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Cultivating Kindness


Category: Sunday Services

Passage: Luke 13:6-9

Speaker: Rev. Jacob Snowden

Mr. Rogers Day
Cultivating Kindness

Then [Jesus] told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none.  So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’  He [the gardener] replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.

 God, help us to taste the fruit of your wisdom and lovingkindness this morning. Amen.

According to no less respectable a source than the Presbyterian Planning Calendar, today is Mr. Rogers Day. March 20th, 1924, Mr. Fred Rogers was born in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, although I don’t think they called him Mr. Rogers just then. How beautiful are the blue Keds that bring the good news!

 I want to talk about Mr. Rogers today, especially because he helps me to see something important in the parable about the fig tree we’ve just read–I think Mr. Rogers’s ministry helps us to think about how we can (look for the heartwood) dig down, give care, and “cultivate kindness,” which is the title for my sermon this morning.

 Mr. Rogers’s favorite children’s book was The Little Prince. Along with the Velveteen Rabbit, Aesops’s Fables, and no small number of "Mr. Rogers Neighborhood" episodes; wisdom is for all ages. The Little Prince begins with the narrator claiming, “The grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is tiring for the children to always give them explanations.” Where the narrator draws a brown snake swallowing an elephant, adults are prone to ask why a brown hat would be so frightening…silly adults.  Encouraged to leave imagination for something practical, the narrator becomes a pilot who crashes in the Saharan desert. There, the narrator meets the titular little prince from another planet.

 There is a lot to be said of the book. I recommend it to you. But the reason I mention it is to connect something very important about Mr. Rogers with our gospel text today. On the Little Prince’s planet, he is worried about thorny plants, especially a rose. After giving special attention and care to just one rose on his home planet, the little prince learns that on Earth roses are not so rare. Here’s a smattering of quotes that hopefully make the point, one of which Rogers kept on his office wall:

"'The people from your home,' said the little prince, 'grow five thousand roses in the same garden, and they do not find what they are looking for.'

 'They do not find it,' [the narrator] replied.

 'And yet what they seek could be found in a single rose or a little water'…and the little prince added:  'But the eyes are blind. You must seek with your heart.'

 'Here is my secret: you only see well with the heart. What is essential is invisible to the eyes' (that’s the line important to Rogers). 'The essential is invisible to the eyes,' repeated the little prince, 'in order to remember.'

 'It’s the time you lost for your rose that makes your rose so important.'"

 You see, it was the watering, the caring, the attention to the one rose, the cultivating of that rose that made it special.

 Mr. Rogers had a remarkable ability to see the world with his heart. The lessons of his favorite book, seeing the world through imagination and child-like wonder connected him to people. He learned to see what was invisible but essential. To a degree very few people have achieved, Fred Rogers saw the divine spark in the people he met, especially children, recognizing that they were unique. As a part of his ministry, he sought to cultivate what was kind, thoughtful, and caring in his television neighbors. 

 Rogers thought, and I quote, "As human beings, our job in life is to help people realize how rare and valuable each one of us really is, that each of us has something that no one else has or ever will have, something inside that is unique to all time. It’s our job to encourage each other to discover that uniqueness and to provide ways of developing its expression."

 To my mind, that is a wonderful introduction to the lectionary text this morning. Our parable of the fig tree comes at an interesting place between chapters. The end of chapter 12 has Jesus reprimanding religious leaders who could not see and understand the times in which they were living. Chapter 13 begins with some horrendous headlines, headlines that people improperly perceived. “Do you think the Galileans suffered because they were worse sinners than others?” Jesus asked, “Or what about the eighteen people who were mortally injured when the tower of Siloam fell? Were they worse than the rest of the people in Jerusalem?” Jesus claims everyone will eventually meet their fate. The only alternative, according to Luke 13:5 is a change of mind, a "metanoia," which is often translated as “repent.”

 These words from Jesus precede the text about the fig tree we’ve just read. Because this parable follows notions of repentance, several commentaries note that Jesus is sharp…bear the fruit of repentance or else meet a demise like those Galileans and the Jerusalemites terminated by the toppling tower. Jesus demands a change.

 However, if we look to what follows the fig story rather than what precedes it, we read the story of Jesus’s healing of a woman who was bent for 18 years. Luke 13:16 reads, “Should not this woman…be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?” In this instance, we do not hear that the woman repented, touched the hem of Jesus’s garments, made some profession of faith, or did anything. Luke 13:12 reads, Jesus saw her, called to her, and said “You are set free,” recognizing her value despite her infirmity.

 How do you read it? Do you connect it with what precedes or proceeds? Like the landowner, do you think without bearing the external fruit, we are a waste of space? Or, do you see a special kind of care from the gardener, like Jesus sees in the wilted woman? Is the parable a woeful warning or a parable of possibility?

 This is from Fred Rogers: "There’s a world of difference between insisting on someone’s doing something and establishing an atmosphere in which that person can grow into wanting to do it."

 In a well-liked song of Mr. Rogers, played in a popular sequence in his show, Jeff Ehrlinger appears in the neighborhood. Because of a series of early childhood complications, Jeff is bound to a wheelchair. He has an excellent and mature conversation with Mr. Rogers, and then Fred sings:

 "It’s you I like. It’s not the things you wear. It’s not the way you do your hair, but it’s you I like. The way you are right now, the way down deep inside you, not the things that hide you, not your fancy chair, that’s just beside you. But it’s you I like. Every part of you…your skin, your eyes, your feelings, whether old or new. I hope that you’ll remember, even when you’re feeling blue, that it’s you I like. It’s you yourself. It’s you; it’s you I like!"

 The gospel according to Fred Rogers seems to me to be:  knowing that we can be loved exactly as we are gives us all the best opportunity for growing into the healthiest of people.  To see the way down deep inside you is to see the essential and invisible, which is seen most clearly with the heart. This is to say that looking with lovingkindness means looking past the fruit that one does or doesn’t bear.

 Unfortunately, Christianity seems to fall on two interpretations of the fig tree parable. On the one hand, we hear, “Repent! Change! Mature! Where is the produce that earns your keep?” On the other hand, we hear, “Your fruit will come in time, as you are cultivated and cared for. In the context of God’s kind and loving care, the figs grow because of God’s faithfulness to us, rather than our faithfulness to God.” I am happy to be in the latter group’s camp, trusting that Mr. Rogers makes a good neighbor there!

 Again, Rogers is quoted as saying, “I don’t think anyone can grow unless a person is loved exactly as he or she is now, appreciated for what he or she is rather than what one will be.”

 So often, maybe too often, people are told they are not acceptable yet. How often do you imagine children hear, “When you’re older, when you’re bigger…” There is some sneaking suspicion that life really starts later, when one ties his or her own shoes, can get a phone or a car, in high school, in college, in a career, in a relationship, in a home, with kids. But a life in love has already started! Hear the good news: you are accepted just as you are. This very moment you are loved, every part of you, by the perfect love of God and the not-always-perfect love of the church.

 The parable of the fig tree is not explained by Jesus. What’s more, Luke is the only writer to claim that a withered fig tree is a parable. It appears fairly differently in Matthew and Mark. So what does Luke clue us to? The gardener is the distinctive character. Seeing the tree as it is, he seeks to care for it. An important distinction for Rogers was that he did not seek to change people, but to provide the fertile context in which they could grow. I am moralizing, but specifically that means getting to the unseen root of people and caring for them in their deepest parts.  We do not hear if God is the gardener or if we are to be the gardener, which is why I am happy the text comes on Mr. Rogers Day. It is easy to see that Rogers was able to look with the heart, to speak to people’s deep places–their roots, and cultivate kindness in them.

 More moralizing: what provides the nutrients for the fig tree to grow? I’ll give you a hint from sermon titles left on the editing room floor: “From Fecal to Fertile,” “A Ministry of Manure Management,” or my personal favorite, “A Crappy Sermon!”

 Michael G. Long has written a book subtitled: Discovering the Countercultural Mr. Rogers to point out that Rogers discussed difficult things like divorce, assassination, death, fear, anger, gender roles, and racial division…speaking to those deeply rooted manure-y matters.

 The first year of national syndication, Mr. Rogers went to Washington D.C. to seek funding for public television. Rogers himself spoke to Senator Joe Pastore. Rogers’s budget for the show at that time was a humble $6000. Rogers spoke to Pastore:

"We made a hundred programs for EEN, the Eastern Educational Network, and then when the money ran out, people in Boston and Pittsburgh and Chicago all came to the fore and said we've got to have more of this neighborhood expression of care. And this is what -- This is what I give. I give an expression of care every day to each child, to help him [or her] realize that he [or she] is unique. I end the program by saying, 'You've made this day a special day, by just your being you. There's no person in the whole world like you, and I like you, just the way you are.' And I feel that if we in public television can only make it clear that feelings are mentionable and manageable, we will have done a great service for mental health...I'm constantly concerned about what our children are seeing, and for 15 years I have tried…to present what I feel is a meaningful expression of care."

Today, Mr. Rogers Day, I wonder how the church helps people to discover the manure that is mentionable and therefore manageable. I fear that too often the notion that good Christians must think and act a certain way leads to a different kind of manure management. Rather than finding a context to expose our roots, smiling faces serve as a different kind of…let’s call it a fertilized facade…that betrays the deeper realities of our feelings. I’m sandwiching Rogers' quotes here:

 "All of us, at some time or other, need help. Whether we’re giving or receiving help, each one of us has something valuable to bring to this world. That’s one of the things that connects us as neighbors—in our own way, each one of us is a giver and a receiver."

I want each of us to think about the ways we present meaningful, neighborhood expressions of care. I trust we have experienced them before. At awards shows and in the Tom Hanks film, "It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood," there is an exercise. According to Rogers, all of us have special ones who have “loved us into being.” He asked for just ten seconds of silence to think of the people who have helped us to become who we are…those who have cared for you and wanted what is best for you in life. Can we do that now, for just ten seconds?

Whoever you might have been thinking about, how proud they must be of who you have become. They have shown you what a neighborhood expression of care might look like. Now we have the opportunity to show that same care in our neighborhoods.

 We are in the season of Lent; we are in a season of transition; as of today we are entering into a season of stewardship. In every season, fertile or fallow, I hope we might recognize how lovingkindness is at the root of who we are called to be and the work we are called to do, if we can only seek to cultivate it.

 Very quickly, here are a few ways Amy Hollingsworth, author of The Simple Faith of Mr. Rogers suggests we do that: because every person is created in the image of God, because every person is endowed with a divine spark, here is how we might cultivate kindness:

  1. Accept people exactly the way they are.
  2. Help others to grow, even as we accept them.
  3. Identify with those and seek to understand those who hurt us.
  4. Forgive others when we are not accepted exactly as we are.
  5. Love constantly.
  6. See all people in God’s providence and care, realizing that a blessing to one is a blessing to all.
  7. And equally important–take these six practices for yourself. You are lovely and lovable exactly the way you are.

 Lovingkindness makes awfully strong foundations for bridges to our neighborhoods. As we look to steward our resources, looking to the root not just the fruit of things is essential. Look with love, look with the heart. There is so much more to a church than the size of the annual budget or the numbers of people in the pews. These past years may seem like manure, but perhaps that is exactly what we have needed so that in the years to come people will come to taste the fruit of the Spirit here…the fruit of love, the fruit of kindness, and the fruit of all the ways we show that it is a beautiful day in this neighborhood.