25 Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” 27 He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” 28 And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
29 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30 Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ 36 Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
Three Minute Film Synopsis
The film, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, begins and ends just like every episode of the famous children’s Television show, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood–with a kind man singing a song, speaking to us in simple language, inviting us to be his neighbor, while changing into (and then out) of a cardigan sweater and sneakers. But this film has been described as an episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood for adults, and its central character, Fred Rogers (played by Tom Hanks) is not the main character, not the protagonist of the film. Instead, Mr. Rogers introduces us to his “new friend” and shows the audience a picture of a man who is clearly injured, hurt on the outside but also with an expression that betrays a deep wound on the inside as well.
This man is Lloyd Vogel, a hard-hitting investigative journalist with a bad-boy reputation and a strained relationship with his father, who has been assigned the task of interviewing and writing a story about the “nicest man in the world.”
The film follows the development of their relationship, and its positive effect on Vogel’s relationship with his father, his wife, and his own infant son, as he confronts the pain in his own childhood and learns how to love and forgive. The character is loosely based on the real-life journalist Tom Junod, whose 1998 article on Mr. Rogers in Esquire magazine began a life-long friendship between the two and made a significant impact on Junod’s life and subsequent writing.
The Good Samaritan
One of the reasons we do this series every year is to learn how to be “armchair theologians.” You’ve probably heard the expression “armchair quarterback” in reference to football–someone who, although not a “professional” quarterback, still understands the game well enough to watch from the other side of the screen and recognize opportunities, strategies, and critical decisions that should (or shouldn’t) be made.
An armchair theologian is someone who can look at what’s going on in the world–or on television, or in the movies–and recognize spiritual themes, messages, opportunities, then connect them to their own faith, and to their own study of the scriptures.
One of the most famous stories that Jesus tells in scripture comes from the gospel of Luke, the parable of the Good Samaritan–a story that begins with the question, “Who is my neighbor?”
From start to finish, this film, “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” functions like a modern day parable of the Good Samaritan, with Lloyd Vogel as the injured, wounded traveler, and Fred Rogers as the man who graciously takes him in, cares for his wounds, and shows him radical hospitality, setting him on the road to a life that is fully healed, fully whole. Watch in the following clip the first meeting between Fred Rogers and Lloyd Vogel, how Rogers, in the middle of filming his show, drops everything to embrace Vogel, notices his injury, and treats him like the most important person in the world.
In the parable of the Good Samaritan, the Samaritan takes the wounded traveler to an inn and pays for his recuperation. In Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, when Vogel collapses on the set of Mr. Rogers’ show, Fred Rogers takes him into his own home and lets him rest in his own bed while recovering. Later in the film, Mr. Rogers even makes a trip to visit Lloyd’s dying father, acting as a pastor and a healer for Lloyd’s internal wounds as well as his external ones.
In the Bible, Samaritans are the mortal enemies of the Jewish people, making the Good Samaritan the most unlikely and unexpected savior to a Jewish traveler. Likewise, Lloyd Vogel as an investigative journalist has a reputation for destroying the subjects of his investigations–something Rogers is well aware of when he agrees to be interviewed by Vogel–making him an equally unlikely and unexpected friend to a man who should by rights be his enemy.
Saints and Sinners
It would be easy to view Rogers and Vogel as “good guy” and “bad guy,” respectively, or as “saint” and “sinner.” But the film (and the entire philosophy of Fred Rogers) works hard to blur those lines–something I believe was influenced by Mr. Rogers’ Presbyterian theology.
In popular culture, a “sinner” is someone who does bad things, and a “saint” is someone who does exceptionally good things. But in Presbyterian theology, we are all sinners, and we are all–at the same time–saints. Not because of what we do, but because of who we are: We are all broken people, people who fail and don’t live up to expectations, and yet we are also people created in God’s image, people of infinite dignity and worth, whom God loves, redeems, and sanctifies (that’s what “saint” means).
If you watched this movie, and you stuck around through all of the credits, there was a special treat at the very end…it was the voice of the real Mr. Rogers (not Tom Hanks) singing one of his signature songs, and I thought it was a fascinating choice to end the movie. Here are the words:
Sometimes people are good
And they do just what they should.
But the very same people who are good sometimes
Are the very same people who are bad sometimes.
It’s funny, but it’s true.
It’s the same, isn’t it for me…and you.
In the following featurette, we’ll hear from both the main character, Lloyd Vogel, and also the real-life journalist he is based on, Tom Junod, as well as Joanne. Rogers, Marielle Heller (the director of the film), and several others. But what I want you to focus on as you watch, is the constant back and forth between the idea of sinner and saint, broken and whole, hero and human being, and especially all of the deeply spiritual practices–like prayer, compassion, and silence, that Mr. Rogers embodied and taught us to employ in our own back and forth struggles as sinners and saints.
The Neighborhood and the Table
Near the end of that featurette the director talked about the most important scene in the film, a scene where Mr. Rogers asks Lloyd to observe a moment of silence to think about all the people who had “loved him into being.” This is something the real-life Mr. Rogers did on many occasions with many people. But I love how in this film, he does it in a diner, seated at a table, across from his friend Lloyd, in preparation for sharing a meal together.
If you grew up watching Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, you know that countless episodes of the show feature the making, eating, and sharing of food. I think Mr. Rogers knew that relationships are often forged around a shared table. Relationships are at the heart of every neighborhood. Another word for “neighborhood” is “community” which is at the heart of our word “communion,” our practice of gathering around the Lord’s table–something Fred Rogers did every month at the Sixth Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, where he and his family were lifelong members.
And since Fred Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister (we all knew him as Mister Rogers, but technically he was the Rev. Dr. Mr. Rogers), I thought that in addition to letting him have the last word in today’s sermon, I’d also let him do the “Invitation to the Table” as we prepare to share this meal, this spiritual practice that began 2,000 years ago as an act of love.