Listening to and reading Fleming Rutledge

I had the opportunity to hear the Rev’d Fleming Rutledge speak today. Her presentation was entitled “What happened to Theology?” I went out of curiosity and because I have read two of her books in recent months. Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ(2018) accompanied me as I prepared and preached Advent in 2018 and last week, I read Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ(2015). I found both books challenging theologically and at times off-putting but engaging with them is time well spent. I had the same reaction to her presentation today.

One of the biggest challenges for me is simply her Barthian presuppositions. She contrasts Christian (biblical faith) with religion. The former originates with God; the latter with humans. I struggle with this for two reasons. First, because of the nature of scripture itself. Without going into a lengthy discussion, holy scripture is a compilation of books, deemed authoritative by human decisions, written by humans, using language which is also a product of human culture. Thus, revelation is necessary mediated through humans and to speak of God being the subject of theology, or that “scripture is the story God is telling of Godself” is true on the one hand, yet at the same time, it is also being told and preserved by humans.

Secondly, to contrast biblical (Christian) faith with religion is problematic in our religiously plural age. Does it result in a privileging of Christianity over against other religious traditions? Does it privilege Christianity over “not-Christianity” (ie., Judaism) in reading scripture? Does it overlook or ignore all of the ways in which the various forms of Christianity, historically and in the present are similar to other religious forms? Indeed, is it necessary for her project to make such distinctions?

 

One of the things she stressed today was the importance of learning and living in the biblical story. Whether or not I accept her views of the nature of revelation, I do agree that scripture tells the story of God, and that by wrestling with the story contained in scripture we encounter God, we learn about God’s relationship with humans, and we learn about human beings as well. To read scripture, to immerse oneself in scripture, is to immerse oneself in a conversation with God, in which God does the talking, but as we listen, we are compelled to ask questions, of ourselves, of the world, of scripture, and of God.

One of the things I appreciated most about Crucifixion was that instead of laying out a theory of the atonement, Rutledge explored the many images that the New Testament uses to talk about the crucifixion. Many of these images are problematic and challenging, but in her exposition, she showed their power to convey something unique and meaningful, without asserting that any single one conveyed all of the meaning of the cross. In that work, she very much shows what it means to enter the story of scripture, as she teases out the many possible meanings of “sacrifice” for example. She insists, for example, that it was an image used by early Christians, and for us to understand the faith of those early Christians, and for us to be faithful Christians in the twenty-first century, engaging with the entire range of biblical imagery concerning the cross helps us understand our faith, and perhaps come to deeper faith. I will never again be self-conscious about loving the great Lutheran passion chorales, for example.

I was as challenged by her emphasis on apocalyptic themes in Advent as I was by her appeal to take seriously the full range of biblical imagery surrounding the cross. Advent emphasizes the Second Coming in its scriptural passages as well as its hymnody much more strongly than it does the Nativity. Apocalyptic falls in and out of fashion as culture changes, and for many contemporary mainline Christians, its association with a particular emphasis in conservative Protestantism makes it suspect. Still, while scholars may debate the extent to which Jesus himself was an apocalyptic prophet or preacher, the fact of the matter is that early Christians, beginning with Paul, were convinced of his early return, and Paul’s letters are written with an urgency reflecting the imminence of the Second Coming. His theology is shaped by that apocalyptic perspective.

At the heart of apocalyptic is both the sense of a cosmic struggle between good and evil as well is a firm belief that in the end God will make all things right. In our context, it may be that such a worldview helps us make sense of our world better than any other.

 

But to return to the theme of her talk, as I left I wondered whether Rutledge is fighting a losing battle. Given the changes in our culture, the decline of Christianity, the multiple claims on our allegiances, is the sort of deep engagement with scripture even possible? In her talk and in the question and answer follow up, she told stories of people who were biblical theologians, people who were soaked in scripture and able to see God at work in the world through eyes opened by an intimate relationship with the text. Is that even possible any more? Are the kinds of “biblical theologians” Rutledge calls for a nearly extinct species, destroyed because the habitat that gave birth to and nurtured them is now a barren desert?

 

 

 

 

Encountering God: A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, 2019

I entered the chapel at the monastery of the Society of St. John the Evangelist exhausted by the long day of travel from Madison. I’d had only enough time to drop my things in my room before the evening Eucharist. Stressed, tired, distracted, as I entered the space, I was immediately reminded why I had come here. It’s a remarkable space, perfectly, beautifully designed. You’re suddenly thousands of miles and a thousand years away from Harvard Square in Cambridge. Designed by architect Ralph Adams Cram in the Romanesque style, the walls are stone, with roman arches throughout, lovely stained glass windows dominated by deep blues. Continue reading

Discomfort and love: A Sermon for the fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, 2019

I’m glad to see that all of you are surviving the crazy weather we’ve been having. We’ve survived it at the church and our ministries as well. I’m sure most have you have heard or seen stories of how Madison has coped with the bitter cold and especially how the weather affected our most vulnerable neighbors. The men’s shelter was well over capacity; the total number of guests on Tuesday night was 170. The Beacon was over capacity, and our friends at First Methodist provided emergency overflow shelter during the day for homeless families because there was not enough room for them at the Beacon. Through the coldest weather, our food pantry remained open, thanks to Vikki and her intrepid band of volunteers. I’m grateful to all of you who reached out to me or to others with offers to volunteer.

In times like these, we see both the strength and the weaknesses of our community—among the strengths, the resilience, cooperation, and all the amazing people who do so much to support our most vulnerable residents. But we also see the gaps or inadequacies of the services we do provide as well as the deep inequities and the number of people who lack adequate shelter or for other reasons struggle in weather emergencies. Our hearts ache as we see the need and we reach out generously but at the same time, it should become clear that our community needs to do more. As followers of Jesus and members of the body of Christ, we should help those in need but we should also call for policy changes that would help all members of our city flourish and thrive. With the mayoral campaign heating up, our voices are especially important.

It’s not always easy because calling for justice and an end to oppression, to proclaim release to the captives, can rouse opposition. That certainly happened to Jesus in today’s gospel reading.

Last week we heard Luke’s version of the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. After a preaching and healing tour of the surrounding towns, he comes home to Nazareth, goes to synagogue on the Sabbath, reads a passage from Isaiah:

“The spirit of the Lord is upon me, he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free. To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

He sits down and says, “Today the scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” That’s where today’s gospel reading picks up, with a repetition of that verse. And that’s where the trouble starts. While Luke reports that the people were amazed by what they heard, it’s pretty clear that Jesus wasn’t impressed with their response.

It’s almost as if he goads them to their negative response. It’s after that question that Jesus seems to provoke them. First he quotes the proverb, “Doctor, heal yourself;” and says that they will want him to do the sort of healings in Nazareth that he has done elsewhere. Instead of answering those objections directly, Jesus cites the two examples from Hebrew Scripture, the great prophets Elijah and Elisha, and their healing of two gentiles.

The meaning of this exchange is obscure. Does Jesus want to incite the crowd’s anger? Or is something else going? Is his challenge to them a response to the question, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” If we think back to what I said last week about the Isaiah text quoted by Jesus. It serves in Luke as what we could Jesus’ mission statement and his identity as Messiah is measured by the extent to which he preached good news to the poor, gave sight to the blind, etc. So, he is basically laying out his future ministry to his listeners, identifying himself as the Messiah, and declaring the year of the Lord’s favor. And the response from the crowd was not recognition that he is the Messiah, but recognition that he is one of their own, Joseph’s son. They are given everything they need to see him as the Messiah, but all they can see is the one who grew up among them.

There’s a great deal of discussion and debate about how churches and Christians should express their faith publicly and what that public expression or proclamation of faith should be. We have people who claim to be Christians on different sides of every hot topic in our culture and politics, from climate change to immigration, from abortion to criminal justice and we are often likely to say that those who disagree with our political view aren’t Christian at all or are perhaps “fake Christians.”

It’s easy for us to justify our political views with scripture. We, all of us, cherry-pick verses that seem to support our pet causes or political convictions, extracting them from their contexts and twisting their meaning beyond recognition. A good example of that comes from the first reading which is the story of the call of the Prophet Jeremiah “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;” which has been made to do some heavy lifting in the debate over abortion, and the doctrine of predestination. But it is about neither of those things. It is about the prophet’s call and identity.

Scripture becomes a mine from which we extract the necessary means to do battle rather than a treasure house in which to explore God’s beauty or a library in which to learn of God and of Jesus Christ. We impose our political views on the text rather than wrestling with scripture and seeking to follow Jesus.

Think about what happened in that synagogue in Nazareth. Jesus read from scripture, sat down, and interpreted it. Luke says the people were amazed by his words.

I find it instructive that Jesus elicited such a negative response in his hometown. What was it about what he said that roused the ire of his neighbors and fellow townspeople? The examples Jesus cited, Elijah and Elisha, were the two great prophets of the Jewish tradition. Elijah, alongside Moses was a mythical figure, in part because of the tradition that he did not die but was carried up to heaven. In Jesus’ day, many expected Elijah to return. The two of them were model prophets and Jesus cites their example to justify his own ministry. Two of their most spectacular healings took place away from home; they healed outsiders, Gentiles, not Jews.

For Jesus to cite these examples was to challenge his listeners’ expectations, to confront them with their biases and assumptions and encourage them to think differently about them.

To be honest, this incident is a challenge to me as well. Whenever someone says to me after a sermon, “That was a really good sermon,” I wonder whether they liked it only because I confirmed their biases and assumptions. The gospel should be unsettling. It should make us uncomfortable. Jesus certainly made his listeners uncomfortable. When we’re reading scripture, when we’re listening to a sermon, we should be asking ourselves whether we are being challenged to see things in a new way, whether our world and our worldview is being upended and unsettled, whether our deepest held values are coming under scrutiny. If we say yes to these questions, it may be that we are hearing the voice of Jesus.

But discomfort is not the only point of the good news or of following Jesus. It’s worth recalling the lesson from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, the famous “Love Chapter” which has nothing to do with marital love, but rather with the love that binds the body of Christ together, and binds us all to God in Christ.

In the course of this beautiful and profound meditation on love, Paul reminds us that our perspective is narrow, faulty. “Now we see through a mirror darkly; now we know in part.” Recognizing our limitations, the limitations of our knowledge and perspective goes a long way toward teaching us humility, an important lesson in the divided world in which find ourselves. And finally, Paul tells us, at the end, there is only love. Love abides. May we know something of that love in this life, in our common humanity and in our community and congregation, and may we all experience the fullness of that abiding love in the age to come.

“The churches should do more” My response to those who say our response to need is inadequate

I’m told that elected officials and city staff have complained in connection with this week’s sub-zero temperatures, that churches should be doing more; for example, that they should open their doors 24/7 to people in need. Whether they mean we should offer temporary emergency shelter, or that our doors should literally be unlocked all of the time isn’t clear to me, and the comments have apparently been removed.

I suppose the logic runs something like this—we receive property tax exemptions as non-profits, we have facilities that can offer shelter, why don’t we do it? Well, we are doing it. Religious organizations provide the core of Madison and Dane County’s emergency shelter for the homeless: the Salvation Army, The Beacon, which though partially funded by city and county dollars, is operated by Catholic Charities. Then there is the Men’s Drop-In Shelter, operated by Porchlight, but housed at Grace Episcopal Church with overflow shelters at St. John’s Lutheran and First Methodist. Bethel Lutheran Church has also had a significant homeless ministry over the last years. This week, First Methodist and its Outreach Coordinator Karen Andro, received national media attention for offering their space as overflow shelter for families.

No doubt, any comments critical of churches would have excused the work of these downtown churches and religious organizations, aiming at other targets: the many neighborhood churches that dot the city, or perhaps, the megachurches that are mostly located in suburbs. But these churches also do their part, providing volunteer labor and funds, for example, helping to provide the meals at the Men’s Shelter 365 days a year, or supporting the Beacon, or by organizing food drives for food pantries and the like.

For many of these other churches, offering temporary shelter is unrealistic. I talked with one pastor on Friday who told me his church was 1 ½ miles from the nearest bus stop. Most of them are in unsuitable locations. But there are other problems. Temporary shelter, even on a short-term basis, requires incredible resources. Most churches lack the staff to operate such shelter. For example, our facilities are cleaned by a service that comes twice a week. We could not provide the necessary security. Our staff and volunteers are neither trained nor competent to deal with the issues raised by a large intergenerational group confined to a small space. Imagine a 75-year old volunteer trying to mediate and de-escalate a dispute between two men in their twenties, who might be mentally ill or high. In addition, volunteers would need to be vetted in advance. Our denomination requires, and quite rightly, that volunteers undergo training for the prevention of sexual abuse. We also carry out background checks, especially of volunteers working with children. We cannot accept the help of any random volunteer, and I’m sure the mayor and city staff understand why such measures are necessary.

This is the second Polar Vortex I’ve experienced since coming to Madison. I was reflecting this week how different it is in 2019 than it was the last time. Then, we scrambled day by day to make sure there were spaces for people to stay warm during the day. On MLK Day that year, with the libraries, and many churches closed in observance of the holiday and no day shelter, Grace Church opened its doors to more than 100 people who sought refuge with us. But we couldn’t have done it by ourselves. Karen Andro brought a group of volunteers from First Methodist to provide lunch and staff from the homeless ministry at Bethel as well as other volunteers and outreach workers offered their professional expertise. In 2019, the presence of the Beacon makes an enormous difference. And I’m so grateful for Catholic Charities, for Jackson Fonder, Executive Director, and the amazing staff and volunteers who help operate it.

I’m sure I speak for all other leaders of religious organizations throughout Madison who have met with people this week and throughout the year who are in need of food, shelter, or other services and who have seen the effects of these record-breaking temperatures on the most vulnerable of our neighbors. We are doing our part. Indeed, many of us are operating at or beyond our capacity in terms of our financial resources and our volunteer base.. The religious community will continue to do what we can, but to expect us to do more, in the midst of the long-term decline in American religion, changing demographics, and the amount of work we are already doing, comes across as nothing more than an attempt to shift blame and responsibility.  It is divisive, unhelpful, and counter-productive. In emergencies like this, the whole community needs to come together and cooperate on solutions.

 

So, rather than taking potshots or criticizing congregations and religious organizations for “not doing enough,” perhaps city officials ought to invite us into the conversation. I’m sure Dane County and the City of Madison have emergency plans in place for various natural disasters. Is there such a plan in place for another lengthy period of sub-zero temperatures? There certainly should be. Whether there is one or not, if city officials want congregations and religious organizations to “do their part,” they should invite us into the process, and work with us to develop a plan that will ensure no resident of Madison lacks shelter when temperatures hit -20.

Bringing Good News: A Sermon for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany, 2019

A week ago Saturday, the vestry held its annual retreat, gathering to reflect on the previous year, to strategize and dream about the future, and to do the usual business of the first meeting of the year. We were meeting at a significant moment in the life of our congregation. As most of you know, there is in the works a proposal to develop much of the block on which we are located, with the center of the project a proposed new State History museum. That development may affect both our property and our congregational life. In addition, we have seen significant growth over the past years, bucking the overall national trend in the Episcopal Church and in American Christianity in general. We are located in a downtown that continues to experience development and growth in population, while many of the challenges that we face as a city are most evident in our immediate vicinity—racial and economic inequities, homelessness and the scarcity of affordable housing, and Wisconsin’s broken and oppressive criminal justice system. Continue reading

When all the people had been baptized: A Sermon for the Baptism of our Lord, 2018

Last month, I found myself following and to some extent participating in a twitter conversation or debate about the practice and theology of baptism. A number of people from various backgrounds took part as they discussed the relative merits of adult believer’s baptism or infant baptism, and explored the meaning of the rite—does it wash away original sin? Is it primarily a sign or symbol of membership in a community? Does it transmit grace, but only if the one being baptized makes a mature confession of faith or commitment? Continue reading

And let the litigation begin again.

It seems that the Episcopal Church is in a constant state of litigation. Over the last decade and a half, we’ve seen repeated conflict across the church in response to the moves toward full inclusion of LGBT persons in our life and ministry. Now, millions of dollars later in legal fees, with courts consistently affirming the Episcopal Church’s position that dioceses are not independent of General Convention, another round of such litigation is likely. First, we’ll have to see how things play out within the Church.

This past summer, General Convention passed resolution B012 which mandated that bishops opposed to same-sex marriage make pastoral provisions for couples, congregations, and clergy who sought to solemnize such marriages in their dioceses. Several of the bishops opposed to same-sex marriage have offered such provision, some are still discerning. One, Bishop William H. Love of the Diocese of Albany, announced in November that he would not offer such pastoral provisions.

As was to be expected, an disciplinary proceeding was begun against Bishop Love. Such proceedings, or complaints, can be made by anyone within the Church, so the likelihood that someone or some group would initiate the proceeding was highly likely. Less certain was whether the Presiding Bishop would take any additional action while the disciplinary proceeding was moving forward. Yesterday, Presiding Bishop Curry published his response: to restrict partially and temporarily Bishop Love’s exercise of ministry. Specifically, Bishop Love may not participate in any diocesan disciplinary proceeding against a priest who performs same-sex marriage, “nor may he penalize any member of the clergy or laity or worshipping congregation of his Diocese for their participation in the arrangements for or participation in a same-sex marriage in his Diocese or elsewhere.”

Now, Bishop Love has issued his response to the response. Unsurprisingly, and unfortunately, he will appeal the Presiding Bishop’s restriction on his ministry and vigorous challenge the disciplinary proceeding. He bases his appeal on the definition of marriage in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer:

The official teaching of this Church as outlined in the rubrics of the Marriage Service in the Book of Common Prayer is that: “Christian marriage is a solemn and public covenant between a man and woman in the presence of God.” (BCP 422). Canon 16 of the Constitution and Canons of the Diocese of Albany upholds this teaching and remains in effect until it is either changed by the Diocesan Convention, or it is legally proven to be over-ridden by the legitimate actions of General Convention; none of which has yet taken place.

Now, I’m no canon lawyer, but it would seem to me that because the Book of Common Prayer is itself authoritative because of an act of General Convention, General Convention has the power to rescind or modify anything stated within the BCP. Likely, there’s some fancy canon lawyer parsing of later General Convention actions, that will be the hinge on which any ecclesiastical disciplinary proceeding will depend.

The other key element in Bishop Love’s defense is his appeal to the definition of marriage in the Constitution and Canons of the Diocese of Albany, which he says will remain in effect until changed by Diocesan Convention or legally proven to be over-ridden by the legitimate actions of General Convention. Here Bishop Love is appealing to the familiar, but often proved wrong, argument that dioceses are independent of General Convention. It’s wrong, because General Convention has the power to create and dissolve dioceses.

What’s so unfortunate about all this is that it is avoidable just as all of the earlier litigation and attempts by bishops, other clergy, and congregations to leave the Church. When Bishop Love was ordained deacon, then priest, and consecrated bishop,, he vowed to ” I do solemnly engage to conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church.’

If he is no longer able to conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church, he should step down as bishop. It’s really quite simple.

Instead, the Church will expend energy and resources on this internal battle. Should Bishop Love be unhappy with the final result of his appeal and of the disciplinary proceeding’s ultimate outcome, he may choose to pursue his cause in the civil court system as many other bishops and dioceses have done. If he does, it’s likely that more millions of dollars will be expended in the effort.