As God’s people arrived at the table during the 222nd General Assembly (2016) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), they were greeted Thursday with a service whose theme was the oft-told parable of the Good Samaritan.
The centerpiece was a sermon by Alice Ridgill of New Faith Presbyterian Church in Greenwood, South Carolina, who called on those in attendance to remember that while the denomination may face difficulties, “This is not the time to lose hope. It is a time to keep hope alive.”
Referring to the parable from the 10th chapter of the Gospel of Luke, Ridgill said it reminds her of the popular reality-TV program, “Naked and Afraid,” on which two individuals are taken to a remote location where they meet for the first time and are left stranded without food, water or clothing. They must survive on their own by their wits, instincts and survival skills.
“Naked and afraid.” Ridgill said. “No better words could be used to describe the predicament of the individuals on that reality show, and no better words could be used to describe the predicament of the wounded traveler in this parable.”
Rather than give our attention to the Good Samaritan, as is often the case, Ridgill said she’d rather focus on the actions of the wounded traveler – because “if the wounded traveler had not done the things that he did, then the Good Samaritan could not have done the things he did.”
“What we have to appreciate about the wounded traveler is that he didn’t let his misfortune muzzle him, nor did he let his predicament paralyze him,” she said. “Rather than give up as he sat by the roadside, naked and afraid, the wounded traveler did four things that made a difference in his situation … four things we too can do to make a difference in our present communities.”
The first thing he did, she said, was assess his plight.
“Did you catch it?” Ridgill asked. “The text says that they left him half- dead. Not dead! Half-dead! Half-dead means he was breathing, but barely. Half-dead means he was alive, but scarcely. Half-dead means his heart was beating, but slowly. Half-dead. In other words, he was almost dead, but not quite dead yet.”
Sometimes events in life may leave us feeling half-dead, but we must remember that God is always in control, she said, citing Romans 8:28.
“I don’t know who I’m ministering to today,” she said, “but I came all the way from Greenwood, South Carolina, to tell you that this is not the time to give up, give out, or give in. This is the time to remember that God is your refuge and strength, a present help in the time of trouble.”
The second useful thing the wounded traveler did, she said, was arrest his pride.
“Can you imagine how this must have felt?” she asked, pointing out that the two people you would expect to help, did not. She said it must have left him feeling valueless.
“It’s one thing to be mistreated by adversaries, but it’s another thing to be mistreated by associates,” she said. “It’s one thing to be mistreated by foes, but it’s another thing to be mistreated by friends. It’s one thing to be mistreated by competitors, but it’s another thing to be mistreated by comrades. They should’ve helped him, and they could’ve helped him, but they refused.”
Many of us may have found ourselves in a similar situation and felt betrayed, she said, but don’t despair, because “you may not always be able to count on others, but you can always count on God.”
The wounded traveler’s third action was to accept the person in front of him.
He needed help, and to get help he had to accept this person, this “Samaritan” person, whom he was supposed to revile and hate, by the societal standards of the day.
“Friends, God would have us to remember that beyond every label is a person,” Ridgill said. “…Regardless of our differences, the one thing we all have in common is our personhood. The individual beside you is a person. The individual behind you is a person. The individual preaching to you is a person. And, while we don’t all act the same way, think the same way, process things the same way, or want things the same way, the common link for all of us is that we are people: people created in the imago dei, the very image of God.”
The wounded traveler didn’t see a Samaritan, and the Samaritan didn’t see a Jew, she said. They both saw a person. They did not see theological differences, they saw a person.
Finally, the wounded traveler aligned his passion with that of the other. “While their theological underpinnings were different, their passion was the same,” she said. “While one worshipped in Jerusalem and the other on Mt. Gerizim, their passion was the same. While their backgrounds were different, their passion was the same. While their perspectives were different, their passion was the same.”
The wounded traveler needed help, and the Samaritan wanted to help, she said – and they both were passionate about getting off of the dangerous Jericho road.
Ridgill said we must take our cue from John Calvin and remind ourselves that we are knit together with a holy knot. And we must take our cue from the wounded traveler – by assessing our situation, arresting our pride, accepting those with whom we have differences, and align our passions with those of the other.
“The plight of our denomination is different than it was years ago,” she said. “Membership is declining, congregations are dissolving, resources are dwindling, and many are leaving.
“In assessing our plight, some have compared our beloved denomination to the wounded traveler, suggesting that we are half- dead, that we are dying, but not quite dead yet. I am a practical realist, and I admit that we may be wounded; but I am also a faith-filled optimist, and I declare that we will not die. Our best days are not behind us; our best days are still with us.”
She said we must ask ourselves: “What kind of footprint do we want to leave behind, so that when we are gone, future generations of Christians will know we were here?”
“Like the wounded traveler and the Good Samaritan, I want to leave behind the footprint of a difference-maker,” said Ridgill. “What about you?”
Before she organized New Faith church in 2010, Ridgill was pastor of the former Washington Street Presbyterian Church in Abbeville, South Carolina. She also has served as an adjunct professor of pastoral care at Erskine College; the campus pastor of Thornwell Home for Children in Clinton, South Carolina; and a chaplain candidate in the United States Air Force Reserves.