Pilgrim Theological College was blessed to hear Kylie Crabb give an incredibly thoughtful reflection at our valedictory service in October.
We’re pleased to share the written version of the reflection below.
Pilgrim Theological College, 28 Oct 2021
Rev Dr Kylie Crabbe
Reading from All Saints’ Day
We gather, in these strange times and at the end of yet another tricky, Covid-affected semester, just a few days out from All Saints’ Day. It occurs to me that such a liturgical date is a very good time to celebrate all that you have achieved in your theological studies. And, I want to begin by saying to our valedictorians: Truly, well done! (I realise you may still have a few last things to finish up, but still): This is an important marker, as you think over all those assignments, and weekly readings, and tutorials, and pages of lecture notes that have gotten you here! I hope you do feel what is an entirely appropriate sense of satisfaction and pride. It’s the kind of moment, especially given the nearness of All Saints’ Day, when you might feel particularly connected to the people who have inspired you in your discipleship, your vocation, study; people for whom we pause to give thanks.
It’s actually the kind of moment that rightly reminds us of many others who have gone before us. As we gather here online from country in lots of different places, we will remember the indigenous people who have been and continue to be stewards and teachers in these places, who have witnessed and continue to witness to us. Though we’re not all in the building at Pilgrim, we remember those who have engaged the same biblical texts and doctrines in theological colleges before us, raising the theological problems of their times. Not always studying remotely in a lockdown, but regardless they have applied theological questions to strange times that were unprecedented in their own ways: through wars, political upheavals, economic depressions, even the Spanish flu pandemic! People have engaged in theological reflection as asylum seekers in different eras, as people coming from other churches in the pacific and beyond, all of whom have shaped and continue to shape our tradition and our churches. We are not alone, as we wonder about how to apply our theological resources to our lived experience; it’s at least as old as the biblical text.
At the height of Jesus’ ministry in John, when opposition is about to snowball (actually, in large part as a result of this episode), Jesus brings Lazarus back to life. There are so many ways we could encounter this text. As Mary, who runs to meet Jesus, and confronts him with “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Her advocacy reiterates Martha’s earlier comments to Jesus, too. And this family of siblings, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, inspires a tradition of talking about the discipleship elements of devotion, service, and repentance respectively (morphing together some traditions from Luke and John). Maybe Mary and Martha’s lament is food for thought about the nature of devotion and service.
But, is their forthright advocacy and lament the more surprising thing, or the response it elicits from Jesus? He cries—this is no stoic, passionless hero, but the Word become flesh is deeply moved, troubled. And he cries.
We then get further detail: Jesus wants to open the tomb and the response is that there will be a stench. (Let’s not be tempted to sanitise scripture, to remove emotions and senses: this is graphic—it will be horrid, and that’s even apart from the issues of purity). But Jesus calls Lazarus out, and we are told: “the dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’”
It’s a pretty markable series of statements:
I’m struck by the dynamic relationship, here, between divine and human action. Jesus gives life from death. The community unbinds. We have this extraordinary picture here of a person brought back to life, walking around, and yet still constrained by the trappings of death—which the community is instructed to remove.
It seems to me that there’s something here that is an invitation, or a challenge, as we reflect on what we are called to do.
So, what is the point of a theological education? Maybe this is not the time to ask such a difficult a question! I remember having the sense that I was learning a million things that were hard to fit into or absorb during the three (or five or ten, or twelve!) years of a Bachelor of Theology, and my congregational minister saying to me: it’s ok, this isn’t so you learn it all in the time of your BTheol—these are the resources, the questions, the starting points for a lifetime of learning. And you’ll keep unpacking them, wondering about them, applying them in new contexts for years and decades to come (he was, of course, right! I still am! And I suspect he knew that was true because he still was himself. And you will keep unpacking these things for years and decades to come, as well).
But I do still want to wonder about this question of how we use our theological education. I’ve recently had cause to look into ways to talk about what a PhD is and how we support people doing PhDs (this is not a sneaky way to get you back doing more theological study after this, though—of course—don’t forget about lifelong learning!). But one set of language or imagery I particularly liked was to talk about students as stewards of a discipline, and to think about training as being a process of generating, conserving, and transforming. So learning is productive—it generates. And it holds together both conservation—being grounded in a tradition, and transformation—being part of the new generation that will also bring about change. Though this was secular theory, it clearly uses language we are familiar with, like stewardship! And it seems helpful to me as we consider how we use our theological education—we are grounded in tradition (in fact, a tradition that is itself comprised of faithful people trying to apply earlier resources to their own new and challenging situations) and we are likewise called to apply these traditions to new situations, which will be transforming.
In all of this, we are I think authentically seeking partnership with God. It’s captured in that amazing image of the risen Lazarus, walking around bound in the wrappings, the accessories, of death, and Jesus’ call to: “Unbind him and let him go.” We are called to act for liberation. To liberate what God has given life to. And so we will find ourselves having to ask these questions: where are the places that God is giving life? And how can our action, our skill, our experience—our theological education—be used to liberate, to unbind the things that are holding that life back?
There are different ways to use an education. We can use knowledge to lord it over others. We can use our own expertise to be rigid and exacting. To shut down disagreement, to undercut those less confident. May we—all of us—find ways to avoid this temptation to sin. In another way, we can let go of our own knowledge too readily, lose confidence in the face of new, contextual challenges, or others with louder voices. And I pray that we might find that our learning here in this place nourishes us in ways that also help us to avoid this. This story about Lazarus (and Mary, and Martha, and Jesus, and the crowd) invites us to reflect seriously on both God’s action in giving life, and our call to liberate.
And so we may hear the different elements of the story at different times. We might feel the call to have Mary’s confidence to address Jesus—and to ask: what is with this delay or apparent inattention that has allowed this heartbreaking situation even to arise? We might hear the call to attend to the down-to-earth realities—a Jesus who cries (the Word become Flesh who shares our grief), and death and brokenness here in our world that stinks. Indeed, if we are going to follow this Jesus then we need to be prepared not only to be called out from our own places of death, but to be moved by the heartbreak of the Marys. This is, it seems to me, what a theological education is for—and how it looks in practice will be different in different places and as the tradition is applied in new times. But it is about responding to a profound call to be in partnership with the God who brings life from death, and to deploy our theological education for liberation as we hear the words: unbind him and let him go.