Sermon Text: About Hope
Bad news shouts.
Good news whispers.
Despair is rough, hope is gentle. The season of Advent affirms good news in bad times. Advent is all about hope.
The prayers and Scriptures assigned to this season point toward God’s future — a future of joy and peace, a future of health and plenty, a future of life and love.
Hope can be hard to hang to in dark times. Bad news shouts — good news whispers. Despair is rough — hope is gentle. Advent is all about hope.
Last week brought me a whisper of hope. And it was from an unlikely source — Hollywood. The industry that brings us horror movies and war movies and extremely violent action flicks also brings us something else this year. A movie about Mister Rogers, of all people.
I was surprised that Tom Hanks got the part — sure, he’s a nice guy and a good actor, but...Mister Rogers? Then I heard an interview with him about the movie. It turns out the movie is based on a magazine article.
In 1998, Esquire magazine did a series of articles on new heroes. Mikhail Gorbachev was profiled, as were Ronald Reagan and Muhammad Ali. Well, there was a reporter named Tom Junod. This reporter had a reputation for doing hatchet jobs — he would eventually find the real dirt on the people he wrote about. He was the one assigned to write about Fred Rogers.
He found out later that Mister Rogers had specifically asked for him. Fred Rogers knew of his reputation as a tough reporter, and also knew it would be a fair profile. So this grizzled, cynical reporter wanted to get the lowdown on this man in the red cardigan sweater with the soft voice.
And what he found was that there was no con. Fred Rogers was the same in real life as the Mister Rogers on TV. He was a man of kindness, compassion, caring, gentleness, and love.
I came across that article years ago, and now the story of that reporter investigating Mister Rogers is the subject of this new Tom Hanks movie. To me, this is a whisper of hope. In a dark world, this is a shining light. In a time of bad news, this is good news.
Part of the Christian life is the challenge to imitate Christ. But we all know that’s a pretty tall order. So maybe once in a while instead of asking, “What would Jesus do?” we could lower our sights a little. We could ask “What would Mister Rogers do?” We could do a whole lot worse than that.
The magazine reporter described the day Fred and a friend got on a New York subway car. The train car was full of Hispanic and black children riding home from school. None of them approached Mister Rogers to ask for an autograph. They just sang. All at once, all together, they broke into the song from his program: “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood...Won’t you be my neighbor?” The whole clattering train car turned into a single choir on the spot.
But my favorite story from this magazine article was this one:
Fred Rogers once went to visit a teenage boy. This boy had severe cerebral palsy, and could only speak using his computer. And this boy was also angry much of the time. One of his few pleasures in life was watching “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”
And here are the words of Tom Junod in his article:
At first, the boy was made very nervous by the thought that Mister Rogers was visiting him. He was so nervous, in fact, that when Mister Rogers did visit, he got mad at himself and began hating himself and hitting himself, and his mother had to take him to another room and talk to him. Mister Rogers didn’t leave, though. He wanted something from the boy, and Mister Rogers never leaves when he wants something from somebody. He just waited patiently, and when the boy came back, Mister Rogers talked to him, and then he made his request. He said, “I would like you to do something for me. Would you do something for me?”
On his computer, the boy answered yes, of course, he would do anything for Mister Rogers, so then Mister Rogers said, “I would like you to pray for me. Will you pray for me?” And now the boy didn’t know how to respond. He was thunderstruck, because nobody had ever asked him for something like that, ever. The boy had always been prayed for. The boy had always been the object of prayer, and now he was being asked to pray for Mister Rogers, and although at first he didn’t know if he could do it, he said he would, he said he’d try, and ever since then he keeps Mister Rogers in his prayers and doesn’t talk about wanting to die anymore, because he figures that Mister Rogers is close to God, and if Mister Rogers likes him, that must mean that God likes him, too.
As for Mister Rogers himself, he doesn’t look at the story the same way the boy or I did. In fact, when Mister Rogers first told me the story, I complimented him on being smart — for knowing that asking the boy for his prayers would make the boy feel better about himself — and Mister Rogers responded by looking at me first with puzzlement and then with surprise: “Oh, heavens no, Tom! I didn’t ask him for his prayers for HIM...I asked for ME. I asked him because I think that anyone who has gone through challenges like that must be very close to God. I asked him because I wanted his intercession.”
Now, I’m the parent of a child with a profound disability. As you can imagine, this speaks to me deeply. When I’d been a priest about 7 years and my daughter was about 10 years old, I decided she was much closer to God than I was. Mister Rogers would have agreed, I’m sure.
The magazine writer went with Fred Rogers in a cab to Penn Station in New York City to film a segment for “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” A crowd gathered around him as soon as he stepped onto the sidewalk.
Tom Junod wrote, “There was Mister Rogers putting his arms around someone, or wiping the tears on someone’s cheek, or passing around the picture of someone’s child, or getting on his knees to talk to a child.” And in that crowd there were some pretty thuggish looking guys at the back. One of them said, “It’s Mister Freakin’ Rogers!”
We could do worse than imitating Mister Freakin’ Rogers.
Today’s reading from Isaiah tells us to walk in the light of the Lord, the One who will teach us to beat our swords into plowshares so that we will give up war. Today’s reading from St. Paul tells us that “the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”
Bad news shouts — good news whispers.
Despair is rough — hope is gentle.
This new movie about the gentle Mister Rogers is, to me, an Advent whisper of hope.
In Advent and always, let’s hold on to hope.