The Rev. Mrs. Fleming Rutledge is Not Ashamed of the Gospel

For several years now, people have been saying to me, “Sarah, you’ve got to read […]

Sarah Condon / 5.9.17

For several years now, people have been saying to me, “Sarah, you’ve got to read the Rev. Fleming Rutledge.” And for several years now I’ve politely nodded and thought to myself, “Sure, I’ll add him to the list of ordained dudes whose books I need to read.”

That was, until last year, when I heard about Fleming Rutledge’s latest book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ. I googled this Fleming character and much to my surprise, this photo appeared:

The beautiful hair, the earrings that can only be described as “earbobs,” and that scarf draped with the dignity of a woman who radiates, “Come at me world, I’m here to read you.” I remember gasping aloud and saying with total excitement, “WHOLE UP. HOW COME NONE OF YOU FOOLS TOLD ME FLEMING IS A LADY?!”

I bought The Crucifixion. I loved it. If you haven’t bought it yet, stop reading this trash and Amazon that bizness now. Here’s the thing: there are not a tremendous number of women out there who will preach about the death and resurrection of Jesus with the boldness, assuredness, and utter orthodoxy of the Rev. Mrs. Fleming Rutledge. 

You can’t blame us ordained ladies entirely for that. The Episcopal Church started allowing for women priests in the 1970s. You know, when affirmational culture was just hitting its stride and people were dancing to ABBA. Some days I feel like women’s ordination was muddled with the culture it came from. And so women priests were expected to be “untethered” to concepts like sin, death, forgiveness, and the fallenness of humanity.

Recently, in the Supreme Court news cycle, there were several articles noting that Neil Gorsuch was perhaps “not as conservative” as we might think because he attends an Episcopal church that happens to have a woman rector. Because evidently, the denomination and the clergy’s gender have told us everything we need to know. Good Lord, deliver us.

In 400 years, when the Episcopal Church lets me run a congregation, I pray to God that no one will look at me and think, “Must be a Liberals Only congregation! They’ve got a girl in charge!”

I honestly believe the need to be “less offensive” for the Gospel can plague women so much more than men. We tend to apologize for what we think and to water down what people might find abrasive. While the more leftist end of the church wants us to have equal rights (I mean, sans maternity leave), they also seem to want us to be “nice” in the pulpit. We can preach on justice issues that make everyone feel good about themselves, but we better keep that personal sin stuff to ourselves.

I did not go to seminary to learn how to be nice. Trust me, no one has those teaching abilities anyway. I went to seminary because I felt called to preach the Gospel, without apology. I’m not interested in making the world a better place; I am interested in telling the world about Jesus. And he didn’t say anything about the World Improvement Plan. For whatever reason (my profound sin, my need for redemption, my proclivity for being too loud — but who is counting?), God saw fit to make me a priest in this church, and I fully intend to preach the Gospel as offensively and freely as the Holy Spirit moves.

And while this all sounds bold and feminist-y, it can also feel lonely. Some days I feel like I’ve missed the boat on learning how to plant asparagus in a community garden. Or I feel bad for not feeling bad about how much I loathe inclusive language. Or, perhaps saddest of all, I worry that I should tone down the “sin talk” if I ever want to have a church of my own.

Then I saw the Rev. Fleming Rutledge speak at Mbird NYC last weekend and I was like, “NOPE.”

When she took the pulpit, a hush came over the crowd.

The wonderful thing about Mockingbird is that while there are many Episcopalians in the room, there are also Southern Baptists, Presbyterians, and some Lutherans who don’t ordain women but you know (secretly) really, really want to. Because Gospel-preaching women are not to be trifled with. And that night, St. Fleming did us right.

She spoke about the justification of the ungodly (yes, Lord). She called the Road to Emmaus the “most consequential Bible Study in all of the world.” And she told us that of the 79 Easter sermons she has heard in her life, almost all of them have been disappointing.

I mean.

But she did so much more than that. The Rev. Rutledge spoke of kerygma, which is to say, the proclamation of the Gospel. She pointed to scripture and clearly named Jesus Christ moving from “he did mighty works” to “my Lord and my God.” And finally, that woman preacher reminded us that our church is not a memorial society; it is the body of the Lord and Living Christ.

I looked around, and we were all weeping: men, women, young, old, ordained, and laypeople.

We needed it. And we needed her to say it.

Honestly, I felt so many things in that moment. I was so grateful for her. So proud of her. So proud to be walking in her faithful footsteps.

The Rev. Fleming Rutledge has faithfully served the church for four decades now with the unrelenting message of God’s grace for hopeless sinners. And not all those sinners “out there.” But the ones here. The one writing this piece. And the one reading it, too.

So, I decided that night that I’m keeping it up. The sin, the crucifixion, the redemption, the fallenness, the low anthropology, the sanctification, the grace, and the Jesus Christ. Because Fleming herself said that night, “Human feeling and human insight are notoriously undependable.” But the Gospel speaks of the justification of the ungodly, the Gospel tells us that we are sinners beloved by a crucified one, and the Gospel clearly proclaims “The Lord is Risen,” even when we step into the pulpit and preach yet another lame Easter sermon.