The theology of Mister Rogers on neighbors.
“Mister Rogers on Neighbors”
September 10, 2023 - Cobleskill United Methodist Church, Pastor Anna Blinn Cole
Mark 12:28-34; Matthew 18:15-20
Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, ‘Which commandment is the first of all?’ Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The second is this, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’ Then the scribe said to him, ‘You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that “he is one, and besides him there is no other”; and “to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength”, and “to love one’s neighbor as oneself”,—this is much more important than all whole burnt-offerings and sacrifices.’ When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’ After that no one dared to ask him any question.
15 “If your brother or sister sins against you, go and correct them when you are alone together. If they listen to you, then you’ve won over your brother or sister. 16 But if they won’t listen, take with you one or two others so that every word may be established by the mouth of two or three witnesses.[a] 17 But if they still won’t pay attention, report it to the church. If they won’t pay attention even to the church, treat them as you would a Gentile and tax collector. 18 I assure you that whatever you fasten on earth will be fastened in heaven. And whatever you loosen on earth will be loosened in heaven. 19 Again I assure you that if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, then my Father who is in heaven will do it for you. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, I’m there with them.”
When I was a child television was king. Long before the days of iPhones and tablets and just shortly before computers were becoming big for entertainment, the tiny little television in my house was my window into the world. With so many entertaining shows on, I probably could have watched it for hours. My parents saw the problem pretty quickly and a new rule was put in place. 1 hour a day, max. And it had to start with 30 minutes of public TV.
I probably grumbled about this at that age but looking back, I’m thankful I was exposed to public television. If for no other reason than Mr. Rogers. Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood helped me grow up, but not only that, it gave me permission to be a child with questions during the process of growing up. He answered questions like where does the silverware go on the table, how are crayons made, what do you do with sad feelings, how to move on after losing, and most importantly- how much fish food does a fish really need.
Anyone else here grow up watching Mr. Rogers or maybe showing it to your kids? Airing from 1968 until 2001, a staggering 33-year run, Mister Rogers Neighborhood became a childhood staple for millions of children over three decades. What wasn’t immediately obvious in the midst of skits about feelings and neighbors and getting along performed by homemade puppets and a multi-racial cast, was that Fred Rogers had an agenda with this show.
Love. You are loved and you are capable of love.
And not the kind of sappy love that our friend Molly the puppet thought of. God’s love. The kind of love that is woven into words and stories of Jesus. The kind of love that rescues you from self-doubt and feelings of unworthiness. The show was not religious and God was not named. But in interviews, Fred Rogers talked about his work on the show as a calling and his desire to be a “vehicle for God, to spread a message of love and peace.” Fred Rogers was himself an ordained Presbyterian minister but never filled a permanent pulpit. Instead, his pulpit was a TV set as he preached the Gospel of peace and love in everyday language helping generations of children grow into a complicated and divided world with emotional maturity.
Fred Rogers died at the age of 75 in 2003 two years after his show went off air. But it seems that the Mr. Rogers who we used to know so well and who used to seem to know us so well may still have something to say to us in our world that continues to be complicated and contentious.
For the next four weeks we’re going to take four themes from Mr. Rogers Neighborhood that mesh well with important Biblical passages and think about how they have wisdom for us today, 20 years after Mr. Rogers left us.
This week we’re talking about neighbors, a common topic with Mr. Rogers and Jesus. And what’s truly remarkable is that Mr. Rogers was able to use his deeply held convictions on what it meant to be a good neighbor rooted in Jesus’ teachings to make bold and sometimes controversial cultural statements at times when American culture was wrestling with gender equality and racial justice.
Our scripture from Mark today is a familiar one, perhaps even a sentinel one for us these days. What is the most important commandment an Important Teacher asks Jesus? Love God with everything you have. And love your neighbor as yourself.
As famous and critical as these commandments are, Jesus said them nearly 2000 years ago. And in those millennia that have passed, we Christians have had some interesting and sometimes downright hurtful ways of living these commandments out among our neighbors. Christians, over and over again, have gotten really good at treating each other not with love, but with judgment.
Fred Rogers addressed this head-on. Just one year after his show launched, a public debate was raging about which neighbors were allowed to swim in which pools, the color of one’s skin being the primary factor. Mr. Rogers pulled out his kiddie pool in what has become an iconic episode and while cooling his feet on a hot day, invited an African-American police officer, played by actor François Clemmons, to join him. This particular TV moment in 1969 challenged not only the racial conventions of the time, but also embodied Mr. Rogers’ theological commitment to the Greatest Commandment. Loving your neighbor means accepting them as who they are.
With a blue plastic pool and some cool water on a hot day, Mr. Rogers made being a good neighbor look easy and doable. He gave new meaning to Francis of Assisi’s famous saying, “Preach the gospel at all times and if necessary, use words.”
A lot of us grew up on Mr. Rogers but that doesn’t mean being a good neighbor magically became easy when we became an adult. We all still struggle with how to be in healthy, life-giving relationships with those around us.
This past week I spent some time shopping around online for some Mr. Rogers-themed stickers that we could give out at our Block Party. First, let me just say there are some adorably cute Mr. Rogers stickers in the world and you should definitely come to our Block Party next weekend if for no other reason than to get one.
But in the midst of the cute stickers were also some that were rooted more in the realities of challenging times. “Be the Person Mr. Rogers Knew You Could Be,” read one sticker, presumably meant to tell other people that they’re not being kind enough. And then there was this other sticker option, with cute neighborhood buildings and sweet little font that read …“Mr. Rogers did not adequately prepare me for the people in my neighborhood.” As if to say, it’s too hard. Being a neighbor with some people is just too hard.
Hm. It’s one thing to love the show… it’s another to live it.
The same could be said about Christianity.
What does it mean to be a good neighbor when the people in your neighborhood challenge you? Maybe we’ve gotten better in some ways, but in other ways we find it’s just easier to not interact with people we perceive as difficult. Social media has made it easier to avoid real face-to-face interactions with our neighbors. Our tolerance for dealing with real people and having hard conversations has gotten lower. I wonder what Mister Rogers would say to us now?
Believe it or not, 2000 years later, Jesus has some practical tips for neighboring that have stood the test of time. For example, in Matthew chapter 18, which happens to be the lectionary for today, he has some sage advice for addressing hard conversations with neighbors. And you know what, it’s pretty simple.
Talk with people, not about them. If someone has done something that you don’t like or that has hurt you, find them and tell them. Replace my neighbor stepping into me with anything the people you are around do that bothers you or hurts you. When you hold that anger inside, nothing improves.
Don’t talk about them to someone else, talk to them about what it is that’s on your mind. Being neighbors in a neighborhood sometimes means having hard conversations. Because what a conversation might do is allow you to understand your neighbor in a new way. What if my neighbor did the thing that annoyed me because of something else going on in their life? Something I would never know unless I started a hard conversation.
Being a good neighbor takes work and a long-term investment. Mr. Rogers could make it look easy sometimes, and Jesus gave us advice and commandments that are easy to put on a shelf and not follow. But the truth is, maintaining good relationships with our neighbors, and making sure everyone around us falls into the category of neighbor, is the building block of a healthy community.
We’re throwing a Block Party next week and we’ll hopefully meet new people. I hope you’ll come and help us be a welcoming and friendly presence for our neighborhood. But I hope we’ll all also see this as just the beginning. Meeting new people is easy, staying in relationship with them through the ups and downs of life is harder. By God’s grace, let’s keep trying.
Grace and Peace,