Caught Up in Reckless Adventure

Systematic theology can be a helpful enterprise. A good one can help us frame biblical thought in ways to articulate what we believe with some clarity. Nevertheless it is good to ask if we tend to over emphasize our systematic theology of choice.

It is true the biblical text can feel like a reckless adventure. This is one reason we might feel the need for a systematic theology. Systematic theology makes things more predictable and helps us think we can know what happens next. On the other hand, reading the bible may have us feeling uneasy about what just happened or leave us with questions about why God acted that way. The biblical text brings surprise and leaves us with mystery.

We might feel uneasy about finding such a surprising unpredictable God. Yet this God is such a large part of the story that to tame Him with religious terms or to pretend we have Him figured out is to create an entirely different story. Still we formulate theories to explain biblical themes. While this can be full of good intention, it can come with a dangerous level of certainty. Systematic theology may bring assurance to some of us, but it does not always reflect what life looks like.

I fear our systematic theologies allow for a hermeneutic of dismissal. That is, permission to look past texts that do not support our systematic theory of choice. To gloss over any text or to force it down a particular path will only give us slivers of what the bible is actually trying to tell us. In the name of certainty and assurance we settle for slivers of God and slivers of grace and slivers of other things that matter.

Systematic theology comes with a temptation to be overly cognitive. If we can make it a thinking exercise then perhaps we will not have to behave differently. We sometimes give ourselves permission to make a verbal stand about something without demonstrating the behavior that reflects what we stand for. We can then preach holiness without being holy. We can then preach peace without being particularly interested in it. We can then preach grace as if it is something others should practice. We can then convince ourselves that to believe something and to say it out loud is more important than to change our behavior.

The bible was never intended to be a collection of proof texts to be pulled out on demand to make a case for our theories. The bible is the story of God’s mission in the world. All the text calls for is that the church will take it seriously. To become caught up in the reckless adventure that is the bible.

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Preachers Should Expect Surprise

In The Intrusive Word: Preaching to the Unbaptized William Willimon talks about how God’s love should cause preachers to expect surprises. He says “We ought to preach as if we were opening a package that could be packed with dynamite.”

The people God chooses to love are certainly surprises. I like Willimon’s conversation held in an empty church building. “I’d sit down in my office, pour God a cup of coffee, and ask, ‘Now let’s go over this again. Why did you think it was a good idea to build a church here… Okay. But why these people?’” He goes on “And then God would reply, saying something to the effect that ‘these are my people… (this) is my idea of a good time.’”

While Willimon may not be preaching as he writes this, he is a preacher so it is no surprise he turns to a text. He claims no one preaches Genesis 38. In this text we meet Tamar who goes through husbands and funerals and is eventually sent away. Tamar the unmarried childless widow becomes the savvy deceptive harlot. Willimon describes her expected situation like this “End of story. Tragic. Dead End.” Instead “Because this is the Bible, where nearly anything can happen and often does… Tamar becomes the lead character.”

Just when we are wondering why Genesis gives an entire chapter to Tamar, we are surprised to find her again. Only this time we find her in the Gospel of Matthew. The childless widow harlot who seduced her father in law becomes the great great grandmother of Jesus. Have we mentioned that God’s love should cause preachers to expect surprises?

Our history is full of ancestors we do not often talk about. We belong to a peculiar family. And we will continually be surprised by a God who would write a person like Tamar into the gospel. For “If Tamar could slip into the beginning of the gospel, so might you.”

Thank You Dr. Dennis Kinlaw

Dr. Dennis Kinlaw was a college president, an Old Testament professor, a chancellor, an author, the founder of a society. But many of us will remember him as a preacher. In the religious arena I was raised in, holiness preachers were giants. Dr. Kinlaw was considered a giant among giants. When he preached you were sure of two things; he was serious about the biblical text AND he loved the listener. I remember sitting in a college classroom when our professor looked out at young preachers and said “we want to shape you into preachers like Dennis Kinlaw.”

Kinlaw would not have said anything quite like that. In his Preaching in the Spirit he says “it is part of the miraculous work of God that he uses the likes of you and me, not to mention the likes of our sermons…” Kinlaw goes so far as to say “the greatest problem in preaching is not the preparation of the sermon but the preparation of the preacher.”

I once heard Kinlaw preach a sermon that included an active conversation between members of the Trinity. I am not sure how often he used that as a homiletic tool but he includes another of these conversations in Preaching. “There are some days when I know I have not acted as I ought… I can almost hear the heavenly Father ask Jesus, ‘Son, how did that Kinlaw guy do today?’ I hear the Son respond, ‘Well, Father, he did not do so well today.’ I quake as I hear the Father say, ‘Shall we give up on him?’” Kinlaw goes on, “I see Jesus lift two scarred hands to the Father and say, ‘No, Father. We have a substantial investment in him.’” Kinlaw claims to have a love affair with those scars.

Kinlaw provides excellent counsel when he says things like “I am a Wesleyan in theology, but I need to be very careful that when I read the Bible my concern is not to find what Wesley taught, but to discover the Word of God. If Wesley opens windows on the Word of God… three cheers for Wesley; but the important thing is that the Word of God comes alive for me, so that I can share it with others.”

It is holy week as I write this. I am reminded of Kinlaw’s conversation about the followers of Jesus following the crucifixion. Jesus had died and had been buried. Disciples were feeling some strong feelings. Ad then, on Sunday, some strange stories were being told. And “As the shadows lengthened into night, those who knew him best sought out one another; when they had found each other, they locked the doors…” Then “the miracle occurred… He was there, the Living Lord in their midst… Death had not really contained Him. He was alive!

Of this we can be certain; Kinlaw would want us to continue telling these strange stories.

A Written Sermon

“The Ministry of Forgiveness” (Matthew 6.12)

When we pray the Lord’s Prayer we are speaking a new language. This is the language of another kingdom. The truth is, we have become well versed in the language of the present kingdom. We throw around words like tolerance and use phrases like get over it and preach coexistence and learn to avoid people who have wronged us. We might use the word forgiveness but we use it for small matters. We might forgive someone for breaking a glass or getting the carpet dirty or hurting our feelings.

But in kingdom language, forgiveness is a revolutionary term. We can’t throw it around lightly. Forgiveness is shocking. Forgiveness is reckless. Forgiveness is undeserved. Forgiveness is world changing. When we pray this prayer we are praying for a revolution. We are praying for the world to change.

When we pray these words, we do so because of relationship with God. When we look at this prayer closely, it is not to dissect it into bite sized pieces so we can know more. We look at this prayer closely because we desire relationship with one who has long desired relationship with us. We seek to align ourselves with Jesus. We acknowledge we cannot tackle all of life’s problems and there are things we simply cannot accomplish. So we pray these words, entering a realm where God is ruler. We pray these words and understand where power lies. Matthew does not suggest power in prayer, Matthew wants to be clear, he is all in, power is with God. This prayer takes us into a realm where God is ruler. A realm where our will takes a backseat and God’s will comes to the forefront.

This part of the prayer has a strong interest in relationship with others. As we are forgiven, we are to forgive others. This would be so much easier to pray if it only were “forgive us…” It becomes complicated when we are expected to forgive others in the same way. Yet, Matthew wants us to know, we are forgiven so that we may participate in the ministry of forgiveness.

This changes everything. We cannot live life the same any longer. Since we are forgiven, we are expected to forgive. Have you been looking for a ministry to become involved with? This is your lucky day, Matthew is inviting you to the ministry of forgiveness. You haven’t been looking for ministry? Matthew doesn’t allow for that option – you have been called to the ministry of forgiveness.

Here is a connection between what God does and what we do. Later Matthew tells us the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. I will read the story… Matthew 18.23-35. This story provides a commentary on “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”

As we are forgiven, we are expected to forgive. When God forgives us, we are to become representatives of forgiveness. It is like we are agents for the kingdom. We represent what it is like to live in this kingdom. Here where we receive and give forgiveness. Forgiving others is the proper response to being forgiven. In the parable we meet one who did not represent kingdom come. He was grateful for being forgiven but had no interest in forgiving others. He does not represent what it is like for God to rule on earth as it is in heaven. He is not speaking the language of another kingdom.

The unforgiving servant in the story wanted to pray the part “forgive us our debts” but not the part “as we forgive our debtors.” But the Lord’s Prayer is not a buffet where we pick and choose what appeals to us. We do not get to say yes to daily bread and being forgiven and then skip over forgiving others. This is the bare bones of Jesus teaching. The essentials of what we bring to God in prayer. The prayer helps us to pay attention to our soul. Don’t worry about what others are saying. Don’t worry about fairness. Don’t worry about how many likes you get – pay attention to your soul. Does it surprise us that Jesus includes forgiveness among the essentials of what we bring to God in prayer? Jesus desires to keep us close. Failure to forgive cuts you off. Failure to forgive is like cutting off the branch you are sitting on.

We might be uneasy with so much forgiveness talk. We certainly are not the first. Matthew tells a story about people uneasy with Jesus and his forgiveness policies. In this story we meet a paralyzed man. It is no surprise at this point that Jesus looks at the man, assesses his needs, then forgives the man’s sins. Others thought this was inappropriate, even blasphemous. We know how this story goes. Matthew wants us to know that in this kingdom, the king of the kingdom has authority to do anything. But everyone is not convinced so Jesus asks a question, “which do you think is simpler, to say, I forgive your sins or get up and walk?” We know what they are thinking. Anyone can say they forgive sins. Jesus turns to the paralyzed man and says “Get up, take your bed and go home.” Matthew does not leave us in suspense long, “and the man did it.”

We are beginning to get the importance of forgiveness in this prayer. The importance of forgiveness in this kingdom. Wherever Jesus goes, whoever he is with – forgiveness is his default strategy. Jesus is throwing forgiveness around like he found it at a wholesale club on discount.

One of the more well-known stories we have in the New Testament is a story about a running man. Today it is trendy to run. Clothing manufacturers might not care if you run but they want you to look like you run. Shoe manufacturers want you to wear shoes they have designed just for running. Dignified people are photographed while running. But when the story of the running man was told dignified people did not run. Dignified people did not even walk fast. But Jesus tells us a story about a running man. A man who embarrasses himself by his lack of dignity. It is more embarrassing when we realize he is running to greet one who is a disgrace, one who has embarrassed the family.

Sometimes we call this story the prodigal son, today we will call it the running man. We need stories like the running man because without them we cannot know the shocking undeservedness of what it means to pray “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” We need stories like the running man because we are not always convinced we need forgiven. And not always willing to forgive others. We need stories like the running man because we are inclined to think that people get what they deserve. Jesus is telling us about a kingdom that is ruled by a King who wants to forgive so badly that he will be like an undignified running man who cannot wait to meet a disgraced child.

We might be catching on that when we pray “forgive us our debts” God really wants to forgive. But this part “as we forgive our debtors,” That is still so complicated, it still seems so reckless. Not surprisingly, this has been questioned also. Matthew tells us that Peter wants to know how this works. Jesus has been throwing forgiveness around willy-nilly. Does it ever run out? Should we budget forgiveness? Should we reserve it for those more deserving? How many times? How about seven? Jesus replies, “seven, hardly. Try seventy times seven.”

It is so much easier to talk about forgiveness than it is to forgive someone who has really wronged you. Yet we gather to acknowledge, to receive, and to proclaim forgiveness. We are learning a new language. We are the representatives of forgiveness – called to the ministry of forgiveness. “forgive us… as we forgive our debtors.”

Are We Listening?

A quote to remind us the gospels were written with a purpose in mind;

“One can imagine a conversation between the four evangelists who wrote the gospels and a group of ‘evangelists’ in our modern sense who are used to preaching sermons week by week that explain exactly how the cross deals with problems of ‘sin’ and ‘hell.’ The four ancient writers are shaking their heads and trying to retell the story they all wrote: of how Jesus launched the kingdom of God on earth as in heaven and how his execution was actually the key, decisive moment in that accomplishment. The modern evangelists come right back with their theories, diagrams, and homely illustrations. The ancient writers eventually explode: ‘You’re just not listening!’ ‘Yes, we are,’ reply the modern preachers… ‘but you guys just aren’t saying the right stuff!’” (N. T. Wright, The Day the Revolution Began, p. 197)

A Preaching Gift for the Church

Mike Walters is currently serving as an adjunct professor for Northeastern Seminary in Rochester, NY. Previously, he served various roles at Houghton College in Houghton, NY. Before that, Mike served at Ohio Christian University which is where I first met him. Mike has authored two books. James: a Bible Commentary in the Wesleyan Tradition and Can’t Wait for Sunday: Leading Your Congregation in Authentic Worship. Both are published by Wesleyan Publishing House.

I recently had the opportunity to hear Mike preach. In one of those sermons he claimed that he could be cantankerous at times. (He did not give opportunity for agreement or disagreement). Still, he is a preacher who intends to preach the things the text sees as important. He has an interest in what the text was written to do. I am pretty certain he would claim he is not smart enough to do anything else. He can only preach what is given by the text. Walters will work to keep the text in front of the listener. And sometimes he will allow the text to sneak up behind the listener. But he always wants the sermon to always be about the text.

Walters has preached enough sermons and taught enough preaching classes that he knows how to keep the text in the forefront. He will highlight small details that may be easily overlooked. He will visit his own personal history. He will use images from pop culture. He will quote theologians and monastics. He will make up his own phrases. But he only does any of these things in order to push forward the conversation about the text.

When listeners hear Walters talk about the bible they will realize that though culture appears to have changed a lot over the centuries, people patterns have not. Because of this, Walters is able to make characters of the bible recognizable. This is an important part of his preaching because he wants listeners to understand that God is quite familiar with characters like us. God has been working with the likes of you and me for a long time. The church is fortunate for the preaching ministry of Mike Walters.

How Should We Preach about Sin and Evil?

For a long time we have treated personal sin and larger pictures of evil as different discussions. We have responded by preaching atonement theories that addressed the forgiving of personal sin so we might get to heaven. All other evil became part of “the problem of evil.” This category of evil need not be addressed by the cross but by philosophical and political debate.

Such thinking, according to N. T. Wright, is “not only politically naive and disastrous, not only philisophically shallow: it was also theologically naive or even… heretical. It was trying to ‘deal with evil’ all by itself, with no reference to any belief that this might be God’s job.” Wright goes on to say “it is God who deals with evil, and he does this on the cross. Any other ‘dealing with evil’ must be seen in the light of that.”

What is your response?