God is ‘the subject of every sentence that ends in redemption’

Sprunt Lecture series turns to renunciations, ‘what we need to leave behind in order to walk with the One who set us free’

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

the Rev. Dr. Ted A. Smith

LOUISVILLE — Before launching into the third of his four Sprunt Lectures Tuesday evening, the Rev. Dr. Ted A. Smith offered what he called “a sermonic interlude” based on Jeremiah 31:31-34.

Smith, Professor of Preaching and Ethics at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, is delivering the Sprunt Lecture series online this week for Union Presbyterian Seminary. The lecture series title comes straight from the prophet Jeremiah: “No Longer Shall They Teach One Another: The End of Theological Education.” A report on Smith’s first two lectures is here. Watch his third Sprunt Lecture installment here.

“The ends that matter most are God’s ends, which live in God’s time, not past, present and future,” Smith said as part of his sermonic interlude. “It’s always now and not yet. The Cross and the Resurrection come in the middle of history, transforming all of history. The Word breaks into our time together.”

Jeremiah’s vision is not a goal. It’s an end, Smith said — an end to theological education, because everyone will know God, from the least to the greatest.

“God will make this covenant in God’s own time for God’s own reasons,” Smith said. “God is the subject of every sentence that ends in redemption. God desires to be known because knowing and being known is one dimension of what love is.”

“Whatever the end of theological education involves,” Smith said, “it’s not just expert knowledge for a select group. It is saving knowledge for all. This knowledge is the gift God gives. It is the very stuff of salvation.”

“To know God,” Smith said, “is to be found in God, to be lost in wonder, love and praise … Jeremiah describes an end that’s a real ending: God’s desire, God’s love, is stronger than all the powers that would defy it.”

“We are called to relate to theological education as a fallen, fallible venture that’s still illuminated from within by God’s desire to be known by all people.”

“O great day,” Smith said, “when a theological school will not be necessary or possible. Friends, that is our hope. Thanks be to God!”

With that, Smith delved into his lecture.

If the end has already come, he asked, what form should practical reasoning take? “Eschatology and practical reasoning are not an easy fit,” Smith said, “but they’re a fit we have to find.”

It begins with God’s action, “the trust the God is loving the world back to right relation,” Smith said. God’s love is like a refiner’s fire, the prophet Malachi said. “It consumes the power of sin and death,” according to Smith, “and creates a new creation that can respond to love with love.”

It’s also “like an earthquake that shakes the foundation of an imperial prison,” he said, when prison walls come down, setting the apostles Paul and Silas free to do redeeming work. Smith then turned to thoughts around the title of his third talk, Renunciations.

We’re not called to renounce everything. But we are called to renounce “that which we need to leave behind in order to walk with the One who set us free,” Smith said. Christian practical reasoning begins with those renunciations.

For theological educators, renunciation may start with professional status. An MDiv or even a doctoral degree “no longer punches one’s ticket to the middle class, and these degrees are expensive,” Smith said. Smith displayed Association of Theological Schools data that indicates the average student enters seminary with accumulated debt of about $32,000, then borrows another $33,000 or so to complete seminary studies. Black and non-Hispanic seminary students pile up about $43,000 in seminary debt, on average, and women incur more debt than men do, “and are more likely to face discrimination when seeking jobs and compensation,” Smith said.

the Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney

“We talk about formation in seminary, a practice [students] continue at regular intervals for the rest of their lives,” Smith said. “Indebtedness has this formational role, and that means we have to renounce it.”

“What could we do,” Smith said, “if we renounce the debt that comes with theological education to live into this freedom? I can’t wait to see what you do with it. I can’t wait.”

The Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney, Professor of Hebrew Bible at Brite Divinity School in Ft. Worth, Texas, will delivers Union Presbyterian Seminary’ Sprunt Lecture series May 2-4, 2022. An Episcopal priest, Gafney is the author of “Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to Women of the Torah and of the Throne.”

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