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?

 

 

 

 

He has cast down the mighty from their thrones: A Sermon for 4 Advent, 2018

 I’ve been reading W. H. Auden’s great poem: “For the Time Being” this Advent. Published in 1944, it very much reflects the mood of the time, the great struggle of good and evil that was playing out in World War II. It also reflects the struggles in the poet’s personal life. And yet, it is also universal and speaks to our situation, our world. It is a poem, meant to be an oratorio, of Advent and Christmas, of Incarnation.

It begins on a somber, dark note. And even if we haven’t felt blasts of cold winter air or snowstorms yet this year, we do know the darkness of the season. I’m grateful for a sunny day today but it’s not just that Friday was the shortest day of the year, it seems like we’ve had more overcast days this December than usual and the gloom outside can be oppressive. We are also aware of all of the suffering in the world. Auden writes:

The prophet’s lantern is out

And gone the boundary stone,

Cold the heart and cold the stove,

Ice condenses on the bone:

Winter completes an age.

Continue reading

A Poem for Advent: “Annunciation” by Denise Levertov

‘Hail, space for the uncontained God’
From the Agathistos 
HymnGreece, VIc
We know the scene: the room, variously furnished,
almost always a lectern, a book; always
the tall lily.
Arrived on solemn grandeur of great wings,
the angelic ambassador, standing or hovering,
whom she acknowledges, a guest.

But we are told of meek obedience. No one mentions
courage.
The engendering Spirit
did not enter her without consent.
God waited.

She was free
to accept or to refuse, choice
integral to humanness.

____________________________

Aren’t there annunciations
of one sort or another
in most lives?
Some unwillingly
undertake great destinies,
enact them in sullen pride,
uncomprehending.
More often
those moments
when roads of light and storm
open from darkness in a man or woman,
are turned away from
in dread, in a wave of weakness, in despair
and with relief.
Ordinary lives continue.
God does not smite them.
But the gates close, the pathway vanishes.

______________________________

She had been a child who played, ate, slept
like any other child – but unlike others,
wept only for pity, laughed
in joy not triumph.
Compassion and intelligence
fused in her, indivisible.

Called to a destiny more momentous
than any in all of Time,
she did not quail,
only asked
a simple, ‘How can this be?’
and gravely, courteously,
took to heart the angel’s reply,
perceiving instantly
the astounding ministry she was offered:

to bear in her womb
Infinite weight and lightness; to carry
in hidden, finite inwardness,
nine months of Eternity; to contain
in slender vase of being,
the sum of power –
in narrow flesh,
the sum of light.
Then bring to birth,
push out into air, a Man-child
needing, like any other,
milk and love –

but who was God.

Voices crying in the wilderness: A Sermon for Advent 3C, 2018

As most of you know already, my mother died this past Monday. Her death was expected. In fact, I received word of it just as I was packing up the car to drive six hours to be with her. Her death, and the memories and grief that have filled my thoughts over the last week have certainly recast my experience in this Advent season. But I realized that so much of what I was feeling, the emotional turmoil is consistent with the themes of this season of Advent. Continue reading

Ready for Silence by Madeline L’Engle: A Poem for Advent

Then hear now the silence
He comes in the silence
in silence he enters
the womb of the bearer
in silence he goes to
the realm of the shadows
redeeming and shriving
in silence he moves from
the grave cloths, the dark tomb
in silences he rises
ascends to the glory
leaving his promise
leaving his comfort
leaving his silence
So come now, Lord Jesus
Come in your silence
breaking our noising
laughter of panic
breaking this earth’s time
breaking us breaking us
quickly Lord Jesus
make no long tarrying
When will you come
and how will you come
and will we be ready
for silence
your silence.

Your Redemption is Drawing Near: A Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent, 2018

 Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

This beautiful and powerful collect for the First Sunday of Advent calls to mind both the first and second comings of Christ and prays that we might direct our energies and lives away from evil and toward the light of Christ brings to our awareness the central themes of this season and orients us to the scope of history and the history of salvation. We live as Christians between that time of Christ’s incarnation, his death and resurrection, and the consummation of our final hope in Christ’s return. As Christians, we have experienced the first fruits of Christ’s transforming work, but we live in this world, in this time, enmeshed in the powers of darkness and evil that surround us and seem to hold sway. Continue reading

The Song of Mary

These words have been very much on my mind and in my heart this Advent:

He hath showed strength with his arm; *
he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat, *
and hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things, *
and the rich he hath sent empty away.

the full text (traditional language from the Book of Common Prayer):

My soul doth magnify the Lord, *
and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior.
For he hath regarded *
the lowliness of his handmaiden.
For behold from henceforth *
all generations shall call me blessed.
For he that is mighty hath magnified me, *
and holy is his Name.
And his mercy is on them that fear him *
throughout all generations.
He hath showed strength with his arm; *
he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat, *
and hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things, *
and the rich he hath sent empty away.
He remembering his mercy hath holpen his servant Israel, *
as he promised to our forefathers,
Abraham and his seed for ever.