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A plaintive cry: Won’t you be my neighbor?

Synod School speaker: To today’s ears, Mister Rogers’ invitation sounds like a plea or a prayer

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Nina Strehl via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — “Only as an adult,” the Rev. Dr. Jill Duffield told the Synod of Lakes and Prairies’ Synod School Thursday, displaying a picture of a familiar Presbyterian pastor and children’s television pioneer dressed in a red zip-up sweater, “did I realize how much my theology was shaped by Mister Rogers.”

Like millions of Americans growing up, Duffield heard the theme song for Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood maybe hundreds of times. “Lately I’ve heard it differently,” said the senior pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Greensboro, North Carolina, who’s speaking on the theme “Called Out” for the 450 or so people attending Synod School this week both online and in person. “It feels more like a prayer and a plea to me.”

With so many people carrying heavy burdens, and political strife and racial reckoning dominating the news cycle, “it’s prophetic and transformative if we can truly be neighbors to one another,” Duffield said.

As Jesus famously pointed out in Luke’s gospel, loving God and another commandment like it — loving our neighbors as ourselves — are the greatest commandments. “It isn’t complicated, but boy, is it difficult,” Duffield said. “Why is this so hard for us? We are good Presbyterians, and so we know broadly the answer is sin. Is that a satisfying answer? Let’s get biblical.”

Pay attention, Duffield suggested, to the phrases in the epistles that begin with “but now,” as in Galatians 3:23-29, Ephesians 2:12-13 and 1 Peter 2:10.

“This is radical transformation that keeps on going and going and going,” Duffield said. “Think of those HGTV shows, the before and after.”

The “but now” isn’t always so obvious in today’s world, and Duffield displayed some headlines to prove it, including “Anatomy of a church split” and “Welcome to the Fractured States of America.”

“There are so many gaps between people of privilege and those being ground down,” Duffield said. “The short answer is idolatry. We put so much before God, in culture, in churches and in our personal lives.”

“We have made our own righteousness ultimate,” Duffield said. “We have to be right and righteous all the time.”

However, “we struggle mightily, but we don’t struggle alone,” she said. “We have the gift of the Holy Spirit, Jesus praying for us and God working through us despite us.”

According to Luke’s gospel, when the lawyer gets Jesus’ question right, the questioner pushes Jesus a little further, asking him, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus responds with the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

In the story, the question “who is my neighbor?” goes “from theory to practice,” Duffield said. “There is a fundamental change in that person in the ditch. He was once on the road to Jericho, then he was in the ditch, but now he has been taken up and cared for. That’s what being a neighbor is, changing a ‘what was’ to a ‘what is.’ It is real and it is unmistakable.”

the Rev. Dr. Jill Duffield

Then Duffield asked, “Is that the kind of neighborly love we are practicing?”

Have you had the experience, Duffield asked Synod School participants, when what was once an issue is now a person?

“You advocate differently. You live differently. You are emboldened in a different way,” Duffield said. “It’s your kid who’s queer and wants to get married in a Presbyterian church. It’s not some issue out there — it’s a person.”

“These kids are our kids,” Duffield said, “because they are God’s children.”

“We don’t have to understand people to love people,” Duffield said. “God says you love people — you delight in people — because they’re our neighbor. Please, please, please — won’t you be my neighbor? I have always wanted to have a neighbor just like you,” Duffield began to sing.

“That’s not tolerating people. It’s embracing people,” Duffield said, “and that’s the kind of neighborly love we are called to enact.”

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