Won’t You Be My Neighbor:
Mister Rogers and the Kingdom of God
Week 2: Just the Way You Are – LOVED
September 16, 2018
Prayer Before the Sermon: “Dear God, let some word that is heard be yours.” (Fred Rogers said this prayer every morning as he entered the studio.)
We’re on Sunday #2 of 4 in this series on “Won’t You Be My Neighbor: Mister Rogers and the Kingdom of God.”
Last week we kicked off with “Who Is My Neighbor?” (link here) We read the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), learning that the greatest commandments are to love God with all that we are and to love our neighbor as ourselves. We looked more closely at some of the people Fred Rogers deliberately chose to be part of his television neighborhood, as well as some of Fred’s theological understanding of the world.
I suggested that for Fred Rogers, loving his neighbor—moving outside of his norm, reaching out and befriending those who were different—was not a duty, or obedience to a commandment. Rather, it was a delight, a source of joy, a gift from God.
That is a wonderful way of looking at the commandment to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. However, much ink has been used to explore the reality that part of the reason we do a lousy job of loving our neighbor is, we do a lousy job of loving ourselves.
Fred Rogers knew this was true. Woven through Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood is the thread of each person being loved and lovable.
One of the songs that was sung over the years on the show ends with this thought:
When your heart has room for everybody,
then your heart is full of love.
According to the people that knew him, Fred Rogers’ heart had room for everybody and it was most definitely full of love.
How did his heart get that way?
As it is with most of us, it was a long process involving many different experiences and things learned.
Some of those experiences were from childhood.
Fred Rogers grew up in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, about an hour outside of Pittsburgh. His family was very wealthy—they owned a mansion in town and had a cook and a chauffeur. Jim and Nancy McFeely Rogers were great philanthropists in Latrobe, supporting the construction of local pools and theaters and doing good works throughout the town. Fred was an only child until he was 11 and only a few years older than the Lindbergh baby who was kidnapped in 1932. Like many parents in wealthy families with young children, his mother became fearful that the same fate could befall her beloved son. So she became quite protective, having their chauffeur drive Freddy to school each day and watch over him when they were out in public.
While the adults in Latrobe appreciated what Jim and Nancy Rogers did for their community, for some of the children, it made Fred a target. He had terrible childhood asthma, which had kept him isolated instead of making friends. So young Freddy was not exactly an outcast, but he was an outlier, and often lonely.
One day, Latrobe Elementary School unexpectedly dismissed the children early. The Rogers’ family chauffeur was not there to pick Fred up. So Fred decided to walk the ten blocks home. It wasn’t long before he had the sense that he was being followed and sure enough when he turned around he saw a group of boys behind him. As he walked faster, they called his name, got closer and closer, then started chasing him, shouting, “Freddy, hey fat Freddy. We’re going to get you, Freddy.”
Anyone who has ever been chased or taunted by a group of peers knows how terrifying it is. Fred managed to find safety at the house of a family friend who lived along the way home.
The adults in his life advised him to ignore what happened and not let the other boys know that their teasing bothered him. But Fred, who was a very sensitive person even then, stated, “but I resented the teasing. I resented the pain. I resented those kids for not seeing beyond my fatness or shyness.”
It was one of those moments that worked on him throughout his life. Later when he read the beloved French classic, The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, this passage really spoke to him:
“And now here is my secret, a very simple secret:
It is only with the heart that one can see rightly;
what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
“What is essential is invisible to the eye.” Fred had that quote framed near his desk and often quoted it during talks he gave. (Although, perhaps he understood its meaning as, “What is essential is invisible to the human eye. God sees us all with love and appreciation.”)
There was another childhood experience that was fundamental for Fred: his weekly visits to his Grandfather McFeely’s farm just outside of Latrobe. Not only did his grandfather encourage him and allow him some independence that his mother discouraged, his grandfather would tell him, “Fred, you made this day a special day by being yourself. Always remember there’s just one person in the world like you…and I like you just the way you are.”
Grandfather McFeely took the message the Rogers and McFeely families heard each week at Latrobe Presbyterian Church, that God loves you, and made it incarnational, put it in the flesh. Fred experienced that unconditional love from his grandfather, and as he grew older, his understanding of what it means to be loved by God deepened and grew.
It deepened and grew during his time at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, too, especially with his favorite professor, William Orr. Dr. Orr taught that Jesus “will do anything to encourage us to know that God’s creation is good, that we, his brothers and sisters, can look on each other as having real value. Our advocate will do anything to remind us that we are lovable and that our neighbor is lovable, too.”
Orr also taught that there are evil forces in this world that “will do anything to make you feel as bad as you possibly can about yourself, because if you feel the worst about who you are, you will undoubtedly look with condemning eyes on your neighbor and you will get to believe the worst about him or her.”
God loves us, appreciates us, finds joy in us, just the way we are.
God loves us in order that we might love ourselves and love others, appreciate ourselves and appreciate others, find joy in who we are and in who others are, too.
And that belief was woven into every episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.
It was also woven into his daily living. His wife, Joanne Byrd Rogers, wrote in the forward to the book, The World According to Mister Rogers: Important Things to Remember,
“A quote he loved especially—and carried around with him—was from Mary Lou Kownacki: ‘There isn’t anyone you couldn’t love once you’ve heard their story.’ There were many times I wanted to be angry at someone, and Fred would say, ‘But I wonder what was going on in that person’s day.’ His capacity for understanding always amazed me.”
As so often happened, Amy Hollingsworth was a journalist with the Christian Broadcast Network who came to interview Fred Rogers for The 700 Club and then found herself a valued friend. Amy and Fred wrote letters and shared phone calls up until his death. In one of their last conversations, without knowing that Fred Rogers’ death would occur within the year, Amy asked this question:
“If you had one final broadcast, one final opportunity to address your television neighbors, and you could tell them the single most important lesson of your life, what would you say?”
And Fred Rogers responded:
Well, I would want those who were listening to somehow know that they had unique value, that there isn’t anybody in the whole world exactly like them and that there never has been and there never will be.
And that they are loved by the Person who created them, in a unique way.
If they could know that and really know it and have that behind their eyes, they could look with those eyes on their neighbor and realize, “My neighbor has unique value too; there’s never been anybody in the whole world like my neighbor, and there never will be.” If they could value that person–if they could love that person–in ways that we know the Eternal loves us, then I would be very grateful.
We don’t want to disappoint Mister Rogers, do we? So, friends, I invite you this day and this week to meditate on, to soak in how much God loves you, your own beloved-ness. And as you do so, may it change the way you view yourself and those around you–with love. Always with love.
 Maxwell King, The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers, p. 27
 Ibid, p. 23
 Ibid, p. 31
 Quoted in Peaceful Neighbor: Discovering the Countercultural Mister Rogers by Michael G. Long (2015)
 Ibid., p. 34
 Ibid., p. 29
 Ibid, pp. 29-30
 Joanne Rogers, forward to The World According to Mister Rogers: Important Things to Remember
 Amy Hollingsworth, The Simple Faith of Mister Rogers, pp. 160-161