Won't you be my neighbor?

I didn’t meet Mr. Rogers until I was well into my thirties – the Mister Rogers that is, the one with the cardigan and the warm smile and the song, “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood…”

My colleague, Rochelle Stackhouse grew up with Mr. Rogers and his kind invitation to all children,

Since we’re together we might as well say:
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?
Won’t you be my neighbor?

Rochelle remembers the first time she met Mr. Rogers in person ( see Lectionary Homiletics 20, No. 5, August/September 2009, p. 61). She was standing with a group of adults and several small children waiting for an elevator at Princeton Seminary. The doors opened, and to their great surprise, out stepped Fred Rogers. In case you’re wondering, “What on earth was he doing there?” – Mr. Rogers was a Presbyterian minister, and thus not completely out of place at Princeton. Anyway, he got off the elevator, and as the adults all spoke to him, he didn’t pay them any attention and instead stooped down to greet the children standing there first. Only after he had spoken to each one of them did he stand back up and speak to the taller people.

That was Mister Rogers. A tall man, he stooped to live, at least for a moment, in the world of the little ones. And with that small effort of attention he brought them in.

Do you remember having to climb up on the kitchen stool on which you simply sat down only a few years later? Do you remember being in a room with adults and they were all standing and chatting way up there while you were trying to find your way across the room through a forest of legs?

I remember sitting at the small table with the rest of the kids at every family gathering, and we would eat and talk and laugh and fight – and I remember how proud I was when I got to sit at the grown-up table for the first time. They had put one of the firm pillows on my chair to bring me up a couple of inches, so I could reach my glass and get a better view of my dinner plate. So there I sat, and I ate and I drank and I watched and I listened. At that table, I didn’t laugh much; the adults weren’t even half as hilarious as my cousins. I also didn’t say much, because my mom had been very clear that I was only to speak when spoken to, and who talks to a little boy when there’s a table full of grown-ups? I noticed that knocking over my glass of apple juice got everybody’s attention, but I also learned that the adults didn’t think peas in a puddle were nearly as funny as I thought.

We all have memories like that, memories of a world just beyond our reach, a world we can’t wait to belong to. Getting to the grown-up table is easy, all you have to do is get older. Getting to hang out with the cool people at high-school is a lot tougher, and getting a piece of the American Dream Pie even more so: you either have to figure out who’s doing the slicing and get yourself a seat at that table, or get a hold of the pie and a knife, or learn to bake.

From a very young age, we are encouraged to be ambitious and competitive, to set goals for ourselves and pursue them, to work hard and meet the right people.

The disciples had met Jesus. They had met the one who would set all things right. He had talked about going to Jerusalem, and they were ready for the challenge. They were still in Galilee, still preparing for the great journey south to the city of David. Jesus was still teaching them, talking again about being betrayed into human hands and being killed and after three days rising again.

They did not understand what he was saying, and they were afraid to ask him. Why do you think were they afraid to ask? Was it because they didn’t want to appear too slow for the race to the top? Was it because they had to make the others believe that they had it all together?

Instead of asking questions, they were jockeying for positions of influence and status. You know that at least two of them spoke with great conviction about sitting at Jesus’ right and left when he would come in glory. And one of them had to mention several times that he had been with Jesus the longest, and another that Jesus had already entrusted him with the office of treasurer. And while one touted his revolutionary zeal, another bragged about his connections in the business community.

When they got to the house, Jesus, never afraid to ask questions, said, “What were you arguing about on the way?” And suddenly they were silent, the whole chatty, ambitious bunch; no one said a word. Do you think they were embarrassed? I don’t know; had he asked them in private, individually, he may have heard statements like, “That Theophilus thinks he is the greatest” or “Bartholomew is dreaming about a seat on the supreme court.”

Three times in the gospel of Mark, Jesus talks about being rejected and betrayed, being handed over and condemned to death, being killed and rising again after three days. Three times, not just because this is disturbing news that doesn’t sink in easily, but because the meaning of discipleship is so tied up with that particular path. To follow this Messiah on his path is to let him turn our world, the world we and the generations before us have made of God’s creation, to let him turn that world upside down.

He sits down, calls the twelve, and says, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” In the kingdoms of the world, those at the top of the ladder lord it over those at the bottom. But in the kingdom of God, earth and heaven touch not at the top, in the clouds of power where one hand washes the other, but at the bottom where Jesus stoops to wash our feet. On this path, greatness is defined not in terms of superiority but service.

It is easy to imagine at this point a new round of arguments among the disciples, only now we try to outperform one another in lowliness, now we strive to stand out, head and shoulders above the rest, with our perfect humility. “Look at me, Jesus, I’m the humblest.” But that’s not the path.

We all start out little. We all start out needing to be noticed, needing to be held, needing to be talked to and fed. We all start out needing to be welcomed despite our lack of status, knowledge, accomplishments and any measure of greatness. We we need somebody to see us simply because we are here, and we become human only through the eyes and hands and words of others.
I wonder how much our desire for greatness has to do with that deep need to be seen, to be noticed and recognized, and finally, finally welcomed.

Jesus took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

We are arguing about who is the greatest and worthy of recognition, and Jesus puts a child among us. We didn’t notice the child, did we? We were engaged in important conversations, making sure our voice would get through, our opinion would be heard, and our contribution recognized in its importance.

Jesus stoops and picks up a little child; not necessarily a precious, cuddly little sunshine, one of those fat-cheeked cherubs politicians like to pick up anytime cameras are around. Just a child, any child, and he says to us who want to follow him, “If you want to be great, notice the little ones and bring them in.” To be great is not to make yourself as big as possible just to be seen, but to shift your attention and notice the little ones. Welcome the one who has little or no status, who is not great by any measure, the one who is beyond the circle, who needs a welcome.

“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

Welcome is woven through this teaching unlike any other verse of scripture. Welcome, welcome, welcome, welcome, as steady as the holy, holy, holy sung in heaven. Welcoming the little ones, those who are so easily overlooked at the tables where the grown-up conversations take place, we welcome Christ himself, and welcoming him, we welcome the One who sent him.

Much of our theological tradition has taught us to wonder, “What must I do, who do I have to be in order to be worthy to be received and welcomed by the holy God?” In Jesus’ teaching the perspective is turned around, and our attention is turned away from ourselves and our anxious obsession with our status. The challenge for a disciple of Jesus is not to be seen, but to see.

The little ones, those made invisible by our arrangements of power and importance, our patterns of inclusion and exclusion, are truly the embodiment of the invisible God who comes to us. Welcoming one such child, says Jesus, we welcome the Holy One whose powerful word created the heavens and the earth.

Since we’re together we might as well say:
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?
Won’t you be my neighbor?

Those are lines worth remembering and repeating.

Audio of this post