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A Neighborly Gospel (or, I’d Rather Have a Neighbor Than Clean Hands)

This past Tuesday I got the chance to spend an evening with my Mom – just the two of us – and we decided to go see the film “Won’t You Be My Neighbor.” It’s a documentary about Fred Rodgers, the Presbyterian minister whose lifelong ministry to children included his creation, production, and involvement in just about every aspect of the PBS program “Mr. Rodger’s Neighborhood.”

I was excited to see the film with my mom, because my memories of Mr. Rodger’s Neighborhood are bound up with my memories of childhood. I was anticipating the warm glow of nostalgia linked to the familiar characters and scenes, the songs and the cardigan sweaters. And who better to join me on that heart-warming trip down memory lane than the woman who introduced me to Mr. Rodgers in the first place?

I think we were also both looking forward to a 90-minute break from the pervasive hum of acrimony and anxiety that seems to be the baseline for public discourse these days. Now, I believe that public conversation about important social issues is absolutely crucial to a moral society, but the way that conversation tends to happen these days can be pretty soul-destroying. Whereas Mr. Rodgers pretty much embodies the polar opposite attitude from the self-righteousness and outrage that dominates social media memes and political rants. I think I expected 90 minutes focused on his voice to be a bit of an escape.

Well, the film definitely delivered on the warm nostalgia, but NOT in an escapist way… and I’m really glad.

The documentary stayed true to all my memories of Mr. Rodger’s warmth, and his affirmation of each child’s uniqueness and worth, but it also opened my eyes to how engaged Mr. Rodgers always was to the social issues of the day.

I already knew – thanks to Facebook – that the iconic scene where Fred Rodgers invited the neighborhood’s Black Policeman, Officer Clemens, to share a footbath on a hot day was written and aired during a time of serious national tension about the desegregation of public swimming pools.

What I didn’t know is that this kind of neighbor-affirming, boundary-pushing social commentary was central to the mission of Mr. Rodger’s Neighborhood. The program also wove in anti-war themes; addressed bullying, divorce, and affirmation of people with disabilities; and dealt head-on with the fears and pain caused by the assassination of Bobbie Kennedy and the Challenger explosion.

All of this socially-conscious programming, of course, makes sense in the context of Rodgers’ mission: a mission to affirm the essential and unassailable value of every unique person. Although I hadn’t understood what the show was doing as a little girl, it fits.

What took me by much greater surprise was the discussion of a hate-spewing protest that was staged by Westboro Baptist church outside Fred Rodgers’ funeral service. Apparently, the group was angry that Rodgers had not condemned the LGBT community, and they condemned him as a result.

It’s ironic, since in earlier decades Rodgers had told François Clemmons, aka Officer Clemmons, that he would have to stay in the closet to stay on the show. They had to worry about how the sponsors would react. It’s the one moment when Mr. Rodgers most clearly failed to live-up to his neighbor-affirming ethic. But regardless of the absurdity of the protest, it was the images and accounts of that protest that made a connection for me between the film and today’s gospel lesson.

“For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come,” declares Jesus in today’s gospel reading (Mark 7:21).

The heart is the issue, not the religious rules.

In his remembrance of the protest, a friend of Fred Rodgers shared his sorrow about the sadness and isolation he saw in the faces of the children who participated in the protest. As he reflected, Fred Rodgers was always focused on protecting and building-up children’s hearts. But in the service to their religious traditions, their concerns about the traditional rules for "purity," the parents at the protest were willing to foster hate in their children’s hearts instead.

The protection of religious traditions, especially those that serve to exclude, can do a lot of harm. In today’s gospel story the issue at hand is quite different than the funeral protest, but there are parallels. It is a story of confrontation about what makes people pure and right before God: the rules promoted by a certain group, or the heart?

The Pharisees who came to challenge Jesus made an issue of the disciples’ failure to follow the religious purity code that required Jews to ritually wash their hands before eating. Jesus rejects this challenge as irrelevant, because it misses the point. Purity before God isn’t about what goes into the body, he argues… it’s about what comes out, because that is what shows the state of our hearts.

Now, there’s a danger, if we read this story too quickly, of reading a simplistic contrast between law and gospel, where the Pharisees are set-up as representatives of a deficient “law.” In such a reading, the Pharisees say: “you have to follow these human-designed rituals to please God. You have to earn your salvation.” Of course, we know this argument is flawed. We cannot earn our salvation.

But today’s reading doesn’t oppose the flawed understanding of law with the gospel. Jesus’s response in this story is not actually to speak gospel at all… it’s not to say “salvation is a gift of God, through faith.”

Rather Jesus says: "you are defiled whether or not you follow the ritual purity laws!" In case you missed that bit, you can find it in verses 21-23, where Jesus gives us what scholars call a “vice list” that enumerates all kinds of things that indicate the evil in our hearts:“fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” (Mark 7:21-23)

Anyone think they can pass that test of purity? I know I can't! I’m on that list a few places … not in every item, of course. I’ve never killed anyone. I’ve never committed adultery.

But I am certainly guilty of envy on a pretty regular basis. And pride is a powerfully seductive sin. And although I try to control my tongue, I can’t honestly say that I have never slandered another person… never let my anger or pain twist the way I described another person’s role in an argument… never said something that demeans a public figure whose positions I find offensive.

My heart is not perfectly pure. It betrays be sometimes, and the evidence of my life and my tongue proves that impurity.

According to the witness of his sons, even the saintly Mr. Rodgers is not without blame by this standard. Apparently, when he wanted to vent, he’d adopt the voice of the witchy puppet Lady Elaine Fairchilde. That’s when his sons knew Dad was in a bad mood! So, if even Mr. Rodgers falls short of Jesus’ standard of purity that starts in the heart, then where IS the good news in this text? Where is the gospel?

I think it comes in the way this story reframes what it means to belong to God’s kingdom.

The Pharisees in this story defined the goal as one of ritual purity, assuming that one had to follow strict rules to be included in God’s kingdom. They were concerned with being separate, set-apart.

But Jesus challenged them by showing that their concern for separateness and traditions actually violated the heart of God's law. He gave an example from the law of Moses - the lawy that requires children to honor their parents - and then showed the ways that religious tradition had undercut this law.

It’s a technical argument, so I am going to lean on biblical scholar Dr. Brian Blount to explain it:

“According to tradition, when a child makes the (Corban) vow, … the financial property designated in the vow could now be used only for religious purposes. While the person who owned the property could retain the right to its use, he could not surrender it to anyone else, even a parent in financial need. A child who did not want to help his parents would therefore have a legal way to avoid giving the assistance that the law of Moses demanded.”[1]

In other words, human tradition had become a tool to supersede the duty to care; technical purity had become a higher priority than love.

It was the same thing with the concerns over handwashing. Ritual washing before meals (and the related ritual washings detailed in the text) were a distinctive practice of Jews. These practices set them apart from the Gentiles, and thus effectively prevented hospitality or table fellowship across ethnic lines.

Being set-apart took precedence over relationship, over reaching out, over building community, over love.

But that was the opposite of the gospel that Jesus came to proclaim, and that’s our good news. It’s the good news that the goal is not purity – it’s not keeping ourselves free from all defilement. Because that’s impossible! Our hearts are not perfectly pure, and what come out of our mouths will betray us… every time!

But rather, the goal is participating in God’s kingdom. A kingdom the reaches out to care, and to include; a kingdom where we worry more about meeting other’s needs and less about whether we are keeping ourselves pure.

In fact, it’s a kingdom that looks a lot like Mr. Rodgers’ neighborhood.

As a child I experienced that neighborhood as a magical place where everyone was loved and affirmed. As an adult I remembered the warmth of that neighborhood, but I assumed it must be a bit shallows too – a place set apart from the complexities and impurities of real life.

But, as it turns out, that neighborhood wasn’t good because it was set apart, kept pure from the pollution of the world’s problems. It was good because it’s response to all the brokenness of life was love.

In one of the most powerful moments from the film we hear Mr. Rodgers’ voice: “The only thing that changes the world” he says “is when someone gets the idea that love can abound and that it can be shared.”

If you ask me, that’s a pretty good definition of the gospel!

Thanks be to God.

[1] Brian Blount, “No Dogs Allowed (Mark 7:1-8:21)” in Preaching Mark in Two Voices, Louisville” Westminter John Knox Press, 2002, p. 122

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