Last Sunday afternoon, Diane and I went to see the Mr. Rogers documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
I have always been an unashamed fan of the man who did everything the television experts said he shouldn’t
do – and in the process changed some of our lives forever.
Every show began with his signature song as he walked through the front door of his Cape Cod-style television home: “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood …” The song ends with what seems to be a very simple invitation: “Please, won’t you be my neighbor?”
But that is no simple invitation. Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan tells us just that:
[Read Luke 10:25-37]
The expert in the Jewish law asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus ended His parable – as a rabbi would – by answering a question with another question: “Which of the three [people passing by] was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
Jesus turned the question right around. Don’t ask, “Who is my neighbor?” Ask instead, “To whom can I be a neighbor?” “To whom can I show mercy?” “Whom can I love?”
That is the real invitation behind Mr. Rogers’ musical question: “Please, won’t you let me be your neighbor?” He is not asking children what they can do for him, but what he can do for them.
And Fred Rogers was a master at that. When he talked with children – whether it was through their televisions or face-to-face – he made them feel important. Because they were important to him.
If you saw him in a crowd of kids, you would find him looking one child in the eyes as they talked, oblivious to all the others swirling around him. He took time to ask questions, listen thoughtfully to the answers, and speak words of encouragement. He would thank each child for sharing those moments with him, and then move on to another.
On TV, he looked right into the camera. He used to say that he imagined only one child as he was speaking – and not any child in particular – so I felt as a six-year-old in our kitchen in Fairview, New Jersey, watching on our black-and-white Philco TV, that he was talking with me. Just me. That made me feel special. Not like the people in my father’s congregation who made me feel like an annoying six-year-old – which I probably was.
With one exception: Anne Reburgh. She was my Sunday School teacher. She reinforced the lessons my parents taught me about knowing, loving, and serving Jesus. The fact that I remember her name 50 years later tells you how special she made me feel.
In our age, such personal attention is almost non-existent: think, “Press 1 to place an order; press 2 for billing. Your call is important to us. Please stay on the line. Your estimated wait time is 37 minutes.” Efficiency is king. Multi-tasking is demanded. We don’t even get calls from telemarketers anymore – we get robocalls from computers pretending to know our names and trying to get chatty with us.
People need attention. They need our attention. Especially children and other people who are vulnerable. People who are elderly. People who are poor. People who are sick. People with disabilities. People who cannot read. People trapped in addictions. People in prison. Widows and orphans. People who are oppressed.
In his own soft-spoken, gentle way – Fred Rogers stood up to harmful cultural forces. In 1969, when many African-Americans were still prohibited from drinking from the same water fountains and swimming in the same pools as white Americans, he invited François Clemmons – the African-American opera-singing neighborhood police officer – to join him in cooling his feet in the same kiddie pool. As the scene ended,
Mr. Rogers took a towel and dried Officer Clemmons’s feet. He was clearly connecting what his faith to his actions.
People need to hear the message of the Gospel – that they are special. “There’s only one in this wonderful world – you are special.” That was perhaps my favorite Mr. Rogers song.
Some accused him of creating entitlement mentality – which leads to such practices as giving every kid who plays in the tournament the same medal. While we can discuss whether that’s a good or bad strategy, that’s not what Fred Rogers meant when he told each child that she or he was special:
“One of our chief jobs in life, it seems to me, is to realize how rare and valuable each one of us really is – that each of us has something which no one else has – or ever will have – something inside which is unique to all time.”
That was from his book, Life’s Journeys According to Mister Rogers.
He was validating their existence – as human beings, created in the image of God. As Jason Thacker wrote for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission: “Humans’ worth and dignity is rooted in the fact that God created us. We were made distinctly different (or special) from everything else (and Mister Rogers would add everyone else) that God made… We believe that all people are valuable and deserving of our love and protection because each are given the imprint of our Creator God.”
Please remember that he was the Rev. Fred Rogers – ordained by Pittsburgh Presbytery after much debate to a special ministry of television for children. Everything he said or did was rooted in his Christian faith – which includes the belief that each of us bears God’s image.
And his faith in what God’s Word tells us about how to treat our neighbors. The Hebrew Bible contains at least 25 commands to treat our neighbors with respect and kindness. Many of those were in our passage today from Deuteronomy. There are many more that don’t use the word “neighbor,” but still clearly teach us to be good neighbors.
Also from Life’s Journeys According to Mister Rogers:
“All we’re ever asked to do in this life is to treat our neighbor – especially our neighbor who is in need – exactly how we would hope to be treated ourselves. That’s our ultimate responsibility.
So as Christians we must fight for people who are too small or too weak to protect themselves. We must encourage people who are discouraged or who feel like they are “mistakes.” We must feed people who are hungry and keep the oxygen flowing for people who struggle to breathe. We must forgive people who offend us. We must listen respectfully to people who disagree with us.
We will be living out the command to love our neighbors in the next two weeks, as we offer Vacation Bible School here and at Belle Village. And while some of us love creating the spectacle of a shipwreck on an island, the lesson of Mr. Rogers is that it is the attention we give to the children that is most important.
Believe me – I am preaching to myself more than anyone else this morning. I need to focus on each child I encounter in the next two weeks – not focus on whether we start the lesson on time or whether the posters are spaced evenly. They drove me up a wall yesterday – literally up the back wall – as I tried to hang them. The children may remember some of what we teach them, but they will definitely remember the time we took to make them feel special.
Above all else, we must demonstrate to them the love that Jesus has for us. He loves us as individuals; each of us is special to Him, so we must love others as individuals. We must see others as special. That takes time.
It is not efficient. But it Mr. Rogers’ way – and Jesus’ way – of being a good neighbor.