Won't You Let Me Be Your Neighbor?

While traveling this summer I had the opportunity to see the documentary movie, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, the story of Rev. Fred Rogers and his television career. My heart was warmed by the authentic and consistent spirit of this man in his pursuit of being real with children, real about
feelings, self-worth, uniqueness, lovability, race, violence, bullying, and all the other things we adults tend to avoid talking about with children. The documentary indicated that Fred Rogers was bullied as a child and that this abuse helped shape his life toward wanting to help other children in
similar circumstances.

Somewhere along the line, Fred Rogers chose the concept of neighborhood as a central theme of how to help children in all the ways he hoped to help them.

It's a beautiful day in this neighborhood
A beautiful day for a neighbor
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?

It's a neighborly day in this beautywood
A neighborly day for a beauty
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?

I have always wanted to have a neighbor just like you
I've always wanted to live in a neighborhood with you
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?
Won't you please
Won't you please
Please won't you be my neighbor?

It is easy to make fun and satirize someone like Fred Rogers. He is almost too nice to believe. But there is something in all of us, even the most cynical, that wants to believe in a world where we can be neighbors to one another. What it means to be a neighbor is not always clear, however. I am
reminded of the poem by Robert Frost, called "Mending Wall," where two neighbors walk on opposite sides of a stone wall once a year to repair those troubled places:

We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
"Stay where you are until our backs are turned!"
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, "Good fences make good neighbours."
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
"Why do they make good neighbours? Isn't it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down." I could say "Elves" to him,
But it's not elves exactly, and I'd rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father's saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, "Good fences make good neighbours.”

Today we are gathering the Neighbors in Need offering. We do this on the first Sunday in October, along with celebrating World Communion Sunday. The energy on this day, liturgically speaking, is all over the map. It is for this reason that I avoided the usual lectionary readings and have chosen,
instead, the familiar (and haunting) story of the so-called “Good Samaritan.” I would prefer a different title. Perhaps, the “Merciful Samaritan.” But, whatever.

You know the story. When asked by a justification-seeking, smart ass lawyer, who is my neighbor, Jesus (surprise, surprise) tells a story. A Jew is going from Jerusalem to Jericho. Dangerous road. Not too smart to be traveling alone. He is attacked, robbed, beaten, left for dead. Two fellow
Jews pass by without stopping to help, a priest and a Levite (a temple deacon). Then, who is it who sees him and shows compassion, who touches him, binds him, treats him, cares for him - a hated enemy - a pariah - a non-person - a Samaritan. When Jesus asks the lawyer who was the neighbor to the man, the smart ass lawyer is required to answer the obvious, and in so doing he is  committing his words to the possible truth that God can tear down walls of racism, prejudice and enmity and do a new thing in people’s lives.

Now, the lawyer could have said, “That is a preposterous story. No Samaritan would have done such a thing.” And he would have been right. But what is even more preposterous, even more unbelievable is the idea that God would take the form of a Samaritan and help the dying Jew.
Sound familiar? The whole Christian story is based on a preposterous premise, that God would be incarnate in a human being, in a poor Jew.

The idea of neighbor is akin to the idea of community. In the early Scriptures we hear of Paul going to new church communities and asking for money to help the church in Jerusalem. We are called to help our neighbors. The Neighbors in Need offering is composed of two parts: one third of the offering goes to Native American ministries established over time with our denomination. The other two thirds go to small grants, for which any person or church may apply, that have to do with justice-making in the United States. In this case, neighbor means American, or Native-American. We do have the One Great Hour of Sharing offering in Lent which goes to our neighbors outside of our country. The point of this offering is the same as that of Fred Rogers’ or Jesus’ when it comes to what it means to be a neighbor. We go beyond our familiar places, our comfort zones, our ideas of who is our home group, in order to be in right relation with our neighbor. To love God and not love neighbor is not possible. To love neighbor is to love God. There are so many ways to love our neighbor. You know this because you live this truth of loving neighbor. I see evidence every time I see you. I see your care for one another in this place and in places in this part of Seattle and in regions going out to the ends of the earth. I take great comfort that I reside in a faith community where loving one’s neighbor is a daily practice in varieties of ways.

One of my non-paying gigs these days is a member of the Global Ministries committee of the Pacific Northwest Conference of the United Church of Christ. Cora Trujillo serves on that committee with me. We are meeting this week to talk about a possible global mission partnership with a peace advocacy group in the country of Colombia. The group is called, Justapaz, or Just Peace. They exist to help people in Colombia live out the Peace Agreement that was signed and ratified by the government in November of 2016. There is a new president in Colombia who does not want to continue to honor the peace accord (sound familiar?). Justapaz is working to keep pressure on the government and provide support for groups seeking to maintain the peace that was begun after decades of civil violence and great loss of life. It is my belief that entering into a partnership with Justapaz would be an act of loving one’s neighbor.

You may have noticed that the sermon title is slightly different than the Fred Rogers song. He wrote, "Won’t you be my neighbor?" I chose the words; Won’t You Let Me Be Your Neighbor? Perhaps I was thinking of the hymn, “Won’t you let me be your servant? Let me be as Christ to you. Pray that I might have the grace to let me be your servant, too.” I see a connection between being a neighbor and being a servant. It is the old mission challenge. If we have this message, this light, this truth, and we are full of energy and willingness of spirit to share what we have with others, then how do we create the space to allow the other, the potential neighbor, to express themselves and their truth, with us? Loving ones neighbor is allowing ones neighbor to be themselves and loving them anyway. I think Mr. Rogers would agree. Amen.

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