by the Rev. Jered Weber-Johnson

Recently my family and I watched that most excellent of documentaries about the life and work of Fred Rogers, called Won’t You Be My Neighbor. I grew up not having television, and in those rare instances when I was around a TV, one of the few things I remember being allowed to watch was Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood on PBS. Diving back into that world was both nostalgic and an affirmation of the wisdom of my parents television boundaries – in a media universe where noise and distraction, anger, violence, cynicism, sarcasm and snark pass for good TV and sadly still do, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood was just the opposite full of wonder, an appreciation for silence, a fierce commitment to justice, and, most importantly, undergirded by the foundational belief that each of us is imbued, by the simple fact of our existence, from birth to death, with inherent worth and dignity. 

Over and over Mr. Rogers emphasized to his viewers, mostly children, that there was nothing they could do, no accomplishment so grand that they could add to that dignity, and no failure so colossal that they could take away from it. You are loveable and worthy of love, just for being you. Such an affirmation seems simplistic and unhelpful. Yet, in a world that treats love like a reward to be gained, where affirmation and affection are often contingent on accomplishment and ability, Fred Rogers’ message that each child was of infinite and immutable worth and dignity, was a radical and culture altering message, the effects of which are still rippling through our society today. 

But, as the documentary of his life story reveals, even Fred Rogers struggled to believe this message at moments. His wife relates that one of the final conversations she ever had with him, before his death, involved a discussion of Matthew’s gospel. A lifelong Presbyterian minister and a faithful Christian, Fred and his wife would study the Bible together, and she recounted how they had been reading that story where Jesus describes the final judgment when God separates the sheep and the goats. The righteous in this story, the sheep, are sent to their eternal reward, and the unrighteous, the goats, to eternal punishment. Joanne Rogers told how Fred wrestled with this story, and finally asked her, “Do you think I am one of the sheep or the goats?” Had his life mattered, he wondered? Had he done good? Had his work and ministry been enough to earn the approval of his heavenly Father? Joanne of course affirmed him, “If anyone is a sheep, Fred, it is you.” But, his question betrays the reality that even the most ardent advocate for this simple truth, even Fred Rogers wondered whether he was worthy of love, questioned his inherent and God-given dignity. 

I think this is why we need the gospel message, why we come again and again into spaces like this one, why we practice our faith together over and over with rituals and rites that affirm the basic and essential truth that we are worthy of love and dignity, that we are created in the image and likeness of God. The truth is, none of us can hold this affirmation, none of us can believe on our own, each and every day, that we are loveable and deserving of love without qualification or equivocation. We have to hold this truth together in community, reminding and being reminded by one another, by the nearness of sacraments like Eucharist and baptism, by the stories of the saints and Jesus himself, that we are of infinite and inestimable value to the God who created and loved us into being. 

In the gospel this morning we ascend the mountain with Peter and James and John, and we bear witness as Jesus is transfigured before them, as the divine shines through and is revealed in the midst of his humanity. The moment is, Mark says, splendid, dazzling, and the disciples see Jesus with Elijah and Moses, as if, for a moment, heaven and earth touch, the divine and the human come together, and a voice is heard, “This is my son, the Beloved. Listen to him.” I remember the first time I held both of my boys, cradled them, newborn and vulnerable in my arms, having done nothing of any real value, no contributions to the world, none of the amazing things they have done since or will do in the future, and my heart burst, in those first moments, with similar words to the gospel – “This is my son, my beloved!” Infinite value, loveliness, worth, and dignity, in those moments, were for me and for any who hold a child in their first days,  undeniable truths. Those words tumble out of the pages of holy writ this morning, across the ages, and we stand with Jesus, knowing that we by some strange gift, we share, not just at our birth or our baptism, but even in the midst of life, in that confluence of divinity and humanity and the declaration of God’s love. You are beloved. Listen to this. Listen. Liberation begins here, in the radical affirmation, that like Jesus, like he taught and preached, you, each and every one of you, in your particularity and humanity, are worthy of love, not for anything you have done or will do, but for being you. This is the beginning of liberation, and when we hold this truth together, in community, in our practices and liturgies, we can truly be free.

As the church prepares to enter Lent, as we prepare to follow Jesus into the wilderness with fasting and prayer, where we will be tested and reminded of all the ways our humanity is broken and unjust, we begin here, with affirmations of our dignity. At the opening of her profound new book, Black Liturgies: Prayers, Poems, and Meditations For Staying Human, Cole Arthur Riley begins with a meditation on the intersection of liturgy and dignity. Writing a letter from her bed where because of chronic illness and struggles with depression, she describes feeling reduced, smaller, and doubtful of her own abilities, wondering if she will be able to write again, whether she will be able to produce work worthy of reading and recognition. 

She writes:

“I don’t know what dignity is. Not cognitively. But I know what it feels like. To be loved, to receive honor, to be encountered as a human, not because of any demonstration or performance of such, but because, in mystery, your very being is a miracle, your existence a delicate stitch in the cosmos. Dignity will never depend on anyone’s belief in it, certainly not your own. It is not born of writing…Or excellent research or beautiful architecture or good parenting. It is inherent. If I never write another word my dignity cannot be diminished. And yet, the world has a choice to honor or not to honor. The toll this choice takes has very real implications on our rights, our wealth, our justice, our children, and even our perceptions of dignity, but never dignity itself. 

So it is, she continues, 

“Our liturgies begin with dignity, because that is where any kind of liberation begins: with an awareness that you are worthy of so much more than whatever form your chains have taken today. For now, you are here – breathing, being, granting a gift that cannot be replicated. Your simple, miraculous, necessary existence.”

You are God’s beloved. Let us hold this truth together, and together, we can be free.


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