Rev’d. Tanya Stormo Rasmussen
The Congregational Church of Hollis
5 October, 2018
World Communion Sunday
How many of you saw this summer’s box office hit, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” It’s a heartwarming movie about the life and television ministry of Rev’d. Fred Rogers, who was never a preacher in the traditional sense, but I suspect just about everyone in this meetinghouse has heard at least one of his “sermons”. Because so many adults of today were shaped by “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood” as children, there’s no question in my mind that he made a lasting impact on society’s ability to address tough social issues. Issues that until recently, were not spoken of at length in the presence of children—issues of relationship and community and politics that are complicated and often overwhelming.
But Mr. Rogers was willing to talk about how and why these relationships sometimes break down, and how we can work together to build, and re-build, in stronger, healthier, more life-giving ways. With the help of a magic trolley, a variety of sock puppets, and language that very young children could comprehend, he tackled tough and scary subjects like divorce, and war, racism, and homophobia. He helped families process and deal with Bobby Kennedy’s assassination and Reagan’s assassination attempt, the Challenger disaster, people with disabilities, the Gulf War, 9/11 . . . so many issues that were just plain uncomfortable to talk about.
Remember when he invited Officer Clemmons, the singing African-American police officer, to come and join him as they soaked their feet in a wading pool together on a hot summer day? Actually, it happened in two episodes. The first time was in 1969, when public pools had become a battleground of racial segregation, fueled by fear that African-Americans carried disease, and swimming pools were intimate contexts where contagion could spread. In that show, Mr. Rogers—his feet already in the kiddie pool—invites Officer Clemmons, who accepts. “As Clemmons slips his feet into the pool, the camera holds the shot for several seconds, as if to make the point clear: a pair of brown feet and a pair of white feet can share a swimming pool. Nearly 25 years later, [the pair] reenacted this moment. A much older Rogers and Clemmons sit with their feet in a similar blue wading pool talking about the many different ways that children and adults say ‘I Love You’—from singing to cleaning up a room to drawing special pictures to making plays. As the scene ends, [Mr.] Rogers takes a towel and helps [Officer] Clemmons dry his feet with a simple, ‘Here, let me help you.’”
What’s lesser-known is that, as of that second episode (filmed in the early 1990s), the actor who played Officer Clemmons for a couple decades had recently been “outed” as gay, and there was a lot of fear at that time about AIDS and homosexuality “rubbing off” on those who got too close. So in a very subtle way, Fred Rogers was also making a social comment on thatfear. Both times, it was a surreptitious foot-washing ceremony: both times, a brave and radical episode that truly preached—with a thoroughly Christian message, without once saying Jesus’ name.
Finally, in times of disaster, people still turn to Mr. Rogers’ famous quote as evidence of hope—a quote he attributed to his mother: “Look for the helpers. [In times of distress and disaster], you will always find people who are helping.” Most of us will have at least one “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” episode or quote that we remember well, for the impact it made.
The movie’s director, Morgan Neville, said in an interview about Fred Rogers and his show: “What he’s doing is not just providing joy for children but really trying to allay fear. When he looked at children what he realized is that most adults condescend to children. When bad things happen they say, ‘Don’t worry about it,’ or ‘It wasn’t anything.’ And kids are way too smart and intuitive to notknow when those things are happening. So what he decided to do is to level with kids — to really speak to them honestly and say, ‘Yes something bad happened, but let me tell you why, and let me explain it in age-appropriate terms.’ Because he really felt that fear was the most destructive force in our society.”
Would you agree? Given how often Jesus repeated the words, “Do not fear,” I certainly think hewould have. And, given that the text of our Gospel lesson this morning implies that the man who was beat up on the road was a fellow Jew, I wonder: What—apart from fear—could possibly have caused the priest and the Levite (who was a sort of a legal assistant in the temple) to deliberately avoid the man they knew was in distress and dire need?
Selfishness, I suppose—but I think that selfishness is really rooted in an individual’s fear that they won’t have or get everything they need and want, so they tend to their own interest first. Selfishness emerges from an ideology of scarcity, as opposed to the theology of abundance proclaimed by Jesus and by the whole of Scripture. We heard about this a couple weeks ago, in the sermon about the loaves and fishes. What we learn as our faith grows is that, despite appearances to the contrary, God has created this world with enough for everyone. And the more generously we share, the more profoundly we experience the abundance.
So, it had to be fear of losing something, or sacrificing something precious to them—their time, their sense of safety, perhaps their clean shirt and cloak, or their sense of personal purity, maybe their status in the eyes of the community—something scared the priest and the Levite enough that they actually crossed the road in order to avoid helping their fellow statesman in need.
The one who did stop, Jesus said, was a Samaritan. Now, in order to fully appreciate the radical nature of the Samaritan man’s act, you have to know that Jews and Samaritans were noton good terms with one another. It was a centuries-old family feud at this point, because both Samaritans and Jews worshiped the same God and claimed common ancestors in Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But their points of view had started to diverge not long after King Solomon’s reign, when the Israelites divided into two kingdoms, North and South. As the years and generations went by, they grew more and more entrenched in their own positions, more and more convinced that they held the corner on the truth, believed that theirs was God’s own preferred point of view, and there was no use even trying to listen to, or reason with, the other side because they were so fundamentally wrong and pig-headed and full of wicked, manipulative intentions and lust for power.
Basically, the overriding attitude of these two parties—the Jews and the Samaritans—prioritized their national, political identity above their God-given and spiritual identity collectively as Children of Israel, equally beloved of God. And as soon as they did that, it was easier to make of the other an enemy. They no longer recognized each other as members of the same family, but they made adversaries of the other, diminishing their common humanity in their refusal to see the other as equally worthy of love and understanding. I can’t help but recognize in this parable a cautionary tale for our own national strife and divisions just now.
The Good Samaritan was the “helper” of Mr. Rogers’ quote. He was the one demonstrating the love that God intends for each of us to display toward all people, not just those we like or agree with, or those we feel comfortable reaching out to.
That Samaritan, of course, risked sacrificing everything the Jewish priest and the Levite avoided giving up when they withheld their mercy. He cleansed and bandaged the Jewish man’s wounds, and put him on his own animal, personally cared for him for a couple days, and then arranged to pay for all further necessary care. He didn’t hesitate or count the cost; he did not calculate whether he would personally benefit from the social transaction—he simply acted in the best interest of a fellow child of God. By his response, he healed the world a little bit—both men’s perspectives were surely changed forever by his sacrificial gesture of trusting compassion. His love for God was evident in his concern even for a recognized adversary. Is this not Jesus’ own way—risking and being willing to sacrifice everything so that even his enemies, known and unknown, could know salvation?
Luke reports that the lawyer who wondered about eternal life wanted to “justify himself”, so he sought a legal definition of who his neighbor might be. Jesus turned it around and expanded the question on him. First of all, he made it clear that the one in need, the one who has been mistreated or is in distress:this always a neighbor we’re called to love—whether they live next door, or are a total stranger, are waiting at our border, or even part of a rival clan.
Furthermore, he made it clear that the sort of neighbor God wants us to be is one who shows mercy, whose first consideration is not whether we’ll be repaid, or whether the other person is worth our effort and sacrifice, or even whether our assistance is endorsed by our government or community leaders. But we are to be the sort of neighbor whose guiding thought is, “This person in need, this neighbor, is a beloved child of God like me, also created in God’s own image, and deserving of my compassion and love.”
The lawyer questioning Jesus was eager to affirm that he had ticked all the right boxes, he had fulfilled the letter of the law. Jesus made it clear that what matters in the quest for eternal life is a character of virtue, one that practices mercy and compassion—that loves God and reaches out with love even to the neighbor who makes us uncomfortable.
Today is World Communion Sunday. As Christians, we believe that Jesus encouraged his followers to make disciples of all nations, all people: to offer hope and light to everyone we encounter as we live by his example, as we follow his Way. And because Christ welcomes everyone—starting with the outcasts, the untouchables, the alienated and misunderstood—if we wish to experience the joy and absolute freedom Christ offers, we need to practice reaching out to the neighbors who look different from us, who think differently than we do, who might ask more of us than we think we can give.
If we hope to grow into the likeness of Christ Jesus, to experience the liberated and eternal life he came to reveal, then we need expand our table fellowship; we need to stretch ourselves even in the direction of uncomfortable neighbors (including beyond these four walls) who will challenge us. Because by God’s grace, they will also ultimately bless us as we discover things about them, and God, and ourselves, and the wondrous community that is God’s global neighborhood.
As we gather around our communion table today, we will celebrate with a variety of breads—different colors, different flavors—representing the diversity of God’s people, and our myriad neighbors, in whom Christ abides without regard for race or color, gender or background. As we gather around our World Communion celebration, we gather with Christians across this nation and throughout the world to remember that our first and most important identity is as children of God, followers of Jesus Christ; allegiance to any other nation, race, party, tribe, or family is secondary. May God bless us at this table, and may the nourishment we take from our holy communion embolden us to serve all the neighbors God places in our path, even those who make us uncomfortable. Amen.