“How to Be a Neighbor”

So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil. Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.

Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

I want to thank Pastor Bruce and the choir for wearing their cardigans. I want to thank all of you for singing Mr. Rogers’ song.  It’s one of those that once you get it in your head, it endlessly repeats, which can be kind of annoying.  (It was running through the back of my mind all week.)  But it’s actually a good backdrop to the other stories that have been crowding many of our minds.

The death and destruction wrought by California wildfires, and an alarming new report on climate change.  The brutal murder of a Saudi journalist, unending gun violence and opioid addiction in our own nation, and partisan political strife at the highest level in recent memory.

In the face of tension and divisiveness, I think Mr. Rogers Neighborhood is a pretty good place to go.

Last summer, the documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” about the life and career of children’s television pioneer Fred Rogers, was released to huge acclaim.  While I didn’t grow up with Mr. Rogers (I was more of the “Captain Kangaroo” generation) and my kids were born at the tail end of his career, I have vivid memories of watching “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” at various times – in part because there was nothing else like it.

Fred Rogers grew up in a small town near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and was raised in a well-off family.  He had a lonely childhood – he was shy, overweight, and was often homebound due to illness.  After high school, he earned a bachelor’s degree in music composition, and originally planned to enter seminary, but he took a break after an unexpected event.

While home visiting his parents, he saw a television set for the first time.  He later described that moment in these words: “I went into television because I hated it so, and I thought there must be some way of using this instrument to nurture those who would watch and listen…I got into television because I saw people throwing pies at each other’s faces, and that to me was such demeaning behavior. And if there’s anything that bothers me, it’s one person demeaning another.”

After a few years in NY working for NBC, he decided that the commercialism and merchandising behind TV undermined its ability to educate and nurture children.  So he quit NBC and went to work for Pittsburgh public television station WQED as a puppeteer on different children’s programs.  During his lunch breaks, he took classes at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, and was ultimately ordained as a Presbyterian minister.  His ministry began not in a church, but on children’s TV.

“Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” premiered in 1968 with a very simple visual style and presentation.  He didn’t want the fast pace and animation of other children’s shows, which he regarded as “bombardment.”  He wanted to teach children love, acceptance, and how to be good neighbors.

Mr. Rogers was authentic.  He was himself.  In an interview he said, “One of the greatest gifts you can give anybody is the gift of your honest self. I also believe that kids can spot a phony a mile away.”  Mr. Rogers knew what it was to be real, authentic, and a good neighbor.

In our scripture passage today, the apostle Paul shares words that could be used as a prescription for “how to be a neighbor” – a formula for being a welcoming, accepting presence in a divisive world.  “Let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another…Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.”

Fred Rogers understood the power of words.  In his recent biography of Rogers, the author Maxwell King writes, “Rogers’s placidity belied the intense care he took in shaping each episode of his program.  He insisted that every word, whether spoken by a person or a puppet, be scrutinized closely, because he knew that children – the preschool-age boys and girls who made up the core of his audience – tend to hear things literally…For instance, [show producer Arthur] Greenwald mentioned a scene in a hospital in which a nurse inflating a blood-pressure cuff originally said ‘I’m going to blow this up.’  Fred made us redub the line, saying, ‘I’m going to puff this up with some air,’ because ‘blow it up’ might sound like there’s an explosion, and he didn’t want the kids to cover their ears and miss what would happen next.”

Oh, that we could all be so aware of the power of every single word that leaves our lips!

Not just recognizing the sensitivities of children, but the sensitivities of all.  As Paul wrote, “That [our] words may give grace to those who hear.”  Today we worry about bullying words.  Imagine if we were focused on sharing words of grace!

Paul continues, “Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you…Therefore be imitators of God…”

Fred Rogers was an exemplary “imitator of God.”  Never seeking the limelight or calling attention to himself, he loved and accepted others without limits, and he helped both children and adults do the same.  Whether befriending a quadriplegic child and inviting him to share his feelings with the audience, or amidst the racial tensions of the 60s, welcoming African-American Police Officer Clemmons to share his kiddie pool and drying his feet with his towel, Mr. Rogers demonstrated the unconditional love of God.  He ended each show with these words:You have made this day a special day by just you being you.  There’s no person in the whole world like you, and I like you the way you are.” 

The simple format of Rogers’ show taught children to love themselves and others, to be in touch with their feelings and inner life, and to help them deal with fears and challenges with honesty and love.  His show was radical in the way that it tackled deep and profound questions of life without ever preaching.  As one reporter commented at the time of his death, “the real Mr. Rogers never preached, never even mentioned God on his show.  He didn’t have to.”

New York Times columnist David Brooks recently noted the radicalism that infused the show, writing “that the child is closer to God than the adult; that the sick are closer than the healthy; that the poor are closer than the rich and the marginalized closer than the celebrated.”

That sounds like the Gospel to me!

We are fortunate when people like Fred Rogers come into our lives.  When they do, I think we call them “saints.”  We could use Mr. Rogers right about now.  In the face of isolationism, tribalism, and prejudice, we need to be reminded of how to be a neighbor.

In the last commencement speech he ever gave, at Dartmouth College in 2002, Fred Rogers shared these words with the graduating seniors:

Our world hangs like a magnificent jewel in the vastness of space. Every one of us is a part of that jewel.  A facet of that jewel.  And in the perspective of infinity, our differences are infinitesimal.  We are intimately related.  May we never even pretend that we are not.

Have you heard my favorite story that came from the Seattle Special Olympics?  Well, for the 100-yard dash there were nine contestants, all of them so-called physically or mentally disabled.  All nine of them assembled at the starting line and at the sound of the gun, they took off.  But not long afterward one little boy stumbled and fell and hurt his knee and began to cry. The other eight children heard him crying; they slowed down, turned around and ran back to him.  Every one of them ran back to him.  One little girl with Down Syndrome bent down and kissed the boy and said, “This’ll make it better.”  And the little boy got up and then 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 that stadium stood up and clapped and whistled and cheered for a long, long, time.  People who were there are still telling the story with great delight.  And you know why.  Because deep down, we know that what matters in this life is 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.”

May we all be willing to slow down, change course and help others win.  May we take time to tell someone that we like them just the way they are.  And together, may we all spread God’s love and acceptance, one person at a time, until everyone has been invited into the neighborhood of God.  Amen.