Peaceful Neighbors Talia Raymond 9/17/2017
One of the reasons that I wanted to go to Rollins College was because Mr. Rogers went there, and, in my mind there could be no better recommendation. When I settled on music as a major, I wouldn’t be entirely truthful if I didn’t admit that it was partly because Mr. Rogers was one, too; and we got to perform in the Roger’s Room; and that he and wife, Joanne, would winter in Winter Park and come and hang out with us. He was every bit as kind and warm and loving as you would guess, the person you saw on tv was absolutely authentic. I thought that his greatest inspirations had already been imparted on me in childhood – eagerly awaiting for his show to air and rejoicing when he chose my favorite yellow sweater to wear that day. I thought his greatest gift to me was through his show, in some of my earliest development and exposure to nonviolence and peacemaking, to feminism and love of self and neighbor, and early conflict resolution and emotional honesty. I was wrong. His most lasting impression on me didn’t come until I was a college student, sitting in the choir pews at Rollins, listening to him preach. During the sermon, Rev. Rogers reached into his wallet and pulled out a very creased piece of paper. On it, were the words that are engraved in marble on a walkway at Rollins: “Life is for service.” As a Rollins student, he was so inspired by the phrase that he had written it down on a small piece of paper and carried it in his wallet throughout his life as a reminder. Mr. Rogers gave his life to that statement and so many of us are better for it. These became the words in which I try to form my sense of ministry and call. The world takes on a new shape when “Life is for Service” – it’s not for separation, suspicion, superiority, or suspension of belief – Life is for Service.
These past weeks have been a time of great anxiety and preparation, grief and relief for many of us. It is at times like these that we all, whether physically or emotionally take stock in just how beautiful our neighborhood is; and our beautiful neighborhood has been busy. First, we planned for a possible visit from white supremacists. As members of the Alachua County Faith Leader’s Association, an interfaith group of clergy here – we prepared. I won’t share all of the details with you of all that we had ready, as it may yet unfold in the coming months, but your faith community is prepared to act and serve through opportunities to meditate, to create, to walk, to train, to reclaim space, and to make a public statement so beautifully crafted by Andy that makes it clear that our neighborhood is beautiful because of our diversity and care for one another and that there is no space for hate and violence here. (It’s so good, just wait until you hear it). While most plans are those which are ready in waiting, I would like to share a unifying experience that has already come from this time. Members of the Faith Leader’s Association were graciously invited to attend the celebration of Eid al-Adha, Islam’s most revered observance with our Muslim brothers and sisters. Known as the Feast of Sacrifice, it is one of the two major religious festivals in Islam. On the day, I found myself entering with one of my Jewish neighbors and we were greeted by one of our Muslim neighbors. Saeed Kahn welcomed us warmly and, in the true incredible hospitality of our Muslim neighbors, a table was spread for us. A very kind and warm mother and son shared their prayer mats with Shelly and I so that we could be full participants in their sacred day. After the service, we were served a lovely breakfast. We could not take a sip or set our plates down without them being refilled with a kind word and warm smile. We were not tourists that day, we were neighbors.
While one concern was put on hold last week, another came steadily nearer. As we watched and waited and prepared for Hurricane Irma, I was struck by the stories and actions coming from our community, of supplies being shared, our lunch groups volunteering to help batten down the hatches here, and to my deep gratitude, a surprise Saturday morning delivery of sandbags to my home. Before Irma had even arrived, we had at least 20 volunteers and over 70 items committed by UCG members who had, without even knowing what their own needs would be after the storm, volunteered to meet the needs of others in the event our church was needed as a shelter. After the storm had passed, the care continued. On Tuesday, more than a dozen of us – children, adults, teens, those with power and those without, joined together to clean up our church campus. Homes were opened for showers and meals and charging stations. Thursday evening, a wonderful group got together to practice for the Flash Mob and I left with my spirits higher than they had been in a while. Internet and air conditioning seekers have been keeping the staff company. This week showed is in a new way that everything is going to be ok – Our neighborhood is beautiful. It is, it was, and it will be, for we will make it so.
You may remember a story that Mr. Rogers told on several occasions:
“There was something else my mother did that I’ve always remembered: ‘Always look for the helpers,’ she’d tell me. ‘There’s always someone who is trying to help.’ I did, and I came to see that the world is full of doctors and nurses, police and firemen, volunteers, neighbors and friends who are ready to jump in to help when things go wrong.
To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers — so many caring people in this world.”
When we are given the privilege of being a helper, we are being allowed to enter another person’s life, sometimes at a time of great vulnerability. This is a Holy happening. How many of us, after completing an act of kindness are filled with a sense of deep fulfillment and purpose, so much so that when we are thanked, we want to say – “No, thank you for the opportunity to help!” We are affirming that life is for service. Or, as Mr. Rogers once put it:
“For a long time, I’ve wondered why I felt like bowing when people showed their appreciation for the work that I’ve been privileged to do. It’s been a kind of natural response to a feeling of great gratitude. What I’ve come to understand is that we who bow are probably – whether we know it or not – acknowledging the presence of the sacred. We’re bowing to the sacred in our neighbor.” Service is a sacred event.
You may remember that when Jesus named the two most important commandments, (love God, love neighbor as self), he is calling us to order our lives according to love. The theologian, Marcus Borg calls them the “great relationships.” When an expert in the law tested Jesus on this idea by asking him who his neighbor was, Jesus answered with the story of the Good Samaritan. The social-political details of that story can wait for another sermon, but for today, it is important to remember that Jesus defines neighbor as “the one who showed mercy” – no other qualifications or documents were necessary. Jesus made it clear that life is not about determining who your neighbor is, but about showing mercy to others. Jesus changes the question “Who is my neighbor?” into a call: “Go and be a good neighbor.”
Amy Hollingsworth, a longtime friend of Mr. Rogers said this: If there is a central biblical theme to Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, this is it. The program wasn’t named after Mr. Rogers alone, but after his community of neighbors. “I’d like for you to know my television neighbor, Fred said to frequent guests as he looked into the camera at his audience. His definition of neighbor was simple: the person you happen to be with at the moment. This was even more the case if the person you happen to be with is in need, as is the victim in the parable of Jesus.
When Paul quotes Jesus in his letter to the church in Galatia, he names love as the most important evidence of the presence of the divine spirit. For Paul, love had social meaning as well. The social form of love for Paul was distributive justice and nonviolence, bread and peace and that love and peace was never passive. It is hard work, like everything important and meaningful in our world, we have to work at it to achieve it. Paul understands freedom not as the opportunity to pursue one’s own interests, but to choose to be at the service of others. We may not use the same language to describe it, but the meaning is the same: Life is for Service. We must be careful, however, that when we say service, we do not mean self-sacrifice, as this teaching has been used to oppress, (especially women), of all generations in nearly all cultures. What is interesting here is that Paul might actually be doing something quite radical. He is holding up traditionally feminine values as ideals for everyone, and perhaps especially of the Christian men who are his principal addresses.
Mr. Rogers did the same when he taught emotional regulation and expression, created with yarn and ironed clothing on air. He wore sweaters made by his mother. He was the opposite of macho, and instead was gentle and sensitive, soft and loving. We are not lifting up the life of service in the sense of enduring abuse and victimhood on behalf of another, but living genuinely for others out of one’s own inner freedom to do so. There is not just one type of person who serves another type of person; the call is for all. This is a privilege and it is up to us who have privilege to recognize it and use it in the service that recognizes the value and humanity of all of our diverse neighbors.
Paul, Jesus, Mr. Rogers, and that plaque in a walkway all remind us as those who understand that a fully developed life of faith must be an active one: Love and serve- across borders both real and those sprung up from minds of fear and ignorance. Love and serve – right into the hidden corners of the world and of the church. Love and serve- out loud and with all of your peaceful strength.
While I served as the Interim Dean of the Knowles Memorial Chapel on the Rollins Campus, I made use of the wonderful archives there, reading words of wisdom from past Deans. On February 26, 1961, Dean Theodore Darrah preached a sermon entitled: “Values and Education.” In it, he makes the case that our moral lives must be correlated with the nature of existence, our own essential being, and our God… “If God is love, then we shall love. If Jesus Christ is the revelation of God, then our lives must take on that quality of life which he so generously lived. Then, and only then, may we examine the dynamics of our lives, cut out the short circuits, and begin to live at the full capacities of the free and enlightened creatures in whom God put such trust when [God] dared to make us free.” We are free to love and have the privilege to serve our neighbors.
I chose the title of my sermon and wrote content that will be saved for another time when I thought that one threat to our neighborhood was coming and, while some of the content changed when another threat arrived instead, I decided to keep the title the same. Hope is knowing that there are good things to come, and love and service give them life and breath. It is up to us to mold the shape, and I think the shape we are molding is one of Peace.
At the end of a series of episodes on nonviolence, Mr. Rogers encourages the audience to help make the world “a better and better place for people to live so that people won’t have to be scared of other people.” It’s harder to be afraid of anything when we have such wonderful neighbors. As the show closes, he sings a simple song,
Peace and Quiet. Peace, Peace, Peace.
Peace and Quiet. Peace, Peace, Peace.
Peace and Quiet. Peace, Peace, Peace.
We all want peace;
We all want peace.
My prayer of hope today is one of witness to what this neighborhood can do together,, my prayer of love today is one of thanksgiving that you are my neighbors, and my prayer of peace today is that we all, in our own way come to know that “Life is for Service.” Amen.