Fleming Rutledge discusses Advent’s unflinching gaze at evil and its themes of wrath, judgment, and hope.
By Zachary Guiliano
“Every year, Advent begins in the dark.” This phrase opens and punctuates a series of sermons by the Rev. Fleming Rutledge, from the mid-1990s to the present day. It condenses into one poignant phrase a theme that emerges again and again in her preaching, speaking, and writing: the necessity of confronting realities and topics that modern people, Christians, and perhaps especially Episcopalians want to avoid, even when the sharp edges of those realities recur. The problem of evil, the judgment and wrath of God, the inescapable strangeness and power of the biblical witness — all these animate Rutledge’s thinking and expression.
“That’s what I think is so important about the season,” she told TLC. “The uniqueness of Advent is that it really forces us more than any other season, even more than Lent, to look deeply into what is wrong in the world, and why the best-laid plans don’t work out the way we meant them to, and why our greatest hopes are so often confounded, and why things happen the way they do, and why sometimes it is so difficult to see where God is acting.”
Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ (Eerdmans, 2018) is her latest offering, a collection of 46 sermons delivered in the past four decades, paired with a thematic introduction and other writings. Her intended audience includes preachers, teachers, liturgists, and laypeople “who want to live more deeply out of the gospel as it is dramatized in the church’s year” (p. 30) She admits the volume “has a conspicuous Episcopal (Anglican) flavor” but her “hope is that Christian believers of all persuasions will find that the depth of theological meaning in the observance of Advent holds inexhaustible significance for them as well in these days” (p. 31). To that end, the sermons and other resources refer constantly not only to Scripture, but to Advent liturgies and hymns, Handel’s Messiah, and the poetry of Auden and Eliot — each drawing out and extending the themes of the appointed lectionary readings.
Rutledge’s career has spanned one of the most dramatic periods of change in the Episcopal Church. Made deacon in 1975 and priest in 1977, she was among the earliest ordained women in the church, and began her ministry at a time of great liturgical upheaval, as the 1979 Book of Common Prayer was authorized. Her temperament and influences have long been distinctive. One of the sermons, “The Great But,” provides some sense of her impatience with political correctness among other seminarians in the ’70s. Moreover, she takes pride in having been molded, as a sixth-generation Episcopalian, by what Paul Zahl calls “the Protestant Face of Anglicanism.”
The “justification of the ungodly” is a constant theme, and her intellectual influences are more Continental and Reformed than those of many other Episcopalians. John Calvin, Ernst Käsemann, Karl Barth, and others appear frequently in her writing, though her reading and intellectual engagement are both wide and deep. The reader is just as likely to encounter a quotation from Augustine or Anselm or modern scholars like Brevard Childs, Robert Jenson, Paul Riceour, and Katherine Sonderegger, all set alongside references to current events and literature. Each sermon, therefore, is something of a master class in preaching. In this and other ways, Rutledge considers herself an heir to the deep intellectual and spiritual traditions of Protestantism, as well as part of “the great Church” of the ages, always seeking God’s truth and communicating it effectively.
As a sought-out speaker, preacher, and retreat leader, Rutledge’s homiletic skill has long been recognized by those inside and outside the Episcopal Church. Advent is her seventh collection of published sermons with Eerdmans, and the late Hughes Oliphant Old, author of a definitive multi-volume work, The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church, classed her appreciatively with other “generous orthodoxy” preachers like Methodist Will Willimon. “When the Word is truly preached, the glory has by no means departed,” he said of Rutledge.
Grappling with and struggling to understand that divine Word is the preacher’s calling, before any sermon can be delivered. “Giving up oneself to the fresh reading of a passage of Scripture is a very humbling exercise, because if we’re really reading it and receiving it, we’re going to find ourselves reoriented. We’re not going to be able to use the illustrations we plan to use. We’re not going to be able to say the things we planned to say,” she says.
“This Word is alive, and God speaks through it. And that means my little notions of what I was going to say may be overturned and, by God’s grace, reshaped for others.” Preachers need to be “seized by the text.” Rutledge describes her training in preaching with a Lutheran professor at Union Theological Seminary as “intensely demanding, rigorous, and biblical.”
The season of Advent particularly needs these disciplines in its preachers, for it confronts us with truths we wish to avoid: the problem of evil and “rampaging demonic powers.” “Advent requires us to think about judgment, that theme we scorn and disdain and omit and gloss over throughout the year,” she says. “If you take Advent as a seven-week season, beginning with the Sunday after All Saints, then you have a full biblical picture in the lectionary of what it means to experience the wrath of God. And that, of course is a great challenge for preachers because no one wants to hear about the wrath of God.”
The sermons in Advent therefore engage in an activity that Rutledge describes in the introduction as “looking into the heart of darkness.” Many of them describe historical or contemporary horrors: war, murder, the torture of children, atrocities from Nazi Germany or the Rwandan genocide, natural disasters and accidents, or the great divide between rich and poor that becomes so evident in the run-up to Christmas.
Her goal is not to convince her audience of the evil that lies somewhere out there, but of the evil within each human heart. In “When the Man Comes Around,” she criticizes New York Times columnist David Brooks for decrying the horrific crimes of Saddam Hussein’s regime, while elevating American moral character. “Brooks does not allow any room for understanding that Americans, too, are part of the dark reality of human nature.”
“Every day we learn more and more how the United States is implicated in evils around the world,” she told TLC, citing the recent example of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and the war in Yemen. “American companies are deeply, deeply involved in supporting and providing intelligence and other types of cooperation with the Saudis. … There’s an intricate web of Sin and Death in our world which cannot be overcome by human imagination or human resolution or proposals or propositions or actions.”
This necessary Advent meditation on the mystery and problem of evil is analogous to looking into the depths of hell, a comparison Rutledge draws in her acclaimed book The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (Eerdmans, 2015). To consider Christ’s descent into hell, she writes, is partly “to look without blinking at the presence and potency of radical evil in order to register the worst about human nature, to fortify ourselves to resist that worst, … by acknowledging that there are submerged dark inclinations in all of us that under certain circumstances can come to the surface” (emphasis original). As one of her sermons puts it, quoting Václav Havel and his evocation of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, “The line between good and evil runs through each person.”
We would misread Rutledge if we imagined her preaching is meant merely to take us to the moral brink and throw us in the abyss, like some caricature of a fire-and-brimstone preacher. Rather, the contemplation of evil highlights how we live like the biblical prophets, in a time between times. We await the coming of the Messiah to usher in the new creation and bring an end to evil. “It can only be overcome in the last analysis by an intervention from another sphere,” she says. “This is what is promised in Jesus Christ.”
On the Second Coming rests “the integrity of the whole gospel.” Without it, Christ would not truly be the long-awaited Messiah: “the Christian gospel would not come to its completion, and … take on the world-historical, cosmic relevance aspect that it has in Isaiah and Revelation, not to mention Paul and his letters.”
Rutledge is aware of how countercultural Advent’s message is, both for contemporary culture and for a church whose liturgical and biblical sense is often adrift. “[N]othing short of a full court press could bring it back into the worship of the church,” she writes in Advent.
“I have personally been present when new names for the candles of the Four Sundays of Advent have been proposed along the lines of Peace, Joy, Love, and Hope. This presents quite a contrast with the medieval Advent themes of death, judgment, heaven, and hell—in that order!”
The theme has been countercultural throughout Rutledge’s education and ministry. “When I was young, I was told that We don’t believe that anymore. I was told that by seminary professors and highly educated clergy and other ‘large’ figures in the church. … Well, in my old age I have come to believe that without that promise the gospel becomes simply consolation for individuals and nothing of world-historical importance.”
Rutledge has been seized by that Word of God encountered in Holy Scripture and proclaimed in Advent. And so she can preach with conviction about judgment and wrath, but also hope, addressing “all of history, all of humanity, all of the future, because God can create out of nothing.”