Fleming Rutledge is a preacher and teacher known throughout the mainline Protestant denominations of the US, Canada and parts of the UK. She is the author of seven books and has received a grant from the Louisville Foundation to complete a book about the meaning of the Crucifixion.
One of the first women to be ordained to the priesthood of the Episcopal Church, she served for fourteen years on the clergy staff at Grace Church on Lower Broadway at Tenth Street, New York City.
Fleming and her husband celebrated their 50th anniversary in 2009 and have two daughters and two grandchildren. She is a native of Franklin, Virginia.
An Advent Sermon
Church of the Holy Spirit, Orleans, Massachusetts
The Bottom of the Night
Sermon by Fleming Rutledge November 14, 2010
Malachi 3:2-3, 4:1-3; I Thessalonians 3: 12-13
Poets, at their best, are our truth-tellers. W. H. Auden and W. B. Yeats were two of the greatest. Auden wrote a poem in memory of Yeats. Here are two lines of it:
Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night.
This is the time in the Christian calendar, just before Advent, that takes us to “the bottom of the night.” After All Saints Day, the lectionary readings take a turn toward what is called the Last Things, and we begin that relentless Advent search into the heart of the human predicament which is announced by John the Baptist.
The next-to-last Sunday in the church year brings biblical readings about crisis and judgment. The so-called Synoptic Apocalypse is always read—the chapters in Matthew, Mark, and Luke where Jesus announces the coming judgment of God. It’s even in the last verse of today’s Psalm: “In righteousness shall God judge the world.” And yet the churches today, following the lead of our feel-good culture, have turned away from the theme of judgment. We are determined not to be one of those backwoods hellfire-and-damnation churches. Those kinds of sermons did exist in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but it’s been a long, long time since we’ve heard one anywhere near an Episcopal church.
The main character in Albert Camus’ novel The Fall says, “Above all, the question is to elude judgment…Each of us insists on being innocent at all costs, even if he has to accuse the whole human race and heaven itself...the essential thing is that [we] should be innocent…” (It’s both ironic and significant that his name is Jean-Baptiste Clamence—John the Baptist crying out).
The book of Malachi is the last book of the Christian Old Testament. The Hebrew Scriptures are arranged differently; they end with the Wisdom writings, whereas our Old Testament ends with the Prophets. That’s important. The Bible of the Christian church looks forward to a consummation yet to come. The last section of Malachi is appointed to be read at the end of the church year. Today’s reading begins by announcing that all the arrogant and all the evildoers will be burned up on Judgment Day.
Ah, but we don’t believe that, do we? That’s too primitive for us in our higher stage of enlightenment. Mind you, it’s all right for our drones and missiles and Special Ops forces to eliminate evildoers, but we don’t believe that God is going to burn anybody up. How barbaric would that be! The only people who believe that are out there somewhere on the fundamentalist right wing!
Now it’s quite true that there is a metaphorical element in the Bible. Much of it is not to be taken literally. “Burned up” is an image—an exceptionally powerful image—conveying the power of God to destroy. In the last day, God will judge and finally destroy evil. That’s the promise of the seven-week season that includes Advent and its preceding Sundays. Advent is not really the season of preparation for Christmas. Properly understood, Advent is the season of the Second Coming of Christ.
In the Luke’s version of the Synoptic Apocalypse, Jesus says:
There will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and upon the earth distress of nations…men fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world; for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. (Luke 21:25-26)
This doesn’t exclude anybody. All human beings will be filled “with foreboding of what is coming on the world.” There isn’t anyone who will be unaffected by the judgment of God. The scene of the Last Judgment in Matthew 25:32 tells us: “Before the Judge will be gathered all the peoples.” This refers not only to all the national and ethnic groups, but to all kinds of people within those groups. The CEOs of the biggest corporations and the lowest workers cutting up chickens will be there. The captains and the kings and the nameless Mexicans stumbling illegally across the border deserts will be there. The educated and the illiterate, the oppressed and the oppressors, the judges and those whom they judge—all will be there. You will be there, and I will be there. And then, as the parable continues, “[The Lord] will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats” (Matthew 25:32).
Now it’s very interesting that although we are told that modern Christians don’t believe in a Last Judgment any more, yet no one objects when a judge in a courtroom hands down a judgment. We believe in that kind of judgment—as long as it’s a judgment on someone else, someone who deserves it. So in our minds we are already dividing the righteous from the unrighteous, with ourselves—of course—on the side of the righteous.
But isn’t that a rather perilous place to be? how much effort does it take to remain on the right side of that balance sheet? And by what criteria, and by whom, will this determination be made?
I’m going to be referring now to the recent Cheshire, Connecticut case where the wife and two daughters of a local doctor were horribly abused and burned to death in their own home. I need to say, though, that although many Christians believe that the death penalty is wrong and should never be used in any case, that is not the theme of this particular sermon. I want to focus somewhere else.
The twelve jurors in the trial (just concluded) had to descend into the bottom of the night. They had to look at photos and listen to testimony that most people would never want to see or hear. When it was over, Dr. William A. Petit said a remarkable thing about the sentencing of the murderer of his wife and daughters. He said, “This is a verdict for justice, [but] the defendant faces far more serious punishment from the Lord than he can ever face from mankind.” This expresses something important—a sense that human justice is never adequate. The jury reached agreement, but the foreman of the jury said, “No one is happy. Nothing is better. Nothing is solved.” That’s why the doctor was reaching for the idea that there is another judgment beyond human judgment.
So there are several major problems here. First, are we to believe in the divine judgment, or not? A second problem is the inadequacy of human justice. But the most radical problem of all is raised by the reading from the prophet Malachi. “The day comes, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, says the Lord of hosts.” Where does this business about being burnt up begin and where does it end? Who exactly are the arrogant and the evildoers? Malachi goes on:
But for you who fear my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings…And you shall tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet, on the day when I act, says the Lord of hosts.
Hey, that sounds pretty good. Isn’t that what we want? Don’t we want the Taliban and Osama bin Laden and the suicide bombers to be ashes under the feet of our troops? Don’t we want child rapists and murderers to be wiped off the face of the earth? That would serve the cause of judgment.
But what about the ordinary garden-variety sinner, the man who cheats on his income tax, the woman who employs and underpays the illegal immigrant, the people who give only a pittance to charity and never give a thought to the poor? What about the unfaithful wife, the neglectful father, the cheating student, the doping ballplayer, the lying politician? What about all the rest of us who by our mere existence are polluting the environment and supporting exploitation of the planet?
Whenever we are sure that we are among the righteous, we immediately find ourselves among the arrogant. The signs of Advent are humility and repentance in the face of pervasive and indiscriminate sin. Repentance, however, does not come easily to human beings. It’s not human nature. As Jean-Baptiste says, “Each of us insists on being innocent at all costs, even if he has to accuse the whole human race and heaven itself... Above all, the question is to elude judgment.” The distinctive thing about Advent is that it thrusts the subject of judgment in our faces.
There are two common ways of dealing with the idea of judgment within the church. One is to say there won’t be a divine judgment because God loves, forgives, includes, welcomes, and embraces everybody. The other way is to assume that only the undeserving bad guys will be judged, while the deserving rest of us get a pass. But here is the great truth of the matter: Only God knows who deserves what.
Now that is truly scary. Only God knows the hit-and-run driver. Only God knows the extent of financial misconduct. Only God knows the secrets of a marriage. Only God knows the times that we have turned away from someone who needed us. Only God knows who has “rebelled against his holy laws.” We are very good at covering up these things even from ourselves because “the essential thing is that [we] should be innocent…[and] escape judgment.” At this time of year the gospel calls us to abandon our pretensions to being on the right side of the divine judgment and to ponder the possibility that we and all our favorite people might be on the wrong side. That’s why we have a general confession, a prayer of repentance that we all say together, as if we were all on the same level. 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. Now that’s radical leveling! We don’t say those things any more, but we’ve given up a lot in the process. We’ve given up the freedom that comes with acknowledging that we are all in this Last Judgment thing together.
If we are all in it together, then what is our hope? How can we live without being continually at work to prove to ourselves that we are among the righteous, not among those who are going to be trampled underfoot? Our hope is expressed by St Paul in the last verse of the reading from I Thessalonians:
May the Lord make you increase and abound in love to one another and to all human beings….so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.
Everything depends on how we read this. If we read it as an exhortation to abound in love and to be blameless in holiness, then your goose and my goose is cooked. The Scripture never says “just do your best.” It never says “try to do it within reason.” It never says “do it up to a point.” It says “Be ye perfect as your father in heaven is perfect.” Doesn’t that leave us without a place to stand?
In an earlier passage Malachi states it flatly: “Who may abide the day of his coming, and who shall stand when he appears?” The astounding answer to that question is that we are already being prepared to stand before the Judge at the last day by the action of God himself, working in us by the power of the Holy Spirit. Paul is able to express confidence in his congregation—in all its manifold imperfection—not because they are innocent, not because they have never done anything deserving judgment, but because the Lord is at work in them. The Lord is at work establishing their hearts “blameless in holiness” at the coming of the Lord Jesus with all the saints. And so the righteous Judge is the one who is preparing us to stand before himself. Malachi again: the Lord will “purify the sons of Eli.” The sons of Eli—that is, the priests of Israel—had become so corrupt that they fully deserved to be trampled underfoot. But that’s not going to be their destiny. Remember this the next time you hear Handel’s Messiah:
He will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, that they may offer unto the Lord an offering of righteousness.
One of the jurors in the Cheshire trial was a woman named Diane Keim. During the worst days in the jury box, listening to the gruesome details of the girls’ deaths, she said, “I just wanted to hold the girls. I wanted to take whatever they experienced before thy died and take it away. But it wasn’t in my power.”
No. Human beings do not have the power to undo evil. Only God has that power. The promise of the divine judgment is that evil and death will be undone by the only power greater than they—the power of Almighty God. And that means that all the evil within our own hearts, our own guilty hearts, will be undone.
Advent acknowledges that human life is a time of waiting. When we look around us, evil often seems triumphant and God seems absent. But Advent promises that God will come. The Old Testament ends with the astonishing words of the Lord through the prophet Malachi:
Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, lest I come and smite the land with a curse.
The prophet Elijah, you see, will come again in the person of John the Baptist. He will announce the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord, the day that could have been a curse upon every single one of us but, instead, will be a new day of universal reconciliation that cannot be achieved by human means. Malachi’s image of the Day of God is that of broken families brought together, a thing impossible for human beings—but all things are possible with God. May he establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.
Fleming Rutledge’s website is www.generousorthodoxy.org
 William Glaberson, “For Jurors, a Harrowing Trial, but Unity on the Proper Punishment,” The New York Times 11/9/10. All the quotations from the trial are from this article.
 I recognize that there is some confusion here. First I suggest that we don’t want to think of God as a Judge burning up people. Then, here, I suggest that we would be OK with God burning up terrorists and child rapists. But then, our thinking on these matters tends to be somewhat irrational.
 Book of Common Prayer.