The Gospel According to Fred: There are so Many Ways to Say I Love You

Throughout Lent, we’re looking at the life of Fred Rogers, an ordained Presbyterian Minister, whose pulpit was a children’s educational program.  Before How it’s made, it showed children how any number of products were created.  Before Dr. Phil, it dove into difficult topics of divorce, politics, assassination and death.  Fred’s show set out to do something that many shows did not – to make a connection with the viewer – to see the space between two people, as powerful. 

This was confusing for people because Fred just wasn’t playing someone on tv.  The person he was behind the camera was one he tried to be in real life too.  This is highlighted wonderfully In A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood. 

Rogers (played by Tom Hanks) is being interviewed,[1] and he’s asked if he considers himself a hero.  With humility, he says, ‘I don’t consider myself a hero.’  And then the interviewer comes back with a very interesting question…What about Mister Rogers…is he a hero?  And Fred responds, I don’t understand the question…

And the interviewer clarifies:
Well there’s you Fred, and then there’s the character you play, Mister Rogers…

And in what follows we begin to see that this isn’t an act.  This isn’t a character.  This is who Fred was.  Who he was created to be.  And as the movie continues, Fred helps the interviewer (Lloyd Vogel) become the person who he was created to be. 

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews.
He came to Jesus by night …

In this story in the Gospel of John, Jesus helps Nicodemus become the person who he was created to be. 

So worried about public perception, worried about what others might think, Nicodemus came to Jesus at night.  He didn’t want to be seen.  He didn’t want to be found out that he was questioning his faith.  Or seeking Jesus, a preacher, who seemed to speak on behalf of Israel, on behalf of God, and yet, outside of the system.  The faith at the time lived in an uncomfortable alliance with Rome, and there were those who preached outside of Jerusalem, both religiously and literally.  There were those who stepped outside of their faith so that they could improve/criticize it.   Out in the wilderness they offered a way back into faith for some people.  Nicodemus had heard the whispers.  He sought out Jesus because he needed to hear it for himself.  The two get into a discussion about words – born from above, how you can be born again, (which some denominations have taken and ran with). 

Jesus respected that space between them as holy – and risked meeting with one who would have been viewed as “enemy.”  Jesus took the risk of sharing his faith, knowing that sharing his faith and his interpretation of Scripture would ‘out’ him.  He could have been branded a heretic for his preaching, yet Jesus took the risk.  He didn’t send this Pharisee away but honoured the space between them so that Nicodemus might grow into who he was created to be. Jesus saw the holiness of relationships and listened for the presence of God in each and every interaction. 

This is the legacy of Mister Rogers.  He wasn’t playing a character.  He wasn’t preaching on Sunday morning, or going home after every taping of the show, to take the sweater off and forget who he was.  He was born to love – and that love shaped everything he did.  He respected the connection that he was afforded by his position – and encouraged us to do the same. 

In an interview with ABC Nightline in the 90s, Fred talked about the power of relationships as we meet together on holy ground:  from

With each of our lives, we come in contact with many people and that mysterious wonder that is shared between us enables us to be born again, to see the world anew, to relearn what it means to love one another. 

And yet, what’s happening as a result of the spread of the coronavirus…we’re now realizing how easily our lives bump up against each other.  And we’re growing terrified of that connection.  This fear was growing over the last couple of years, as we’ve learned less and less of our neighbours, as struggles with other faiths, other cultures, force us to learn and relearn what it means to be human as we continually strive for the good of all creation.  As a result there’s been a growing chasm between us.  In the last couple of weeks there was both an article in the National Post called Canada is broken[2] and a counter argument in Macleanscalled Canada is not broken.[3]  (Clearly something about us isn’t broken as it was Canadian doctors that discovered how widespread the virus might be and informed Iran just before their outbreak.[4])  Some believe we’re on the right path as a society.  Others not so much.  And this virus is just highlighting the fear and anxiety in our system.  It’s making us second guess one another, and causing us to fear what’s waiting for us in line at the grocery store, or on airplanes, or here in church.  I’m worried that we’re losing that connection with one another that we’ll never get back. 

Sure we can stop shaking hands at the door – but I’ll tell you that’s where I get some profound pastoral work done as people share their lives with one another and with me.  Sure we can change gather and gab (or may have to eliminate it altogether) – but we’ll lose that time of connection and community that brings us together.  Sure we can cancel church, and I can send you sermons by youtube or email, but we lose that connection in the pews when you’re forced to sit alongside someone you may disagree with. 

What if instead of fear, what spread was love.  What if a global movement towards the light of the best of what we could be, spread from Fred’s teachings, from Jesus’ loving, from the holy ground between us?  Instead of worrying about that space between us, what if we honoured that space as one that has the power to transform lives.  What would happen if we took the holy ground between us, as seriously as Mister Rogers, as seriously as Jesus did? (In essence that is what the coronavirus should do – that we respect one another enough to wash our hands, etc…)

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

For the eternal life is shared when we pass love from one generation to the next, when we believe that people can like us exactly for who we are.  The eternal life is here and now, when we enable one another grow into the people we are called to be.  The eternal life is the hope that beyond viruses and panic is that humanity has been entrusted with the wisdom and love that binds person to person, creation to creation, hope to hope. 

For there is holy ground between us that gives new life to all.  May we have the courage to enter that holy space, knowing the risks that await us there. 

[1] 32:00min in





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