The Real McCoy

When Jai and I went to Alaska we quickly learned that there were two sorts of Alaskans:  Cheechakoes and Sourdoughs.  Cheechakoes were the newbies, those ignorant of custom and survival needs.  As you’d guess, Sourdoughs were those who had weathered a few seasons and somehow managed to survive.

We knew of a couple who spent their first year at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks in an unwinterized trailer.  These cheechakoes barely survived their first semester.  She reported that it was so cold at night she would awaken in the morning to find her hair frozen to the trailer wall next to her pillow.  They had to put the canned soup in the refrigerator to keep it from freezing solid – cheechakoes for sure!

The two designations came out of the mining days in the early nineteen hundreds.  Now, if one claimed to be a sourdough there was only one test of authenticity.  If he didn’t claim with certainty in the next breath that he was going to strike it rich – he wasn’t the Real McCoy.  He was a fraud and a fake.

I’ll tell you a story of one of those early miners, Max Hirschberg.  Word had come to Dawson City, a staging area during the Klondike Gold Rush in Canada, that a new gold field had been discovered in Nome, Alaska.  This was some twelve hundred miles down the Yukon River from Dawson.  Word spread like wildfire and the town soon emptied out as every dogsled and other conveyance was bought up by men stricken by gold fever.

Max, however had injured his foot on a broken board with a nail in it and ended up in the hospital with a bad infection.  By the time he was finally released in March, there was virtually nothing left in town that would get him down the river to Nome.  Anxious to get going before the ice on the Yukon broke up, all Max could find was a bicycle.  He loaded all he could carry, fastened it in a pack to the springs of the seat and began peddling down the river, following in the tracks the dog sled steel runners had made in the snow much earlier.  When rough shards of ice shredded his rubber tires, he continued on the steel rims.

Some of the Athabascan families in villages along the Yukon would put him up for the night in their dwellings.  The big problem was with what Max called “seam squirrels” — probably bed bugs – they were intolerable.  To get rid of them, Max reports that he would step naked outside in the below zero wind each morning with his clothes and leave them in a pile on the ice.   With the infestation finally frozen, he would then put on his clothes and continue on his way.

After many adventures and misadventures, Max finally made it all twelve hundred miles down the Yukon into Nome on May 19, 1900.  Max Hirschberg was the Real Deal.  A Sourdough through and through by the time he made it into Nome.  We rejoice that he had the good sense before he died in 1964 to tell his story to his granddaughter.

When one reads of Jesus in the Gospel of John, the story we encounter is unlike anything we have in Matthew, Mark or Luke.  Jesus in John doesn’t speak as a normal person.  John’s gospel uses other language and metaphors to convey to the reader that Jesus is the Real Deal.  He’s a gospel sourdough through and through.  Light and Life, he is – that’s what the Baptizer is proclaiming.  Authentically a chip off the ol’ block of the One who set the stars in the firmament and the planets in their courses.  Search no further.

In John’s gospel Jesus makes proclamations.  They look more like pronouncements rather than ordinary dialogue.  The language John uses to describe Jesus and his mission is stilted and formal.  If any of us talked like that, or said these things of ourselves, we would be shunned at best, and at worst institutionalized.  This theological approach is what scholars call a “high Christology.”  It is exalted explanation in flashing neon lights.

What we have in the Gospel of John is the testimony of the Johannine community as to who Jesus is and why he matters.  Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.  He is the Incarnate Word of God.  Jesus is the Bread of Life, the Good Shepherd.  In John we don’t have miracles so much as Divine Signs. Yes, the Real McCoy.  No Plastic Jesus here.

The question to John the Baptist disciples is still the signal question of the church: “What do you seek?”  It is the question to every generation of seekers.  “What do you seek?”

What we all seek is a life that matters.  A life grounded in what is utterly true and authentic.  That is what people seek from the church, because folks even at their wit’s end know in some inchoate way, have some inkling they cannot give words to, that the church, the community founded on Jesus’ love and radical acceptance, ought to have something to fill the empty, aching void of their lives. 

In an age of Fake News and cynicism about almost every facet of our national life, we are as much adrift as were those early peoples in a disintegrating Roman Empire.  We Americans now live in a society where, with the poet Yeats, we’ve discovered that “the center cannot hold.”  The old verities are no more.  We’ve been lied to so often, our nation’s awash in intellectual anarchy.  As Rudy Giuliani railed to Chuck Todd on “Meet the Press” one Sunday morning, “Truth is NOT truth.”  Whatever that means!

Out of this wasteland, they still come asking, is there any ground beneath our feet?  Does anything matter anymore?  And some still stumble into the church, hoping for a saving word — some loadstar to guide. 

And miracle beyond miracle, there are churches of authenticity.  Communities of faith that actually live out the message of Our Lord.  They find in such communities the a Good Shepherd, the Bread of Life, “Light and Life to all He brings.”

On the Village Green in New Haven Connecticut there are two churches of the same denomination virtually side by side.  On his way to church my younger son would pass them both.  He and his girlfriend noticed that behind one of the sanctuaries there was a whole crowd of young people and some older folks.  What my son discovered was that meals were being served and food distributed for the needy.  The next Sunday, that congregation became their church.  They had found something that looked like the message of Jesus, an authentic portrayal of the gospel.  That is what folks at loose ends seek – authenticity.  Something as real as Max Hirschberg.  They want to SEE a sermon, not just hear one.  Mark Twain is reputed to have said that it would be much easier to believe in the possibility of redemption if the redeemed looked a little more redeemed.  This community feeding the homeless out back looked redeemed.

That is what has drawn so many fans, young and old, to Mr. Rogers.  He’s the Real Deal.  One hundred percent there with the people he encounters.  Most people did not know that Mr. Rogers was a Presbyterian pastor.  Early on he made the decision to devote his life to children – their fears and inner terrors, and their joys – the full range of their emotional lives. 

The reporter, Tom Junod, was notorious for what some considered to be “hit pieces” on a number of celebrities.  When Esquire Magazine sent Tom off to do a small piece of just a few hundred words on Fred Rogers for a series on heroes of our time, Tom wondered if Mr. Rogers was for real.  What he discovered is captured by the subtitle to his article: “Fred Rogers has been doing the same small thing for a very long time…”[1]  What he found over not just that brief interview, but over the weeks and months as their friendship blossomed, Fred Rogers was the genuine article, the Real McCoy.

I would say that if anyone wondered what Jesus might have been like, I believe Fred Rogers showed us a pretty authentic face of Jesus.  The respect and kindness he showed to everyone connected with the show, the staff and his young guests – I would like to think this gracious spirit reflected Jesus’ teaching.  This is the Jesus who said, “Let the children come to me.  Whoever welcomes such a little one welcomes me.” 

Tom in his piece which grew to become the full-length feature article for the November issue, tells the story of a teenager with muscular dystrophy who had experienced terrible abuse as a young boy from those who were supposed to have taken care of him.  As the boy grew up, he had come to believe that he was so terrible from what he had suffered that no one could like him.  Not even God.

The one bright spot in his day was the show, “Mr. Rogers Neighborhood.”  Even into his teens he compulsively watched it, whenever it was on.  His mother was convinced that Mr. Rogers was the only thing keeping her boy alive.

It so happened through a foundation that it was arranged to have Mr. Rogers visit her boy when he came out to California to visit Koko, the Gorilla, also a fan of Mr. Rogers.

When the boy found out that Mr. Rogers was actually coming to his house, he was overwhelmed.  He began hitting himself with his hand because he was so nervous and began hating himself.  His mother had to take him to another room to talk to him and let him calm himself.  Here Tom continues the story:

Mister Rogers didn’t leave, though. He wanted something from the boy, and Mister Rogers never leaves when he wants something from somebody. He just waited patiently, and when the boy came back, Mister Rogers talked to him, and then he made his request. He said, “I would like you to do something for me. Would you do something for me?” On his computer, the boy answered yes, of course, he would do anything for Mister Rogers, so then Mister Rogers said, “I would like you to pray for me. Will you pray for me?” And now the boy didn’t know how to respond. He was thunderstruck. Thunderstruck means that you can’t talk, because something has happened that’s as sudden and as miraculous and maybe as scary as a bolt of lightning, and all you can do is listen to the rumble. The boy was thunderstruck because nobody had ever asked him for something like that, ever. The boy had always been prayed for. The boy had always been the object of prayer, and now he was being asked to pray for Mister Rogers, and although at first he didn’t know if he could do it, he said he would, he said he’d try, and ever since then he keeps Mister Rogers in his prayers and doesn’t talk about wanting to die anymore, because he figures Mister Rogers is close to God, and if Mister Rogers likes him, that must mean God likes him, too.

When Tom asked Fred Rogers if he had made the prayer request that the boy might feel better about himself, Fred answered back:

“Oh, heavens no, Tom! I didn’t ask him for his prayers for him; I asked for me.  I asked him because I think that anyone who has gone through challenges like that must be very close to God. I asked him because I wanted his intercession.”[2]

Fred Rogers gave his viewers a pretty good idea of who Jesus still is for our day – one facet of that divine gem. 

Call him Lamb of God.  Call him Messiah, Christ.  Whenever Jesus is portrayed even in somewhat rough and proximate fashion, Life is kindled.  Joy is found.  The broken are mended.

There’s a reason we, the church, yes, you and I occupying these pews this morning, are called the Body of Christ.  Our only question to those who enter our doors is, “What do you seek?”

Let us pray those who enter our doors find life restored, hope reborn.  Do the lame walk, and are the addicted freed of their slavery to alcohol and drugs?  Do newcomers find justice flowing like a mighty stream?  Do they find Light in their darkness of despair?  Even a bit?  Are the hungry fed and the homeless housed in dignity?  Will they find a Good Shepherd to hold a hand when mentally confused?  Is there a sheltering embrace for the wounded and abused?  Do we, the church, look even a bit redeemed?  That’s what this weary world seeks.

You will encounter such redemption in the authentic Body of Christ, in communities of faith reaching beyond their comfort zones.  Such has ever been the mission that has drawn seekers to the Lamb of God.  In radical acceptance — sin, alienation – is overcome.  Life is restored.

We pray that it might ever be so here at St. Francis, that we continue to grow into the full stature of Christ.   May we be the Real Deal of God.  The genuine article.  Just like loveable Mr. Rogers.

Listen!  You may be the only copy of the gospel your neighbor will ever see.  Pray we be genuine Sourdoughs on our gospel journey as we travel down the river of life – every bit as much as old Max Hirschberg on his bicycle trip down the Yukon River to Nome, Alaska.


[1] Tom Junod, Esquire, November 1998.

[2] Op cit.

Preached at St. Francis Episcopal Mission, San Bernardino

January 19, 2020

Isaiah 49:1-7; Psalm 40:1-12; I Corinthians 1:1-9; John 1:29-42

Second Sunday after the Epiphany

The Rev. Dr. John C. Forney

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