Magazine article The Christian Century

And God Spoke to Abraham: Preaching from the Old Testament

Magazine article The Christian Century

And God Spoke to Abraham: Preaching from the Old Testament

Article excerpt

And God Spoke to Abraham: Preaching from the Old Testament

By Fleming Rutledge

Eerdmans, 435 PP., $30.00

Fleming Rutledge is the most interesting preacher today working the fault line between the mainline churches and evangelicalism. Throughout this remarkable collection of Old Testament sermons she calls for mainliners and evangelicals to realize their common identity in Christ for the sake of our mutual mission in the world. She chides both, loves both, belongs to both--and offers semieschatological predictions like this: "If the mainliners can get over their distaste for the evangelicals, we are going to see something happen in American Christianity that we haven't seen for a long time."

Rutledge has plenty of grief to pour out both on her fellow mainliners, as we yawn in the presence of a holy God while our churches hunger for the word of the Lord, and on evangelicals, who fetishize the flag and rally to American bravado rather than biblical humility. But she judges so as to offer grace. If our divisions are a theological mistake, cannot God bring about their remedy?

Rector of Grace Episcopal Church in New York City for many years, Rutledge now practices what she calls an itinerant ministry of preaching. This gives her a broad vantage point from which to view what happens in the nation's mainline churches. There was a day, she says, when Episcopalians didn't preach Jesus overmuch. But now all they do is preach Jesus--without attention to the Old Testament matrix in which he was nurtured and without which we cannot understand him. She detects "a noticeable slippage" in the knowledge and use of the Old Testament in our churches. And not coincidentally, we have lost a sense of "a living God." There are exceptions: African-American churches and evangelical churches speak as though God is still living and active and may turn up and demand something of us.

This book is a primer on how to get reacquainted with the living God who spoke to Abraham and who raised Israel from Egypt and Jesus from the dead. That language, borrowed directly from the eminent Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson, shows another strength: these sermons are deeply learned theologically. Rutledge has sat at the feet of Luther and Calvin, Jenson and David Hart. The sermons here are almost a matchmaker for a church that has forgotten its very first love--the Old Testament. In Rutledge's hands, scripture is a squirming, living thing, not off-putting or distant but unbearably close, grappling with us, wounding us, bringing about healing.

The sermons' central theme has a Barthian inflection to it: we can speak of God only because God has first spoken to us. The trouble with the church in the United States is that we constantly turn that order around. Every sermon in this book stretches to remind us of the biblical order of things: God seeks us before we have any interest in or word to say about God. There is also here an Augustinian enthusiasm for the "radical leveling" effect of original sin. And it's all mediated through liturgy, of course, especially the bits of liturgy that the church in more "enlightened" times has snipped out. Rutledge recalls: "When I was a child, we all said, in the general confession, that we were all miserable offenders and there was no health in us."

The volume covers the length of the Old Testament, with equally strong sermons throughout. An early one on Exodus describes the way God permits Moses to refract God's "fierce, dazzling holiness to the people below." Another, on the burning bush, describes the "magic" that comes when someone "gets it": that faith is about God's address to us, not the reverse. …

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