southerncross.diosav.org

The Rev. Fleming Rutledge’s “generous orthodoxy” defies pinning down. She loves both the Day of Judgment and the oppressed in society (and thinks the former will relieve the latter); she believes in Purgatory (without indulgences) and in the nine ranks of angels; and she boldly declares Christ to be Lord and King and coming again (despite “enlightened” trends to the contrary). Sin, righteousness, judgment, atonement—these very churchy words that so easily induce boredom, exasperation, or blank stares become in her sermons immediate, exigent, even enticing.

Advent is coming, and Advent is a time of comings. We’re used to the season just prepping us for a holly-jolly Christmas, but in her new collection of sermons and essays, Rutledge won’t have it. The four Sundays before Christmas (which she thinks should be seven, really*) aren’t an empty interim, and they don’t just look forward to the Nativity. This season of expecting is the season, since all of Christian life is waiting—waiting not for the first coming, but for the second. Which is what Advent does; Advent awaits the apocalypse.

Rutledge relishes it, if the sermon title “Loving the Dreadful Day of Judgment” tells us anything. Doomsday is to be feared, but feared with hope and longing for God to be with us fully, to set everything right. It’s part of her project in Advent to disabuse us of fad Gospels (“our tidy concept of God as loving, forgiving, and accepting,” and nothing else) by preaching the real thing, coming judgment and all. Because only the real thing can face up to the bleakness of the world. Skimming the headlines of violence and abuse, she asks us “[D]o we want a world without the wrath of God?” Without God’s anger, there is no hope of justice.

But what about grace? Is there any grace in apocalyptic preaching? Rutledge says yes—there is in fact nothing but grace in the last things. For the undeserved favor of God is all we can see from the eschaton—all our petty differences of degrees of sin (“I’m not as bad as them”) God relativizes in the light of his absolute holiness. No human labor proves sufficient for his judgment; only God’s own actions, to justify his people in Christ, can meet his justice and wrath. Preaching death, judgment, heaven, and hell during Advent turns out to be the opposite of cheap grace. They remind us why we cling to Christ.

The beauty of Advent is to bring this situation into focus. We dread God’s righteous wrath but crave the remedy, although the two are the same; we cower in the present dark while we rejoice in coming hope, simultaneously. Advent, what Rutledge calls “the Time Between” (between the first and second comings), “contains within itself the crucial balance of the now and the not-yet that our faith requires.” It’s a tension as strong as Law and Gospel, the simul, and the hypostatic union. These go to the heart of Christian faith.

Rutledge holds this tension tightly, letting it balance enormous ethical questions. Much as in The Crucifixion, Rutledge’s moral imagination emanates gravity. Her vision is both incisive—“The coming of Jesus Christ as judge of the world calls every single person’s existence into question”—and vast—

There is a cosmic battle being waged. The power of Sin and the power of Death threaten to overpower not only our individual selves but also the whole of human society. … Apartheid, totalitarianism, torture, famine and starvation, the gap between the rich and the poor, the plight of the mentally ill, homelessness, the traffic in drugs, pornography, child prostitution—all these ‘works of darkness’ force us to face not only the private but also the public questions. There is no person in New York City who is not required every day to ‘pass on the other side’ (Luke 10:31) when seeing homeless derelicts. This is a great evil.

Nothing and no one is too tiny or too enormous for the moral cosmology here.

These speeches on justice (which is now cool) and judgment (which is not) would be mere eloquence if Rutledge let herself take the high road. But she doesn’t. She knows that not “they” but “we” are all guilty, all on the wrong side of God’s justice. And she doesn’t shrink from this conviction. Our immediate question, then, is what should we do about it? And this is where Rutledge especially shines, as she articulates the symbiosis of grace and virtue.

Primarily, “God is the subject of the verb,” Rutledge contends. We do act, loving God and our neighbors, but we act as “participants in what God is already doing,” which is only “by grace alone.”

This is where Rutledge’s eschatological focus becomes important again, since Advent primarily awaits the second coming, “which,” she tells us, “will come by God’s decision at an hour we do not expect.” Advent thus emphasizes “the agency of God, as contrasted with the ‘works’ of human beings. An exclusive emphasis on Advent as a season of preparation risks putting human endeavor in the spotlight for all four weeks of the seasons. All the Advent preparation in the world would not be enough unless God were favorably disposed to us in the first place.”

gallica.bnf.fr / BnF

True religion indeed. But what do we do about it? If there’s judgment coming, will not our actions be judged? Rutledge is adamant; there’s no getting out of the Advent enigma, that “paradoxical combination of waiting and hastening (II Pet. 3:12), suffering and joy, judgment and deliverance, apocalyptic woe and eschatological hope. It is the combination that counts. This is the way Christians live now, for ‘the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never mastered it’ (John 1:5 REB).” This “waiting and hastening” is the “now and not-yet” quality of Christian life, receiving God’s gift of grace with—and here’s where we come in—his call to action, what Rutledge calls “action in waiting.” So Rutledge comes to our question:

If only God can bring peace and good will, … then what is the point in our doing anything? If there’s nothing we can do to improve the situation, then we really might as well withdraw into a private world of gated communities, exclusive clubs, and personal privilege and enjoy it as best we can before we are overtaken by cancer or senility.

Here’s where the ‘action in waiting’ comes in, the ‘hastening.’ It’s all a matter of what we’re pointing toward. … The church responds to the ‘thrilling voice’ by doing the works of the day, the works of the light, the ministry to the prisoners, the soup and the sandwiches for the hungry, the houses for the low-income families, the birthday parties for the children who have no parties. These are lamps shining in dark places. These are the works that glorify Christ while we wait for him. This is action while waiting.

Passages like this are the brilliance of Rutledge’s preaching. She is at pains to remind us that, first and finally, God acts, not us. And yet, in that impalpable tension of Advent—of all Christian life, our preacher insists—God still wants us to do something. But why? and how? and what? More could be said, to fill in the details of particular contexts, but Rutledge begins to illuminate the way righteous actions follow and fit into God’s primary gift of righteousness.

Despite Rutledge’s best efforts, the tensions of grace and virtue, of now and not-yet, remain taut. Not that she was trying to do anything else. Instead, her preaching does inform our imaginations in helpful ways, one of which is her attention to “the mood of Advent.” In another Doomsday sermon, she clarifies: “What we are intended to feel is not intellectual curiosity but the overwhelming gravity and solemnity of the picture of the whole world called to judgment before the throne of Christ.” She directs us away from irrelevant speculations toward the “impression burned into our hearts” by scripture, by the news, by hymns, by poems (Eliot and Auden are particular favorites). Of course, she isn’t denying the intellect but enlarging it into a more holistic experience of Christian faith.

And these aesthetic concerns are not cute garnishes—they are crucial for making sense of our lives, especially when we discover ourselves entangled in such a cosmic problem we are helpless to escape. (Expressing the circumstances of a passive audience is the function of Law/Gospel preaching anyway: the Law exposes our sin and death, and the Gospel declares our atonement.) Rutledge’s keen sensitivity to tone gives a serious account of darkness, of Sin and Death, in order to grapple with where we are and what we have to wait through. And what we have to wait for. As she frequently concludes with hymns (“Rejoice, rejoice, believers…”) or apocalyptic exclamations (“Maranatha!”), she leads us to hope against hope for the coming light. And from her perspective, it really looks bright.

 

* For a rather different take on Advent, consider the Rev. Sarah Condon’s own thoughts.