Sermon from March 20: What Would Mr. Rogers Say?
What Would Mr. Rogers Say?
Lent III; March 20, 2022
The Presbyterian Planning Calendar lists a lot of special Sunday observances throughout the year. I’m not speaking of days related to the liturgical calendar – days such as the First Sunday of Advent or Pentecost – but days related to mission concerns and the life of the Church, such as Higher Education Sunday and Christian Family Day. Anyway, I tend to ignore those days in favor of whatever day it is on the liturgical calendar.
But today includes an observance I don’t remember seeing before and that I really want to pay attention to: it’s “Mr. Rogers Day.” He was born on this date in 1928; I don’t know if the Sunday closest to March 20 will always be Mr. Rogers Day, or if it’s just this year, but let’s go with it anyway.
Some of you grew up with Mr. Rogers, others of you have watched your children or grandchildren benefit from his work. Fred Rogers was a Presbyterian minister, educated at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, who served his ministry in children’s television. He may well be the most influential Presbyterian minister in history, after John Knox. Most of what I knew of him was from parodies, people making fun of his sweater and slippers, his gentle demeanor and generous attention to children’s sense of themselves. I’m too old to have benefited from his ministry directly, and have no children to have brought me to him.
But something my dear friend Thom experienced gave me a picture of the kind of man he was. Thom, a fellow Presbyterian pastor, was planning to impersonate Mr. Rogers for a children’s message one Sunday. So he wrote Fred a letter, telling him of his plan and saying he hoped it was okay with him. Thom was in his office and the phone rang; the gentle voice on the other end said, “This is Fred Rogers.” It was. He was calling to tell Thom that indeed it was alright and to express his appreciation that Thom asked. He was used to people impersonating him but not used to people asking him if it was alright; he was very grateful and took the trouble to call to say so.
A famous person who made a phone call to express his gratitude to a small-town pastor: that gave me a picture of Fred Rogers. Two recent movies, a documentary and a feature film, expanded the picture. So I have become interested in him and in what he thought about things. Because of the day, one of the first questions I asked of this story from Luke is, “What would Mr. Rogers say?” “Repent or you shall likewise perish!” says Jesus. What would Mr. Rogers say about that?
I did an online search using the terms “Fred Rogers” and “repentance.” I couldn’t find that he said anything directly about repentance. He talked a lot about forgiveness, which is the other side of repentance. His stuff about forgiveness is good, but I didn’t find anything about repentance.
Then again, the most important aspect of repentance is something he talked about a lot, even though he never used the word. The center of repentance is this: to acknowledge in your heart that God is God and you aren’t. And there is a follow-up: you don’t need to be, because you are loved just as you are. Another way of saying this is: don’t try to become good enough for God to love you; accept that God loves you and let God’s love make you a better person.
One line from Mr. Rogers that is helpful is this: “Little by little we human beings are confronted with situations that give us more and more clues that we are not perfect.” We are not perfect and it is a good project for your life and mine to work at getting closer to perfect. Some of you may remember the Sunday that I asked, “Is anyone here perfect?” and Mel Stanislaus raised his hand. I will acknowledge that he was closer than I am. And for his remaining years I called him Mr. Perfect.
We are not perfect, not in our own eyes, not in the eyes of other people, not in God’s eyes. But the rest of the story is that we do not need to be perfect. Mr. Rogers also said, “The kingdom of God is for the broken hearted.” The keys to the kingdom are not presented to those who march up to the gate and demand admission. They are for those who will humbly bow our heads, admit our imperfection and brokenness, and ask for bread.
Our reading today from Isaiah (55:1-9) makes the point clearly: Don’t waste your life on things that don’t matter. Repent; turn to what is important and lasting. “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?” (v. 2) “Seek the LORD while he may be found, call upon him while he is near” (v. 6). Come to the gate of the Lord, bow your head, admit your imperfection and brokenness, and ask for bread.
There’s a moment from Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood that still makes me weep. Daniel Tiger asks Lady Aberlin, “Am I a mistake?” and they sing about it. I think I showed you the YouTube video of that. “Am I a mistake?” After all, Daniel’s a tame tiger who likes people and lives in a clock. Lady Aberlin listens to him and doesn’t try to talk him out of his feelings; she simply tells him that he is her friend and she likes him and she likes the person he is becoming.
Well, what more can I say? The tower of Siloam isn’t going to fall on you and Pilate isn’t going to mix your blood with your sacrifice, but someday your time in this world will be done. Take that reminder simply as an invitation to repent: to acknowledge that God is God and you are not, and you are not even the person you could be, and accept the grace of God to help you get there. The wisdom of Fred Rogers was to hold in sacred tension the reality that we are sometimes unlovable but are nonetheless loved; that we are not perfect but are children of God; that our hearts are broken but, as it says elsewhere, “God is greater than our hearts” (I John 3:20). Repent: come to the gate of the Lord, bow your head, admit your imperfection and brokenness, and ask for bread.
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
 Quotations from Fred Rogers taken from Geoffrey James, “45 Quotes from Mr. Rogers that We All Need Today” on Inc.com