My Kind of Tree (begins at 28:08)

December 24, 2019

Series: December 2019

Category: Christmas Eve

Speaker: Rob McClellan

My Kind of Tree

I don’t know how many of you have seen the new Mr. Rogers movie.  There will come a time when he will no longer be a cultural referent, but recent films about his life have kept him in our collective conscience where perhaps he’ll stay until the Spirit lifts up another.  Mr. Rogers was well ahead of his time he was in terms of the social emotional development of children.  He was so intentional in what he did and how he did it.  Heavily influenced by working with child psychologist Dr. Margaret McFarland, Mr. Rogers would workshop over and over precisely what he wanted to say.

Whenever I speak of Mr. Rogers, I always self-servingly throw in the aside the he was an ordained Presbyterian minister.  It is not really an aside.  The more I consider his work and his legacy, the more I recognize how profoundly theological he was.  You have to look for it or you’ll miss it, because the theology was thoroughly integrated into his being.  This spiritual side of him is often unrecognized as such because he chose not to use religious language in his work.  He wanted his programming to be accessible to all people regardless of their affiliation and he knew overt religious language had the potential to push some away. 

Of all the stories of Mr. Rogers, there is one that comes to mind this night.[1]  It was the early 1970s.  Mr. Rogers was asked by Hallmark to be among other celebrities in decorating their flagship store in New York City.  If you’ve ever window-shopped in New York around Christmas, you know the lavish scenes.  For his part, Mr. Rogers sent a single small pine tree.  In that one tree, I think he captures so much of what Christmas means.

First, the tree was intentionally short.  He specified that it to be the height of a three-or-four-foot child.  Mr. Rogers knew the power of meeting a child on their level.  Wouldn’t you know, this is how Christians have always spoken of God in the Christ event.  One of the fundamental claims of the church is that Jesus is God come to us on our level, in a way we can see and recognize, a way in which allows us actually to be in relationship.  In that, Mr. Rogers’ short tree captures the Christmas message far better than the giant tree routinely place at Rockefeller center.  The grandeur of Christmas is not only in its bigness; it’s in its smallness. 

The tree was undecorated by anything other than its natural beauty, no ornaments whatsoever.  In front of the tree there was a plaque that read simply, and predictably, “I like you just the way you are.”  If you know anything of Mr. Rogers, you know that phrase, but its familiarity strips it of its strength, of its countercultural thrust.  Who loves you just the way you are?  Just the way you are?  Even those we associate with loving us, often in practice would love us if we were a little bit better at this or that, a little more like this or that, for who we could be or should be.  Children especially are appreciated for who they will be one day.  The church may be one of the worst offenders, saying God’s love is unconditional, and yet implying subtly or not so subtly that the only way into God’s good graces is through certain actions. 

It’s not that Mr. Rogers believed behavior was unimportant.  It’s that Mr. Rogers had the audacity to trust that people, when given the proper room and treatment, were naturally inclined to flower.  They were naturally inclined to be good and do good.  For the few who don’t blossom in these conditions, well the rest of us can redirect.  For a religion that has dabbled in obsession with our fundamental badness, so-called original sin, Mr. Rogers’ orientation was downright prophetic, for it brings us closer to the truth.  Jesus’ most radical teaching may have been, “Do not judge.”  Mr. Rogers’s starting point was to affirm the other.  He understood that radical acceptance is the root of real love.

Speaking of roots, Mr. Rogers’ little tree had those too.  It was planted in a clear glass cube so people could see the roots.  He was always helping people see how the world worked, which made it easier to navigate, less scary.  Perhaps he also wanted people to marvel at how this beautiful miraculous world works—and it’s all a miracle; a tree is a remarkable thing; roots are amazing.  What a gift to invite us again to consider the wonder of it all.  If you look, in the Scriptures when someone has an encounter with the divine, with God, their response is almost always awe. 

By choosing to allow people to see the root system Mr. Rogers reminded people what keeps it alive.  That which shows above ground so beautifully must be grounded, connected to source beneath the surface, in order to live.  Trees, we’ve learned, are also connected to one another through their root systems, and the same is true with us.  We live when we are connected to our source and one another.  Most of the Christmas trees you see are cut off at the base, and how much of contemporary life is like that, a great façade, plenty of expensive decorations, but not connected to anything?  It’s not earthy.  It’s not in relationship with other living things.  And, it doesn’t last. 

It’s such an earthy symbol he chose on a day we think of the ultimate gift from heaven, and that, my friends, may have been precisely the point.  Trees are where the heavens and the earth meet.  Though an extraordinary day, Christmas reminds us what is always so, most deeply so, that these two are forever connected.  Is God in heaven really so far from us?  Are those we love but have lost, really lost?  This night offers a gentle but resounding, “No,” for… 

This, tonight,

is the meeting place 

of heaven and earth.

 For this, tonight, 

is the stable

in which God keeps his appointment

to meet his people.

 Not many high are here,

not many holy,

not many innocent children,

not many wordly wise,

not all familiar faces,

not all frequent visitors.

 But, if tonight

only strangers met,

that would be enough.

 For Bethlehem was not the hub of the universe,

nor was the stable a platform of famous people.

 In an out-of-the-way place

which people never thought to visit-

there God kept and keeps his promise;

there God sends his Son.

-from Cloth for the Cradle by the Iona Community

 That little tree says all of that, and tonight that is enough, just as you are enough, and I like you just the way you are.  Amen.

[1] Details from the story that follows comes from