Preached at Tri-Lakes United Methodist Church
July 27, 2014
Text: Luke 10:25-37
Listen to it HERE
Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
Many of us in this room grew up singing that song. Everyday at the appointed hour we sat down in front of a television and hung out in Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.
I have a vivid, albeit silly, memory of the profound impact Mr. Rogers had on me as a child. One day I tried to feed my goldfish the way he did—by sprinkling the food across the top of the water in the fish tank. A few minutes later, as my mom was changing the water in the fish tank, she explained to me that our fish food container didn’t have a sprinkle lid, like Mr. Rogers did, and the clumps of fish food I had dumped into the water were dangerous for my fish.
In the clip we just viewed of the opening sequence of a typical episode, Mr. Rogers is onscreen singing the song for about 60 seconds. In that brief time he uses a form of the word neighbor (neighbor, neighborly, neighborhood) 8 times. Every day, as that song was sung, we were invited into a neighborhood where we mattered, where a grownup had time for us, seemed to listen to us, and taught us. We were part of a community, a neighborhood where everyone was a neighbor: the delivery man Mr. McFeely was a neighbor, so were Neighbor Aber and Officer Clemmons, and so were we on the other side of the television screen. Mr. Rogers would often introduce us to the people who came to his house to show us the lesson for the day, by saying something like, “I’d like you to know my television neighbor.”
From his studio in Pittsburgh, Mr. Rogers had neighbors in Colorado, New Jersey, California, and everyplace else. It wasn’t proximity that made us neighbors, it was something else. Amy Hollingsworth, author of The Simple Faith of Mister Rogers, puts it this way: “His definition of neighbor was simple: the person you happen to be with at the moment. This is even more the case if the person you happen to be with is in need” (Hollingsworth 78).
Who Is My Neighbor?
In today’s scripture lesson Jesus is asked to define neighbor by a religious leader who is uncomfortable with Jesus’ theology. The question, “And who is my neighbor?” grows from a conversation, which continues to happen around us quite a bit still today.
The religious leader, an “expert,” comes to Jesus asking a form of the “who is in, who is out” question: “What must I do to gain eternal life?”
Jesus turns it back on him, in essence saying, You’re the expert. Why don’t you tell me?
To his credit, the expert replies quoting two passages from the Old Testament: “love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind,” from Deuteronomy 6, and “love your neighbor as yourself” from Leviticus 19.
Great!, Jesus replies. But that’s not good enough for our religious expert. He needs to know more, so he asks, “And who is my neighbor?”
At first blush, this sounds a little like President Clinton’s infamous grand jury testimony, when he questioned what the definition of is is. I mean, we all know what a neighbor is, right? But actually, for a first century Hebrew, this was an important distinction.
There was a segment of the Jewish population who believed when the people obeyed the Law better, God would return to his Temple.
That is why when Jesus did things like healing on the Sabbath, disobeying the Law by doing work, they got so uptight. So understanding exactly what the Law meant was important, and one’s definition of the word neighbor was significant. The Ten Commandments close with these words (Exodus 20:16-17 emphasis added):
Do not testify falsely against your neighbor.
Do not desire your neighbor’s house. Do not desire and try to take your neighbor’s wife, male or female servant, ox, donkey, or anything else that belongs to your neighbor.
So then, the question becomes, is it OK to lie (testify falsely) about other people? Could you desire house of the people in a different town, or the wife of the one who lives at the end of the street, or the stuff belonging to the Romans who had so much more than the Hebrews living in occupied Israel? How far does this neighbor thing go?
For someone like the legal expert, looking to excuse his behavior or his negative feelings for people who were not like him, he needed an explanation of who the neighbor he had to love is. So he asks a question we also ask. Are we just talking about fellow Jews or Christians, fellow Israelites or Americans? Is my neighbor those who look like me, believe like me, act like me, speak my language, have my skin color, live in the same country? Is my neighbor those who live on my street, United Methodists on my side of the national debate over same gender marriage, republicans/democrats, who? What neighbors do I have to love, and which can I oppose? Jesus answers, as he often does, with a story.
A guy is walking down the street one day when he is mugged, beaten, and left for dead by the side of the road. While lying there, he is passed by a couple of representatives of two well-respected religious groups—people our expert would have known well, groups of which may have even been part. They see the man lying there, but choose not to help. They cross the street to avoid contact, because contact with blood or a dead body would make one ritually unclean and unable to participate in the religious services of the Temple—a thought-process Jesus spends a good deal of time trying to reverse, but that is a different sermon.
Finally, someone comes along who is willing to help, someone Jesus identifies as a Samaritan. That label is a big deal. This isn’t just a way of telling us where he was from. For the religious expert a Samaritan was already unclean. They were considered irreligious, what some church people today call unchurched, de-churched, or maybe secular. If the expert’s definition of a neighbor is someone like him, this was NOT a neighbor. Yet this is the one who goes out of his way to care for the man in need.
Jesus is pushing our religious expert’s buttons, challenging his prejudice, and making him face the reality of his hardened heart. Notice at the end of the story, when Jesus asks which of the 3 men who encountered the mugging victim acted as his neighbor, the expert answers, “The one who demonstrated mercy toward him.” It seems as though he cannot even bring himself to saying that the hero of the story is a Samaritan. He doesn’t even want to use the word.
Then Jesus says, “Go and do likewise.” With those four words, Jesus has reframed the question. The man asked, “Who is my neighbor?” — a question about others. It is a question about who belongs and who doesn’t. It’s a question about who is in, and who is out; about who deserves to be loved, and who we don’t need to bother with. Here Jesus flips it.
Jesus answers by calling the man to look not at the others, but to himself. It’s not about whether the other person is your neighbor. It is about your actions toward the people around you, no matter how different they might be. You don’t need to know if the other is a neighbor, you need to BE a neighbor.
Sounds a little like Mr. Rogers, doesn’t it? “Would you be mine? Could you be mine? Won’t you be my neighbor? Please won’t you be my neighbor?” A neighbor is not something you are, it is not a status. Neighbor is something you do, a vocation. And I don’t think Mr. Rogers mirrored Jesus by mistake.
I guess it is fairly well known now that Fred Rogers, the lovable, soft-spoken man whose neighborhood we visited every day, was actually Reverend Rogers. After 8 years of attending seminary on his lunch hour, Fred Rogers “was ordained by the United Presbyterian Church as an evangelist with a unique charge to serve children and families through the mass media” (Hollingsworth, xxi). For Fred Rogers, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood was so much more than a television show on PBS. It was a calling.
Reverend Rogers wanted the kids who were part of the neighborhood to know they mattered. And he wanted them to treat others with the same love and respect they received for those 30 minutes each day. Amy Hollingsworth writes:
If there was a central Biblical theme to…Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, this is it:
At the center of Fred’s theology of loving your neighbor was this: Every person is made in the image of God, and for that reason alone, he or she is to be valued, ‘appreciated,’ he liked to say. He believed there is sacredness in all creation “because of one Man, ‘the true light, which enlightens everyone’” (Hollingsworth 77f).
Every person is made in the image of God—to be valued and appreciated. I don’t know if Mr. Rogers ever said that on the show, but he sure made us feel that way, didn’t he?
Do you remember how Mr. Rogers closed our visits to the neighborhood?
If you watch the credits you will note that even those who worked on the show were neighbors!
I remembered him changing back into his jacket from his sweater, but until I read Hollingsworth’s book, I had forgotten that line: “You always make it a special day just by being yourself.” Fred learned that line from his grandfather, who said it each time Fred visited him.
This notion of self-worth and specialness, was central to Fred Rogers’ theology. He illustrated this for Amy Hollingsworth when, in one of her last interviews with him before his death, she asked him:
If you had…one final broadcast,… one final opportunity…to address your television neighbors, and you could tell them the single most important lesson of your life, what would you say?”
He paused a moment and then said, ever so slowly:
Well, I would want [those] who were listening somehow to know that they had unique value, that there isn’t anybody in the whole world like them, and that there never has been and there never will be…
And that they are loved by the Person who created them, in a unique way…
If they could know that and really know it and have that behind their eyes, they could look with those eyes on their neighbor and realize, “My neighbor has unique value too; there’s never been anybody in the whole world like my neighbor, and there never will be.” If they could value that person … if they could love that person … in ways that we know that the Eternal loves us, then I would be very grateful. (Hollingsworth 160)
It seems Mr. Rogers knew exactly what Jesus was talking about. It’s not about finding who is and who is not your neighbor. It is about being the neighbor. Because in reality, we all live in one neighborhood.
God’s Kingdom is Our Neighborhood
Jesus did not use the word neighborhood. He talked about a Kingdom, God’s Kingdom. He told us it was near, and that we had a place in it. He also taught us we have a role to play now, before the Kingdom comes in all its fullness one day.
Our call as Christians is to remember as we live our lives in this broken and sinful world, we are part of a much better neighborhood. A neighborhood where we are loved, cherished, adored. A neighborhood where you and I matter as individuals. A neighborhood where the grownup has time for us, listens to us, and teaches us. A neighborhood where we have been claimed, redeemed, and restored. Our role is to live in this world, as if it were that neighborhood: to love our neighbor—ALL of our neighbors—as ourselves, to bind up the wounds of the broken, to bring them where they will find healing, to stoop to pick up those who are mugged, beaten, and left for dead by a sinful and sometimes brutal world.
Why? Because this is God’s neighborhood; we are all neighbors; and to borrow a phrase from Mr. Rev. Rogers, It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood.
One more Mr. Rogers story shared during communion:
“During [a] visit to the Neighborhood, Fred was taping a program on sharing. He held a fig bar up to the camera and said, ‘I wish I could break this in two and share it with you.’ Later, during our interview, he said to me, ‘You know, we were just taping this afternoon about sharing. And… as I broke that fig bar in two. And as I said, ‘I wish I could pass this through the television set,’ it just dawned on me – “that was very much like the Eucharist, how [food] could be broken and offered to nourish others’” (Hollingsworth, xxxi).
What a great reminder that communion, and all it represents, is to be shared.
Hollingsworth, Amy. The Simple Faith of Mister Rogers: Spiritual Insights from the World’s Most Beloved Neighbor. Nashville: Integrity, 2005. Print.
All scripture quotes are from the Common English Bible, Copyright © 2011 by Common English Bible.