“A Wrinkle In Time: Who is My Neighbor?”
by Grant Glowiak
The Union Church of Hinsdale, U.C.C.
Sunday, March 4, 2018 @ 10:00 a.m. Service
Mister Rogers Neighborhood began airing in 1968 and the last new season aired in August of 2001. A total of 895 episodes. That’s an incredible run for a television show. I love that he puts the sweater and casual shoes on at the beginning of every episode. Apparently the tennis shoes were quieter when he walked around on set so that was a practical decision. But all those sweaters? His mother made those for him by hand. Wow. Talk about an expression of love.
Now this sweater was not knitted for me by my mother. It’s not that my mother doesn’t love me, she just chose to express her love for me differently. I would venture to guess some of you might be familiar with love expressed in the form of college tuition. Thanks mom.
Now, I’m not sure how many of you know this but Fred Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister. He got into television because he was so upset by what he saw as children’s programming and thought the medium of television could better be used to nurture and educate.
Some of you may have seen the clip of him testifying before the senate subcommittee on communications in 1969. It’s been floating around LinkedIn recently. He essentially saves public television in 7 minutes, it’s incredible. If you haven’t seen it I’d certainly recommend it.
Now, for those who don’t remember, he ended every episode by saying something to effect of “You always make each day such a special day. You know how? By just your being you. Only one person in the whole world like you. That’s you yourself. And I like you just the way you are” What a great message for children, or adults for that matter.
And it turns out he wasn’t playing a character, he thought it was important to be his genuine self on the show. He was really that great of a guy the other 23 hours of his day. He didn’t smoke or drink or have any vices anyone knows about. He was married to the same woman for over 50 years until his death.
In the 80s Burger King aired a commercial with a look alike, essentially implying that Mr Rogers preferred Burger King over McDonalds. First, Fred never did commercials because he thought it was dishonest for people who do children’s programming to use their platform to sell products. He also was a vegetarian so that didn’t really make sense either. His reasoning was he didn’t want to eat anything with a mother…Which makes me feel really guilty about what I had for dinner yesterday…Anyway, he didn’t lawyer up, he didn’t sue. He made a phone call to Don Dempsey, the senior vice president of marketing at Burger King. During that phone call Dempsey told Rogers he had a two month old daughter who would be watching his show someday. Fred was quoted after the fact saying “’You know fine things can happen when people of good will get together. Don Dempsey and I had a very fine conversation…He said I really had taught him something … that children might be deceived by such a thing. It was for those reasons that he said his people would pull it. Mr. Dempsey said his company would never want to offend Mr. Rogers” A spokesman for the show said that their mission is ‘helping children of families grow in healthy ways,’ and that ‘Mr. Rogers really feels strongly about that.
Again, Wow. Talk about living your faith. This is a great example of loving your neighbor. Now Fred didn’t compromise on his morals, he had a strong backbone. But he also didn’t become aggressive, not on the show and not in his personal life.
So, the question I want to address this morning is what in the heck happened? What happened to civil discourse? I recently saw a tweet from John McCain on passing a bill to expand the amber alert system to include native American reservations. There are currently over 8,000 native American children reported missing in the United States. This is a helpful step towards addressing a major problem in this country. This is a slam dunk, everyone should get on board with this. And then I started looking at the comments. Huge mistake. There are some people saying that it makes no difference until we build the wall and tighten our borders. Then there are other people who are complaining about McCain’s stance on guns, not at all related to the content of the tweet. As with all politicians I agree with some of his stances and disagree with others and I also understand he’s a public servant and part of his job is dealing with this sort of thing but the man is 81 and he has brain cancer. Is a little bit of decorum too much to ask?
There is no way for him, or anyone really, to win. I think there is a deep desire in this country to discuss political issues. But the voices of moderates are drowned out for either being not left enough or not right enough. We are more connected than ever with social media and yet I feel as though there aren’t many actual conversations happening. It is two groups of folks exchanging monologues.
Conversations with folks who think differently than you are hard. So we tend to avoid them. We are friends with those who are politically similar, we get our news from the sources that reaffirm our own narratives. I can’t be the only one who really has no idea what is true anymore. I’m sick of articles that obviously try to paint one side or the other in a bad light. So why has this become the case? Because it is incredibly difficult to form complex opinions about issues in our current culture. Take guns for example. The extreme right wants you to believe that the government wants to take all your guns away, which is simply not true. And the extreme left wants you to believe that every owner of an AR-15 is a terrible person, which is also simply not true. However, it’s hard to be out on an island somewhere between the two sides of any issue.
A Wrinkle in Time might give us some perspective on this. The passage read earlier is when IT (it’s funny because Mike calls this “it” however when I read the book I saw it as “IT” thanks probably to being a millennial). Either way, IT is attempting to control the minds of our heroes. The darkness, the evil in the book, controls the planet they find themselves on. And it does so because all the people have surrendered their free will, even their ability of free thought, over to the brain because, well as the brain says, it is easier when we don’t have the burdens of thought and decision. This is why Meg’s father is imprisoned there, because he refused to give up that right.
Because Madeleine L’Engle was writing in 1962, during the Cold War, we might be tempted to think she was referring only to a 1984 “Big Brother” type authoritarian state threatening to relieve us of the burden of thought and decision. But she was a better analyst of human temptation than that. The truth is, as is clear in the character of Charles Wallace, there are ways we want to give up the burden of thought and decision. It promises to make life so easy. We may not be tempted to give up the burdens of thought and decision to an authoritarian state so much these days, but maybe we are tempted to let left or right ideologies think for us, or a charismatic individual, or to a far too significant other, never daring to venture off the comfortable island of agreement where at least we know we belong. Thought and decision really is a burden. But it is a burden we must bear to have a full life, to be a full person.
I think we as a country have fallen into this temptation. The two sides prefer us to demonize the other because it is easier to do that than doing what Mr. Rogers did. Although I’m sure he was very upset, he had a one-to-one conversation and both parties seemed very pleased with the outcome at the end. No one got aggressive, no one was called ignorant or oversensitive. We, as a country, have forgotten how to treat our neighbors. And we’ve forgotten who our neighbors are.
Jesus is asked this very question. And he responds with the parable of the good Samaritan. Now some of you may know this but the Jews and Samaritans did not get along at this time in history. Jesus’ parables are not meant to be easily understood, they are meant to agitate. To turn our understanding of the world upside down. Now we say any stranger who helps another person is a Good Samaritan but that’s not really what this story is about. The most compelling retelling of this parable for modern listeners that I’ve heard is that it is an American on the side of the road in the middle east. And first a bus full of Christians on a pilgrimage passes by and they see him but it’s dangerous to stop on this part of the road so they continue on, assuming it’s not really their problem. Next a convoy of US government officials passes by, but they aren’t sure if it’s an American or not or if it’s a trap so they pass on by, maybe assuming he’s dead already. Then a single member of an extremist mosque is coming down the road, and sees this man. And he is moved with pity. And he tends to his wounds, puts him on a pack animal and brings him to a hospital. And not only that he pays his medical bills. Then Jesus asks us, which of these three is the neighbor?
When I was reflecting on this modern retelling I almost felt that instead of a member of an extremist mosque I could just as easily have put an avid Trump supporter, or an avid Hillary supporter and still be able to elicit the reaction that Jesus is looking for. And these are our own people, our fellow citizens, our neighbors.
Mr Rogers was a minister. When he was talking about being neighbors in his show this wasn’t a term he plucked out of thin air. And how we are meant to treat one another, how we are meant to treat our neighbors, for him I have to believe was deeply grounded in his understanding of scripture. His message is never one of homogeneity. He never says that all children have to think or act the same. He knows the dangers of surrendering our thought process over to another. His message is the exact opposite, it is that you are wonderful precisely because you are unique. He never says it on the show but it sounds very much to me like a secular way of saying that all humans are created in the image of God, and simply because of that fact are worthy of love.
This is what grace is. Grace is the love and mercy shown to us by God. We haven’t done anything to deserve it, yet it is available to all. Grace is available to me, to you, to folks across the wide spectrum of political stances, which we often forget. Everyone is given this incredible gift, and yet we rarely share it with one another. Instead of celebrating working through our differences to pass legislation we argue about how it wasn’t left or right enough.
Grace, however, isn’t cheap. It isn’t free. When we forgive ourselves without really repenting and turning back to God, that’s cheap grace. When we baptize and then don’t fulfill the promise of participating in discipleship that’s cheap grace. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the theologian who came up with the term cheap grace, also came up with the term costly grace. He says “Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ.”
That’s the tricky part about grace. The bottom line of grace is not that we should just all get along, that God loves us no matter what so we are free to do as we please. Nor is that Jesus’ or Mr Roger’s message. We are loved by God, which makes it incumbent upon on us to love our neighbor. Now, as Christians, we are not against tension or even confrontation. The story of the Good Samaritan is meant to anger the listeners. If a politician told a story today with a member of an extremist mosque as the hero they’d be run out of town on a rail, and yet this is exactly what Jesus does. What we are against is the demonization of others who don’t agree with us – they remain our neighbors, whom we are called to love. But we are also unequivocally called to follow the teachings of Jesus.
My brothers and sisters, hold onto those passions. Hold onto those issues you find yourself deeply invested in thanks to your desire to bring about the kingdom of heaven here on earth. But don’t forget that we are all God’s people, and your neighbor both here and in heaven might think a little differently than you.
It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood, and a beautiful day for a neighbor. So whatever your political leanings are, I am asking you and inviting you to ask those who you might not think to: Would be mine, could you be mine, won’t you be my neighbor?
And why do I want you as my neighbor? Because you always make each day such a special day. You know how? By just your being you. Only one person in the whole world like you. That’s you yourself. And I like you just the way you are.
May the God of peace and love
Comfort you when you hurt
Sustain you while you rest
And send you forth into the world
Doing works of justice and mercy
Knowing you are a beloved child of God
Just the way you are. Amen.
Go in peace, greeting your neighbor as you go.