closest friends and family agree that the character of Daniel Tiger, one of the puppets on the show, was often a stand-in for Mister Rogers himself, a perpetual extension of his childhood fears and anxieties. In one scene, Daniel Tiger asks Lady Aberlin, “Am I a mistake?”

 

It’s a heartwrenching question that I’ve heard before, from children, teens, and adults. It’s a heartwrenching question that has come out of my own mouth. “Am I a mistake? Am I made wrong? Shouldn’t I be better than I am?”

 

Daniel Tiger talks about working so hard to get tame, to give up his wild, vicious tiger ways so he can be part of the neighborhood. I think that Fred Rogers, too, worked hard to wrestle with the anger inside him, anger at a world that was so far from how his faith saw it could be. He channeled that anger well, into relentless, meticulous efforts to care and be kind—but it was still born of anger, and I think he felt shame for that. It is a failing of the Christian tradition that we have excommunicated anger from our toolbox—Mister Rogers anger changed the world. He used it that beautifully.

 

On the show, Daniel Tiger wonders if he’s a mistake, a fake for not being as strong as he should be. After listening, Lady Aberlin sings back to him, her low alto undercutting his treble, reassuring him that she likes him and the person he is becoming. I invite you to watch:

 

In one clip, Mister Rogers explains how Daniel Tiger can help him say the things that adults are supposed to say. It’s so much easier, he says, lifting his voice into Daniel Tiger’s childish register, to say “I’m scared. Can I have a hug?” in Daniel’s voice then in my own.” Then Mister Rogers takes a breath, and you can almost see him flinch as he says in his own grown man’s voice: I’m scared. Can I have a hug?[4]

 

Fred Rogers died of stomach cancer in 2003. He read scripture in the hospital, the story of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25. And the very last thing he said before he slipped into a coma—the very last words of his life—were, “Do you think I’m a sheep?”[5]

 

It broke my heart to hear those were his last words. This man, who I love, who I revere, who I very nearly idolize, left this life wondering if he had been good enough, if he had done enough, if he would be worthy of welcome into the kingdom of God.

 

Our scriptures today are just two of the many, many passages in our Bible that speak of shepherds and sheep. In Jeremiah, God is angry with the leaders of his people—Jeremiah refers to them metaphorically as shepherds—leaders who have scattered the flock, mistreated and abused those they were specifically called to care for. God promises to raise up new shepherds, shepherds who will act justly, love deeply, and gather everyone in safety, so that not a single sheep will be missing.

 

In our Christian tradition, we have often identified these new shepherds with Christ, but the word there is plural, and I think it is good to see many shepherds in our midst. Shepherds over the centuries whom God has lifted to leadership, to restore hope in communities of faith, to share love in communities of despair, to seek those who are missing and restore them to the flock.

 

And I think it’s fair to lift up the Reverend Fred Rogers as one of those shepherds. He was certainly mine. I knew, when I was with him, for that half hour show, that I was safe. That I was loved. That I was cared about and cared for, even over the airwaves. He sought out every kind of child, from every race, language, geography, ability, background—so that not one would be missing. He dedicated his life to the meticulous care of his flock—the children of America.

 

It was, at times, excruciating work. Fred Rogers held himself to the highest standards, because any slip might mean the loss of a child.

 

But I wonder, if on occasion, he was so busy shepherding that he forgot he too, was a sheep. That he too, had a shepherd—a greater shepherd—a shepherd who was also a king. Christ says “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me.” Fred Rogers knew Jesus, knew him well, but even the most faithful among us have doubts that the promises we proclaim to others could hold true for us, too.

 

We are called to be shepherds. To be the ones who deal in justice. To be the ones who provide safety. To be the ones who feed Christ’s sheep. To be the ones who search out any who are missing, and bring them back to the flock. But it is exhausting work. Dangerous work. Never ending work.

 

And I think, in our calling as shepherds, we can sometimes forget that our identity—our identity—is as sheep. I am looking now at a congregation that is very active. We pack food for thought bags. We play instruments in worship. We visit those in the hospital. We keep a prayer list. We prepare Sunday School lessons. We haul 15 pound turkeys around the church. We pay bills and finalize budgets. We make decisions and carry them out. We do and do and do and do.

 

And friends, that is good work. God’s work. But never forget, in all your shepherding, that you are also a sheep, and that the Good Shepherd, Christ the King, is always out looking for you, eager to welcome you in to the love and peace of his kingdom.

 

After all, it’s not what you do that God loves best. It’s you yourself God likes.

 

There are scores of articles right now wondering what Fred Rogers would do in these frightening, violent, and divisive times, what he would make of school shootings and detained children and cruel and callous rhetoric from those we call leaders. But the real question, those who knew him have asked us, is not what would Fred do. It is, what will we do?

 

God is in the business of raising up shepherds. Who will be next?

 

Fred Rogers did Christ’s work. He was a shepherd in Christ’s own image. But he was also a sheep, and even if he forgot, right at the end, right when his body was in the most pain, there were two voices waiting to remind him how much he was loved.

 

The first was his wife, Joann, who sat beside him even as her husband slipped away. “If anyone was a sheep, Fred, it’s you,” she said.

 

I don’t know if Fred heard her.

 

But I do know that he heard Christ’s voice, welcoming him into Christ’s neighborhood, into the kingdom of God. “Welcome home, Fred, a sheep of my own fold, a sinner of my own redeeming, my own beloved child.”

 

We do not shepherd, we do not work, in order to earn God’s love. We shepherd, we work, we care, we tend, we pray, we struggle, we love, because God already loves us, and this gives us power, purpose, and strength. Fred Rogers was a sheep all his life. Nothing could change that.

 

Tom Junod, the Esquire reporter, found a shepherd in Reverend Fred Rogers. But I wonder, if in writing to Tom, Fred also found reason to remind himself that we are all God’s sheep.

 

Fred Rogers wrote, “You are loved with a greater love than anyone could ever imagine, Tom. I trust that you’ll never ever forget that.”[6]

 

Friends, we are loved with a greater love than anyone could ever imagine. I hope we’ll never ever forget that.

 

Amen.

 

[1] Junod, Tom. My Friend Mister Rogers. The Atlantic. December 2019. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2019/12/what-would-mister-rogers-do/600772/?fbclid=IwAR2Mp_QO63R9oyUmJW10_lfbiapgrtaDrNzp5Le0XAexaCytZE289Cs2Cj4.

[2] ibid

[3] Mister Rogers Neighborhood, Episode 1578.

[4] Won’t You Be My Neighbor? Focus Features. June 2018.

[5] ibid.

[6] Junod, Tom. My Friend Mister Rogers. The Atlantic. December 2019. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2019/12/what-would-mister-rogers-do/600772/?fbclid=IwAR2Mp_QO63R9oyUmJW10_lfbiapgrtaDrNzp5Le0XAexaCytZE289Cs2Cj4.

 

 

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