Who is Our Neighbor?

Sermon Preached at St. Mark's Episcopal Church
Proper 10C (Luke 10:25-37)

In response to a lawyer’s question about inheriting eternal life, Jesus turns the question around and asks the lawyer instead, “what is written in the law?”  Now most of us, like the lawyer, would probably come up with the same answer – love God and love our neighbor.  The teaching moment could end there.  But, it doesn’t because Jesus recognizes that who one sees as one’s neighbor impacts greatly how we live out the commandment to LOVE our neighbor.  If by neighbor, we mean the people sitting next to us in church – or at the lakefront – on a Sunday morning we may be missing Jesus’ point.  If by neighbor, we mean the people that we get together with for cookouts or drinks at the local bar, we may be missing Jesus’ point.  Because Jesus’, in the story he tells to the lawyer, is quite clear that being a neighbor means showing mercy even – perhaps especially – to  the person or persons must unlike us that we can imagine. It is telling that in Jesus’ story the priest and the Levite pass by the injured man on the road because these are the very people that one would expect to know how to behave in a “neighborly” way – after all, they are law-abiding religious folk.  They would have answered Jesus question in the same way as the lawyer.  But instead, it is the Samaritan who “was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers.”  You’ll need to imagine the booing and the spitting that the mere mention of a Samaritan might have caused Jesus’ 1st century listeners; in fact, the animosity – the hatred - between the Jews and the Samaritans goes back at least 8 centuries before the birth of Jesus.[i] So, for the lawyer to admit that it is the Samaritan who did the neighborly thing is pretty telling. 
And at least one of the things the story tells us is that we need to take seriously the question, “Who is our neighbor?”  Who are the neighbors of St. Mark’s?   Unlike the lawyer in Jesus’ time, you and I have census data that can help us to learn more about our neighbors.  In 2010, the Census data for the City of Evanston showed that 50% of Evanston residents are between the ages of 20 and 54 and that another 25% each are either 19 and under or 55 and older.[ii]  How does this compare to our congregation? Approximately 50% of active St. Mark’s parishioners are 61 and up and only 25% are between the ages of 20 and 54.  Did you catch that? 50% of Evanston’s population is between the ages of 20 and 54 and only 25% of our congregation is in that age range. 
I don’t want to overwhelm us with facts and figures this morning, but there is one additional piece of data I’d like us to have before us.  The 2010 Census data can be broken down into neighborhood tracts.  St. Mark’s sits on the line between two Census Neighborhood tracts (each approximately 1 square mile in size).[iii]  Combining the population of these two neighborhood tracts reveals that 59% of our neighborhood is white (St. Mark’s is 85% white), 24%  of our neighborhood is black or African American (that number at St. Mark’s is between 10 and 15%), 10% of our neighborhood is Hispanic or Latino (5% of St. Mark’s), and 9% of our neighbors are Asian (compared to 5% of St. Mark’s).[iv] Incidentally, even when we look at Evanston as a whole – instead of just the immediate neighborhoods - St. Mark’s is still under-representative of non-whites in each group.
Looking at these data alone – age distribution and racial make-up of Evanston – it is easy to see who our neighbors are.  We may not view these neighbors as “Samaritans” (complete with booing and hissing), but there is clearly a line between us and them.  As clear as that line may be, it may be less clear how we are being invited by God to be neighborly. What do we do to be more representative of our local community? In a recent lecture about the importance of re-rooting our congregations in the community, Neil Harrison, Director for Renewed Evangelizing Congregations for the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America,  asked the challenging question, “do you really think Jesus would sneak out the side door and travel 5 to 10 miles, snubbing his nose at his neighbors?!”[v]  It’s a tough question.  But what makes it tough is not the answer because we know that Jesus would not do this.  But, too often, it is exactly what we do – not just St. Mark’s, but churches throughout the United States.  While the concern hasn’t been expressed this way before, it is one that St. Mark’s Outreach and Social Justice Ministry Team has been grappling with and the answers are beginning to become clearer as we engage more and more in ministries in our local community with our neighbors:  working with Oakton Elementary School’s Blessings in a Backpack program which provides weekend food for school children during the school year, encouraging our members to drink coffee and meet with one another at Curt’s Café – a coffee shop that provides job training and life skills to at-risk young people, donating space at St. Mark’s to the Interfaith Action of Evanston’s Hospitality Center which provides a safe place for our homeless neighbors to gather for breakfast, rest, job coaching, computer training and more.  In addition to these formal programs of St. Mark’s, countless members volunteer with organizations in the neighborhood – their local neighborhoods and St. Mark’s neighborhood – working in soup kitchens, with Family Focus, Y.O.U., Jr.Wildkits, the YWCA and many more.  In fact, just this past Tuesday, 17 young people and adults from St. Mark’s and St. Matthew’s spent the morning volunteering at the Producemobile where we served over 8,000 pounds of fresh produce to 302 households, totaling 1,016 of our neighbors. These are all ways in which God is already at work in our world and inviting us to come alongside, to be good neighbors. But here’s the challenge: you and I cannot become comfortable about the work we do “out there” until we are equally comfortable becoming and being a place “in here” that welcomes the neighborhood in – welcomes the neighborhood into our building – yes, but also into our worship, into our formation, into our fellowship, into all aspects of our life together.
I have a vision for St. Mark’s that we will strive continually to live our faith as a people “Being in Place” – that is, rooted in our community.  Being in Place – taking seriously God’s command to love our neighbor as ourselves.  How will we begin?  Perhaps we begin by simply shifting our thinking, to imagining a community that not only serves its neighbors, but a community that embraces its neighbors, imagining a community that works not only to better the lives of its neighbors, but  a community willing to be bettered by the lives of its neighbors.
Here’s a simple exercise to help us begin:  take a walk around the neighborhood. You can do this exercise around your own home, but I encourage you also to come to St. Mark’s and begin your walk at the corner of Ridge and Grove.  Come alone, come with a friend, come with your family, but come.  Make time for this important walk making sure you spend time walking to the west of St. Mark’s and time walking to the east of St. Mark’s.  Spend time walking to the north of St. Mark’s and to the south of St. Mark’s.  Before you start walking, ask God to give you the eyes of Christ, to see your neighbor in God’s light – those who are like you and especially those who are different from you.  Think about the people that shape our congregation and its practices. And, as you walk, look at the people you see. Notice any differences. Which groups have historically been on the margins?[vi] At the conclusion of your walk, reread the parable of the Good Samaritan – today’s gospel reading – and ask yourself, “Who is our neighbor?”  Talk with someone about what you discover.  Pray about what you have seen.  

[i] 2 Kings 17:1-41 (esp. vv. 5-6).
[ii] City of Evanston Community and Economic Development Department, “DP-1: Profile of  General Populationand Housing Characteristics,” (US Census Bureau)(accessed June 22, 2013).
[iii] St. Mark’s is located on the line between Tracts 8095 and 8096. The remaining three Tracts that make up “West Evanston” are Tracts 8092, 8097, and 8098 (source: City of Evanston Community and Economic Development Department, “2010 Census Results – City of Evanston, Illinois,” (US Census Bureau) (accessed June 22, 2013)).
[iv] Data adapted from City of Evanston Community and Economic Development Department, “Final Evanston
2010 Census Tract Information,” (US Census Bureau) (accessed June 22, 2013).
[v] Neil P. Harrison, “Congregations in the 21st Century: D.Min. in Congregational Development” (lecture, Bexley Hall Seabury Western Theological Seminary Federation, Chicago, IL, June 5, 2013).   
[vi] The idea of walking the neighborhood of the church was first presented to me in Stephanie Spellers, Radical Welcome: Embracing God, The Other, and the Spirit of Transformation, (New York: Church Publishing, 2006), p. 102.