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The PC(USA)’s Evangelism Conference seeks to address harm while embracing hope

The Rev. Gregory Bentley, Co-Moderator of the 224th General Assembly in 2020, delivers a stirring Good Samaritan sermon during opening worship

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Gregory Bentley was Co-Moderator of the 224th General Assembly (2020) and is pastor of Fellowship Presbyterian Church in Huntsville, Alabama. (File photo by Randy Hobson)

LOUISVILLE — Leave it to a gifted preacher like the Rev. Gregory Bentley to inspire people attending opening worship at the Evangelism Conference Sunday evening with a sermon he called “Left for Dead.”

“This is a timeless and terrific story,” said Bentley of the Parable of the Good Samaritan, his preaching text for the conference being offered by Theology, Formation & Evangelism and running through Tuesday at Montreat Conference Center and online. Bentley is pastor of Fellowship Presbyterian Church in Huntsville, Alabama, and was Co-Moderator of the 224th General Assembly (2020).

The conference theme is “Addressing Harm, Embracing Hope.”

As the Rev. Dr. Diane Moffett, president and executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, “reminded me earlier of something I heard years ago,” said the Rev. Dr. Ray Jones III, director of TFE, “the church is called to form peculiar people in the name of Jesus.” When we [in the church] are about diversity or justice or dismantling “the evils of structural racism,” people will ask the faithful, “What on Earth are you up to?” according to Jones. “We are developing a peculiar people. You and I — we’re peculiar, and the world needs peculiar people.”

During a sermon as engaging as it was thoughtful, Bentley said that before delivering one of his most memorable parables, Jesus, “just like an ancient rabbi,” answers a question with a question when an expert in the law asks Jesus how he can inherit eternal life. When the man supplies his answer, “Jesus responded, ‘Man, you know the Bible. Do this, and you will live.’” Bentley pointed out that Jesus did not say “know this or preach this and you will live,” or “call a session meeting or bring an overture to General Assembly and you will live.”

When the man asks Jesus who his neighbor is, “Jesus tells a stupendous story that has been guiding the church for 2,000 years,” Bentley said, a “response to those beaten down and left for dead.”

In Jesus’ parable, both the priest and the Levite elect to walk by the half-dead man. Bentley surmised the Levite may have seen the priest bypass the beaten man and concluded, “If this man of God crossed over to the other side and kept on trucking, I’ll just follow his example and do the same thing.”

“Our fear holds us hostage. It keeps us captive and prevents us from forming redemptive relationships that reveal the heart and character of God,” Bentley said. “Thank God for the Samaritan. He gets involved even at the risk of his own safety.”

What stands out to Bentley is not only the Samaritan’s courage, but his compassion as well. “He felt the pain of another in his gut,” Bentley said. “We need a church today that has belly sensitivity to offer.”

“Brother Samaritan draws near to the man, pour his good oil and good wine on his wounds, puts him on his good mule and brings him to the inn. … Not only did he care, he expressed his care by laying down some cash. In America, what we really care about we put some money behind.”

The Samaritan wasn’t the only one to make an investment. The innkeeper did too, caring for the man during his convalescence. “Nursing and nurturing those who have been left for dead is messy business,” Bentley said.

In the same way the U.S. developed and enacted the Marshall Plan to aid war-ravaged Europe following World War II, “we have to make that kind of commitment to those in our country who have been left for dead,” Bentley said.

Two years ago, the Co-Moderators of the 224th General Assembly chose the Sankofa as their symbol. (Contributed image)

Conference-goers had the opportunity to actively respond as worship concluded. The conference artist, the Rev. Rachel Hood Yogado, had earlier created a Sankofa bird on corkboard, leaving spaces to hold prayers that people wrote on slips of paper which they then rolled up. Online attendees also joined in. Their prayers will also be placed on the Sankofa.

“Almighty God, grant that our work and our evangelism be lit up with desire for real life and flourishing for our neighbors, and not numbers in our pews!” wrote an online attendee.

“Lord, I confess that in all the times I’ve heard the story of the Good Samaritan I’ve never placed myself in the position of the person half dead and that is because of privilege,” wrote another. “Help me to divest that power in favor of those who are half-dead, those who are unseen, those who are unheard, those who are unloved. … Help us all to be transformed and join into a new community that loves unconditionally as taught by Jesus’ story of unconditional love of our neighbor. Amen.”

On Monday, the conference continues with two keynote addresses by the Rev. Shanea Leonard, the PMA’s coordinator for Gender and Racial Justice, and the first of two 90-minute workshops.

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