Last Sunday was a pleasure for me because I was accompanied on my drives to and from here by my wife, Patricia, who far too often is working on Sundays pushing drugs — for Walgreens, that is.
For those who perhaps have not heard this story before, I met Patricia online some number of lonely months after the death of my late wife, Carol, the anniversary of which was August 8, but out of consideration for Patricia, though she would not have minded, I did not want to acknowledge that anniversary in my pastoral prayer. Patricia had been engaged twice when I met her, but had never married and — I can no longer say as one might have said several generations back, “and thus never had children,” but, nonetheless, — she never had children, and with my sons’ being adults when we met, she is too smart to have tried to play the role of “step mother.”
Which is not to say that she does not thoroughly embrace the role of grandmother, the opportunity for which did not arise until we had been married five years. Embrace it she did, even if she still does not quite understand the challenges of raising children.
But I think all those who know her would still be surprised at how easily she interacted with children when she had the chance during our trip to China, last year.
At any rate, I enjoyed having her with us last Sunday, but sheepishly so.
And that sheepishness arises because, well, when I speak to you each week, I take some pride in trying to offer food for thought as well as, I hope, some motivation or stimulation or inspiration. I feel my personal strong suit lies in teaching about the rich depths of the Bible that might not be immediately obvious, or helping you wrestle with issues of faith and doubt — and as I say, doubt is almost a prerequisite to a faith that is there when we need it.
But, well, the Scriptures these past few weeks are fine reading, but from my perspective, they have not aroused or inspired me to any great intellectual insights into our faith, or suggested much for personal application in anyone’s life, and though as much as I believe in what I said last week, and though Patricia liked what I said, from my perspective, my sermon last week was, well, “soft.” It did not at all come from my scholarly study of Scripture; it wasn’t very “Greek.”
The sermon’s main point — there were three points, but I’ll get to that — the sermon’s main point was that each of us is loved by God, not because of what we do or do not do or because of how the world sees us, but we are loved by God simply because we are children of God. God’s love for us is not a matter of our merit or perfection; God loves us in our imperfection, in our not being perfectible — for that is the way God made us.
And I did not offer the intellectual insight into Scripture that I could have offered but did not stop to consider in preparing that sermon, something that I incorporate into one of the very first lessons I do when I offer Bible Study. God’s love for us humans whom God has created is at the heart of Chapters 2 and 3 of Genesis: God’s creation of the animals — and even of woman, the Yahwist creation story has the first male created before the animals and the first female are created, — and even the last thing God does when God expels Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden shows that God loves them: he clothes them!
Anyone who has paid attention to me knows that I do not take the story of Adam and Eve literally, but rather as an allegory, as a story of God’s love and concern and protection of us — and, I might even argue, the story offers a foretaste of salvation — but that is for the next time I start a Bible Study from scratch.
At any rate, I believe that God loves each of us unconditionally; loves us based not on “who” we are but on “that” we are. I said it last week; I mean it; I believe it!
But I wished that I could have provided a more intellectually flamboyant sermon for Patricia, even though she professed that she had liked what I offered; I think we men never grow up, and are always figuratively trying to show the women we love that we can ride a bicycle with our feet on the handle bars.
But, as I say, it was a somewhat rare Sunday for me, and Patricia, the same Patricia who has never had children of her own, had earlier in the week wondered if I might not like to go to the movie Sunday evening to see the film about Fred — better know as “Mister” — Rogers, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor.”
We had been told by, of all people, a psychologist we know who is about our age (well, about Patricia’s age; I am much younger) that it is a wonderful movie and had this psychologist in tears.
(If you are not familiar with Mr. Rogers of the children’s TV show, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” it is a shame; you missed one of God’s great gifts to both children and their parents. The show ran on public television for thirty-three years, and talk about a contrast to violent cartoons! Fred Rogers was a Presbyterian minister who helped validate children’s fears and concerns and imaginations and their indulging in make-believe in a calm and reassuring manner.)
Well, I did come close to tears early because of memories the movie invoked of the beautiful time in my life years ago when Carol and I lived in Pittsburgh, but more specifically, it brought to mind the part of those five plus years when our older son, Michael, was between 3 and 5, during which time our younger son, Steve, was born, the time when “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” helped raise Michael, one of whose play habits was to walk into the kitchen in which Carol was preparing dinner and say, “Hi, Mrs. Rogers, honey, I’m home!”
Sometimes the most beautiful memories, as most of you know, are tearful.
So Patricia and I went to the movie, but I still was wishing that I had given a more mind-stimulating, Pulitzer Prize-deserving sermon earlier that day.
The movie is a documentary with a multitude of moments from those many years of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” that stood out either because they were the norm or because they represented ways in which Fred Rogers gave a particular teaching — for instance, during a time of national racial tension, Mister Rogers was cooling his bare feet in a small wading pool, and invited the “Neighborhood’s” policeman, an African American, to cool his feet as well — and they did.
The movie did not harp on, but also did acknowledge explicitly, that Fred Rogers was trying to push a Christian message with particular emphasis on the second of my three points last week, “Love your neighbor,” because, as I said, that neighbor, too, is a child of God beloved by God.”
And my spirits were raised and even in the dark of a movie theater I am sure my eyes brightened as I thought: “That is what I was preaching today!”
The movie included one particular episode of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” in which Fred Rogers sang one of his frequently repeated songs with a powerful message to a severely crippled and physically limited boy in a wheel chair who was to undergo a difficult operation: “There’s no person in the whole world like you, and I like you just the way you are.”
“There’s no person in the whole world like you, and I like you just the way you are.” That is Mister Rogers telling kids what I believe God is speaking to us through Jesus Christ! That was the principle point of what I tried to say last week! Imperfect and sinners that we may be, God loves us!
I was moved to at least a runny nose from that realization; twelve minutes of my talking could be distilled down to a song for kids: “There’s no person in the whole world like you, and God loves you just the way you are.”
God might not — in my case, I know does not — always like what you or I do or what we say or that we do not do or do not say things that we should have said or done; God does not always like our behaving like the fallible humans he made us, but God loves us humans just the way we are; if God did not, God would have made us differently.
What delightful irony for me — or on me: I keep saying that I am suing the Pope for plagiarism, charging that Pope Francis must be reading my sermons because he is preaching the same Gospel of God’s love for us through Christ that I attempt to preach, and then I find at the movies that another Presbyterian minister was preaching a part of that Gospel to my kids before I had an inkling that I would be preaching, period.
Strangely, that realization was not humbling, but, rather, reassuring: If Fred Rogers was preaching two of the three things I had said earlier that day, I was probably preaching the right stuff.
So let me repeat: First, God loves you because you are a child of God, however imperfect you — or I — may be; as Mister Rogers said, “There’s no person in the whole world like you, and I like you just the way you are.”
But — this was my second point and covered at the very beginning of “Please Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” — that must mean God loves all the children of God as well, and they are our neighbors, so we are called upon to love them just the way they are — not necessarily to love what they do or how they do it, but to love them just the way they are.
And my third point? I said that we, individually as Christians, and collectively as Christ’s Church, are called to carry that message to the world.
And what better model is there for carrying than the late Fred Rogers and his “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood”?
Thanks, Rev. Fred, for helping me to raise my kids, and thanks for carrying the message of God’s love to tens of millions of kids! If each of us here today could carry it to just one or two or three, God will not only love us just the way we are, but, I suspect, also smile a bit at what we are doing.
And may what we do glorify the name of Jesus. Amen