A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy K. Hammer, April 15, 2018
Matthew 19:13-15 GNT
Reading from Fred Rogers, “It’s You I Like”
I stopped by the local Post Office a couple of weeks ago to purchase stamps; but not just any stamps. I went in search of a particular stamp that had just been released. The clerk asked how many sheets I wanted, 20 stamps to a sheet at $10 each. I asked for four sheets – $40 worth of first class stamps. Now, I rarely purchase that many stamps at a time, even at Christmas time when I am preparing to mail Christmas cards. But I wanted to be sure I have enough of these stamps to last me for awhile. In case you haven’t already figured it out, I bought 80 Mister Rogers commemorative stamps that were released on March 23. As an aside, I was back at the post office this past week mailing our income tax forms, and the clerk told me that they were already out of the Mister Rogers stamps and didn’t know if or when they would be getting more. Obviously, the Mister Rogers stamps are a hot item, as I suspected they would be.
Now, I grew up before Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood debuted on PBS. But my kids watched him. This year is the 50th anniversary of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood going national; hence, the commemorative stamp. A documentary movie is set to be released this summer about Fred Rogers starring Tom Hanks.
When the Post Office clerk seemed a bit surprised that I was purchasing so many Mister Rogers stamps, I explained that I am an admirer of Rogers and his work; furthermore, I lament the fact that we don’t have more Fred Rogers today in place of some of the role models we do have. In essence I said, “How today’s world needs more Mister Rogers!”
Rogers was a Presbyterian minister, ordained to the unique calling of ministry to children through media. His wife, Joanne, relates that “he began each day with prayers for a legion of family and friends and, in general, for the peacemakers of the world. Reading the Bible was also part of this early morning routine. . . He worked hard at being the best he could be.” And he worked hard “at being other-oriented (not self-centered).”
Rogers began producing his pioneer show for children at a Pittsburg public television station in 1966. Two years later, the show went national. Hence, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood is celebrating its golden anniversary this year, as already noted. Rogers received honorary degrees from more than forty colleges and universities, and in 2002 he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Each Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood episode begins with Rogers singing “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” as he changes into his signature cardigan sweater and sneakers. On days when I have worn a sweater to church, it has been said of me on occasion, “I see you’re wearing your Mister Rogers sweater today,” a statement that I take as a compliment. By the way, one of Rogers’ sweaters now hangs in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.
But what was it about Fred Rogers that makes him “sermon worthy?” some may be asking.
Could it be that Fred Rogers is worthy of remembrance because he mirrored the teachings and example of Jesus of showing respect for children for the special individuals that they are? And speaking of Jesus, the way that Jesus respected and interacted with children was unique to that day. Famous Scottish biblical commentator William Barclay referred to this story read from Matthew as “the loveliest incident in the gospel story.”
Perhaps the attitude of the disciples who tried to keep the children away from Jesus was the general attitude of the day – children are not to be a bother. Children are to be seen and not heard. Children could not be allowed to “interrupt some otherwise important and serious conversation” (Layman’s Bible Commentary). But such was not the attitude of Jesus. In the eyes of Jesus, no one was unimportant, and receiving and blessing children was important and was serious conversation and business.
We see the same respect and devoted interaction with children in the life and work of Fred Rogers. He taught us the importance of listening – really listening – to children. Rogers’ wife, Joanne, notes that Fred was always a good listener for as long as she knew him. And Fred himself said, “The purpose of life is to listen – to yourself, to your neighbor, to your world and to God and, when the time comes, to respond in as helpful a way as you can find . . . from within and without. . . . listening is one of the most important things we can do for one another. Whether the other be an adult or a child, our engagement in listening to who that person is can often be our greatest gift.”
And when Fred Rogers talked to children, he talked on their level. He didn’t talk down to children, and he didn’t talk up to children; he talked to them on their level. Such is something that is not that easy to do. And some of us may wish we had done it more with our own children.
Fred Rogers let children know – regardless of their race, nationality, differences, or physical or mental challenges – that he liked each one just as he or she was. As one of Rogers’ admirers says, “When someone looks you in the eye . . . and tells you that ‘I like you just the way you are,’ it’s very powerful.” It can be life-changing, in fact.
I shudder when I think of the influences upon our children today. When I consider of some of the entertainment that our children and grandchildren are immersed in – violent television shows; violent, female-degrading, misogynistic video games; loud, violent music – it makes me cringe. There was a segment this past week on Good Morning America on the degrading of women in video games and a group that has formed to combat it. We have to wonder if some of the graphic, violent movies and video games that today’s kids and grandkids are soaking up like sponges is going to come back to bite us, or perhaps if it isn’t already biting us, as evidenced by the rash of school shootings and other violence.
And also when I think of the role models that are influencing our kids and grandkids – especially among national and world leaders – and the disrespect for women and minorities, and the name calling and reputation smearing, it makes me shudder. When our children hear the news and the way that our leaders lie, curse, call each other derogatory names, and so on, what can we expect of them as they become teenagers and adults?
I have to repeat what I said to the Post Office clerk: How the world needs more Fred Rogers and less of the examples and role models that are influencing and shaping today’s kids!
Actress Sarah Silverman, who is helping celebrate Fred Rogers’ life, said, “He’s essential right now. His teachings and beauty and love and patience and care and empathy and compassion are our only salvation right now.”
If we could pick just one Mister Rogers sound bite that sort of encapsulates Fred Rogers’ interactions with children, it might well be “It’s You I Like.” Rogers let children – indeed, all people – know that regardless of their differences or human imperfections or mental or physical disabilities or challenges or ethnicity, he accepted and celebrated them just the way they were. Where do we see such in our country and world today? Rogers said, “As human beings, our job in life is to help people realize how rare and valuable each one of us really is. . . It’s our job to encourage each other to discover that uniqueness and to provide ways of developing its expression.”
As I noted in the beginning, it is obvious that I am a Fred Rogers admirer. He set a shining example of what it means to be authentically human and an authentic follower of the teachings of Jesus. I would like to hope that each of us individually and that we as a congregation collectively might strive to be as open, respectful, kind, and affirming as Fred Rogers was in his life and work. How wonderful it would be if we could look the other in the eye – regardless of who the other might be – and say, “It’s you I like.” May it be so. Amen.
Quotations taken from The World According to Mister Rogers: Important Things to Remember, Fred Rogers. New York: Hyperion, 2003.