Interview with Fleming Rutledge: Preaching - With Protein and Power

Interview with Fleming Rutledge by Patricia Paddey // Photo by Paul Patterson

Having spent twenty-two years in parish ministry, Fleming Rutledge travels internationally, preaching, teaching, and teaching preachers. An award-winning author, her most recent book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ, has been acclaimed by Christianity Today as the 2017 Book of the Year. Last week, she delivered the keynote address at Wycliffe College’s Preaching Day. Below, she shares her thoughts on the state of preaching today. 

Q:        You’ve said that you listen to about 60 sermons a year. That’s a lot of sermons; it makes you something of an expert on what is being preached in today’s churches. What are you hearing that concerns you?

FR:      What concerns me is that the sermons are not what I would call “biblical.” Now of course, most preachers have a biblical text in mind when they preach. And in the Episcopal church in the States, it’s almost always one of the Synoptic Gospels. The passage is read and referred to, but I so often don’t get the feeling that the preacher has submitted herself to the authority of the Word. It’s as though the preacher is giving us some thoughts about the biblical passage, or is taking off from the passage, or is adding something to it, but not preaching organically out of it, which is what I was taught to do.

Q:        How were you taught to prepare a sermon?

FR:      I had an extraordinary experience of learning about preaching. It was just one of those blessings that came my way. The emphasis on scrupulous exegesis—before one even begins to construct the sermon—was formative for me. The discipline of checking other preachers and what they’ve said about a particular text was formative for me.

When I first got out of seminary, I would go through as many as eight or 10 commentaries on a particular passage before I would preach. That would take many hours, and I did that for at least 15 or 20 years. I always ended that search through the commentaries by reading Calvin and Karl Barth on the passage, because they were preachers as well as scholars.

Lately I have all of Spurgeon in my computer. I find it extremely helpful now to read some of the preaching of the past, rather than reading commentaries. Reading the great expositors of the past helps to open up a path to allow the Bible to speak through me. Commentaries are very helpful and very important, but they don’t necessarily make that link between scholarship and the pulpit that you need in order to preach.

Q:        How have you seen preaching change?

FR:      When I was first coming along, the historical/critical method was the Lord of the Universe, and that made the sermons often quite dry.

But then a different kind of preaching took over: the so-called narrative style, the story-telling style. The trouble with that was that it often ended up with the preacher telling stories about herself, or the preacher telling stories about what his children were doing, or stories found in a lectionary aid, which I think is particularly pernicious. Instead of telling the story.

The preacher should be telling the story. And if other stories really illustrate that, then that can be very powerful. But too often, stories are thrown in because they are affecting, attention-getting or emotional. But often, they do not contribute to the narrative line that the preacher needs to grasp in order to proclaim the story.

Q:        What should every sermon contain?

FR:      Every sermon should contain a promise. That’s what is empowering. What people need to hear in a sermon is the empowering Word, the nourishing Word. A lot of sermons are very thin gruel, they don’t have any vitamins in them. They are lacking in protein. The sermon that is empowering is what one wants to hear.

You want to go out of the church feeling stronger than you did when you went it, more hopeful in the power of God to overcome the obstacles that to us seem insurmountable.

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