By another road

Epiphany sermon preached at Rainbow on January 8, 2017

Note: Mr. Rogers (aka Mike Peters) made an Epiphany appearance earlier in the service singing the theme song to Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood.”

Happy Epiphany Sunday everyone!

Epiphany means to make manifest. For Christians, it is when we celebrate Jesus’ divine mission revealed when the magi visit him (Matthew 2). This means Epiphany is also a time for us to pray that Jesus’ divine mission would once again be revealed and made manifest in our lives and in the world.

And so what, you may wonder, does Epiphany have to do with Mr. Rogers?

I asked Mr. Rogers (aka Mike Peters) to make an epiphany appearance today for a couple reasons: 1) I knew he’d do a great job and he did, 2) If you haven’t noticed, we have some new signs around the outside of the church. We put them up before Christmas and every time I see these signs, I have the theme song from Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood in my head. After today, you might too.

img_4873This sign has a trilingual message of neighborliness in Arabic, Spanish and English. It was designed by a Mennonite pastor in Harrisonburg, Virginia as his response to the divisive rhetoric of the primary debates. He first erected a painted wooden version outside his church. A writer for Huffington Post recently called it “a sign of the times.”

I’ll admit that I was a little reluctant to join this sign movement. Why? Quite frankly, it seemed like a tall order. Making the design was easy enough. In fact someone even printed and donated them. The harder part is living out the message. Because let’s face it: we probably all have neighbors we don’t really like or or that don’t like us. Worse, we have neighbors who make us fear our safety. In fact, soon after we put the sign up there was a car stolen outside the church and some other activity around the church had us a little concerned for our safety.

Theologically, I can get behind this sign and this movement, just like I can get behind most everything Mr. Roger stood for. I can get behind efforts to welcome the stranger, and immigrant, creating true and lasting neighborhood expressions of care. But when it gets right down to it, it’s seldom easy to figure out. It’s tough for us as individuals and I would argue it can be even tougher for faith communities, especially when we are so spread out geographically, and when we all have our different attitudes, comfort zones, and political leanings, and experiences with feeling safe and not feeling safe, that all impact how we each think about neighborliness.

With people’s encouragement and council’s blessing we decided to go ahead and put these signs up. But I’ve tried to make it clear that I supported this so long as this didn’t become an occasion to pat ourselves on the back, but rather I hoped these signs would become an opportunity for us to reflect on where true worship of Jesus might take us.  For me, every time I see this sign it actually reads more like a question than a statement: What would it mean to treat everyone as if we are truly glad they are here, that they exist, no matter how different they are. Now that’s a tall, if not impossible, order!

And the bigger question that hovers around this sign and that hovers around my work as a pastor is how do we create true neighborhood expressions of care and what does worship of Jesus have to do with these efforts?

Returning briefly to Mr. Rogers, one of the things I loved about him was how he would invite guests to his show, often children who excelled at a talent he did not share. He had this exceptional posture of learning and curiosity believing that each person had something to offer. I especially love the episode where he learns all about break dancing.

Another thing to say about Mr. Rogers, who was a Presbyterian pastor, is that while he has this sweet, sweet voice and demeanor, he was also an activist in his own way. He was a strong and vocal advocate for child development. If you haven’t seen the video of him appearing and testifying before the Senate Committee on Communications in 1969, it is worth it. The subcommittee chairman, unfamiliar with Fred Rogers and his tv show, is initially abrasive toward him. Over the course of Rogers’ 6 minute  testimony, his demeanor gradually transitions to one of awe and admiration. And in the end, Mr. Rogers request is granted and PBS funding wasn’t cut.

There are many people we can think of who, like Mr. Rogers,  have sought in their lifetime to make manifest Jesus’ mission of compassion and peace. And what better time than Epiphany to remember and celebrate those people.

I think Epiphany also provides us with an opportunity to reflect on the ways we might take part in making Jesus’ life manifest. I can just imagine Mr. Rogers sitting down with each one of us asking what gifts we have to offer, and inviting us to think about the positive difference we might yet make.

But I also want to offer a challenge. I’ve long been intrigued not only with the scene from Matthew of the magi kneeling down in worship, but of the magi rising and returning home by another road. These wise astrologers, after being overwhelmed with joy, after offering Jesus the finest of gifts, were warned not to return to King Herod and they returned home by another road. Worship of Jesus led these magi into a subversive act of defiance, an act that led to Herod’s brutal killing spree and the slaughter of innocents. So should the magi have returned to Herod in order to give him what he wanted? Or would the results have been the same? It’s a sad and hard question that hangs over this story and that hangs over the whole story of Jesus.

In the Mennonite Church I attended growing up and the Mennonite college I attended, I heard lots of sermons about how we, who seek to follow Jesus, are by name a “by another road” people. One of the most cited scriptures of my childhood was from Romans 12: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

Do not be conformed to this world. Seek alternative routes in other words. Return home by another road. I was often reminded how the earliest followers of Jesus were called The Way, or the People of the Way. They were given that name because they walked a different sort of path—away from the violent Herod’s of the world, away from the power hungry, coercive, violent, and self-interested, easily frightened kings and pharaohs and  toward the suffering and the wailing and loud lamentations of the world.

It’s been a compelling vision for me as a Christian, and it’s not just a vision. I know people who enact this vision with such courage and resolve.

And yet with each passing year, I become less and less sure of what it means to walk “by another road.” The vision still compels me, I hope it compels us, but sorting out what it means to be people of Alternative Ways and Roads is never easy, and it’s especially important that we not presume that we’ve got it figured it.

And one of the things that keeps me connected to faith communities is that I’m pretty sure I need help finding these alternative routes in the 21st century.

And to that end,  and in closing, I want to highlight the fact that there is a small group forming here at Rainbow called Rainbows in Rosedale. This group is starting to think about neighborliness, welcome, and doing that intentionally  right here around the church. I hope we all have a chance to hear from them and learn from them as the year goes on. Whether joining that group is something you can or can’t do, I hope we can all support and learn from them as they try to walk this route of  greater welcome and neighborliness right here around the church.

I want to read from their ever-evolving vision:

We aspire to create a living space for plants and people that nourishes; a place where neighbors gather for community as well as for sustenance of body and soul; a resource that provides aesthetic beauty as well as year-found food security. Via our means to that end, we hope to achieve environmental, relational, labor and financial sustainability via stewardship that fosters a sharing economy, equity of voice and a generous spirit of welcome.

This group, while not presuming that they know exactly how to do this, is seeking to live an alternative route. They are learning the art and discipline of true and mutual neighborliness. And for those who scoff thinking that this sort of vision is unrealistic or just expansive optimism, can we recognize the need for and can we encourage different voices and different experiments as we seek to find and walk the Way of Jesus today?
Again, joining this group may not be what everyone is able or called to do, but I so appreciate that these initiatives and conversations are taking place. These are the more durable signs that we are indeed seeking to make Jesus’  mission of neighborliness manifest here and now.

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