Won't you be my neighbor?
As you may have heard, there’s a new documentary out about Fred Rogers, the ordained Presbyterian minister who had a secular TV show for kids that lasted 33 years, called Mister Rogers Neighborhood. It's getting rave reviews, and reminding people who grew up watching his television show how much he helped shape their lives.
I googled a video of one of his last public appearances before he died, a graduation speech at Middlebury College. He began by asking the assembled crowd to join him in singing the title song of the show:
It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood, a beautiful day for a neighbor, Would you be mine? Could you be mine?
It’s a neighborly day in the beautywood, a neighborly day for beauty. Would you be mine? Could you be mine?
So let’s make the most of this beautiful day, since we’re together we might as well say, Would you be mine? Could you be mine? Won’t you be my neighbor?
In the graduation speech he told a story about an event that happened in the Seattle Special Olympics, that wonderful venue for physically and mentally disabled people. For the hundred yard dash, the nine young contestants assembled at the starting line. "At the start of the gun, they all took off, but one little boy stumbled and fell and hurt his knee and began to cry. The other eight children heard the boy crying. They slowed down, turned around, saw the boy and ran back to him—every one of them ran back to him. One little girl with Down’s syndrome bent down and kissed the boy and said, 'This will make it better'. The little boy got up, and he and the rest of the runners linked their arms together and joyfully walked to the finish line." They all finished the race at the same time. And when they did, everyone in the stadium stood up and clapped and whistled and and cheered for a long, long time. “People who were there,” said Fred Rogers, “are still telling the story with obvious delight. And you know why? Because deep down we know that what really matters in this life is much more than winning for ourselves. What really matters is helping others win, too—even if it means slowing down and changing our course now and then.”
The gentle lessons from Fred Rogers taught generations of children that everyone is alike, and that everyone wants to be loved. At the end of his Middlebury speech he speaks in his soft, deliberate voice to the students about to graduate into the world: “And for the rest of your days and nights, I hope you can remember--you never have to do anything sensational in order to be loved.”
In the years since the end of that TV show, our world has changed a great deal. So too has our media entertainment. The innocent humor and tone of the shows we used to watch has turned cynical and biting, and we have become accustomed to being entertained by hosts who brusquely destroy with words like “You’re fired!”, or “You are our weakest link.” In the dog-eat-dog environments of these programs, cooperation and kindness are readily abandoned for back-stabbing and character assassination.
Pope Francis posts a prayer video every month, and for this June he focused on the internet, which he called a gift from God. But he also points out in the video that we can use the internet in such terrible ways, particularly to hurt one another and divide us from each other.
We all know what that means, and many of us have wittingly and unwittingly participated and been affected by the misuse of this Godly gift.
When it was first established, the internet and promised that we would be brought closer together, that our world would grow smaller because we could speak with one another in ways never imagined before. But go on almost any website—Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, Yelp, Amazon, Netflix, an infinity of blogs, entertainment websites, political websites, even on religious websites like The Church Militant and even on Pope Francis’ website---and you will read a lot of angry and nasty accusations and comments that condemn individuals, groups, and institutions.
In the Gospel, Jesus is similarly maliciously attacked by the religious authorities of his day for healing a man with a shriveled hand on the sabbath day when no “work” was supposed to be done. They try to take him down—and actually plot to kill him---because they fear that his gentle and kind love might threaten the order of the world that has made them feel important and secure. And so they literally demonize him, making Jesus and his followers the enemy, and maintaining division among the people, which they assume will keep them in power.
People who are threatened--even by love--always need to create an enemy, and always resort to tribal warfare. Jesus calls them on the absurdity of their argument by asking them how it is possible for a ‘demon’ like him to expel demons from someone possessed like the man he has healed. A house so divided, Jesus says, cannot stand.
But there is another take on the truth of that phrase. Abraham Lincoln famously took Jesus' words and applied them to his nation's unholy civil war: a house divided will not stand, a house that is divided will surely fall.
My mother was a woman of great conviction, or at least a woman of great opinion. She was never shy about letting you know her thoughts about an issue or dilemma you faced, about what was right or wrong certainly, and all my growing years I listened well to the wisdom she imparted. (To be honest, she didn’t usually give me the chance to slip away, so I had to listen well!)
One of her frequent lessons was lifted from the Gospel. Many a time I heard her remind me: you know Jimmy, a house divided will not stand, a house that is divided will fall, recalling Mark’s phrase to me when I had been engaged in some fierce verbal or territorial combat with my older sister.
It was always over dumb things, of course: what TV program we were going to watch, who would get the last scoop of ice cream, who had to do the dishes after dinner. Don’t fight with your sister, my mother would say. She ís the only one you have, you only have each other, remember that a house divided will not stand, a house that is divided will fall.
I never really appreciated the argument very much, especially if that meant the status quo would prevail, and I would be the one who didn’t get my way on the issue.
My mother’s understanding of this biblical phrase was, I’m sure, passed down from her own mother, and in that family it had even more meaning: my mother was one of eleven. Imagine the strife, the competition between eleven strong-willed family members, and yet surprisingly, it was a very close, loving family, so close you couldn’t imagine any of them without the others, even after they were married and had their own families and children.
A house that is divided will not stand, a house that is divided will fall, and my mother, and her mother, tried to make us understand how important it was for us to have each other, how insignificant in the end were the things that we let divide us, that in the end we need one another so much we must do everything we can to dissolve the differences which push us apart.
It the precise opposite of the cynical voices that are overwhelming us all in our communication media today, in our political discourse, and even in our church. The lesson that Jesus attempted to teach to the powers of his time and to his disciples are as relevant now as they were when he walked the earth.
Who are my mother and my brothers? he asked. Well, everyone, actually, because we are all children of God. We are not meant to write one another off, label them as losers, weirdos, animals, socialists, birthers, traditionalists, progressives, racists, red-necks, millennials, nerds, conservatives, or liberals. We are not called to demonize each other in our twitter outbursts or our reviews on Yelp, nor see them as our enemies in our church.
In the kingdom of God we are all beloved babies and yes, neighbors, and make no mistake about it, this IS the Kingdom of God and no one has to do anything sensational in order to be loved. Love is at the foundation of everything, and you deserve to love, be loved, and love yourself for exactly who you are.
One commentator on the Mister Rogers documentary worried about our loss of innocence and loss of Christian community. He mentioned that one evening several years after his daughter had aged out of the Mister Rogers show for good, he was enjoying a blessed moment of quiet as she and six of her eight-year-old friends over for a slumber party fussed around in their sleeping bags.
He said he then heard a rousing chorus of "I love you/You love me/Let's get together and kill Barney," followed by peals of rebel-girl laughter. He was taken aback. When had the world's cynicism taken hold of his daughter and her friends? He thought back on the days when they would be enthralled by the man who would begin his program each week by inviting them to join him in his gentle neighborhood. And he suspected that if Fred Rogers had ambled into the slumber party and heard the nasty chorus, he probably would have stroked his chin, and wondered aloud if maybe Barney was people too. He was sure that his daughter's innocence would be rescued.
Fred Rogers knew Jesus, and Jesus worked through Fred Rogers to make our house undivided. We know Jesus too, and Jesus can work through us (if we allow him) to help us remember how we are family and beloved children of God. May we never divide one another: not here in our church, in our city, in our country, or in our world. Never, ever, nevermore.