Sabbath as resistance. “It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood, a beautiful day for a neighbor, would you be mine, could you be mine? I’ve always wanted to have a neighbor like you, so let’s make the most of this beautiful day. Won’t you please be my neighbor?” Fred Rogers is in our minds lately because both a documentary and a feature film about him have come out in the last year. Our family has seen both (how about you?). Didn’t they bring tears to your eyes—they did mine. What made his show such an enduring success with children? Well, many things, but an important one for adults comes down to the fact that every morning he led the children through a ritual. I’m going to say more about that next. This is a sermon about the ritual way as the way to personal empowerment in these days of public distress. Our Sabbath ritual in particular helps us resist the forces around us that steal our sense of self and our humanity. It’s not very hard to see what’s going on during that children’s television show—it’s fun just to think about. It’s uncanny how Rogers created a ritual similar to what occurs right here in our own Sunday morning ritual. For one thing, it’s the repetition. Repetition is the hallmark of all rituals, and you see many in Mr. Roger’s show—it opens the same way and ends the exact same way every time. Then there is a regular routine involving a regular cast of characters who visit—Mr. McFeeley, etc.. These characters bring in a variety of issues or problems for Mr. Rogers to engage with but always in the same, signature way. The setting is always the same, requiring regular stops at the familiar household items—feeding the fish, etc., culminating in the regular visit to Imagination Land. Children count on all those repetitions for security, it builds trust, something they can count on. Second, the show highlights emotional issues—every day Mr. Rogers delves into how people deal with death, anger, disappointment, surprises, etc. The children come to expect Mr. Rogers will bring them into an intimate circle with him. There are didactic elements, of course, but he never condescends to them. Mainly, he simply points out things that are going on inside his viewers, gives those things a name, and demystifies them. He never departs from the seriousness with which he takes their emotional concerns. Third, the show is life-affirming and person-affirming. He likes you just the way you are. Mr. Rogers goes straight for the “ugly duckling” feelings any child can have, and he leads them past their felt and sometimes actual limitations to an awareness of their true worth. And he makes the children feel that life is fundamentally good, even when things go wrong. You can see for yourselves the parallels between his show and ours. First, how obvious that many kinds of repetitions occur in our Sunday morning ritual. We, too, start and end with a song, with a few in between—e.g., the Lord’s Prayer. Certain predictable characters appear and disappear—the liturgist, the preacher, the music director and choir, church members who make announcements. But a huge cast of offstage characters surface very regularly, too—Jesus, Mary, the disciples, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Moses. . . And we make regular stops at the same iconic places in our “household”—the baptismal font, the pulpit (and lectern), the altar, the church door (see bulletin cover). That order, the orderliness, reflects the order of God’s universe and is fundamentally reassuring to us as adults. When you come to church, emotions and emotional issues get raised—death, anger, disappointment, health surprises, etc. Adults come to expect that the ministers will bring us, just as Mr. Rogers does, into an intimate circle with them. There are didactic elements, most obviously in the sermon—hopefully, the preacher never condescends to the congregation--! The preacher wants to name the feelings that are going on inside the worshipers and to place them within the largest possible perspective in time and space—between heaven and earth, between God and the devil. The hour in church never departs from the seriousness with which the minister takes emotional concerns—maybe sometimes too much so. Third, the service is life-affirming and person-affirming. How often do we repeat that God loves you just the way you are? Adults are led past their felt and sometimes actual deficiencies to an awareness of their true worth. The worship service should make you feel that life is fundamentally good, even when things go wrong. For children, Mr. Rogers creates a sanctuary where it is safe from the outside world to explore feelings. For adults, the Eliot Church creates a sanctuary to strengthen feelings with which to face down the forces of the outside world—just being here is resistance to the culture. One big difference between Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood and Sunday morning worship is that kids don’t have anyone telling them they have to watch the show. In our case, the Fourth Commandment (read in the morning lesson) has made worship an obligation, a duty, and a felt burden—due to the arbitrariness of it all, many people have rebelled and refused to attend. The restrictions and prohibitions associated with the Sabbath (Matthew 26:17-19) have compounded the negativity. Here we see Jesus criticize the hypocrisy of official teaching about the Sabbath—are we affirming life, or not?? Prof. Walter Brueggemann (Emeritus, Columbia Theological Seminary), in a wonderful book entitled, Sabbath as Resistance, wants us feel a commitment to the Sabbath as a positive practice of faith, a practice that will empower us for public life. Brueggemann shows us that our Sabbath rituals can fortify us to resist the mindlessness and restlessness of a compulsively competitive, commercial society. The Sabbath commandment only wanted us to rest, because God rested. We need that now because our commodity society is so restless we can’t rest, Brueggemann wrote. Americans take on average two weeks’ vacation a year, and a vacation for us is often hyper-recreation. Worship is resistance to the cultural drag on our lives. Because the wrong expectations get people looking for the wrong things on Sunday morning, I have some tips for getting more out of worship:
You don’t have to check your brain at the door.
But it’s like poetry, it doesn’t have to make perfect sense.
Belief is not a price of admission.
We sing lots of things we don’t “believe.”
Sing no matter how poorly.
But you don’t have to sing—it’s OK just to be silent.
Let your mind wander, perfect attention is not required.
Look around, look out the windows.
Stay with a feeling—the service can go on without you for a while.
Remember to breathe.
Be generous at offering time ($20 bill is the new $1).
Think about the people in the city around us.
Remember your loved ones, past and present, living and dead.
Allow the reason you are alive to surface.
Be still, so God can find you.
Even though Mr. Rogers communicates through the television camera, which makes that experience a wholly private one, the same dynamics operate in this setting, which is public. Not many television shows, for children or adults, work on the audience like a ritual, on a Sunday morning—maybe it has something to do with the fact that Fred Rogers had a theological education and saw his television work with children as a ministry. I hope this visit with Fred Rogers will remind you of the important role ritual has in human life. Mr. Rogers’ ritual for children helped them cope with their emotions. Our Sabbath ritual helps us step aside from the fray so that when we go back into the fray we are not mere consumers or idle participants, but able to resist because we are not afraid. “It’s such a good feeling, to know you’re alive. It’s such a happy feeling, you’re growing inside. And when you wake up ready to say, I think I’ll make a snappy new day—it’s such a good feeling, a very good feeling, the feeling that you know that I’ll be back when the day is new. And I’ll have more ideas for you. And you’ll have things you’ll want to talk about. I will too.” --Rev. Richard Chrisman, 3/8/2020