33 Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34 But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. 35 He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 36 Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
2Each of us must please our neighbor for the good purpose of building up the neighbor. 3 For Christ did not please himself; but, as it is written, “The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.” 4 For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. 5 May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, 6 so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. 7 Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.
Who Was Fred Rogers?
Ordinarily, I start this kind of sermon with a summary of the plot for the benefit of those who have not seen the film. But this film is a little unlike any other I’ve preached on, for several reasons. First, it’s a documentary, so, rather than a plot, the film simply paints a picture of an exceptional man and his work–through interviews, archival footage, stories and anecdotes. The goal of the film seems to be to answer the question, “Who was Fred Rogers?”–onscreen as well as offscreen.
The other reason this film is unlike any other I’ve preached on before is that it hits really close to home for those of us who consider ourselves “Proud Presbyterians.” When it comes to modern day heroes of the faith, the Catholics have Mother Theresa. The Baptists have Billy Graham. And Presbyterians have Mr. Rogers. Though you might never have realized it just from watching his show, Fred Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian Pastor, who went to Pittsburgh Seminary where he studied theology, Hebrew, Greek, and all the things I had to study in order to become a pastor.
During his time in seminary, he also studied education and childhood development, through the University of Pittsburgh–and that’s something that makes this sermon (and Mr. Rogers) deeply personal to me. In addition to watching Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood as a child (like so many of us did), my “other” career before seminary, and my “other” degree while at seminary was in education and child development. Some of the most meaningful work I get to do as your pastor revolves not around Sunday morning (although I like that too!) but the work I get to do with our church preschool, with Kids n Co, and with the scouting programs we sponsor.
So for me, Fred Rogers really represents the embodiment of all that a Pastor, an educator, a Presbyterian, a Christian, a person of faith should be. No pressure, right? I’m certainly no Mr. Rogers, and that’s a high standard to live up to…but I suspect that if Fred Rogers were standing here right now, today, he would tell me (and all of us), “I like you just the way you are.”
And from this film, we learn that even someone as amazing and kind and gracious as Mr. Rogers struggled with things like fear and anxiety. To help us learn more about who Fred Rogers was, here’s a clip featuring his favorite puppet, Daniel the Striped Tiger.
Rogers wasn’t just adept at talking to children, though. His simple, effective communication style was sometimes aimed at adults, parents, professionals, and even senators. This next clip also helps to answer the frequent question, “was that personality just an act for the show? What was he like outside of his neighborhood?”
Who Is My Neighbor?
Everything that Mr. Rogers did–from the title of his famous show “Mr. Rogers Neighborhood” to the iconic song “Won’t you be my neighbor–focused on this idea of what it meant to be a neighbor and part of a community, a neighborhood.
Jesus also spent a considerable amount of time talking about neighbors and neighborhoods. He taught that the greatest commandments were to love God and love your neighbor. On the surface, that doesn’t sound too hard, right? Love the person who lives right next door to you. You can still hate everyone else. But when Jesus’ disciples asked him who exactly counted as a neighbor, he told them a long story–the story of the good samaritan–where he basically expanded the whole category of “neighbor” to include unlikely and unexpected people: those dreaded samaritans that the people of Israel didn’t like very much.
In the same way, Fred Rogers constantly used his television show to subtly push and expand our idea of what (and who) a neighbor is:
As radical and subtle as his approach to adults and world issues was, however, Fred Rogers main audience was always children–especially those children that otherwise might not have been seen, heard, or appreciated. In this, he also resembled Jesus, who, when his disciples were arguing about who was the greatest among them (as adults often do, even today) lifted up a small child in his arms and said, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
Evangelism, Presbyterian Style
Near the start of his career, when Fred Rogers had finished his seminary coursework and was preparing to be ordained as a minister, the Presbytery (the local governing body for Presbyterian churches) made an interesting and unique decision. Rogers had already been working in television, and had already taped some of the earliest episodes of his show. So instead of ordaining Rogers as the pastor of a traditional church congregation, they ordained him instead as an evangelist — to be a pastor to the children and families across the nation in his television audience.
Interestingly, this means that Mr. Rogers was, technically speaking, one of the very first (and in my opinion very best) televangelists. And it means that if you watched (and loved) his show as a child, you had a Presbyterian pastor long before you ever walked through the doors of this building or any other Presbyterian church.
And so day in, day out right up until the end of his life, Fred Rogers preached the gospel of God’s love for all people, the core Christian message of loving your neighbor as yourself, while rarely ever specifically mentioning God, Jesus, or the Bible. And there is something quite quintessentially Presbyterian in that sort of evangelism.
Presbyterians don’t have altar calls. We don’t knock on doors, proselytize, or try to convert people to our religion by argument. We care far more about doing the things Christ actually did (loving each other, caring for each other) than whether or not people label themselves as Christians. We care more about what’s going on in the world, and how we can help hurting people, than whether they are following all the rules and obscure bible passages that so many Christians seem to obsess over today.
At one point in the film, a producer for the show says that, “If you take all the elements that make good television, and do the exact opposite, you have Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood: Low production values, simple set, unlikely star–yet it worked, because he was saying something really important.” I think there is a profound truth in that for the way we do church, and for the way we live our lives.
For what it’s worth, Mr. Rogers would have said that the “unlikely star” of your show…is you. God always uses unlikely stars to advance his work in this world, in simple, meaningful ways.
I want to end the sermon today the way Mr. Rogers used to end many of his speeches, when he received awards or was invited to speak at graduation ceremonies. It’s how the film ends too. When the spotlight was on him, when he was being honored for all that he was and did, he would pause…look right at his audience, and tell them: “All of us have special ones who have loved us into being. Would you just take, along with me, ten seconds to close your eyes and think of the people who have helped you become who you are; those who have cared about you, and wanted what was best for you in life. Ten seconds of silence. I’ll watch the time. (ten seconds) May God be with you.”