It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood – a sermon

Sunday, July 20th, 2014 – Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
Gower Christian Church, Gower, MO
Scripture: Matthew 13:24-30,36-43
Hymns: “Surely the Presence of the Lord”, “O Worship the King”, “O How He Loves You and Me”, “The Trees of the Field”

“It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”
The 1980s were an interesting time for television. The decade featured the end of a TV show about the Korean War that lasted more than three times as long as the war itself did. It featured a pair of good old boys never meaning no harm but still somehow managing to demolish a good chunk of northwest Georgia. It featured two TV shows aimed at rather specific demographics that managed to become two of the most popular TV shows in history – one about an African-American family that gave families everywhere a higher potential to aspire to, and one about a bunch of little old ladies who had decided to spend their golden years living together. We got a show about a group of war heroes who – if you can find them – you could hire to sort out your problems, we got a show about a Hawaiian detective with a ludicrous mustache, we got a show about a bar where everyone knows your name, we got a show where everybody wanted to know, WHO SHOT J.R., and lest I forget – the starship Enterprise returned to American TV screens after a twenty year absence.
Perhaps the most influential event in television in the 1980s, however, was the launch of a channel by the Turner Broadcasting System known as the Cable News Network. The rise of CNN planted the seeds of Fox News and MSNBC, and was responsible for the beginning of what we now know as the 24 hour news cycle. And so, with CNN bombarding American households above and beyond the wide variety of shows being beamed into television sets in the 1980s, it was an interesting time for a little boy to grow up.
Yes, I grew up in a time where the good and the bad alike were equally available on television. The bad in the 1980s was what gave rise to certain television watchdog groups, like the Family Research Council. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, the Family Research Council was bound and determined to keep the airwaves clean of anything they deemed “immoral”. What they failed to understand, however, was that stripping out the bad would leave the networks unable to operate. In order for The Cosby Show to go on air, NBC had to first reap the financial benefits of Cheers. Indeed, Sam Malone had to serve drinks so that Heathcliff Huxtable could practice medicine.
No, what was needed was a harvester – one who could gather the wheat with the weeds, then separate the two from one another, send the weeds away, and bring the wheat to the children in front of America’s millions of TV sets. And come 1980, one such harvester had already been on the air for twelve years.
Ordained as an elder in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and given a special charge to work in children’s ministry, the Rev. Frederick McFeely Rogers began working with WQED TV, the Pittsburgh affiliate of the Public Broadcasting Service, to produce a children’s television show in 1968. He had worked on-and-off for WQED since 1954, including while working toward his Master’s Degree in Divinity at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. During that time, he had worked as a puppeteer on a TV show known as The Children’s Corner, and while on that show, had developed various puppet characters that he named King Friday XIII, X the Owl, and Daniel Striped Tiger, among others. When starting his show in 1968, he incorporated these puppet characters into a show-within-a-show known as the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, and with this fictitious neighborhood forming the backbone of his thirty-minute show, the pilot episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood aired on WQED Pittsburgh on February 19th, 1968.
Jesus’ parable of the weeds among the wheat actually comes in a fairly logical place – immediately after the parable of the sower in the first part of Matthew 13, Jesus tells the parable of a rather wretched individual who sneaks into the fields where the seeds have been sown and sows the seeds of weeds among them. That seems to me to be a rather pernicious thing to do – indeed, I’m pretty sure that if I went out in one of the various fields surrounding this town and intentionally planted a bumper crop of dandelions in with a worthwhile crop, somebody might want to have words with me. You know, the kind of words that are spoken with pitchforks and torches.
The concern with somebody planting weeds like that back then is that in first century Palestine, there were no herbicides available whatsoever, let alone herbicides that would kill the weeds without damaging the crops. So there were only two answers: pull the weeds up right now, and risk pulling up the wheat with it, or wait until the harvest, pull everything, and then separate out the chaff and burn it.
Of course, like most of his parables in the gospel of Matthew, this one is again presented as an opportunity for Jesus’ apostles to demonstrate their astounding lack of understanding of metaphor. Needing an explanation, they come to Jesus and ask for one. He tells them that the good seed represents those people who belong to God, the bad those who do not. The devil scattered the bad seed, and Jesus is the harvester. His angels will reap the crops, separate the wheat from the weeds, and the weeds will burn.
If you look at this parable in conjunction with the one before it, it seems as though Jesus is trying to tell his apostles that, guess what, faith ain’t easy. First of all, your “seed” has to end up on the good soil, instead of the hard path, the shallow soil, or the thorny soil, and THEN, you have to worry about some miscreant coming along and scattering weeds in the good soil along with the seeds. FAITH IS HARD.
And that is so very often the case when something meant to be used for good is co-opted by those who would see it used for bad. Television was still a new medium in 1951, but already, it was being seen as something that could sow the weeds among the good seeds, especially by Fred Rogers, fresh out of college. “I went into television because I hated it so,” he said in a 1999 interview, “and I thought there’s some way of using this fabulous instrument to nurture those who would watch and listen.”
So it was that he spent the next seventeen years learning the craft of television, leading up to that fateful February day in 1968. So it was that he spent three years at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, learning what it was to be a minister – not so that he could proclaim the word of God from the pulpit, but so that he could LIVE the word of God to his audience of children in need of comfort and good news. So it was that Fred Rogers learned to be one of those angels who would bring in the harvest – he stood in the midst of the vast field that was television, calling out in the midst of it to children everywhere: “Come away from the hardships and worries of your life. Look away from the bad news you see on television. Sit with me for half an hour and learn how to live a life of goodness and love.”
I was certainly one of those children. Some of my earliest childhood memories include watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Every weekday morning, at 9:00 AM, KAET channel 8, Arizona State University’s Public television station, would broadcast an episode of the show. Indeed, one of the greatest disappointments of my childhood years was turning on KAET one morning to discover that Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood had been pre-empted by a broadcast of the Arizona State Legislature’s impeachment proceedings against then-Governor Evan Meacham.
You see, for me, and for millions of other children, Fred Rogers imparted to us the teachings of Christ in a way that no preacher in a pulpit ever could. He didn’t use the Scriptures; instead, he taught using parables. Every story he ever told, every lesson he ever taught, was designed to make better the lives of the children who watched, and in turn, the lives of those people around them. He lived his life in the most Christ-like fashion possible – he loved his neighbor as himself, he loved his enemies and prayed for those who persecuted him. He was not ashamed of the Gospel, but preached it in a unique way aimed at children – the innocent of life, the pure of heart.
Yes, surely Fred Rogers was a harvester in the service of the church of Christ on earth. Don’t be afraid of life, he told the children who watched his show. The good and the bad will both be sown together in your life – you must learn to live with the bad just as you do with the good, so that you can learn how to remove the bad from your life and let the good grow greater. Surely he did right, and so shines like the sun in the kingdom of God.
The last episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood aired on Friday, August 31st, 2001. Though I was nineteen years old, several of my friends and I gathered that morning to watch the broadcast on KNAU, which was at the time the Northern Arizona University PBS affiliate. The series finale focused on themes of appreciating everybody in your life, and showing kindness and compassion for all persons, but especially for those who care about and love you. For a bunch of college sophomores who were still quite idealistic and believed that we had the power to change the world, it was a message that put a smile on our faces as we headed into Labor Day Weekend.
It was a message that rang especially true eleven days later.
Fred Rogers died in February 2003. One of my classes that spring semester had nearly two hundred students in it, and when we met on the morning of Friday the 28th, the day after he died, we opened class by singing, together, the theme song from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. It seemed appropriate.
The bad is often sown among the good. They will grow together, and often the bad can’t be separated without damaging the good. But the harvester will come, and he will help us identify what is good and live it to the fullest. He will help us identify what is bad and learn how to live without allowing it to rule our lives. And when the time for the harvest comes, he will separate the good from the bad and help us get rid of the bad.
Mr. Rogers was just such a harvester. It doesn’t matter what bad exists in your life, he taught children, it is the good that is the important part. It is the good that makes you a special person, and it is the good that makes this a beautiful day.
And so, he would say, let’s make the most of this beautiful day. Since we’re together, we might as well say – won’t you be mine, won’t you be mine, won’t you be my neighbor.
Amen.

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