Beloved People of St. Martin’s,
When I was a very small child, my dad built me a tree house in a sycamore tree in our backyard. It was my own little getaway, and I would stay up there drawing or playing for hours. However, every weekday at 3 my mom would call to me that Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood was on—and I would swing out of that tree house like a rocket to go watch the show and have a snack with my younger siblings. The song “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” was a staple part of my singing repertoire, but it was also a question that stuck with me—since it ended with this observation
“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?
Please won’t you be my neighbor.”
And even though Mr. Rogers lived somewhere far away from me, he assured us in his soothing voice that being a neighbor was at the heart of being a fully-realized human being, although I certainly wouldn’t have been able to put it into those words. Earlier this year, I watched the film about Mr. Rogers’ life, and Bill and I again marveled that we were blessed to have been influenced by such a caring adult through the medium of television.
I was thinking about how wonderful that show was as I was looking at the biblical texts scheduled for this coming Sunday. In last week’s lectionary readings, we saw how God breaks through human-made divisions and boundaries in order to make plain the nearness of God’s kingdom. Twice we heard that reminder: “The kingdom of heaven has come near you.”
This week’s lectionary readings include a prophet’s word of warning to a corrupt royal house that has oppressed the common people and especially the poor, hardening divisions and exacerbating suffering among those who were so poor they were reduced to eating the fruit of sycamore trees. We will also be asked to consider anew the question of the heart of living with integrity with God and each other in the famous question of who our neighbors are?
Once again, the answer is one that was surprising, since it once again respects no human-made boundaries of race, national origin, or religious differences. Jesus will tell the story of what we know as “the Good Samaritan.” I ask you to hear this familiar story again with new ears, and remember that a “Good Samaritan” itself was a term loaded with cultural assumptions of superiority on the part of the listeners, who believed Samaritans were apostates who had strayed from true worship of God.
I learned as a child that being neighbors was not a function of physical nearness, but of the willingness to seek relationship with others, to draw near and open our hearts to those we encounter. As we confront the divisions and cruelties that pervade so much of the news nowadays, I am reminded of another thing Mr. Rogers said his mother told him when he was scared by an event as a child: “Look for the helpers.” Implicit in that comforting reminder is the hope that, once we are grown, we don’t have to look for others to do the helping—that part of being a neighbor is BEING the helpers. This is a powerful lesson for our time as well. When we are neighbors to people—when we draw near to those who are in need, especially—the kingdom of heaven draws near to us. May we not just look for the helpers, but BE the helpers.