25 Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” 27 He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” 28 And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
29 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30 Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii,[b] gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ 36 Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
So, I’m going to guess that this is the first time you have come to church and read the words of Mr. Rogers in unison. Fair assumption? I know that call to worship this morning may have seemed a little odd, a little playful, maybe to some even a little childish. But bear with me, and I’ll explain.
When I was a child, like a lot of people who were children when Mr. Roger’s neighborhood was on PBS, I watched that show a lot. It was, in fact, one of the few television shows I was allowed to watch. And I remember how each episode started, with Mr. Rogers coming through the door, slipping off his work shoes, and slipping on his cardigan and sneakers.
Over time I got too old for Mr. Rogers and I didn’t think about him all that much. He was just the guy in the sweater with the kids TV show. But this week, as our church school students are starting a new story, I thought about Mr. Rogers again. Because there’s something about what he taught that never fails to reminds me of this Gospel.
Today’s reading is the story of the Good Samaritan. Jesus is asked by a man who is trying to trick him what he must do to inherit eternal life. And Jesus tells him that he must love God with all his soul and strength and mind, but he must also love his neighbor as himself. And this is where the classic question is asked, the one you and I still ask 2,000 years later: Who is my neighbor?
Jesus rarely gives a straight answer. Instead he tells a story. He tells this story of a man who is traveling and who is robbed and beaten and left for dead on the road. And as he is lying there dying, a priest comes along. He sees the man, but doesn’t stop. In fact he crosses the road to avoid him. And then a Levite, another religious leader, comes along, and he crosses the road too. And by this point two men who belonged to the same people as the beaten man, two of his religious leaders, had walked right by. Things looked grim.
But then a third man, a Samaritan walks by. Samaritans were considered so lowly that the beaten man normally would not even speak to them. But Scripture tells us that the Samaritan sees the beaten man and he is “moved with pity”. He bandages his wounds, and takes him to an inn, and pays for it with his own money. Then he tells the innkeeper to feed the man and take care of him, promising that he will return and pay for it all.
Jesus finishes the story and he asks, “So, who was this beaten man’s neighbor?” And the reply comes, “The one who showed him mercy. The Samaritan.” Jesus says, “Go and do likewise”.
It’s one of the most important and most well known stories of our faith. But you still might be wondering right now, what does any of this have to do with Mr. Rogers?
Years after Mr. Rogers was a daily part of my life I went off to a Presbyterian seminary, and I learned that Mr. Rogers was also the Rev. Rogers, an ordained Presbyterian minister.
When Fred Rogers graduated from seminary his classmates were ordained as parish pastors. But he made a very unusual request. He wanted to be ordained to a very different kind of ministry in a then new arena: children’s television. Mr Rogers believed that television presented a new opportunity. He didn’t love what he was seeing on TV at the time, but he saw potential for something better. And he wanted to teach children things like the value of respecting others, being kind, facing their fears, and, yes, being a good neighbor.
And so every show started with that song that we all know. The one where he crossed a line not usually crossed by adults, and spoke to children in a way where it was clear that, though he was still the adult, he had respect for them. And he asked them to be his neighbor.
He was a minister of the Gospel. He got what that meant. He knew that we who are Christians are called to be neighbors to the most unlikely of people, even the people on the other side of our television screens. And, though he never preached overtly on his television show, I think each episode had as much Gospel in it as any sermon.
Now, at this point, you might be saying, “Well, yes…it’s easy to love your neighbors in a place where everyone walks through unlocked doors and wears comfortable sneakers and cardigans. It’s not that hard to pick out neighbors from the Neighborhood of Make Believe. But what about the real world? The one where you and I live? The one where not all of our neighbors are what we expect?
I think he got that too. He was hosting a children’s show, and so he was speaking to kids using situations they understood. But if you read a little about his life, this was a man who seemed to always cross the lines to make new neighbors. When he wasn’t on camera, he often stood up for others. And he really didn’t make a big deal about it because that’s just what he thought anyone should do.
But the reality, unfortunately, is that we don’t live in a world of Mr. Rogers.
A couple of years ago I drove out to a friends’ wedding in Kokomo, Indiana. And the whole way out there we kept saying to each other, “Kokomo, Indiana…why do we know that name?” We knew something newsworthy had happened there once, but we couldn’t remember what.
So, we Googled it. And we found out that Kokomo, Indiana was in the 1980’s the hometown of a young boy named Ryan White. Ryan White’s neighbors found out that he had what was then a relatively unknown disease called AIDS.
Driving around town we learned that Kokomo, Indiana is filled with churches. But when his neighbors found out that a young neighbor had this disease, what most of the Christians did didn’t exactly resemble the Good Samaritan from Jesus’ story. They didn’t minister to him or his family, or try to support them. Instead, they barred Ryan from attending the local school, and eventually they ran him out of town completely.
And so, one day about thirty years later, when a group of people who had been kids in the 80’s rolled into town, all we knew about Kokomo, Indiana was that it was a place where one neighbor had been anything but loved.
My guess is that there are a lot of good people in Kokomo. And my guess is that thirty years ago they were as afraid as those two men who crossed to the other side of road and away from that injured man in Scripture. But I remember thinking as we were driving about how that legacy of turning its back on a neighbor is something with which that community will always have to wrestle. All it takes is one time, one choice to not love your neighbor, and the message goes out loud and clear.
But it doesn’t have to be like that. Because there are other stories too. Stories like this one: I’ve always liked baseball and I’ve always been inspired by Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to play Major League Baseball. I knew the part of the story where he played for the Brooklyn Dodgers and broke the color barrier. But I didn’t know what happened after he retired. Because it turns out, Jackie Robinson had to break another color barrier: the one he faced when he bought a house not in Mississippi or Georgia, but in Connecticut. And his neighbors weren’t happy.
The story goes that when Jackie Robinson moved there, his neighbors were so angry that they were sharing their neighborhood with a black man that they even ostracized the man who sold him the property. You might think that a man who had been a ball player and hero might be welcomed, but Robinson found his neighbors were as hostile as those early baseball crowds had been.
But one neighbor wasn’t: the Congregational, and later UCC, church that was just down the street from his house. And because they welcomed him and his family, not only did the Robinsons have a place to worship, but the church had a chance to show who they were. No one remembers them as “the church that turned Jackie Robinson away”. They just remember them as, “Jackie Robinson’s church”. End of story. It’s not a point of pride. It just is. As it should be, because we should never expect anything less from a church.
If we are serious about this whole following Jesus thing, we have to love with the same open-hearted abandon as the Samaritan. We have to love with the same willingness to embrace the newcomer as the church in Connecticut. We have to dare to cross lines in the road, and we have to build the unexpected relationships that will save not just one of us, but both of us. Let’s never make the mistake of thinking that the ones who cross the lines don’t also receive grace here.
But most of all, we have to ask that question Mr. Rogers asked so many times, and not just to the people we want to ask it of, but to everyone: Won’t you be my neighbor? No cardigan or sneakers or singing are required…just a sincere conviction in our hearts and this question that is so much harder than it sounds: Won’t you be my neighbor.
They are easy words to sing, but they are much harder words to say. But when it comes to being the church, really being the church, and to being Christians, there’s no option here. We can’t choose our neighbor, but we can choose community. And God will never fail to bless community. Amen.