Mister Mandela and Mister Rogers

A friend who visited South Africa not too long ago, told me about his tour of Robben Island, off the coast of Cape Town, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years of his 27 year incarceration, for his activities as an anti-apartheid activist and agitator.  My friend told me that you can see the cramped cell where Mandela was held - it was pictured recently in The NY Times.  And he said to me that if he had spent 27 years of his life in a cell like that, he’d have only one thing on his mind when he got out: vindication.  I don’t think he used the word  “revenge,” but I think it was implied, along with the hope that somebody would pay for the injustice portioned out to Mandela day by day by day.  Of course that injustice was a distillation of the daily doses of injustice brought to black South Africans day by day by day under decades of apartheid rule.  Vindication would be a measured way of suggesting a response, under the circumstances.

But the Times a few days ago published the texts of letters that Mandela wrote from prison.  This excerpt from a letter to his daughter, Zindzi, is typical of the surprisingly optimistic tone:

“It may be long before I come back; it may be soon. Nobody knows when it will be, not even the judge who said I should be kept here. But I am certain that one day I will be back at home to live in happiness with you until the end of my days.  Do not worry about me now. I am happy, well and full of strength and hope.”  (Nelson Mandela to his daughter Zindzi, Feb 4, 1969, from The NY Times).

In one of the letters the Times published, Mandela refers to the writings of St. Paul.  Perhaps remembering that Paul had been a prisoner too, this prisoner manages to find some virtue in his own imprisonment, even though his cell was barely large enough for him to lie down in.  He writes, “At least, if for nothing else, the cell gives you the opportunity to look daily into your entire conduct, to overcome the bad and develop whatever is good in you.”  And then, with a word of encouragement that is worth repeating many times over, he writes, “Never forget that a saint is a sinner who keeps on trying. … No ax is sharp enough to cut the soul of a sinner who keeps on trying, one armed with the hope that he will rise and win in the end.”  (Mandela to his wife, Winnie, Feb 1, 1975, from the NY Times)

I have to believe that Mandela had read a lot of St. Paul’s writings.  I expect he had read the apostle’s letters over and over.  I expect he had reflected on the odd little self-disclosure that St. Paul makes toward the end of 2nd Corinthians about some mysterious source of suffering in his life, some unidentified affliction, that Paul admits he begged Jesus, in his prayers, to take away from him.  In a sublime moment of revelation that could not be more matter-of-fact, by way declining to relieve Paul of whatever this affliction was, Jesus answers Paul’s prayer and says to him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”*

Mandela’s letters, if you ask me, are drenched in this insight that our Lord gave to St. Paul: My grace is sufficient for you; for my power is made perfect in weakness.  And Mandela’s moral authority, in a very real sense, was established not so much because of the activities that put him in jail, but because of the grace he was given while he languished there for so long.  So much grace, from so much weakness, that his imprisonment began to indict the South African government before the white establishment knew what was happening.

If the New York Times realized how many of its pages in recent days have been advancing religion, they might review their editorial policy.

The day before the Mandela letters were published, Times columnist David Brooks wrote a piece that might have been little more than a warm, fuzzy homage to Mister Rogers, who is enjoying a great, big, posthumous, warm, fuzzy moment just at this point in time, thanks to the fantastic documentary about him that’s been in the theatres.  But Brooks dug a little deeper than even the film does, and developed a theme he saw in Fred Rogers’ work that he calls “the radicalism that infused that show: that the child is closer to God than the adult; that the sick are closer than the healthy; that the poor are closer than the rich; and the marginalized closer than the celebrated.” (David Brooks in The NY Times, July 5 2018)

And Brooks tells us of an episode that was not included in the film: “In 1997 a teenage boy in Kentucky warned classmates that “something big” was going to happen. The next day he took a gun to school and shot eight classmates, killing three. Mister Rogers’s response was, “Oh, wouldn’t the world be a different place if he had said, ‘I’m going to do something really little tomorrow.’” 

Brooks goes on to tell us that “Rogers dedicated a week’s worth of shows to the theme of ‘Little and Big’ on how little things can be done with great care.  Rogers was drawing on a long moral tradition, that the last shall be first.”  You can call it a long moral tradition.  You can also call it the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

You will have a hard time responding to the paradox of Jesus’ teaching and ministry if you don’t believe what St. Paul also had to come to believe, that Christ’s grace is sufficient for you, and that his power is made perfect in weakness.  It is this crucial insight that makes sense of the Cross, and that allows us who find ourselves at our wits end at various moments in our lives to look up at the Cross and see hope.  It is this essential paradox that allows us to find salvation in the blood that Jesus shed.  It is this deep truth that encourages sinners to keep on trying, even if the only thing you can try, is to make it through one more day in whatever prison you have found yourself in - maybe a prison of your own making.

When we hear of Jesus sending his apostles out into the world, two by two, and when we learn, as we did from St. Mark today, that “he ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics,” it’s almost as if we can hear Jesus saying to his followers, in these restrictive instructions, “Go out and do something really little tomorrow.”  Can they possibly have expected great things?  They didn’t even have tokens for the trolley.  These, frankly, are the kind of spare and humble instructions you might expect to find on archived episodes of Mister Rogers, but not in many other places these days.

Another friend of mine has told me that as as child he regularly, and in a sophisticated way, imitated the entrance rite of Mister Rogers, timed in such a way as to do it in synchronization with the opening sequence of the show, when it came on.  He borrowed his father’s suit coat to make his entrance, hung it up and exchanged it for a cardigan.  Then he sat down and changed his shoes to sneakers.  Although he doesn’t confess this detail, I have no doubt that he was also singing along, that it’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood.

It’s in just such a getup, with just such a song on your lips, following just such an example, that a person could almost imagine also taking to heart Jesus’ spare and humble commands.  Or that you could almost image understanding what St. Paul means when he says, “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.”

Whether it’s from a prison cell or in your living room, it matters who you listen to and what you believe.  It matters what we teach our children.  It matters if you believe that a saint is a sinner who keeps on trying.  It matters that you keep on trying, day after day after day, especially when it feels like you are at your wits end.  It matters when you decide to go out and do something really little tomorrow.

Take nothing for your journey.

Be a sinner who keeps on trying, armed with the hope that you will rise.

Imitate goodness when you see it.

Go out and do something really little tomorrow.

For Christ’s grace is sufficient for you, and his power is made perfect in weakness.

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
8 July 2018
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia


*The NRSV translation of this verse reads, “power is made perfect in weakness.”  But the RSV rendered the text “my power is made perfect in weakness,” and the note in the NRSV Oxford Annotated Bible (and other versions, too) mentions that “other ancient authorities read my power.”

Posted on July 8, 2018 .