“This is Not an Episode of Mister Rogers”
A Sermon on Luke 10:25-37 for the 15th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
Preached July 14, 2013, at the Storrs Congregational Church, UCC, Storrs Mansfield, Connecticut, by the Rev. Matthew Emery
It was just a few weeks into my second semester of seminary when the Reverend Fred McFeely Rogers—known to most of us simply as “Mister Rogers”—died. A 1963 graduate of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, and ordained a Presbyterian minister that same year, Mister Rogers never served as a congregation’s pastor… and yet nevertheless, Mister Rogers’ faithful witness of grace and nurture and love—a Christ-bearing ministry of proclamation in its own right—sounded forth in the homes and hearts of millions of Americans through the nearly 900 episodes of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood that were made in the children’s television show’s more-than-30 year run. That gentle, singing friend, in his cardigan sweaters and canvas sneakers, touched the lives of so many of us.
The Sunday following Mister Rogers’ death, I found myself in one of my usual seats at the UCC church I attended in Chicago—St. Pauls United Church of Christ—a pretty sizeable and vital congregation (and a younger-than-average one for us here in the UCC) that worships in a big cathedral-like building with radiant stained glass windows and a big intricate carved-wood high altar that stands at the front between the divided choir stalls. As I took my seat shortly before worship was to begin, the choir was gathering itself together in those choir stalls at the front, which was actually somewhat unusual. Worship at St. Pauls UCC usually began with a choral introit (a short sung piece from the choir) right after the prelude music and some announcements but before the call to worship. The choir, though, usually sang that introit from the rear balcony, where there was an antiphonal section of the pipe organ to accompany them, and then they’d be a part of the big entrance procession during the opening hymn. But here they were in the front… I’m not sure I gave it much thought really, but then the pastor finished with the welcome and announcements, it was neither the organ nor the first notes of the introit that was listed in the bulletin that started up. Rather, a gentle little slightly jazzy riff from the piano landed into the choir’s proclamation that “ <singing> It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood, a beautiful day for a neighbor. Would you be mine? Would you be mine?”
Such an introit seemed, on one hand, a little out of place under those high stone arches… a little odd coming from the choir stalls that usually resounded with the majestic sounds of Vaughn Williams or Theodore Dubois or Randal Thompson, all accompanied by the mighty Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ of nearly 100-ranks whose dedicatory recital was played by none other than the great Virgil Fox. And yet somehow it was so right, too. After all, there were few in the room that morning whose lives had not intersected with Mister Rogers and his work in some way, whether as the children to whom he spoke with honestly and directly, or as the parents who felt able to trust their own young ones to his care for a half-hour each day… and in that congregation, there were probably a good number who did both—the children of the ‘70s and ‘80s who Mister Rogers liked for just them being them, who now hoped their own children in the ‘90s and 2000’s might inhabit a world shaped by Mister Rogers’ virtues and values. It was right to remember him that morning, even if only for that brief moment, for his witness was so touching and his message so universal.
The parable we have just heard Jesus tell in our reading from the Gospel of Luke this morning, it too has come to be seen as one of those universal cultural and moral touch points for us in human society. The parable of the “Good Samaritan” we call it—even though nowhere in the story itself is the word “good” ever used to describe the Samaritan—and that term, the “Good Samaritan,” has become something we hear pretty commonly.
As we today hear this story Jesus tells, the Samaritan we figure is the hero of the story. A man—we know nothing about him, simply a somebody, or perhaps a nobody—is beaten up and left to die on road from Jerusalem down to Jericho. That fact, in and of itself, wouldn’t actually have surprised many people in Jesus’ time… that road was, after all, both very treacherous—descending nearly 3,000 feet in a pretty short 15-to-20 miles (that’s probably some 4 or 5 times the steepness between here and the Frog Bridge in downtown Willimantic)—and it was very crime-ridden, too. With all the twists and turns and hiding places along the route, it was a favorite place for robbers to strike an easy hit.
So, as we have heard, as our victim lay beside the road, first a priest and then, in turn a Levite happen upon him, and pass by on the other side. They do, in fact, see the man, Jesus tells us, but they pass on by, offering no help. We may find this a bit shocking, or at least I think we’ve been conditioned to find it shocking, but should it be? I mean, after all, how many disabled cars have you passed by on the roadways in the past year, thinking that surely they had a cell phone, or certainly someone else would stop by soon enough. I know I’ve done exactly that, probably a dozen or more times this year.
But regardless of what we today have been conditioned to expect, the fact that the priest and the Levite did not help the injured man was actually not very surprising to most audiences in Jesus’ day. In much the same way that trust of religious professionals has been colored in our own time by everything from clergy sex abuse scandals and unscrupulous televangelists, to simply lackluster parish leadership and personal idiosyncrasies that suggest perhaps some people choose to go to seminary rather than therapy… by Jesus’ time, the average layperson—especially among those who were not rich or powerful—didn’t trust either priests and Levites a whole lot either. To such an audience, the revelation that the neither the priest nor the Levite stopped to help would have probably been met with a resounding “Ha! Of course they didn’t! So what else is new…!”
‘The third time’s a charm’ as the old saying goes, and so we and the original hearers of this story alike know to expect something different to happen next. And of course, it does. As we have heard—and as perhaps many of us who’ve at least heard some reference to this story before already knew—the Samaritan comes along and rescues the roadside victim.
That term, the so-called “Good” Samaritan, as I’ve said, has become something we hear pretty commonly. It has essentially become synonymous with stopping to help someone in need. People speak of being “good Samaritans” when they lend a hand to someone they don’t know, and in many states and jurisdictions, we even have “Good Samaritan” laws to protect people from undue liability when they’re just trying to be helpful. The “Good Samaritan” has become such an image for a helpful, healing presence that around the United States, you’ll even find hospitals named for the “good Samaritan” in 13 different major metro areas around the country, including two different ones in the suburbs of New York City.
For us today, the idea of the Good Samaritan has become much like what we came to love and trust in the values and virtues that Mister Rogers worked to instill in children and adults alike. In a world that we worry is becoming too callous and uncaring, some people tell Jesus’ story about the Samaritan and hope that a few more people will decide they should be nice to other people—even strangers—because of it… because that must have been what Jesus was getting at, right? Be nice, be helpful, be “good”… right?
Well… except the reality is that Jesus never calls the Samaritan good. And even if he did, the people probably wouldn’t have ever heard it, anyway. Following the priest and the Levite, the very first word of the next sentence in Jesus story was simply Samaritan. And once the people heard Samaritan, their whole world of expectation was thrown on its head. Samaritans… the dirty, the despicable, the distasteful and disliked. It was a long family feud between the Jews and the Samaritans, kindred in faith and ethnicity that had long ago been separated by different forced exiles at the hands of foreign empires. The Samaritans had inbred with the local pagans, the Jews thought. The Jews had been tainted by their time in Babylon, the Samaritans claimed. The Jews and the Samaritans, for all they shared in faith in the one true God, the Holy One of Israel, they were rivals to the end and revilers of each other to the core.
And so just wrap your mind around that… that the man left by the roadside to die had to face being rescued by one of “them”. If Jesus had been telling the story in the early 1900s in eastern Connecticut, he might have told of a man bypassed by a Congregationalist preacher and an Episcopal deacon to be rescued by one of those Catholics, a swarthy Italian one or maybe a drunk Irish one. In his setting of the gospels in the 1950s American South, Clarence Jordan retells this parable in his Cotton Patch Gospels as a white man left behind by a white preacher and a white gospel musician to be rescued by a black man. What would it be for us today? Would it be a Tea Party Patriot being rescued by a leader of Al Qaeda? A gay man being rescued by a fundamentalist Southern Baptist preacher? A GreenPeace activist rescued by an exec from ExxonMobil? A George Zimmermann being rescued by a Trayvon Martin?
Indeed, it is hard this morning to hear the story of the Good Samaritan and that question “who is my neighbor?” without seeing the shadow cast across this nation by last night’s verdict in the George Zimmerman – Trayvon Martin trial in Florida. Regardless of the legal analysis of whether the prosecution pursued the right tactics, or whether there is sometimes a disjuncture between what is legally correct and what is truly just, the reality is still that a young life has been taken from us through the violence of a gun at the hands of someone who admitted to the killing.
Furthermore, the intersection this morning of the place of the Samaritan in Jesus’s story and the news last night highlights all the more the reality and truth of the still persisting legacy of racism in our society. As one of my colleagues has written, “The U.S. has a long history of murdering young black men out of fear and prejudice and a perceived threat. Emmett Till comes first to mind. Or the fictional version in To Kill a Mockingbird, which shows that the story was common enough to be recognized immediately as a cultural reality–a young black man who was perceived as a threat, taken down by mob justice and never given fair hearing in a court of law.” This colleague of mine, she goes on to say that we’d like to think that things have gotten better, that we don’t live in the Jim Crow lynch mob days of the first half of the 20th century. But most of us who are white have the privilege of living most days under the illusion that race doesn’t matter, when in fact the wrong color skin and a certain way of dressing still can get you followed by a vigilante in the suburbs of Orlando. Be noticed following someone down the sidewalk at night while wearing the wrong color skin, and you still can create nervousness and even fear. And the truth, my friends, is that we don’t get anywhere by pretending that’s not still the case… No, we’re not talking the sort of hatred or animosity that a Samaritan would have created in the Judeans of Jesus’ day. But let’s not kid ourselves that our society as a whole has resolved the question of who our neighbor is, and just what truly being neighbors in God’s holy city should mean.
In as much as I loved Mister Rogers, his show, and his ministry and message, what is abundantly clear to me is that the message, the point, the truth that lies behind the parable Jesus tells is not simply an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. You see, when Mister Rogers’ sings “ <singing> I have always wanted to have a neighbor just like you; I’ve always wanted to live in a neighborhood with you, sooo… ” that is precisely the opposite of what’s happening in Jesus’ parable. Nobody wanted to have the Samaritan as their neighbor. Nobody would have wanted the Samaritan to end up the hero of the story. In fact, it is possible that the roadside victim would not have even wanted the Samaritan to rescue him if he’d had the choice… he quite possibly would have rather died than be rescued by a Samaritan.
As much as Jesus’ parable about the roadside victim and the rescuing Samaritan is a reminder about who we are called to help—even when they are different from ourselves—it also asks us what and whom are we are ready to receive? As a church, can we welcome newcomers not with the expectation that they’re looking for what we have or that they’ll become like us, but rather that they—the newcomer—might in fact help us, teach us, shape us anew? As individuals, are you ready to leave behind that too often unhealthy American mythos of the person who can “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” in order that you might be able to receive the help of others? Is any of us ready to receive the one we’ve been taught is the last one we should want?
After all, God comes to us as the ultimate “other”, no? God comes as the one we humans too often feel we should not need and fear we do not want. And yet, when the wisdom and the power of the world has passed you by, it is God in all God’s Holy Otherness that comes, reaching out a hand and wiping your wounds. It is God who leads you to the place you will find life again, God who already put in the down payment, God who has promised that the rest of the bill is already taken care of.
And it is God who even now, today, who asks you but one question: “Won’t you be my neighbor?”
Blessing and honor, glory and power be unto God, now and forever. Amen.
 Listing from Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Good_Samaritan_Hospital_(disambiguation) , accessed 13 July 2013.
 Jennifer Mills-Knutsen, “George and Trayvon: At the Intersection of Guns, Race, Heroes and Justice”, For the Someday Book (blog), 14 July 2013, accessed 14 July 2013 at https://forthesomedaybook.wordpress.com/2013/07/14/george-and-trayvon-at-the-intersection-of-guns-race-heroes-and-justice/