Mister Rogers and the Perseverance of Love

Mister Rogers and the Perseverance of Love

“Then Jesus said to them, ‘Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.’” Mark 6:4

 The Reverend Luther Zeigler

July 8, 2018 – 7B Pentecost

Here we are in the sixth chapter of Mark’s gospel, well into Jesus’ public ministry, and after some pretty spectacular teaching and healing, one would think that the good people of Nazareth would be planning a ticker tape parade for their favorite son’s return home. How brokenhearted Jesus must be to hear, instead, the stinging words of rejection and disbelief in our gospel lesson today as he comes back to the neighborhood. All of us want acceptance and approval, especially from those closest to us. We want our family and friends to love us for who we are, who we have become, and for what we are doing with our lives. And to be scorned, rather than cheered, must have been isolating, even for Jesus.

The problem is not that the hometown folks fail to see what Jesus is doing. Mark tells us that they are indeed “astounded” by his teaching and recognize his wisdom. They can see the results; they are just unwilling to believe that the source of this power is some special relationship Jesus has with God. The hometown folks know a prophet when they see one, and this uneducated boy of questionable birth, who lacks both social standing and a respectable profession, is not the stuff of a prophet.

Jesus responds to this rejection with neither anger nor bitterness. Rather, he merely laments their unbelief, and recalls the truth of the ancient proverb that “prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” And then he gathers his disciples, and sends them out of Nazareth, two by two, in search of a more welcoming neighborhood for his teaching, even as Jesus warns them that they too may face a hostile audience in their travels.

It’s an odd story, isn’t it? A bit humiliating even. One wonders why Mark includes it in his gospel at all. Yet, in describing the scene, Mark even goes so far as to make the theologically scandalous assertion that “Jesus could do no deed of power there,” suggesting that Jesus’ ability to transform lives may somehow depend upon his audience’s willingness to believe. Christ, it seems, does not coerce people into faith, but patiently waits for hearts to turn.

Strange as it is, I think our gospel text this morning teaches some rather important lessons about perseverance, resilience, and grace in the face of adversity.

One of the ways that Pat and I escaped the heat of July 4th was to run off to the air-conditioned relief of the North Shore Mall to catch a movie. And while everyone else in America was flocking to the latest Jurassic Park installment, we instead went to see Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, the new documentary about the life and work of Mister Rogers. It is a beautiful film, and as David Brooks wrote the other day in his New York Times column, the movie takes us back to some core truths about the moral life, about the Christian life, that are worth recovering.

An ordained Presbyterian minister, a devoted husband to Joanne, and a caring father of two young boys, Fred Rogers was a straight-laced as they come; and yet, as a young man embarking upon a career in ministry, Rogers took some remarkable risks. Eschewing traditional church life, Rogers is instead captivated by the possibilities of a new medium, television, as a means for reaching people, children especially. He wants to explore how television can teach gospel values, but in a language accessible to all. And so Fred Rogers starts the great adventure of what eventually becomes Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.

To generations of children he was always and only Mister Rogers. In a delightfully old-fashioned way, the “mister” communicates that this man is a grown-up, and that the friendship he offers isn’t a condescending one. As he greets us, the ritual is always the same, as good liturgy is: he sheds his suit jacket for a cardigan and trades his loafers for sneakers. Yet the necktie stays knotted, and his warmth carries an aura of gentle formality. He takes the responsibilities of being an adult role model seriously.

Defying all conventions of TV personalities at the time, Mister Rogers’ charisma comes from a quiet and unassuming place: a lack of pretense, a willingness to be himself, goofy as that sometimes seems. Mister Rogers was “old school” before we even knew what the phrase meant. The most radical thing about him is an unwavering commitment to kindness and decency in the face of a world cynically intent on devising new ways to be mean.

“Let’s make the most of this beautiful day,” he sings at the start of each episode. He makes it sound simple, yet we can tell behind his smiling face that he knows just how hard it can be. Indeed, although the movie reveals relatively little about his childhood, we learn enough to know that Fred Rogers was sickly, overweight, and bullied as a kid. We can see where the endless empathy of his adult self comes from, and why he is so adamant that no episode ever end before each child knows she is loved for exactly who she is.

What makes Mister Rogers’ story all the more remarkable is that it happens during the craziness of the late 1960s and 1970s. While everyone else is smoking pot, listening to Led Zeppelin and the Grateful Dead, and rebelling against every form of institutional authority, Mister Rogers changes not a whit, an anchor of goodness in an era of Nixonian deceit, Woodstock excess, the decline of the church, and every manner of social upheaval.

Yet, it is not as if Mister Rogers is naively oblivious to what was happening around him. When the front-page story was about white communities refusing to let blacks swim in public pools, Mister Rogers brings a kiddie pool on to his set, takes his socks and shoes off to cool his feet in the pool, and then invites the black Officer Clemmons to join him in the water. Mister Rogers didn’t sanctimoniously preach civil rights, so much as he modeled love of neighbor in a visual image that carried more power than any speech could. And to leave no doubt about the matter, Mister Rogers concludes the segment by bending down and gently drying off Officer Clemmons’ feet with a warm towel, like a modern-day Jesus humbly showing his disciples what real love for the other looks like.

And so too did Mister Rogers teach children about death in the wake of the tragic assassinations of 1968; about the pain of divorce that was ripping too many families apart; and about the tragedy of war that was taking too many young people’s lives. He confronted all of these issues of the day directly, openly, and with a simple wisdom that transcended politics.

But the story that I think captures Mister Rogers’ character best is one not in the movie, but that is recalled by a biographer, Tom Junod, in a 1998 Esquire profile. Near the end of his television career, Mister Rogers received a letter from a young man in California with cerebral palsy. The boy had experienced abuse as a child in institutional settings, and had a distressing habit of hitting himself out of a sense of self-loathing. He often told his mother he saw no point in living, for he was sure that God didn’t like what was inside him any more than he did. He had always loved Mister Rogers, though, and now, even as a fourteen year old, he watched the Neighborhood whenever it was on.

When Mister Rogers learned of the child’s story, he agreed to see the boy the next time he was in California. And he kept his promise. Junod writes that the boy was incredibly nervous when Mister Rogers arrived, so much so that he panicked and reverted to the behavior of hitting himself, to the point that his mother had to take him to another room to calm him. When the boy finally settled down and returned, Mister Rogers greeted him, and said that he had a favor to ask. “I would like you to do something for me,” Mister Rogers said. “Would you be willing to do something for me?”

The boy couldn’t talk, but communicated only with the assistance of a computer; and so, on his computer, the boy typed “Yes, of course, I would do anything for Mister Rogers.” And so Mister Rogers said, “I would like you to pray for me. Will you pray for me?” And the boy just looked at Mister Rogers with amazement in his eyes, not knowing how to respond. Nobody had ever asked the boy for something like that, ever. The boy had always been prayed for. He had always been the object of prayer, and now he was being asked to pray for Mister Rogers.

At first the boy balked, not knowing if he could do it; but then he said he would, or at least he would try. And so he did. And ever since then, Junod writes, the boy, now a man, keeps Mister Rogers in his prayers and doesn’t talk about wanting to die anymore. He tells his mother that because he figures Mister Rogers is close to God, if Mister Rogers likes him, then that must mean God likes him, too.

But that is not the end of the story. After Mister Rogers related this incident to Junod in his interview, Junod turned to him and complimented Mister Rogers for being so savvy—for knowing that asking the boy for his prayers would make the boy feel better about himself. Junod writes that when he said this, Mister Rogers looked at him with puzzlement. “Oh, heavens no, Tom! I didn’t ask the boy for his prayers for his sake; I asked for mine. I asked him because I’m sure that anyone who has gone through challenges like his must be very close to God. I asked the boy to pray for me because I wanted and needed his prayers.”

The quiet perseverance of love in an often cold and uncomprehending world. That is the virtue our gospel text teaches today and it is also the story of Mister Rogers, a man who led a Christ-like life if ever anyone did. And the astonishing thing is that there isn’t anything heroic about what Mister Rogers did. His faith was a simple one. Everything he ever taught, a child could do, by design. And so can we. Kindness and decency may well be in short supply these days, but it’s not because they are hard. It’s because we’ve become hard. It’s time for us to be children again, to become the gentle spirits God created us to be. Let’s do Mister Rogers proud, and wake up every morning with a song in our heart, willing to sing, “Let’s make the most of this beautiful day”; and mean it.

Amen.