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.
Most Trusted, Most Powerful Name in News
Myers Park United Methodist Church, Charlotte, North Carolina
Most Trusted, Most Powerful Name in News
Sermon by Fleming Rutledge February 5, 2008
The congregation was the Methodist clergy of the Western North Carolina district.
Text: Isaiah 29:9-20
Come, thou all-victorious Lord,
Thy power to us make known;
Strike with the hammer of thy word,
And break these hearts of stone.
Being a news junkie, I flip back and forth among the three cable news channels. I’ve been reflecting on the way that CNN calls itself “the most trusted name in news,” whereas Fox, not to be outdone, calls itself “the most powerful name in news.” As best I can figure out, these designations refer to the fact that in a real crisis most people turn to CNN, but week in and week out, Fox News has hands down more viewers. I think that CNN named itself first, and then the Fox people came up with “powerful” as a way of thumbing their nose at “trusted.” They would have us know that when it comes to numbers, mighty Bill O’Reilly wipes up the floor with everybody else
Which is more compelling, power or trustworthiness? Power is a lot—a whole lot—more glamorous. Henry Kissinger famously did not say that trustworthiness is the greatest aphrodisiac. It’s power that attracts us, power that we crave, power that we want to get close to, even if it’s only the power of a big fish in a very small local pond. Nobody flocks around trustworthiness. No. But think again. Over the long term, who do you want for your doctor? Your electrician? Your children’s baby sitter? Do you want power, or trustworthiness? Or, perhaps, both?
claim that the Bible makes for itself is that it is both powerful and
trustworthy. I wonder if we have thought about that lately. We live in a age of
disdain for such a claim. It’s more obvious in
But if the Scripture has one controlling presupposition from beginning to end, it is the power of the word of God. We can’t have the Bible without that affirmation. “God said, ‘let there be light,’ and there was light.” A Bible construed without the Word as power is not the Bible at all. Listen to just one among a thousand passages about this:
The Lord utters his voice before his army...he that executes his word is powerful (Joel 2:11)
He that executes his Word is powerful. He has a host of angels at his command. The Spirit of God makes the Word live. When the Word of God is not understood that way among God’s people, when it is suppressed or subverted, a deadly paralysis sets in. Let’s hear from the prophet Isaiah about this.
Stupefy yourselves and be in a stupor, blind yourselves and be blind! Be drunk, but not with wine; stagger, but not with strong drink! The Lord has poured out upon you a spirit of deep sleep, and has closed the eyes of the prophets, and covered the heads of the seers.
There is a shortage of the Word of God in the land. Everybody’s in a stupor, going in circles, bored to tears. The preaching is so lacking in vitality that the people in the congregations are either text-messaging or asleep. Maybe it’s the fault of the seminaries! That’s what my husband said to me when I was a student and first started preaching. On the way home in the car, he said, “That seminary is ruining you!” But no, the problem is deeper than that. Isaiah says that the Word of God has been withheld from the educated and the uneducated alike:
And the vision of all this has become to you like the words of a book that is sealed. When the book is given to one who can read, saying, “Read this,” he says, “I cannot, for it is sealed.” And when they give the book to one who cannot read, saying, “Read this,” he says, “I cannot read.”
So, across the board, the vision that comes from hearing and understanding the word of God has gone missing. Amos says the same thing using a different image:
“Behold, the days are coming,” says the Lord God, “when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread…but of hearing the words of the Lord. They shall wander from sea to sea…they shall run to and fro, to seek the word of the Lord, but they shall not find it. (Amos 8:11-12).
Amos speaks of a famine; Isaiah uses the image of the sealed book that is inaccessible not only to the illiterate but also to the literate. The fault, as all the prophets make clear, is largely in the leadership, but the whole people have gone astray as a result. They are chasing after the living Word of the Lord in nature, in cults, in idolatry, in selfish pleasures, in “grinding the face of the poor” while still persuading themselves that they are true worshippers. Isaiah says this in words that Jesus himself quotes in Matthew 15:7:
This people draws near with their mouth and honors me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their worship of me is according to a commandment of human beings learned by rote.
I don’t think this is meant as a condemnation of traditional liturgy. The problem is not to be solved by making the prayers extemporaneous or jazzing up the music. Something more fundamental is wrong. The people’s hearts are far from God because his Word is sealed. The people hear the Word but it does not penetrate; it does not change anyone’s life; it does not produce fruit; its power is withheld. Did you notice that scandalous message? God is in charge of closing the book, and God is in charge of opening it again. God is the one who closes and opens the heart to “hear the vision.” Isn’t that intolerably capricious? We strenuously object to this. But our objections have already been foreseen. Isaiah says that we have it backwards. We are disrespecting the Author of the Word:
You turn things upside down! Shall the potter be regarded as the clay? Should the thing made say of its maker, “He did not make me”; or shall the thing formed say of him who formed it, “He has no understanding”?
I think this is meant to be a little bit funny. Humor disarms, sometimes. We’re meant to imagine a little animated pot backtalking to the potter, complaining about the way it’s been made. Paul and Jeremiah both use this image of the pot talking back. It’s funny but it’s deadly serious too. It all depends on whether there really is a God who, as we say in the Creed, is “maker of heaven and earth.”
This past summer, after our beloved mother died, my sister and I found a lot of fascinating things in her house. I found a letter written in 1893 by my mother’s grandfather, who was very brilliant, very learned, and what used to be called a “free-thinker.” Well, why not? Who would not want to be a free thinker? Who wants to be an imprisoned thinker? Now: I am placing my mother’s grandfather side by side in my mind with my father’s father, who was a devout Methodist. I found his 1889 hymnal, his name stamped on the cover, very worn with use. Two ancestors: the Methodist and the free-thinker. I know a good deal more about my great-grandfather the free-thinker, because I have typed a hundred pages of his letters. Of my paternal grandfather the Methodist, I know very little; he died in 1918 and left few letters behind, just the hymnal and a stained glass window in his memory in the Methodist church in my home town.
going to read two paragraphs from my great-grandfather’s 1893 letter. He is writing
to his son, my maternal grandfather, who was professor of history at the
….I do not look upon the acquittal of Briggs as a very momentous event….
must remember that he is acquitted only in
I figured it was a safe bet that a crowd of Methodists would enjoy that! But what a joke the Creator of heaven and earth and Lord of the Church has played on my great-grandfather!
Here’s the next paragraph
During my idle hours of late I have been reading the Bible systematically….I have been astonished to find it so amazing a jumble. It does not need “modern criticism” to persuade any sane mind that such a mass of confused rubbish could never have…issued from the chambers of an omniscient brain….
Now seriously: speaking of the Presbyterians, this has caused me to reflect deeply on the mystery of election. I found this letter and this hymnal at the same time, and I have spent the last few months balancing them against one another and thinking about the questions they raised in my mind. Like many Southern families we have always been hyper-conscious of family connections. Why is it that my sister and I were both—as far as we can tell—born believers? Why is it that our great-grandfather’s “mass of confused rubbish” has been for us both the Word of life from our infancy? Here we have these parallel strands in our immediate ancestry—the faithful Christian and the “free-thinking” scoffer, both of them highly educated. One forebear had ears to hear the Word of God and the other one did not. How do we account for the appearance of faith in some people and not in others? The book of Isaiah is suffused with that question. Do you know which Old Testament passage is quoted in the New Testament more than any other? It’s this one, from the call of Isaiah in chapter 6:
Go, and say to this people: “Hear and hear, but do not understand; see and see, but do not perceive.’ Make the heart of this people fat, and their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears.”
The mystery of unbelief! Already in the first years of the Christian community it was puzzling and disturbing. Paul devotes three chapters in Romans to the problem. He concludes, thinking along with Isaiah, that God has his own purposes. There is some reason that unbelief persists in God’s world until the Day of the Lord when all shall be revealed.
Let’s read further from Isaiah:
[This people’s] worship of me is according to a commandment of men learned by rote; therefore, behold, I will again do marvelous things with this people, wonderful and marvelous; and the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the discernment of their discerning men shall be hid.
Does this make any sense? look at that word “therefore.” The people’s hearts are far from God, their worship is by rote, therefore the Lord is going to do a marvellous thing. Because faith is dead and the Word brings forth no fruit, therefore he is going to open the book again. And when he opens it, the so-called wisdom and learning of the disdainful will vanish, and faith will be called forth from the foolish to whom God has drawn near. That’s what God says through his prophet Isaiah. St. Paul says it again in I Corinthians:
Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?…..For the foolishness of God is wiser than men….God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise…
Again, God is the agent. God is the subject of the verbs. “God made, God is, God chose.” We’re being given a new heart to suspend our objections so that we can just listen to the Word of God speaking. Here’s the rest of the passage. Listen for what God is going to do. Remember that the kerygma is an announcement—an announcement from the most trusted, most powerful name in news. Listen for the kerygma:
I will again do marvelous things with this people, wonderful and marvelous… …In that day the deaf shall hear the words of a book [the word of God will live and jump off the page!] and out of their gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind shall see [This is not about literal eyesight. Sight in the Scripture is metaphorical; it means understanding, revelation, transformation]. The meek shall obtain fresh joy in the Lord, and the poor among men shall exult in the Holy One of Israel [the great reversal will take place. Those who had no privileges and no prospects will be seized by ecstatic joy]. For the tyrant [shall be no more, and the scoffer shall cease to be; all those alert to do evil shall be cut off—those who cause a person to lose a lawsuit, who set a trap for the arbiter in the gate, and without grounds deny justice to the one in the right.
Is this news powerful? Is this news trustworthy? Is this truly a God who is able to keep promises? This passage announces that the right understanding of God’s Word means the redemption of society and salvation for the whole earth. The Word will leap into the hearts of the deaf and blind. The neglected and downtrodden peoples “will greet their redemption with joy.” The scoffer shall cease to be, and the lowly who are waiting for justice will see their enemies “cut off.” The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this (Isaiah 9:7, 37-32).
The scoffer will cease to be. I think of my great-grandfather. Does it mean that he will cease to be scornful, or that he will cease to exist? Will the “cut off” enemies be effectively and permanently thwarted, or will they actually be destroyed? We do not know. A lot of the language of Scripture about these matters is metaphorical. What we can affirm for sure is that the Word of God is both powerful and trustworthy and that it creates faith where there is no faith, it can grant sight where there is blindness, it can loosen the stubborn heart to praise its Maker.
One final question. Don’t we want to be “free-thinkers”? We don’t want to be coerced into believing, do we? What sort of power does this Word of God have?
“Power largely consists in the ability to make others inhabit your story of their reality.” Speaking for myself, there is nothing in all the world that makes me feel more angry and disempowered that someone else making me inhabit their story of my reality. And there is no more familiar experience in the world, for most of us. Someone else wants us to find “closure” before we are ready. Someone wants to tell us we are better off without whatever it was we lost. Someone thinks we should be happy in a job that makes us miserable. Someone wants to tell us how to solve an insoluble problem. But the power of God is nothing like that. The power of God moves us into a new place where we can see, perhaps for the first time, what our own true story really is.
There is all the difference in the world between power and coercion, power and force. I don’t think we preachers today have enough trust in the power of God to create a truly free-thinking person. We’ve been sold a bill of goods, that if we preach with too much confidence it will be coercive. That’s because we are thinking with the thoughts of human beings, not with trust in the promises of God. He is the one who shuts and opens the book. That is not our job. If some of those who listen to our sermons reject the message, that is not our worry—as long as it is truly the kerygma that we preach, and not some feeble imitation of it. Rejection is built into the vocation of the preacher. But hear this: the incarnate Word of God is a mighty sword put into your hand. Those who hear it will feel their chains cut off, their prison unlocked, their lungs filled with oxygen:
With joy you will draw water from the
wells of salvation. 4 And you will say in that day: “Give thanks to
the Lord, call upon his name; make known his deeds among the nations....Sing
praises to the Lord, for he has done gloriously; let this be known in all the
earth. 6 Shout, and sing for joy, O inhabitant of
Come thou incarnate Word,
Gird on thy mighty sword,
Our prayer attend;
Come and thy people bless,
Come give thy Word success,
Spirit of holiness,
On us descend!
I would like to acknowledge the influence of Brevard Childs, especially in his latest book The Struggle to Understand Isaiah as Christian Scripture (Eerdmans), for his commitment to helping us to preach from the Old Testament according to a rule of faith.
 “Evangelicals a Liberal Can Love,” The
 The interplay in this passage between “stupefy yourselves” and “The Lord has poured out…” maintains the paradoxical relationship between human responsibility and the action of God. There is rarely a flat-out account of God’s action independently of human accountability. One of the great exceptions is Isaiah 40-55, which fastens into place the theological doctrine of the prevenient (going-before), unconditional nature of God’s action when the human situation is hopeless.
 That was before the late great Edmund Steimle, professor of homiletics at Union Seminary (NYC), got hold of me.
 Otto Kaiser in his commentary on Isaiah
said that the word vision has “the
general meaning of revelation.” (Otto
Kaiser, Isaiah 13-39: A Commentary. The
Old Testament Library. Philadelphia:
 The exact translation of this is disputed; is it a question or a statement? Anyway, the general idea is clear—the creator-creature relationship has been reversed.
 His name was Virginius Dabney. His grandson and namesake became a noted newspaper editor and historian.
 Also Jeremiah 8:9—“The wise men shall be put to shame, they shall be dismayed and taken; lo, they have rejected the word of the Lord.
 gnaritzim—Calvin translates “violent man.”
 Philip Gourevitch, We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families (Winner National Book Critics Circle Award 1998).