This week I watched a movie — A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood— about the friendship between a magazine writer and Fred Rogers, whom most of us would know as Mister Rogers. It’s the kind of movie – much like the man himself – that flows over you, taking its time. Tom Hanks, who plays Mister Rogers, speaks with calm, even tones like someone trying to soothe a child to sleep. The idea of the movie is that the journalist keeps trying to find the chinks in Mister Rogers’s armour – who is he, really?
And the conclusion is the simplest one of all – Fred Rogers is exactly who you think he is. Not a perfect person, as his wife says candidly. But someone who made it his life’s mission to really see people, and to find a way to hear them and help them. The story goes that he started his show – which ran for 33 years – because he didn’t like the current batch of TV shows that involved people’s throwing pies at each other to make kids laugh. He wanted to talk to children about what mattered to them – their feelings and their struggles – and he spoke to more than a few adults too. Among those of us of a certain age with a TV in our homes growing up, I don’t imagine there is a single person who didn’t watch his show at one time or another.
Mister Rogers is the kind of person evoked in the gospel this morning – the one who pays attention to the little ones. Jesus is describing the nature of welcome to the disciples, and he gives three examples: the prophet, the righteous person, and the little ones. Welcome these, Jesus says, and the reward will be great. Welcome is a “pass-it-over” kind of act, as the gospel described it: whoever welcomes you, welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me, welcomes the one who sent me.
But Jesus was also getting at something deeper than just offering a glass of water. And his three examples are important to consider, and to ask what the welcome would mean for each one. For they are not the same.
Let’s take the prophet, the teacher, the imparter of wisdom. What would that welcome look like? It would require listening, taking in the message, and learning from it – just as people did all through the ministry of Jesus. And for the righteous person – what of their welcome? It might mean thanking them for their work, providing them rest or, better still, joining them in their cause – just as the disciples did with Jesus, supporting his labour. And what of the little ones, so easily overlooked? What welcome do they require? To be seen, one imagines, to be noticed, and to be loved. The way someone sees you’re thirsty, or in need of a hug, without your needing to say so.
So, Jesus is really trying to remind the disciples that welcomes come in many forms – and they are not really about the coffee you offer, or the meal you serve. They are about listening to, supporting, and seeing someone else, and letting someone into your life.
That’s what drew us all to Mister Rogers – the nature of his welcome, so explicitly expressed with the opening song in his show – “Won’t you be my neighbor?” The idea of that song was that a neighbor could be anyone at all, whoever would be watching from the television, and Mister Rogers was speaking to all of them. In the same way that Jesus connects all our welcomes to one another and back to him. The use of the word “whoever” is important: whoever could be anyone. It is meant to be everyone.
The movie spends a fair amount of its time specifically referencing God – God comes up a lot in the wisdoms that Mister Rogers imparts to the writer, whose name is Lloyd. As it happens, one of Mister Rogers’s secrets to his calm was discipline – he prayed every night, he exercised, he even kept his weight at the same number all his life. Life was to be lived intentionally, in every way. His welcomes didn’t just happen – they were based on lifelong practice.
One of the dangers of an example such as Mister Rogers is that – whatever his wife says – he is a hard model to follow. How can we match him? But as we are reminded in our second lesson and throughout the gospel, we don’t need to be slaves to our imperfections. If this gift of life from God is truly ours, if there is no limit on the number of gifts, and no expiry date when they become unavailable to us, then we are free. If anything, that difficult first reading – about the near sacrifice of his son by Abraham, spared after a kind of test from God – is to remind us how different the God of the gospel is for us. God is transformed from sitting above us in judgment, to walking among us with love. The gospel is God’s welcome – listening to us, supporting us, and seeing us.
These days, our practice of welcome has had to change – and will continue to change even as society reopens. But, of course, Jesus is talking about a posture toward life, about welcome as a metaphor for openness – to new ideas, new solutions, and new people. Mr. Rogers, by all accounts, made this his life’s purpose, guided by his faith. His neighbor was anyone, and it was everyone. May we do the same. Listen to those with wisdoms to teach. Support those who are doing good by joining them. And see those who so often get missed. Our welcomes are ours to give. Let us extend them to our neighbors – anyone and everyone.
based on Matthew 10:40-42—June 28, 2020