Mr. Rogers is all over the news these days, all over social media these days. A big part of the catalyst for that is the new documentary about him, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? It’s a film that I cannot wait to see. I’m leaving on vacation after this service – I’ll be back at Grace at the start of August – and seeing this movie is high on my time off to-do list. But my guess is that there is more at work than this documentary in drawing Mr. Rogers back into our shared consciousness.
I think that many of us have a sense that Mr. Rogers is a prophet for our time.
Like a number of you in this room, I grew up watching Mr. Rogers. He was a kind and steady presence in my life. The language that he used to describe our relationship – that of “neighbour” – did and does feel right to me. I never met the man. But he feels in my memory, in my heart, like the good and simple and generous person who lived a few houses away from me.
My guess is that these characteristics – goodness and simplicity and generosity – are why so many of us are drawn back to Mr. Rogers right now. This is one of those times in our national discourse, in the glorious and hard experiment that we call America, when kindness and simplicity and goodness feel like they might be lost values. It is a time when we are wondering if we have forgotten what it might mean to trust one another, to assume the best of intentions in one another, to listen to one another, to be lovingly curious about one another. We are wondering, maybe we are afraid, that we no longer know how to interact not with the goal of winning but, rather, with the goal of mutual understanding or, maybe, with the goal of moving deeper into communion.
Communion is, I think, what David Brooks was trying to get at in his beautiful article about Mr. Rogers this week in the New York Times when he opined that Mr. Rogers taught us things that we “obvious and nonobvious.” Few things were more obvious and nonobvious that Mr. Rogers’ famous words, “I like you just the way that you are.” On their face, these words are a platitude, they are a cliché. But coming from Mr. Rogers, they were awesome, staggering, life changing. They were an exercise in communion.
A number of years ago, I read an article about Mr. Rogers, late in his life and visiting college campuses and saying to the students there, many of whom had once been his television neighbours, “I like you just the way that you are.”
It was not uncommon for those young people to begin weeping.
Maybe the words were obvious. But the person saying them was not obvious at all. And hearing them, these young people touched the holy for a minute. They touched the face of God. It’s hard not to weep when that happens.
My guess is that when Brooks speaks of something being obvious and nonobvious, he is trying to get at the same paradox that Richard Rohr is searching for when he says:
Transformed people transform people.
Rohr tells the story of Mother Theresa saying to people, “Jesus loves you.” Now there is an obvious statement, a statement that you and I have seen on more billboards and bumper stickers than we can count. It might even be more obvious than, “I like you just the way that you are.” But coming from Theresa, it was suddenly nonobvious, it was suddenly new, it was suddenly transformative. Like the young people on the college campus, folks would hear these words and, coming from Theresa, they were totally new. The tears would roll down their cheeks.
Today, in Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth, we hear the words that are carved into the steps of Grace’s courtyard:
My grace is sufficient for thee.
I’ve lost count of how many people have told me that they love those steps, they love walking into this place across the reassurance and the beauty of those words. They too are words that are obvious and nonobvious. They too are words that, if we allow them, might just transform us. Their promise is radical.
My grace is sufficient for thee. This is the amazing promise that we have enough. That we are enough. That we are loved enough. That we don’t need to become someone else or something else in order to be worthy of God’s love, in order to lead a full life, in order to shine. These words are a paraphrase, another way of saying, “Jesus loves you.” They are another way of saying, “I like you just the way that you are.”
What would happen if we were to believe those words? If our neighbours were to believe those words? How might we change? How might the world change?
The rest of my sermon is plagiarised directly from Mr. Rogers.
At least twice, near the end of his life, when he was addressing a large group of people, he would invite them to enter into silence and to remember the person or the people who had loved them into being. I’m going to invite us to do the same thing today. Remember in silence the person or people who took and interest in you, who encouraged you, who allowed you to be the person who is sitting in this room right now.
I’ll keep time.
Think how pleased that person or those people would be to know that they had made such a big difference in your life. These are the people who, whether or not they used these exact words, said to you: Jesus loves you. They are the people who said to you: God’s grace is sufficient for you. They are the people who said to you:
I like you just the way that you are.