The Theology of Mr. Rogers: You Are Not a Mistake
Is there anyone here who has never made a mistake? I hate to tell you this, but if you raised your hand you’re mistaken … so there’s at least the second mistake of your life. The truth is that we all make mistakes, and most of us have made too many to count. I’m apt to make at least one before the service ends this morning. Mr. Rogers wanted children to know that mistakes are a part of life and of growth, and he used several means to get his point across. First, he used himself as an example. In one episode, he tried to breakdance. I don’t know how to put this other than to say it isn’t pretty. The same could be said of the episode where he tried his hands – and his feet – with ballet dancer Ying Li. In another, he tried to complete a puzzle, kept making mistakes, and had to bring in someone to help him get it right. He brought professionals onto his shows – from architects to astronauts, professional athletes, and then others such as the chef Julia Child, cellist Yo-Yo-Ma, Bill Nye the Science Guy, magician David Copperfield, and musicians including pianist Andre Watts and violinist Itzhak Perlman … just to name a few. When these professionals came on the show, Mr. Rogers often asked them if they had to practice hard to get where they were; then he asked them if they had made mistakes along the way. Each of them not only said they had made mistakes, but they also affirmed that they continued to make mistakes. Mr. Rogers stressed that perfection doesn’t lead to becoming an expert, but the struggle is what makes us better. Finally, Mr. Rogers would sing a song like this one:
“Sometimes I wonder if I’m a mistake, I’m not like anyone else I know. When I’m asleep or even awake, sometimes I get to dreaming that I’m just a fake, I’m not like anyone else.” Then, after a couple more verses about being a mistake, Mr. Rogers ended the song with these words: “I think you are fine just as you are, I really must tell you. I do like the person that you are becoming … You’re not a fake, you’re no mistake, you’re my friend.”
Sometimes we doubt God’s love for us. I wonder if there aren’t a couple of things going on inside of us when we do. First, we are too critical of ourselves. We compare ourselves to others and somehow always come up short, not knowing that someone else is comparing him or herself to us and feeling the same way. If we don’t even like ourselves, how can we believe God loves us? Then there’s a second problem and that is our view of God. If God thinks like me – and I have problems with me – then God has problems with me. The thing is: God doesn’t think like me. My thoughts go something like this. Sure, God loves the whole world in some great generic sense, but does he love me? If God is a perfect God (and God is), and if I’m not perfect (and I’m not), how is it that an all-perfect God would even want to know me let alone love me? And how much do I really want God to know about me, since the more God knows, the more God will be disappointed in me? It’s a vicious cycle, isn’t it?
Today’s scripture turns this kind of thinking on its head. Psalm 139 is a carefully written poem describing how well God knows us, individually, and yet, how God still loves and cares for us, individually. The psalmist in Ps. 139, and it is attributed to David, may not be referring to himself as a mistake exactly, but the meaning is there. David is concerned because God knows his thoughts, God knows what he is going to say before he says it, and God’s knowledge is so far beyond him that he can’t possibly understand. David knows that he carries the seeds of wickedness in his heart and his thoughts. And, compounding the matter, he knows that God knows. He can’t hide the truth of his shortcomings in darkness because the night is as bright as the day in God’s sight. Just about the time we think David is lost in the reality, and depression, of his human failings, the psalm takes a turn and bursts into a hymn of praise starting with v. 13. For it was you, God, who formed me even in the womb. “I praise you for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works.” That word “fearfully”, by the way, in the original context is better translated as “awesomely.” You were awesomely and wonderfully made by a God whose works are always wonderful.
The amazing lesson of Psalm 139 is that even though God knows each of us, knows you, from the inside out—every thought, every motive, every feeling, every action—God still likes you. In fact, God doesn’t just like you, God is crazy in love with you. Verse 5 says, “You hem me in behind and before, and you lay your hand upon me.” Today we don’t use words like “you hem me in,” but if we did, we might mean that someone is crowding us or restraining us in some way. You know the old song: “Don’t fence me in.” If we say, “You lay your hand on me,” it’s not a good thing. But in David’s day, these phrases had a different meaning: they were describing God’s protection and security. God’s eyes were watching over David from front to back and on all sides to make sure he was safe. God’s hand was upon David to protect him and guide him. What can we say about this kind of God? In verse 6, David sums it up: “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain.” In other words, I accept it and I believe it, but I don’t get it. In knowing me so well—with all my insecurities and failures and quirks and sins—how could God still love me?
How did God get to know us so well? David takes it all the way back to the womb. God’s knowledge of you, and love for you, predates your birth. You are no accident or mistake in God’s eyes because God established your life from the beginning. That doesn’t mean you haven’t exercised your own will along the way, but it does mean God has stayed with you even as you have veered to the left or to the right and back again. As v. 16 says, “All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.” Nothing catches God off guard to where God says something like, “I can’t believe Denise did that! What am I going to do with her now?” God maybe wishes I wouldn’t do certain things, but, as Romans 8:1 says, “There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,” followed by v. 39, “Nothing is able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.”
In Psalm 139:17-18, David is amazed at how often God thinks of us. It seems that we are constantly on God’s mind. Even as God’s thoughts are more numerous than there are grains of sand, God is still with us. If God had a refrigerator, your picture would be on it. In the novel, “The Shack,” Jesus says to several characters, “You particularly are among my most favorite people.” And that is literally true for everyone who responds to God’s love. You particularly are one of God’s "most favorite people." God loves you and there’s nothing you can do about it. Except…
You can reject God’s love. You can tell yourself you’re not worthy, and while that won’t stop God’s love for you it will prevent you from receiving that love. If there’s anyone that knew he wasn’t worthy, it was the Apostle Paul. In 2 Corinthians 12, Paul openly tells the people to whom he is writing, the churches in the city of Corinth, that he is imperfect and that a thorn has been placed in his flesh to prevent him from thinking too highly of himself. We don’t know what Paul is writing about exactly. Some commentaries refer to the fact that Paul was going blind and, in fact, before his death was completely blind. Others believe Paul may have suffered from some type of muscular degenerative disease. It could be something else entirely. We don’t know. But what Paul does say is that he has repeatedly prayed to God for relief and none has been received. The response from God as he articulates it in v. 9 is this: God has told him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” Paul’s trust in God’s answer is found in vv. 9-10: “So I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ, for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”
What have we learned so far? The first point comes from the psalmist, David, who reassures us that God doesn’t make mistakes and God made each of us as we are. We are “fearfully and wonderfully made.” You may make mistakes and have weaknesses, but none of those things define you as a person. God made you and God loves you. This leads us to the second point, which comes from Paul. We might as well be content with our weaknesses, hardships, calamities, or whatever we call them. Why? Because God is content with them. In fact, Paul says, don’t just be content with your weaknesses and certainly don’t try and hide them, boast about them. Because the weaker we are, the stronger God’s light shines in and through us.
Finally, just like those professionals Mr. Rogers brought on his show who admitted to their mistakes along the way, we are to keep working toward perfection. While the Bible makes it clear that God accepts us and loves us just as we are, it never says we should stay as we are. John Wesley preached a sermon titled, On Christian Perfection, which was based on Matthew 5:48: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Wesley didn’t expect his Methodists to be perfect in all things, thankfully, but he was adamant that we aren’t entitled to set passages of Scripture aside because they’re difficult or challenging to our sense of what is reasonable or even possible. Wesley, in his sermon, made it clear that when we are commanded to be perfect, it doesn’t mean we will be perfect in knowledge, free from mistakes, free from infirmities or weaknesses, free from temptation, and especially free from the need for further growth. He understood that there is always room to grow and move forward in our relationship with God and that even as we move forward there is the likelihood that we will experience times when we “slide” backward. But Wesley absolutely believed that God is always faithful and loving. God loves us so much, God desires to do great things through each of us. And God will define for each of us what the word “great” means.
I want to end this morning with another song by Mr. Rogers and as you listen to the words think of God saying, or singing, them to you: “It’s you I like. It’s not the things that 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 deep down inside you, not the things that hide 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.”
Let’s pray: God, when we consider the truths of today’s scripture, we are amazed. We are amazed that you know us so well, and that in that knowledge you still love us, care for us, and watch over us. Please help each person here truly believe and know that you love them just as they are, that they are not a mistake, and that any mistakes they have made or will make have not, and will not, lessen your love for them. Thank you for the reminder that you not only like us, but you love us with a love that has no boundaries and no end. Amen.