After our meeting on Monday, a few of Emmanuel’s vestry members were talking about “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” the movie about Mister Rogers. I don’t know how many of you got to see it when it was at the Art Theater; but it is so moving to spend 90 minutes with the straightforward goodness of this man. I was a regular viewer of Mister Rogers Neighborhood growing up, and I always felt like he was talking right to me. I had no idea that he chose and emphasized the word “neighbor” because of the unique way it’s used in the Bible, but I liked very much the idea that he proactively was seeking me out to be his neighbor. “I have always wanted to have a neighbor just like you. Please won’t you be my neighbor.”
I even wrote Fred Rogers a fan letter, and he – or actually WQED-TV in Pittsburgh, I’m sure – mailed me back a postcard with his face and signature on it. Of course I was a little kid, and it went completely over my head that in addition to putting on a zippered cardigan and having a cute trolley, he was also dealing on a personal, compassionate child level with issues like racism and the assassination of Robert Kennedy and the Vietnam War. But I’m sure that the way Mister Rogers helped preschoolers feel valued and listened to in the middle of those tumultuous events had an effect on me without my knowing it. The movie goes behind the scenes: the low-budget studio, some outtakes, and interviews with the adults who worked with Fred Rogers talking about how this unassuming man just simply loved them for who they were, and how soaking up that compassionate individual attention still has effects in their lives.
A key moment in the film for me, though, was a segment near the end which covered a phase about 10 years ago when Fred Rogers was being critiqued in the media. People were saying that his signature refrain “I like you just the way you are” had created a generation of narcissists who thought the world owed them a living. A Wall Street Journal article, for example, dismissed the show as “self-esteem-building patter” and said what it should have taught was that “being special comes from working hard and having high expectations for yourself.” Psychology Today ran an article titled “Mister Rogers Lied to Us!” whose author wrote that you don’t deserve esteem until you’ve achieved something.
In the film this attack is responded to by Dr. Junlei Li, the co-director of the Fred Rogers Center for early learning and children’s media at the Archabbey of St. Vincent in Latrobe PA. Mister Rogers himself was an ordained Presbyterian minister, but he had a deep friendship with the monks at the Abbey and bequeathed his body of work to their college. The Center not only has an archive of his papers and possessions for research, but they themselves also serve children, based on Fred Rogers’ model.
Anyway, I wish I had been able to find a clip of the moment when Dr. Li from the Fred Rogers Center responds to those who objected that Mister Rogers should not have communicated “I like you just the way you are” but something more along the lines of “You might deserve to be liked if you work hard enough.” I couldn’t locate the actual quote, but what he says, paraphrased, is more or less that the difference between the view that you have to earn your way in life and the view that you are loved as you are cuts right to the heart of the Christian underpinnings of the whole philosophy Fred Rogers brought to his show.
Dr. Li mentions the central Christian teaching that God loves unconditionally, that every person has a dignity and a belovedness in the eyes of God that does not come from what the New Testament calls our “works” -- what we do, how good we are, how hard we try, how sincere we are. For Christians, none of those things has the slightest effect on a person’s value. God already loves us just the way we are because God is love. Dr. Li essentially said that if people can’t tolerate the basic Christian teaching that God’s grace is given to the undeserving, that you don’t have to do anything at all to get God to love you, it’s no wonder they think Mister Rogers created a generation of narcissists by teaching the same thing Jesus does.
We see a moment that could have aired on Mister Rogers Neighborhood at the end of today’s Gospel. The only exception, the non-Fred thing here, is that as Jesus brings in a child and embraces it, he’s doing that to give the adults in the story, not the child, the message of grace to the undeserving. They grownups have just been arguing about which one of them is the most deserving, the most impressive, the greatest. Whether they did it in so many words, or with the subtle one-upmanship and name-dropping that characterize our normal adult jockeying for position, Jesus wants to cut their habit of measuring and ranking people off at the roots. That’s not how things work in Jesus’ neighborhood. Let’s hear again how he handled it:
Jesus sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
Two reversals: First, the news that for Jesus, the winner’s circle lies down at the lowest rank, not up at the highest. The least status, the least achievement; God favors working your way down, not working your way up. That’s the first reversal. The second, even more surprising in the first century than now, is that Jesus tells us that this little child – the text doesn’t say if it’s a boy or girl, the moment is beyond gender – this little child who has done and deserved nothing, who in the Roman world does not even count as a person yet because they can’t be productive, this child is his emissary.
When we are a proactive welcoming neighbor to this child, it is Jesus we are welcoming; in other words, it is God we are welcoming; in other words the specific undeserving so-called nobody in front of us is the one who in Jesus’ world is proactively esteemed as much as we esteem God himself.
Episcopalians sort of have a bad habit – well, lots of mainline churches do this, it’s not just us -- of believing we can be welcoming in the abstract, of thinking that generic categories of people are out there somewhere and the only reason they aren’t church members yet is that they are watching and waiting for us to do something. Our diocese doesn’t have a culture like this, but folks in my previous diocese loved to try and get resolutions passed at Convention stating that the Episcopal Church supports, I don’t know, composting, say. And one of the rationales was always that if we issued such a statement, people out there whom we hadn’t bothered to get to know or love would feel welcome and become Episcopalians.
You know, support what you think is right and true -- but it’s a pretty infinitesimal population of people who are sitting around saying “I am longing every Sunday to worship Jesus in a church except that I just can’t find one that has issued a statement about composting.” The real question is more like “Why on earth would I want to give up my Sunday mornings for something as weird as church?” In his book People of the Way Dwight Zscheile tells the story of visiting a church with big banner out front boasting that they offered RADICAL HOSPITALITY, but turned out to be a completely homogenous congregation who treated him rudely as soon as his 3 year old rustled some paper.
Whether or not a church is putting up banners that pat itself on the back for abstract welcomingness, all the time the Holy Spirit is already putting in front of us actual human beings who long to be neighbored and seen and understood and valued... and not to have their kid glared at for being like the little child that Jesus took in his arms and told us was the emissary of God. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.
And this is what Fred Rogers understood so well. He knew how to welcome a child – and an adult - in the way Jesus is talking about here, as a precious carrier of the presence of the Holy, deserving of absolute esteem and respect as someone shaped and made by God himself. He knew how to see a person and treat them as beloved. That’s why every kid felt like Mister Rogers was talking straight to them. That unconditional, loving, direct attention he gave Mister McFeely and Officer Clemons and the quadriplegic boy Jeff Erlanger in his wheelchair, that sense of being treasured that a whole generation felt coming through the TV screen – that is why, during the Won’t You Be My Neighbor film, you hear grateful weeping in the theater. People need to be seen. We need to be loved. We need to be valued. We need someone who will proactively say “I like you just the way you are. I have always wanted to have a neighbor just like you.”
Jesus Christ, endless source of absolutely unconditional love for absolutely everybody, said that to Fred Rogers. I don’t know when, but he did. And because Fred Rogers really heard it, he could turn around and say it to every person he met. And Jesus Christ, endless source of absolutely unconditional love for absolutely everybody, says that to you. Do you hear it? I hope you do.