Won’t You Be My Neighbor?: Many Ways to Say I Love You

Scripture: Matthew 22:34-40

Some Christians have good stories of repentance and transformation: stories of how they were given over to their own selfish and destructive ways until they found Jesus and he helped them turn it all around.

Mister Rogers is not one of those Christians.

That’s not to say that he was a perfect man, of course, or not in need of God’s grace – just that, as far as I can tell, he was from birth fairly Mister-Rogers-y.

Fred Rogers grew up in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, a small town outside of Pittsburgh, in a family that knew the value of people and good deeds.  His father, Jim, was a businessman who owned a number of factories, and knew every one of his over five hundred employees by name.   His mother, Nancy, gave Christmas gifts to hundreds of residents of Latrobe each year, including sweaters she had knit herself.  She was, said Fred, “the original Meals on Wheels person.  Whenever she heard of someone who was sick or hungry, she’d show up wherever they were with a covered dish.”  She volunteered at the local hospital, and once, when Fred came home from school talking about how one of his classmates couldn’t afford new shoes, that boy went back to school a few days later with a pair of brand-new high tops.  As time went on, the family made bigger investments in their community, such as a new community swimming pool after a local boy drowned in the town’s swimming hole after a flood.[1]

The Rogers family loved their neighborhood, and they loved its people. And they found lots of different ways to show it.

Later, on his show, Mister Rogers would sing a song about that. Not about Latrobe in particular, or about his family’s philanthropy.  But about a lesson I imagine he began to learn in childhood: that there are many ways to say I love you.

Let’s listen to it now. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hSbiUXN6Nwo

Over the years, Mister Rogers sang different versions of this song, and added in different ways to say I love you.  As we heard here, there’s the being there way; the cleaning up a room way; the drawing special pictures way.  There’s also the telling way, and the feeding way, and the “143” way: his special code for the number of letters in each word of “I love you.”  All of these ways to say I love you are accessible and doable for children, but also, with a little extrapolation, for adults.

What kinds of ways to say I love you might you add to that song?

Are you all familiar with the so-called five love languages? This was a book published in the early 90s, and it’s all about understanding that people express their love in different ways.  Some people express their love in words.  Some people express their love by giving gifts.  Some people express their love by giving you their time, by showing up.  Some people express their love in acts of service.  And some people express their love through touch (always consensual touch if it’s a real expression of love, of course.)

The book (which I have not actually read, by the way) was originally meant as a way to help people improve their relationships with their partners, but the concept has been helpful to me in think about my relationships more broadly. The idea that our expressions of love can differ helps me both appreciate expressions that are different from my own, and think about how I express love to people I care about.

I doubt Fred Rogers ever learned to knit sweaters like his mother, but from all accounts, anyone who talked to him was made to feel like they were the only person in the world.  That’s because how we show love comes out who we fundamentally are, and the ways God has made us.  And because we’re different, those ways are going to be different too.

In one famous passage of Scripture, a Pharisee comes to Jesus with a question.  Jesus has been engaging in some verbal sparring already with both Pharisees and Sadducees, two sects of ancient Judaism. In this case the Pharisee challenges him: “Teacher, what is the greatest commandment in the Law?” He’d better not answer wrong, you see.

Jesus answers, quoting Deuteronomy: “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, and soul, and mind, and strength.”  And then, he says, “The second is like it,” and, quoting Leviticus: “you must love your neighbor as yourself.

“All of the Law and the Prophets,” he says, “depend on these two commands.”

It’s the right answer to a question to which there was supposed to be no right answer. (That is kind of Jesus’ specialty.)

As on the nose as Jesus is, here, he doesn’t provide a lot of detail.  What does it actually look like to love God and to love our neighbor?  Does loving God mean reading our Bibles every day, or hanging decorative versions of our favorite verses up in our home, or singing praise, or volunteering at church?  Or is there actually no other way to love God than by loving our neighbor – by welcoming them and feeding them and making sure they have a coat or a sleeping bag when it is cold outside, by giving them our valuable time and our helping hands?

We might say that the rest of the Gospels, and indeed the rest of the Bible, answers that question for us.  In Scripture, There are people who sit at Jesus’ feet and listen to his teaching; people who give their money to support his ministry; people who care for orphans and widows, the most vulnerable members of society; even people who punch a hole in a stranger’s roof to lower their paraplegic friend down into the house to be healed by Jesus.  In the Bible, there are many ways to say I love you to God and to our neighbors: as many ways as the ways God has made us.

And that’s important, because it means we don’t all have to do all the ways.  Some of us are artists, and we say I love you with our art.  Some of us are nurturers, and we say I love you with some homemade soup when someone is sick.  Some of us are good listeners, and we say I love you with our listening ears.  Some of us are detail people, and we say I love you by taking care of logistics at times when others feel lost in the jumble of everything that has to happen.  Back at the beginning of this series we talked about being fearfully and wonderfully made, and beloved just as we are, and the offering God expects back from us in terms of love for God and neighbor come out of that goodness.

I think we would be remiss, though, to only talk about love as if it consists primarily of good deeds, homemade cards, and chicken soup.  Those are good ways to be neighbors.  But being a good neighbor is also about more than that.

In Luke’s version of the passage we read from Matthew, it’s a lawyer who asks the question: what must I do to inherit eternal life?  Jesus answers, well, what does the law say?  And here the lawyer supplies the answer himself: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. “You have answered correctly,” Jesus says. The lawyer then responds with another question (what is that question?): Who is my neighbor?

Jesus tells a story about a man who was walking down the road from Jerusalem to Jericho.  He falls into the hands of robbers, who mug him and beat him and leave him for dead on the side of the road.  A priest passes by, and then another religious leader, both without stopping to help.  And then a Samaritan comes upon him, dresses his wounds, puts him on his donkey, and takes him to the nearest inn.

The Good Samaritan is a story about a man who was a good neighbor through his good deeds.  He loved his neighbor by letting his own journey be interrupted for an urgent need, by putting up his own money for this stranger’s care.  It’s also a story about more than that: it’s a story that addresses stereotypes and prejudice head on, because the hero of the story is someone who would not naturally have been the hero of that Jewish lawyer’s story (or, probably, vice versa.)

Loving our neighbor means taking on the bigger issues, too.

It’s hard, these days, to think of a more neutral, less controversial personality than Mister Rogers.  But that wasn’t always the case.  Mister Rogers dealt with real-world issues with his audience of children, and that meant sometimes taking risks and even making people mad.

On one episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Mister Rogers invites Officer Clemmons, the friendly neighborhood police office, to stop on a warm day and soak his feet in the cool water of a kiddie pool.  It wasn’t that notable an event, except for the fact that it was 1969, and Officer Francois Clemmons was black.  Integration was not a given, and in fact the Civil Rights Act had passed just a few years earlier, after protests that specifically targeted segregated swimming pools.  There in Mister Rogers’ front yard, the two men sat, feet soaking together in a kiddie pool for everyone to see.  Officer Clemmons has not brought a towel, so when they are done, Mister Rogers kneels down to dry Officer Clemmons’s feet with his own.[2]

It was a kind gesture on a hot day, and thus a way to say I love you to a neighbor. But it was also Mister Rogers’ way of taking a stand: a stand that said in Mister Rogers’ neighborhood – and in God’s – all God’s children go together.

Mister Rogers knew, I think, that sometimes being a good neighbor means more than being kind, or bringing food, or knitting sweaters,  Sometimes loving our neighbor means, as it says in our baptismal vows, resisting evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.  It means saying no to racism, even racism in the often more subtle and insidious forms it tends to present itself now.  It means standing up against policies that fail to protect the poor and the immigrant.  It means asking ourselves honestly if everyone is really as welcome in our churches as we like to think they are.

It means seeking justice, because on the other end of every one of those policies and structures and isms are neighbors, who God has called us to love.

As Dr. Cornel West reminds us, “Justice is what love looks like in public.”

Did Mister Rogers perfectly stand up to all systemic evil on his show?  Of course not. He was a product of his time, as we all are.  He was the white son of wealthy white parents, and it is hard for all of us to see outside of the blinders of our privilege sometimes.  Francois Clemmons balked at first at the idea of playing a police officer on the show.  Where he came from, the police weren’t the good guys.  For better or for worse, Mister Rogers overruled him.[3]  Francois Clemmons also once approached Fred Rogers with the idea of appearing on the show with a white woman as his wife.  Mister Rogers did not agree.  There were concessions to his viewing audience that still had to be made, or at least he felt that way.[4]

And yet he did take risks to use the platform he had to address these bigger issues of inclusivity and justice.

What I love most about the story of Officer Clemmons and the kiddie pool, I think, is that it takes a stand against the societal evil of racism, but it does so in such a Mister Rogers way.  It challenges that evil with gentleness, and kindness, and the simple, normal act of being a neighbor.

Some people may say I love with protest signs, or giving money to organizations that defend the vulnerable members of our society, or by knocking on doors and community organizing.  Those things might all be called for at times and none of them have to be to the exclusion of the others, but the beautiful thing is that when it comes to loving our neighbors in bigger, broader, more justice-focused ways, there are still many ways to say I love you; as many as the ways God made us.

We have been given many different gifts, but we all have one call: to love the Lord our God with all our heart, and soul, and mind, and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.

Everything else depends on that.

One of Mister Rogers’ biographers wrote that, for him, heaven is a neighborhood.[5]  It is a place where all God’s children know their own goodness and belovedness, and a place where neighbors love each other with everything they’ve been given.

May it be so, on earth, as it is in heaven.

 

 

[1] Shea Tuttle, Exactly As You Are: The Life and Faith of Mister Rogers, p. 15-17; Newsweek Special Edition: Mister Rogers, p. 11

[2] Exactly As You Are, p. 112

[3] Exactly As You Are, p. 111-112

[4] Exactly As You Are, p. 116

[5] Exactly As You Are, p. 109

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