I read this week that the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh where the synagogue shooting occurred is the same community in which Fred Rogers lived and worshiped. So it is, literally, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. I don’t know if he rubbed off on them while he was alive, but the stories I’ve heard about how people of all faiths came together to love and care for one another certainly make it clear that the real Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood was just as loving and kind as the one we saw on TV.
Did you know that Mr. Rogers was actually Pastor Rogers? He was an ordained minister in the Presbyterian church. If you think about it, everything he taught was consistent with Jesus. His decision to sing “Won’t you be my neighbor?” was not random. He knew Jesus had a lot to say about the importance of loving our neighbors. He spent a lot of time confronting the fears of children; I read that one of his most popular songs was a reassurance that you could not be sucked down the bathtub drain. He addressed all the “isms” in the world—racism, sexism, ableism—just by making space in his on-air neighborhood for all different kinds of people, and treating them as equals. He preached the Gospel to little children on a regular basis: love yourself and one another, don’t be afraid. Look for the helpers and when you can, be a helper yourselves. He just did it without mentioning Jesus.
Mr. Rogers was a modern-day saint.
Today we celebrate that very special day of the church year, All Saints Sunday, when remember all the saints, big or little “s,” those whose names we know and those whose names were never known. On All Saints Sunday in our Episcopal and Lutheran traditions, we draw together the spirit of both All Saints Day, November 1, and All Souls Day, November 2, without thinking much about the distinction. We remember those who have joined that “great cloud of witnesses,” particularly those who have died in the past year, much like the Mexican Dia de los Muertos. We console ourselves with the assurance that together with them we all make up the great Communion of Saints—past, present, future—and take comfort and consolation from the idea that when we gather for worship, and especially for the Eucharist, we are all part of one great, eternal congregation, singing praise to God, feasting at the same table.
Today’s readings are, to quote Sundays and Seasons¸the most tear-soaked of the three year lectionary cycle. They include the one story of Jesus weeping—perhaps to express his own deep sense of loss of a dear friend, perhaps out of compassion for the pain that death has caused in people he loves. Perhaps because for a moment he has heard the complaints or taunts of the crowds, and grieves the apparent futility of life. None of us get out of it alive, as my old Aunt Elsie used to say. Death is a reality we all have to face.
Today’s readings offer up a vision of the establishment of the Kingdom of God in some holy future which we all hope to attain. A vision, a future—a kingdom—that too often feels disconnected from the world in which we live right now. We place our hopes that the next world will be better, because this one can seem so bleak and hopeless, so filled with violence and hatred. This world where violence and division and hatred are so prevalent that sometimes we feel like we are screaming into the whirlwind when we declare our faith in the power of God’s love to break in and restore all things to wholeness.
I would bet that if I really pressed the question, a lot of you would admit that every time I preach on the Kingdom of God, it doesn’t seem any more real than Mr. Roger’s Kingdom of Make Believe, trolley and talking animals and all. It’s a nice idea to teach some important lessons about kindness, but…just as much a puppet show as what we used to see on PBS.
So what if I found a new image, a new term to describe the promise of God’s presence breaking in and changing things right here, right now?
What if, instead of the Kingdom of God, I started talking about the Neighborhood of God?
God’s Neighborhood, much like Mr. Rogers’, includes all different sorts of people. People who look like us, and people who don’t. People who wear the same kind of clothes and eat the same kinds of foods as we do, and people who don’t. People who talk, think, pray, believe, vote as we do. And people who don’t.
All of them are our neighbors. Neighbors to be loved, despite our differences. Neighbors to be loved, because of our differences. God’s Neighborhood is where we celebrate that we are not all cookie-cutter Christians who all think and pray and believe and vote the same way. We celebrate that God made each of us unique and share our authentic selves with one another. To quote Mr. Rogers, “One of the greatest gifts you can give anybody is the gift of your honest self.” Be the person God created you to be, warts and all. There is nothing more transformative as the moment when you are being utterly, completely unlovable, and someone loves you anyway. It doesn’t mean you ignore hurtful, harmful behavior; but you address it in a way that calls a person back to their truest self. You point them back to the goodness of the image of God in which we are all created, and offer them the chance to try again. That’s the way God loves us. That’s Neighborhood Value #1.
Yes, living that kind of authentic, real community with others leaves us open to pain and heartbreak. Not just when someone doesn’t respond to our offering of ourselves with gratitude and acceptance, as painful as that is. Not just when someone rejects our offering of ourselves in the most violent ways imaginable. As I said a few years back on Good Friday, grief is the price of love. When we love truly, and the person we love is gone, the natural response is grief. Tears are part of the bargain.
But that doesn’t mean we don’t love. It doesn’t mean we tuck ourselves away in emotional fortresses, untouched by those around us. We were created for community, to be in relationship with others. I have said it before, and heard Bishop Lane echo it last week, Christianity is not a solo venture. We can’t do this faith stuff on our own.
We need a neighborhood.
Today, All Saints Sunday, we visit that quiet cemetery in the corner of God’s Neighborhood, reading the names on the tombstones we find there, remembering the people who have gone before us. Shedding a tear or two as we remember their laugh, their voice, the way it felt to hug them. We need this day to acknowledge that hard truth—none of us gets out of here alive.
But I am convinced we do ourselves a disservice if we don’t also visit the Neighborhood’s maternity ward, and read the names of those tiny new souls who are just entering the neighborhood, who will continue the work after we’ve gone. And of course, as we walk from one point to another, it’s a good thing to read the names on the mailboxes of the people who live and work and strive alongside us.
We are all saints-in-progress, working together to build up the Neighborhood of God, to extend the boundaries so that more and more people are included. Together we celebrate the good things. Together we mourn the losses. Together we hope for the future. Together we work for the present.
Who are the people in your neighborhood? Won’t you be my neighbor?