Live With Fleming Rutledge
Fleming Rutledge, author of the book Epiphany: Season of Glory, joined the conversation this week in our webinar on her book where we focused on the chapters, “The River,” and “The Wine.” Here’s the link to the video.
While I started reading Fleming in the 1980’s, it was not until 2008 that we met and became friends. During that academic year we were both visiting faculty at schools in the Toronto School of Theology. Since then we’ve stayed in touch. Fleming came out to participate in one of Festivals of Preaching NW that I put together in Seattle between 2010 and 2016. And on a trip to New York I was a guest in their home. She and I both went to Union Theological Seminary in NYC, though at slightly different times. She was among the very first cadre of nine women ordained to the ministry in the Episcopal Church in the 1970’s. A lot of controversy surrounded that at the time.
The Crackers and Grape Juice team, led by Jason Micheli, speak of Fleming as their “muse.” Her voice and writing are unique in many ways. Unique in eloquence, in accessibility for ordinary people, in making profound connections between the biblical faith and the contemporary world.
But most of all unique in her fierce devotion to the power and centrality of the gospel of Jesus Christ. In a time when many conservative churches have made Jesus into a cipher for a right-wing political agenda and the liberal church has become embarrassed about confessing Christ as Lord, Fleming stands firm taking the Bible and the gospel with a deep seriousness while being liberal in her social/ political viewpoints. In a time when liberal Christianity has lacked theological depth and funding, Fleming’s is a refreshing — really a bracing — voice.
One of her early books, The Bible and the New York Times, might be a good place to start if you haven’t read her work. Two other collections of her sermons I would recommend are Help My Unbelief and Not Ashamed of the Gospel. The latter may be my own favorite among collections of her published sermons. Not a lot of sermons translate well to written form, but her’s do. Her magnum opus is The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ. I had the honor of writing the review of that book for The Christian Century shortly after it was published in 2015.
Another friend, Josh Retterer, is writing brief commentaries on each session of our Epiphany webinar. In the following he quotes from one of the sermons in Not Ashamed of the Gospel on the presence and power of Jesus in the life of a believer. Really wonderful stuff:
“Christ, through the Holy Spirit, has already implanted himself within our hearts. His power is with us in the running, in the pressing on, in the laying hold of the prize. He is never simply standing by, watching to see how we perform; he is actually present in the actions we take on behalf of the poor, present in the reconciliation of sinners, present in the recovery from addiction, present in the congregation gathered to praise him and receive his mercies anew at each Eucharist. He is powerfully working in us to guarantee the future of his beloved children. Because he himself is the righteousness of God, and because he is raised from the dead and his living powerful presence is with us, the saying ‘Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling’ has a completely different meaning ‘for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.’ ”
[After which Josh adds] “Yes, that verse (‘work out your own salvation with fear and trembling’ from Philippians 2) does have a completely different meaning now. This isn’t about an abstract thought form, or angry sky god, this is the real God, one who is with us, because we are in Him. Not as if we are, or sort of like we are, it is as real as I am, as you are. Wonderfully, Christ is even more real. Like the difference between dead and alive real. Now we are alive, as beloved children with a guaranteed future. Yes please!”
Joining Fleming, who is now 86, for the session on-line was her husband, Dick, who is 91. Though Dick has Alzheimers, they have so far been able to continue at home together. Toward the end of the time, Jason asked a question about how their faith and marriage intertwined. I found their words (not many from Dick) and their faces as they spoke beautiful to behold and quite touching. A testimony to both deep faith and a long marriage.