With the recent release of Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” I hear a lot about Fred Rogers. People tend to go on about how much they loved his show when they were growing up. They watched faithfully and enjoyed his message of love, kindness, and acceptance. With each conversation I’ve been involved in, I try to keep quiet. So far, I’ve been unsuccessful. I always find myself blurting out, “I hated it!” It’s true. I could not stand watching the show as a child. I thought Mr. Rogers was a faker and a liar. He didn’t know me. It was seldom all that “beautiful” in my neighborhood. If confronted with watching his show, I would turn the tv off, leave the room, or read a book so I didn’t have to listen to him talk about how kind and nice the world was. Of course, decades later, I came to understand the power and the importance of the show and the work of Fred Rogers. But as a child, no, I wanted nothing to do with him.
This isn’t really all that surprising if you know anything about my childhood. I did not feel particularly loved or valued at home and in school I was often the victim of bullying. The truth of my young life is that most people weren’t very nice and nobody cared about me in particular. Why would I believe the perfect stranger on television who tried to tell me otherwise? I couldn’t tolerate Mr. Roger’s message of love because I hadn’t experienced it. And, being a child, I didn’t yet know that other families were different from my own.
This may be the problem when it comes to the kind of love Jesus preached and shared. Many people are highly suspicious of God’s love because they have not experienced it in a recognizable form. Today’s church has become so divided by doctrine and dogma, it’s hard to know what’s true or what’s right. Too often fear, anger, hatred, and judgment seem to be the way today’s Christians move in the world. Why would anyone believe in a God who only desires for us to know our value and live in love? It’s hard if you’ve only witnessed division among those who claim to be followers of Christ.
The concept of a loving God is not new to Christianity nor is our inability to claim it and share it. Many stories in the Hebrew Bible speak of God’s steadfast love. No matter how many times the people strayed from God’s ways, forgot to care for the vulnerable among them, and worshiped wealth and power rather than God, God remained. Always, God was present when the people remembered whose they were. Always, God’s steadfast love blanketed the people with forgiveness, grace, and new life. Without fail.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you. When you walk through fire you shall not be burned, neither shall the flame kindle upon you.
This ancient promise given through the Prophet Isaiah is still valid. We are still precious in God’s sight. God still calls us by name. We still belong to God. Yet, it’s too easy to forget. There is less evidence in the world of God’s love than there is of human fear.
As a child, I desperately needed the message Mr. Rogers tried to convey. I couldn’t hear it from a stranger. I needed to experience the truth from people I knew and trusted, and it took too many years before I was able to accept it. This is how we are with the message of God’s steadfast love. We don’t often accept it from strangers, even kind-hearted ones. We need to consistently experience God’s love from those we know and trust. It takes time before most of us can live out the truth of it.
Jesus had the benefit of a voice from heaven proclaiming his status as God’s beloved. That isn’t likely to happen to any of us today. We need to have the truth of our status as beloved proclaimed in the words and actions of those who bear Christ’s name. It is up to us to embody God’s love for everyone, most especially those who are vulnerable. It’s time we live what we claim to believe in a way that transforms lives. After all, this is what Jesus did. There’s no reason for people to hate church the way that I hated Mr. Rogers; everyone deserves to know that they are God’s beloved. How is anyone going to know the truth if we don’t live it?
RCL – Year C – First Sunday after Epiphany
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22