Sermon for March 20th, 2022
Romans 13:8-10 (NT p.162)
8 Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 9 The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.
A Neighbor Just Like You
For the past two weeks, we've been talking about the Book of Job, and some of the misunderstood voices in Job's story. We'll get back to that story and those voices next week, but today we're going to take a little detour. That's because today, a little bit later on in the worship service, we are ordaining and installing some new officers to lead and guide our church in the years to come. I wanted to share a message today about what exactly it means to be a leader in the church, in God's kingdom, and in our neighborhoods.
Fortunately, as Presbyterians, we have a great example of that from recent times. If you were a parent or a child at any point in the past 50 years, you may remember a man named Fred Rogers, who had a television program that ran every morning called "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood." What you may not know or remember, is that Fred Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister, a graduate of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, and a devoted Christian whose television show was directly inspired by the teachings he found in his Bible.
In 1963, when Mr. Rogers stood before a congregation at the Third Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh to be ordained, the vows he took were almost identical to the ones that our new officers will take today. One of my favorite promises made as part of those vows is the promise to serve the people with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love. The "people" that Fred Rogers served, of course, were millions of children who watched his show, and whom he considered his congregation.
The people that our new officers will serve are not just the members of First Presbyterian Church--we are a community of communities--and so we serve the students and families of our preschool, our elementary school, our cub scout pack and our scouting troop. We serve the young actors and actresses of Kids N Co. We serve the patients of Project Vida Health Center and Dental Clinic. Beyond that, we serve the people in our workplaces, our neighborhoods and the communities of El Paso and Ciudad Juarez. Even beyond that, we serve the world through our global partners like the Simants and Palmer families.
Like Jesus and the Apostle Paul in today's scripture reading, Fred Rogers had a special name for all of those people God calls us to serve: He called them neighbors. At the beginning of every show, he said "I have always wanted to have a neighbor just like you; I have always wanted to live in a neighborhood with you." The sense of those words is that your neighbor is not just the person living on either side of your house--your neighbor is anyone who happens to be standing right in front of you...and anyone whose life touches yours in any way, near at hand or across the world.
So we are called to serve our neighbors with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love.
What does it mean to serve with energy?
The Oxford English dictionary defines Energy as "the strength and vitality required for sustained physical or mental activity." Leading a church (or anything for that matter) certainly requires strength, vitality, sustained physical and mental activity. We all have different ways of gaining and maintaining energy.
For Fred Rogers, that meant setting aside a time of prayer and reflection every morning, seven days a week. He also swam laps every day in a pool. He was very attentive to his diet, and despite raising two children while maintaining a busy schedule of work, travel correspondence, he somehow made it a priority to get eight hours of sleep every night. However that may look for you, the principle from the scriptures is this: Our bodies are sacred, and the energy we need to care for others is only possible when we take care of our bodies.
What does it mean to serve with intelligence?
I love the fact that we may be the only religious denomination (at least the only one I know of) that requires all of its leaders to promise to try to be intelligent. Yes, Presbyterians have always been a little bit nerdy (including Mr. Rogers) but we have always believed that our minds are important to God just as much as our bodies, and they too are in constant need of development.
Fred Rogers went to seminary and graduate school *after* deciding his life's work would be dedicated to children--he went back to school again and again because he wanted to better understand the way a child's mind works, and he wanted to understand how his faith, his religion, might better help him in that process. For our new church officers, the commitment to intelligence means a commitment to study the scriptures; to study the people and the world around you; study the specific areas of talent God has given you, for the benefit of your neighbors. And then keep going back to those studies over and over again throughout your life and ministry.
What does it mean to serve with imagination?
This is another one of my favorites. So many organizations ask their leaders to be cautious and careful, protecting the resources of the institution. But we say...be creative. Be inventive. Be imaginative.
In Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, every episode began with a question, a problem, or a fear that a child might have. Then he usually introduced a new neighbor, someone in the world with a unique perspective on that situation. But THEN...every episode! would take his viewers in to the magical world of make believe, where all of the things he had been talking about could be explored through play.
If you are a leader of this church (or anywhere else) and you get stuck in some kind of a problem--I want you to remember this: Put down your phone, close your laptop, and go talk to someone about it. And then...go play. Build something with legos. Color in a coloring book. Better yet--find some puppets, dolls or action figures and let them hash out all your troubles at a tea party, or on a trip to outer space. At the very least, if you can't bring yourself to do that, or if you don't have the materials, find some kids (preferably your own) and ask them to help you play. They're pretty good at it, and it probably won't take you that long to remember how.
Finally, what does it mean to serve with love?
Leaders often like to get caught up in rules. We have bylaws, manuals of operation, social conventions, rules of engagement, and even unspoken rules that everyone is somehow supposed to know. But our scripture passage from Romans reminds us that loving our neighbors is the best (and really, only) way to fulfill every single law, every single commandment, every single rule--spoken or unspoken.
For Fred Rogers, loving someone began with appreciating them. He said, "I believe that appreciation is a holy thing--that when we look for what's best in a person we happen to be with at the moment, we're doing what God does all the time." I want you to try that today, and for the rest of this week. Start with whomever happens to be standing in front of you, whether it's your spouse, your child, your boss, your co-worker, the checkout clerk at the grocery store, or the person sitting across from you in your next meeting: Look for something good in that person. It might come to you right away, or it might take a little effort. Just thinking something kind about another person will probably make your day a lot brighter--and if you go so far as to say it out loud, you could even make two days brighter.
Of course, LOVE is taking this small exercise and making it an every-week, every-month, every-year HABIT. Love is not a reaction to something another person does to or for you. It's a choice and a commitment that YOU make to another person, regardless of whether or not it is earned, deserved, or even warranted.
So to our new officers, and to everyone in our First Presbyterian "neighborhood." May you serve your neighbors with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love. And may the God who loved us first give you the strength and compassion to do that every day, for everyone you meet.
Today is March 20th, which just so happens to be Mr. Rogers' birthday. He would have been 94 today. And if he could see you, standing today where he stood, making the same promises that he made all those years ago, I think he would say that it's a beautiful day in the neighborhood.