Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

July 14th, 2019

To listen to the sermon click here.

For the last week I have been part of our VBC Team. And what a joy it was! Campers of all ages undertook projects to better our neighborhoods. Some shared songs and friendship with older adults, some picked up litter, some made blessing bags for those in need and some made enchiladas for the feeding program Edible Hope. It was a wonderful week that gave me time to consider the question posed by this week’s gospel which just happens to mirror our VBC theme – namely “Who is my neighbor?”

And while this is an important question for our younger folks, I find that, as adults, we, too, need to ponder this question. In fact, we probably could learn a lot from our children. Because during the week, our children made a community together and there is a very good chance that the bonds they made this week will endure – even if they do not see each other every day, or go to the same schools or have the same friends. And that is because children are actually better at becoming neighbors than we are. I can, for example, ename all the childhood neighbors: Mr and Mrs Reynolds, the Felkes, the Didiers, the Flehartys, the Larsons, the Reppes and the Carters. I actually knew my neighbors because, with the exception of our next-door neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Reynolds, every one of these neighbors had children I played with. On long Montana summer days we would run around outside and inside each other’s homes playing and doing all sorts of things I can’t recall now but were super fun then. And while we all had our own friends at school, our neighborhood made us summer companions and friends. And brought our families together too. While we don’t often think about the role our children play in community-building, folks often comment on how much harder it is to make new friends after their children grow up. Because we adults have all these rules about who we want to be in community with. We rarely come together just because its summer and we want to go to the pool or run through the sprinklers. In adulthood we make it more difficult to be neighbors than it needs to be. Because being a neighbor starts with recognizing we are in this together.

In today’s gospel story, Jesus is trying to help us understand what being a neighbor means and so I thought of two very different adults who have modelled this for us.

Martin Luther King Jr. in his final speech, the night before he died, used today’s gospel story as an example of our responsibility as neighbors. And his very presence that night embodied this message. Sick with a fever, he had asked Ralph Abernathy to deliver remarks in his place—but when Ralph told him of the people’s disappointment he came. He spoke. And Dr. King said that we were being called to “cultivate a dangerous kind of unselfishness. Because we would either go up together or go down together. Of our story, he said, “Now, you know, we use our imagination a great deal to try to determine why the priest and the Levite didn’t stop….But I’m going to tell you what my imagination tells me. It’s possible that those men were afraid.” He continues:

The Jericho Road is a dangerous road. I remember when Mrs. King and I were first in Jerusalem. We rented a car and drove from Jerusalem down to Jericho. And as soon as we got on that road I said to my wife, “I can see why Jesus used this as the setting for his parable.” It’s a winding, meandering road. It’s really conducive for ambushing. You start out in Jerusalem, which is about… twelve hundred feet above sea level. And by the time you get down to Jericho fifteen or twenty minutes later, you’re about twenty-two feet below sea level. That’s a dangerous road.  In the days of Jesus it came to be known as the “Bloody Pass.”

And you know, it’s possible that the priest and the Levite looked over that man on the ground and wondered if the robbers were still around. Or it’s possible that they felt that the man on the ground was merely faking, and he was acting like he had been robbed and hurt in order to… lure them there for quick and easy seizure. And so, the first question that the priest asked, the first question that the Levite asked was, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?”

But then the Good Samaritan came by, and he reversed the question: “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?” That’s the question before you….”

And that, ultimately, is Jesus’ question to us his followers. Can we compassionately address what has happened to—what is happening to the others in our community? Even if the other is unknown to us – even if the other is our enemy.  

Now I know Dr. King’s “dangerous unselfishness” doesn’t necessarily sound too appealing to us and the possible risks associated with being a good neighbor like him can seem frightening. Maybe like the priest and the Levite, we are rightfully concerned about our safety and are afraid that helping our neighbor might put us at risk. But Martin Luther King would remind us we are not alone—we walk with God and our community. And there are many ways to serve. Right actions and small acts of kindness no matter how insignificant they may seem can be more powerful than we know.

On his last night on earth, in fact, Martin Luther King recalled one seemingly small act of kindness after his near-fatal stabbing in New York City. He recalled that the New York Times reported that if he had but sneezed, he would have died. He said, as he recovered, “They allowed me to read some of the mail that came in…from all over the states and the world kind letters came in….but one of them I will never forget. I had received one from the president and the vice president; I’ve forgotten what those telegrams said. I’d received a visit and a letter from the governor of New York, but I’ve forgotten what that letter said.

But there was another letter…. that came from…a young girl who was a student at …White Plains High School. And…I’ll never forget it. It said simply, “Dear Dr. King: I am a ninth-grade student at the White Plains High School….While it should not matter, I would like to mention that I’m a white girl. I read in the paper of your misfortune and of your suffering. And I read that if you had sneezed, you would have died. And I’m simply writing you to say that I’m so happy that you didn’t sneeze.” 

This last week of VBC, surrounded by children’s unaffected goodness, I thought of another man who taught several generations about being a good neighbor –-Mr. Fred Rogers.

Beginning in a time fraught with as much tension, fear and unrest as we now face, Mr. Rogers, a Presbyterian minister, made a television show for children.  His early years of programming coincided with a very difficult time for people of color and African Americans in our country. In 1969, a new neighbor was welcomed into Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood; Officer Clemmons. Francois Clemmons was singing in a Pittsburgh-area church when he first met Fred Rogers who asked him to consider joining the cast of his new television show as a singing policeman

“Fred came to me and said, ‘I have this idea: You could be a police officer,’ ” recalls Clemmons, speaking with StoryCorps. Clemmons says he didn’t like the idea much at first. He said, “I grew up in the ghetto. I did not have a positive opinion of police officers. Policemen were siccing police dogs and water hoses on people…I really had a hard time putting myself in that role. So, I was not excited about being Officer Clemmons at all.”

Still, Clemmons eventually agreed to take on the role and continued on the show for 25 years. There is one scene that Clemmons remembers with great emotion. In an episode that aired in 1969, Rogers is seen resting his feet in a plastic kiddie pool on a hot day. When Officer Clemmons comes by, “He invited me to come over and to rest my feet in the water with him,” Clemmons recalls. “The icon Fred Rogers not only was showing my brown skin in the tub with his white skin as two friends, but as I was getting out of that tub, he was helping me dry my feet.” Clemmons says the scene — which the two also revisited in their last episode together, in 1993 — touched him in a way he hadn’t expected.”

“I think he was making a very strong statement. That was his way. I still was not convinced that Officer Clemmons could have a positive influence in the neighborhood [ or]…in the real-world neighborhood, but I think I was proven wrong,” he says.

Francois Clemmons, a grammy-winning artist, was more than just a character in Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. He also was a personal friend of both Mr. and Mrs. Rogers who went to all of his performances. During his time on the show, Francois came out as a gay man to his friend Fred.

He says he’ll never forget the day Rogers wrapped up the program, as he always did, by hanging up his sweater and saying, “You make every day a special day just by being you, and I like you just the way you are.” This time in particular, it seemed to him like Rogers was looking right at him. After they wrapped, he walked over.

Clemmons asked him, “Fred, were you talking to me?”

Rogers answered, “Yes, I have been talking to you for years…. but you heard me today.”

“It was like telling me I’m OK as a human being,” Clemmons says. “That was one of the most meaningful experiences I’d ever had.”

On Friday this last week our Middle Schoolers were in charge of water games. And on that hot day, I think our campers enjoyed them as much as my neighborhood friends and I used to enjoy running through our sprinklers on our lawns.  

Almost a year to the day of the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Mr. Rogers and Officer Clemmons soaked their hot, tired feet in a small swimming pool to cool down. Mr. Rogers said at the time “sometimes a moment like this can make a big difference.”

In 1993, the two men would re-visit this moment and Officer Clemmons would sing… “There are many ways to say I love you….there are many was to say I care about you….many ways….just being there when things are sad and scary just by being there, being there, being there to say I love you…..

As an adult, in my neighborhood, I can name only three of my neighbors—Jimmy and Dave on the right, and Than and his family on the corner. But last year Than got our block together to address a shared parking concern and, while no one wanted to commit on the e-mail thread, most of our neighbors came together, brought food and hung out. And while only a couple of our neighbors have children, we watched as they played in the water and had fun. And we smiled and laughed and talked and felt like neighbors. As our children remind us, being a neighbor isn’t that hard—it just realizing our being together—that we are not alone in this, that we have one another and as Mr. Rogers said, “Neighbors are people who are close to us and close to our hearts.”