Neighbours: Learning Time for Sunday, July 24, 2022


The word “neighbour” often makes me think of Mr. Rogers, and his song about a beautiful day in the neighbourhood. Fred Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister, who encouraged whole generations to be neighbourly. That was his ministry.

In 1969, there was tremendous uproar in many American communities after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled swimming pools could no longer be segregated by race. Fred Rogers invited an African American actor named Francois Clemmons to come on his show, in the role of a uniformed police officer. Mr. Clemmons was reluctant, because where he grew up, police were seen as the most dangerous people in the neighbourhood.

Fred Rogers convinced him to do a scene set on a hot summer day. Mr. Rogers had his feet in a wading pool and invited Officer Clemmons to join him. The police officer became a recurring character.

Years later, Francois Clemmons reflected on his first appearance on the show.

Speaking of that moment when Mr. Rogers offered him a seat, a place for his feet in the wading pool,  and a towel, Clemmons said, “My God, those were powerful words. It was transformative to sit there with him, thinking to myself, ‘Oh, something wonderful is happening here. This is not what it looks like. It’s much bigger.'”

He continued: “Many people, as I’ve traveled around the country, share with me what that particular moment meant to them because he was telling them, ‘You cannot be a racist.’ And one guy … I’ll never forget, said to me, ‘When that program came on, we were actually discussing the fact that black people were inferior. And Mister Rogers cut right through it.’ … He said essentially that scene ended that argument.”

Mr. Rogers invited his friend to join him in the pleasurable act of soaking hot and tired feet in a wading pool, and in a very low key, everyday sort of way, put a story out into the world that still gets told today. A story that will need to be told, and re-created, over and over again, until it doesn’t.

The image of the two men with their feet in the pool, and one handing the other a towel reminded me of the time Jesus washed the feet of his friends.

This morning we re-created the story of the Good Samaritan.

Very often, when we hear the words “Good Samaritan”, it is in connection with someone coming to the rescue or doing a good deed. In many jurisdictions there are Good Samaritan laws, that provide legal protection to those who try to help someone- so they can’t be held responsible if they cause harm. The laws are meant to encourage people to be helpful, especially when someone’s well-being or life are at risk.

The name of these laws comes from the story Jesus told. It’s a good story, and it was a really good thing that the Samaritan in the story helped the person who’d been beaten and robbed. But the point of the story is not that we should help others. That’s an excellent moral, and a good teaching, but it’s only tangentially related to the reason Jesus told the story.

Jesus had been challenged, twice, by a teacher of the Jewish religious law. The First Nations Version we heard this morning calls him a scroll keeper, which I love.

“Wisdomkeeper,” he said. “What path must I walk to have the life of the world to come that never fades away, full of beauty and harmony?”

He answered him, “What is written in our tribal law about this? Tell me, how do you see it?”

The scroll keeper spoke from the words of the law, “You must love the Great Spirit from deep within, with the strength of your arms, the thoughts of your mind, and the courage of your heart, and you must love your fellow human beings in the same way you love yourselves.”

“You have answered well,” Creator Sets Free (Jesus) said back to him. “If you walk this path you will live.”

But the scroll keeper, wanting to look good to others, asked him, “Who are my fellow human beings?”

Creator Sets Free (Jesus) answered him with a story.

The first challenge to Jesus by the Scroll-keeper was, “do you know the letter of the law?”

Jesus answered the legal question, by inviting the scroll keeper to quote the law.

The second challenge, “who is my neighbour?”, was about the spirit, or deeper meaning of the law.

It called for a story, a parable. We who’ve listened to, and wrestled with Jesus’ parables know they are sneaky, dangerous, subversive stories, that don’t settle for illustrating a simple moral like be good or help others. The parables make us wonder, make us question, and if we allow them, they upend our worldview.

There are only a few characters in the story.

There is the victim of violence. That’s the person we identify with first, because we meet them first, and our hearts go out to the under-dog.

Then we meet the perpetrators of violence, the anonymous robbers, who prey on vulnerable travellers, and leave them for dead. They represent the overt, or obvious cruelty and evil in the world.

There are two religious figures, who represent the upright, and proper, and virtuous temple folks, who follow the letter of the law. If you draw a circle, they are the insiders, right near the centre, shining under the light of respectability.

The two so-called holy men are symbols of a more subtle, more insidious kind of evil at work in the world. We see it in our own lives, in our own time, when it is possible to be popular, polite, acceptable in society, and still be indifferent to the suffering of others.

The two who walk by without stopping represent the voice of “What can I do, it’s a hard world. There are winners and losers, and I can’t possibly get involved.”

The last character in the story is the Samaritan. The people of Samaria exist far outside the circle of approval and favour. The Samaritans are culturally related to the insiders, but lost their respectability because of issues of race, and language, and ethnicity. The Samaritans were descendants of Jewish ancestors who inter-married with folks from other tribes, other religions.

We call this the story of the Good Samaritan, which is its own kind of irony, because it’s unlikely that anyone in Jesus’ original audience would see anything good about a Samaritan.

I wondered about a contemporary parallel and realized it depends on how you were raised to see the world, and whether or not my biases about people line up with yours. The Jews in Jesus time were taught to hate the Samaritans.

In the time when Mr. Rogers got his feet wet with Officer Clemmons, for a lot of people, a “good Negro” would have fit the bill. That’s the polite version of the word that might have been used. More recently it might be a good Russian if we re-created this story in Ukraine.

Who were you taught to hate, or at least to fear, or be suspicious of? Take a moment and be honest with yourself. I’m not asking you say it out loud. Just think about it. Most all of us have been taught biases against someone, some group, someone other than those in our small circle.

When I was growing up, the categories of people we were taught to fear, or at least not trust, included First Nations people, although we called them Indians, and homosexuals, and we would have used different words for them as well.

Whichever group of people you were taught were furthest outside the circle of respectable neighbours, they are the people that Jesus wants to surprise us with and shine his light of love on. His story tells us the people we despise the most, are right there in the circle with us.

In fact, what Jesus is saying, is forget about the circle.  There is no them and us, no bad and good. We are all capable of amazing goodness, and of every kind of evil. Seen the way Jesus is teasing us to see, with this story, from God’s perspective, there are no in or out, there are only people.

That’s the story Jesus told, and that’s the story we are called to keep telling, to keep re-creating, by our words, by our actions, with our lives, and with all the loving we do in God’s name. Amen