Before I was old enough to attend kindergarten, I remember listening and watching the Mr. Rogers show on television. I was not allowed to watch Saturday cartoons or much else, but I did get to see Mr. Rogers regularly. Is the theme song still in your head as it is in mine?
You can listen to it here:
These are some of the words,
“I have always wanted to have a neighbor just like you, I’ve always wanted to live in the neighborhood with you! So, 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? Won’t you please, won’t you please, please won’t you be my neighbor?”
Thinking about being a neighbor feels different to me these days as I am older, but the feelings are the same as when I was much younger.
My house growing up was several hours away from where my grandparents on both sides and extended family lived. But we did know our neighbors! There was a fireman and his wife living down the block whose driveway was where I had to turn around and go back home when I was riding my bike. There was an elderly man across the street who my mom took food to when we had dinner leftovers to share. There was an elderly woman next door who had an unfriendly cat and kept her curtains mostly closed. A house across the corner had a boy and girl close to my age. And there was my favorite neighbor, Marilyn, who lived in the other house just next to ours. As I remember it, Marilyn seemed to be home during the day while her husband worked. She also sat outside and talked to me over the backyard fence between our houses. She had a small dog (we only had a cat at my house) and let me play with her. Marilyn also invited me inside her home to visit. I remember feeling grown up and important as we sat together at the small round table in her kitchen, sipping at some Mr. Pibb soda in small brown plastic glasses. Marilyn was like an adopted grandma to me, for the years she lived next door. I seem to remember that she even came to my elementary school on “Grandparents Day”, so I wasn’t there alone. I am sure there is more I cannot remember now, but the feeling of being safe, loved, respected, and encouraged to share, are feelings that meant very much when I was small, and she welcomed me.
Since then, I have lived many places with apartments and houses of my own. I have had wonderful neighbors with whom I shared meals and felt connected, and I have had neighbors who I did not know well at all and who seemed different to me. Imagine my surprise when I was a new pastor in Minnesota with my first real house. With that house, I found myself feeling defensive toward my neighbors for the first time! You see, we had no fence between the homes and the ground was fairly level, and it was evidently not clear where the property line was. I moved into my house first and thought I knew where the line was, mowing accordingly. Then the neighbors moved in, and evidently, they thought the line should give them more space. So anytime one or the other of us mowed the lawn the property line “moved” back and forth about two feet! I do not remember talking with them about this, but I do remember how I did not like the uncomfortable feeling I felt in my stomach as I watched that freshly mowed edge proclaim a shifting boundary in what was “mine” and what was “theirs”!
Jesus once was invited to a Sabbath meal and speaking to the neighbor who invited him, Jesus said,
“When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” Luke 14:12-14
I wonder what Jesus would have said to me about the mowed grass if I had asked him! Today I can hear him telling me, “Don’t worry about the line, be generous and gracious to your neighbors and be grateful for what you have.” As Jesus spoke of how to share a meal with others, the invitation is to not worry about how we may be repaid. He invites us to give of ourselves freely to all, not just to those who we love or connect most easily with. This feels like a needed message to me. Particularly in these strange days of the pandemic, where we may be fearful of our neighbors more often than generous toward them, or where we may feel defensive and angry rather than curious when our beliefs and values seem to differ, Jesus’s radical welcome and generosity stands out.
Perhaps it is only with Him that we can extend ourselves to our neighbors offering safety, love, and respect, encouraging others to share, and welcoming them into our homes and our lives. Maybe a start is to remember the neighbors who have cared for us, like Marilyn did for me, and noticing the warmth in our hearts as we extend ourselves now in similar ways. Mr. Rogers said it simply, “Won’t you please, won’t you please, please won’t you be my neighbor?”
Let us pray...
As we continue to look to you in these weeks of Lent, remind us that you have blessed us with neighbors. Encourage us to extend the warmth of our hearts to those with whom we are close and also to those with whom we could grow closer, asking for your help as we go.