Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
Week 3: The Strength of Weakness
September 23, 2018
In mid-July, my husband, Jim, who is also a pastor, used a story about Mister Rogers in a sermon.
When he got home from Lone Tree he reported that following worship, two men had come up to ask him if knew that before doing Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Fred Rogers served in the military. In fact, the older one said, he wore cardigan sweaters to cover up the tattoos he had on his arms.
That’s right, the other one said. And he was a sniper. He killed a lot of people.
Have you ever heard these stories? I’ve heard them or seen them on the internet occasionally over the last several years.
In case you are wondering—they aren’t true. Fred Rogers never served in the military because Fred Rogers was a pacifist. And no, he didn’t have any tattoos.
What fascinates me is why these particular urban legends came to exist.
For some, it’s the sheer unexpectedness of it that makes it believable, or at least interesting enough to repeat. But my assumption is, for people who felt Mister Rogers was a “sissy,” military service, tattoos and being a decorated sniper legitimize him and make him acceptable. He was capable of behaving like “a real man” so it’s okay if he acted like that around the children.
Not everyone loved Mister Rogers. Besides those who called him a “wimp” there were others who didn’t believe that Fred Rogers was real. They thought it was an act, that he was a phony because one could be like that.
But he was. Anyone who met him quickly learned that Mister Rogers and Fred Rogers were the same person. There was no act—there was only a genuine human being who lived out his message of kindness and love and acceptance and compassion and caring in everything he did.
Fred Rogers was and is countercultural.
- In a culture that—especially now—promotes almost hyper-masculinity, Rogers presented an image of a man who was nurturing, gentle and kind.
- In a culture that is always in a hurry, Rogers produced a television show for young children that was slow in pace, that was never in a hurry, that didn’t cut quickly from image to image.
- In an economy that is dependent upon making each of us voracious consumers, Fred Rogers refused to market anything to children.
- In a climate that insists that we “move on,” “get over it” and “suck it up” when difficult things happen to us and around us, Fred Rogers focused on feelings and assuring children that their feelings—whether glad or mad, happy or sad, brave or scared—are part of them and they are okay.
There are so many ways in which Fred Rogers—slight of build, a bit slope shouldered, wearing those cardigan sweaters and sneakers—was an unlikely suspect to become an icon and role model.
However, that is so often the way God works in the world.
There is a thread woven throughout scripture of God choosing and using the people you least suspect—Abraham who had a hard time trusting God, or Moses who didn’t really want the job, or the way God chose David, the youngest brother instead of any of Jesse’s other, full-grown, powerful and handsome sons to be king.
In the reading from Mark this morning we see how children weren’t valued in Jesus’ society, but Jesus, in spite of that attitude, welcomed and made time and space for them.
There is another thread of how God’s power is different:
- Matthew’s gospel quotes Psalm 118 to talk about the stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone—that’s Jesus.
- Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth reminds the congregation there that what God considers wise, the world considers foolish; and what God considers strength, the world sees as weakness.
God’s power comes from what the world considers unnecessary and unimportant, weak and foolish. God’s power works through grace, compassion, forgiveness, love that gives itself away.
God uses the unexpected to do God’s work in the world.
Fred Rogers believed this and lived it out more than most people of faith. In a letter to his friend, Tom Junod, Fred quoted these words from Frederick Buechner: “And then there is the love for the enemy—love for one, who does not love you but mocks, threatens, and inflicts pain. The tortured’s love for the torturer. This is God’s love. It conquers the world.” And then Fred wrote of these words, that they “made me feel…well, strong is how it made me feel.”
The recipient of that letter, Tom Junod, began his friendship with Fred Rogers in 1998. A journalist for Esquire magazine, Junod who described himself as a “bad-boy journalist” and had a reputation for stirring up controversy in his writing. So, of course, they asked him to do a profile of Mister Rogers for Esquire. Junod and Rogers were a highly unlikely pairing and the prospect of interviewing Fred Rogers threw him.
Mister Rogers (as Junod called him), kept him off balance, greeting him for the first time at the door of the apartment Fred kept in New York City wearing an old bathrobe, and having just woken from a nap. They met several times for the profile, including Junod tagging along on Fred’s morning swim—even into the locker room where Fred just naturally and without shame changed into his swimsuit.
That’s the way Fred was—no mask, no contrived image he was trying to impress the world with—he was simply, truly, honestly, even vulnerably, himself.
And he had a way of encouraging others to be their own true selves, too. Because Fred was so focused on other people, in their conversations together, Tom would ask a question and Fred would deflect it back, asking Tom a question about himself. In the process a friendship, really a mentorship, developed.
Later, Tom Junod reflected that Fred Rogers had agreed to do the interview for his own reasons. Junod said, “Once I sort of got in his sights, I think that he was looking to minister to me.”
That happened over and over with people who came into Fred’s life, often for professional reasons. They became friends, who Fred helped in many ways.
Fred once said, “When I was a boy I used to think that strong meant having big muscles, great physical power; but the longer I live, the more I realize that real strength has much more to do with what is not seen. Real strength has to do with helping others.”
There’s another urban legend about Fred Rogers that I am pretty sure I remember hearing back in the late 80s or 90s. The story goes that Fred Rogers car was stolen. There was some identifying object in the vehicle—I think I remember hearing it was the King Friday XIII puppet. The punch line was, a few days later the car reappeared in Fred Rogers’ driveway with a note on the windshield that said, “Sorry. We didn’t know it was your car!”
From everything I have read, this story isn’t true. But it could be true, you know what I mean? It fits who Fred Rogers was and how others held him in such high esteem. It’s exactly the way people responded to his goodness.
In our house we’re a little obsessed with Marvel right now, all those superheroes and their superpowers. Mister Rogers’ superpower was his vulnerability, and his willingness to be himself without artifice, without pretension, without putting up a shield or a mask. He was himself. And because he was so much himself, he gave others people permission to be themselves, their real selves, too.
So what’s the takeaway for us?
Just a reminder that as people of faith, it is always good to have people, others, witnesses, who model for us what the life of faith looks like.
We can look to Fred Rogers as part of that great cloud of witnesses and see someone who lived out the scriptures, who showed the strength of “weakness” and the wisdom of “foolishness” in his life and work.
I invite you this week to reflect:
- What are the masks that you wear? What are the defenses that you put up?
- Are there ways that we can be more honestly ourselves, so that others can be more honestly themselves, too?
- Are there ways that we can love ourselves so completely and be so okay with who we are—our goodness and occasionally our badness—so that we can give others permission to live that way, too?
Maybe that is our inspiration from Fred Rogers this week.
You make each day a special day by just your being you. There is no one else in the world exactly like you, and God likes you just the way you are.
Thanks be to God for that. Amen.
 Basil Cox quoted in The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers by Maxwell King, (2018). p. 188
 Frederick Buechner, The Magnificent Defeat (1985), p. 105
 Michael G. Long, Peaceful Neighbor: Discovering the Countercultural Mister Rogers, (2015), p. 43
 Maxwell King, The Good Neighbor, p. 307
 The World According to Mister Rogers, p. 41)