Author Archives: Kyle Rader

About Kyle Rader

Kyle is a theologian and postulant for holy orders in The Episcopal Church, and currently a Visiting Research Scholar at the Institute for Religion, Culture, and Public Life at Columbia University. He received his Ph.D. in theology from the University of Chicago Divinity School and lives in New York City with his spouse and two kids. Visit Kyle's contributor page for a longer bio and CV.

Is it worth it?

Sermon from October 21, 2008
Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem
Principal texts: Job 38:1-7; Mark 10:35-45

Let the little children come...

Me, at the pulpit with my son, who ran up while I was preaching

Even though the other disciples were annoyed with James and John’s request, it’s important to remember that at the time they made it, they were committed. They were all in, and there was probably no going back. It reminds me of a movie from my youth. Any of you remember Jerry Maguire? Tom Cruise, Renee Zellweger, and Cuba Gooding Jr.? It was about a sports agent’s quixotic quest for meaning, love, and some modicum of success. It was a silly movie that knew it was silly, but it was also strangely touching. Anyway, after the title character, played by Tom Cruise sort of quits and is sort of fired from his job at a successful firm, he gives this impassioned speech about how he is going to start his own company that will be more devoted to people than profits, and he hopes that half the room is going follow him out. Alas, only one nobody employ is particularly stirred by the theatrics, Renee Zellweger’s character, Dorothy. In this painfully awkward scene right after they’ve walked out, there’s no going back. But it starts to become clear that he has no real plan, and Dorothy needs to ask him a few logistical questions, such as whether the new company will have dental insurance.

James and John seem a bit like Renee Zellweger’s character here. Or at least that’s one aspect of what’s going on. They would probably have some explaining to do if they went back to the family’s fishing operation. Or at any rate, they can’t unsee what they’ve seen. But things are getting harder, and Jesus has been talking weird of late. He has said that he is going to be handed over and killed, and that anyone who wants to be his disciple has to follow him. So while it’s possible to see this episode as a power play, an attempt at a backroom deal, I’m inclined to take a gentler view of it. After having now been through a lot with Jesus, and with promises of greater difficulties on the horizon, perhaps they are asking him for something pretty understandable, to which most of us can relate. “Jesus, you’ve just said that nobody is going to get rich off of this venture. You’ve said that any houses and fields that do come our way will come with persecutions. Your talking an awful lot about death and rejection.” Maybe in asking Jesus to promise that they will be enthroned next to him, what they’re really hoping for is a promise that there will be an enthronement at all. That this whole venture they’ve given their lives to for the last year or so really is going somewhere. “Jesus, can you at least promise that it’s going to be worth it?” Continue reading

The Holiest Place in Jerusalem

Jerusalem is a city where you can go to the same place every day and never have the same experience twice. For example, I think I have been inside the Church of the Resurrection three times. I was interested the first time, quite moved the second time, and rather put off the third time. I will go back, of course. The old city in particular is beautiful, but not really photogenic. The pictures in Ottolenghi and Tamimi’s cookbook are taken by professionals. Even though I’m no great photographer, and usually just have an iPhone for a camera, this place is especially hard to photograph well, and the photograph rarely captures much of what it was about a place or a moment that made such an impression. The other night, I was on a rooftop from which I could see the Church of the Resurrection, the Church of the Redeemer, the Mosque of Omar, the Dome of the Rock, and the Mount of Olives under a full moon. It was one of the most amazing things I have ever seen, and this doesn’t begin to do it justice.

Doesn't begin to do the sight justice.

The Old City from the roof of a building near Jaffa Gate. My photo.

Anger and sorrow are never far away though. Outside the building, a major thoroughfare had been blocked off to Palestinians, I gather to keep it clear and—I hate this word—secure for Jews going to the Western Wall for Succoth. I’m all for the Jewish community celebrating a divinely appointed festival safely. It’s just that it was done—and is always done—entirely on Israel’s terms. On another night, there might be no blockade (inshallah), but the moon might not be full, I might not have just heard such a good presentation at the Swedish Christian Study Center, or whatever showed itself on Tuesday might just not choose to show itself again. That’s Jerusalem for you.

At a social function last week, I asked a couple of people who have lived here longer than me what the most transparently holy place in Jerusalem is. Here are my own answers. They contradict one another. I haven’t visited every holy place in Jerusalem even once. I am a newcomer here, and will be leaving about the time I start to be less of a newcomer. Ask me again in December when I leave, and I might give you a different answer. Ask me again tomorrow, and I might give you a different answer. But at the moment, I think the most transparently holy place in Jerusalem is… Continue reading

That Jesus and Paul Were Criminals

El Greco, The Disrobing of Christ (El Expolio de Cristo). My picture choices are always a bit of free association. But I like how Jesus just doesn’t fit in this picture. This is a picture of the administration of justice, and he is the criminal. But something about him just makes everything else that is happening look absurd.

I’ve been asked to make my manuscript public, which I’m happy to do. I had written something else, but then got up early starting Friday morning to write a fresh sermon after Jeff Sessions made his awful comments about St. Paul in order to justify the unjustifiable. It was something else to prepare this one, but I’m really quite pleased with how it turned out. That said, I’m more aware with this one than with most of my sermons that it is written for a listening audience rather than for readers. For one thing, I don’t quite show my cards  until near the end. Anyway, this was preached at Church of the Transfiguration in Manhattan last Sunday, the fourth Sunday after Pentecost, proper 6. The principal text is 2 Corinthians, 5:6-17.

I’ve told this story to some of you, but my wife and I decided it’s time for everyone to hear it. Her mother, Erna, and her twin sister, Rosemarie, were born in what is now the Czech Republic in 1944. The Bohemian forest had long been a multi-ethnic region, and her German family had lived there for generations on one side. Then Hitler occupied the country. Erna’s family were certainly no heroes of the resistance, but they had minimal involvement with the Nazi occupiers. Erna and Rosemarie was one-year-old when the war ended. Everyone suffered in those days. But the Soviet and Czech authorities decided to heap tragedy upon tragedy by making it a crime for ethnic Germans to stay. They expelled them all, whether they’d had anything to do with the occupation or not. Soldiers came to my mother-in-law’s house and told them they had to leave in 15 minutes and could take only what they could carry. My wife’s grandmother spoke Czech and managed to negotiate an extra 15 minutes. But the forced evacuation was brutal. Many died, including one-year-old Rosemarie. There are lots of thorny political issues around this story that I’m not going to touch. What is clear is that what happened to my mother-in-law and her sister was obviously tragic, but also unjust, and completely unnecessary. The German government had carried out unspeakable horrors against the Jews of Europe, among others, and may those who were killed never be forgotten. But the Czech and Soviet governments then used the same logic, just on a smaller scale. They criminalized people not for what they had done, but for what they represented, and forced them out. Continue reading

Looking for Grace in a Graceless World

Because this year marks the 500th anniversary of the event that began the Reformation, there have been a lot of articles about Luther, especially as Reformation Day drew near. The best one that I came across was entitled Suche nach der Gnade in einer gnadenlosen Welt by Matthias Drobinski, which appeared in the Süddeutsche Zeitung on October 31. What follows is my translation, posted with the kind permission of the Süddeutsche.

Looking for Grace in a Graceless World
by Matthias Drobinski (Sueddeutsche Zeitung, October 31, 2017; trans. Kyle Rader)

The theologian and poet Christian Lehnert tells how he once preached about the love and nearness of a gracious God in an East German village, and afterward, an old Polish woman intercepted him and asked, “You prayed for God’s nearness? Do you know what you’re asking for?” She then explained how, in 1939, she hid in a ditch in a field and prayed for her life as the German tanks came. Then she felt God’s nearness and lay hidden in the earth’s arms. The tanks rolled on by. But a few days later, everyone who lived in the next farmhouse over was found dead, shot, with their tongues nailed to the kitchen table. The one was saved, the others were murdered.

Is that God’s nearness and grace? Continue reading

Halloween, Reformation Day, and All Saints

I love Halloween. I also love Reformation Day (which I realize puts me at odds with some fellow Episcopalians). Most of all, I love All Saints Day (and I like the aesthetics of All Souls/Día de los Muertos, though I find it theologically problematic). It has always felt right to me that these three celebrations go together, jack-o-lanterns and all. My All Saints post from a few years ago is still one of the better things I’ve written, where I talked about the healing bond holding us together with all those we love, as well as those we can’t imagine loving yet, living or dead. That’s the All Saints aspect of the whole thing.

But I also like the Halloween aspect.

Continue reading

On not Imagining Redemption

Jacob's Ladder by William Blake, sort of how I try (not) to imagine redemption

Blake, Jacob’s Ladder. Like the redemption you can’t imagine, you can’t see where the ladder is going.

All the “me toos” on Facebook remind me of certain aspects of Judaism I admire and sometimes envy, particularly the willingness to let evil and suffering just be evil and horrible without trying to fit it into a narrative of redemption, or at least not any redemption that one presumes to be able to imagine yet. Because there is nothing good, beautiful, or redemptive about any of this.

It takes a very appealing sort of courage and hope to live with evil that is just evil, and still say baruch atta adonai. I think this is why, for example, there’s never been much enthusiasm for rebuilding the temple, quite apart from the practical difficulties that would attend such a project. Until the Messiah comes, rabbinical Judaism doesn’t presume to know what a redeemed world would look like (and the Messiah could probably rebuild the temple without destroying the dome) [Jewish friends: please feel very welcome to offer correction to this characterization of your religion, should you find it warranted]. Continue reading

A Cloak over the Land

St. Brigid of Kildare, whose feast is today, is the unofficial patron of Brent House, my spiritual home at the University of Chicago and my sponsoring community in the ordination process. Patroness of scholars, brewers, and dairy workers, defender of peasants, ascetic for the sake of joy, and worker of delightfully over-the-top miracles. Like Brent House, a symbol of everything good in the world.

The story is told that she once asked the king for land on which to build a monastery (which would have also been what we would call a community center). The king in question was more concerned with his own revenue than with his communities, so she told him that she only needed as much land as her cloak could cover. After he agreed, she threw her cloak on the ground and it covered the whole county. A reminder of who the land really belongs to, and what it’s for.

Now the United States of America is a bit bigger than Kildare, but that makes no difference to God. Thanks everyone, for all the ways you are reminding our worthless leaders whose this land is, and what it’s for. Don’t forget to take care of yourselves while you’re at it. Drink a beer, if you can do safely, and eat some ice cream or cheese. We also resist what is evil by celebrating and sharing what is joyful.

O God, by whose grace your servant Brigid, kindled with the flame of your love, became a burning and a shining light in your Church: Grant that we also may be aflame with the spirit of love and discipline, and walk before you as children of light; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and ever. Amen.
(Lesser Feasts and Fasts, Collect for Feast of St. Brigid)

And check out this beautiful icon from the Church of St. Brigid in Kildare. Follow the link to learn more about it and about her.

Brigid of Kildare. Follow the link to learn more about her and about this wonderful icon, written by Sr. Aloysius McVeigh RSM an displayed at the church in Kildare.

Brigid of Kildare. Follow the link to learn more about her and about this wonderful icon, written by Sr. Aloysius McVeigh RSM an displayed at the church in Kildare.

Undoing Babel

Donald Trump is trying to take away our humanity. He is doing this by cutting us off from one another. But Jesus came to make us divine by making us fully human, which requires us to share a commitment to a common world and a common conversation with one another, no matter how strange our voices sound to each other. Look what Trump is doing: he is impeding communication, and thus communion. Whether it be by silencing government employees, defunding humanistic research, building his wall, or blocking immigration and denying asylum. He tells his lies about groups of people so that we will not be able to talk to them or listen to them, and he does it expertly–the Lord rebuke him!

An icon of Pentecost

An icon of Pentecost


But all it takes to resist Trump is what those of us who are committed to the Gospel are going to do anyway: we have to refuse division and create communion. When Trump cuts off channels of communication, we have to open new ones. What this means concretely depends on where you are and who you are. But one thing we can all do is pray, including (especially!) for our enemies.

I am currently working on an article that is partly on Augustine’s On Christian Teaching. I was despairing about its relevance or usefulness to our present struggles when I came across this in one of my secondary sources:

Communication is a necessary condition for community; but direct communication between human minds, a transparency of mutual understanding, is not possible in the fallen human condition. Language arises from the conflict of this impossibility with the natural human need for community…For Augustine semantic activity–understanding and communicating through language–was the index of the human need for transcendence in the most general terms: for union with other minds in the very act of understanding a shared world.
-Robert Markus, Signs and Meanings: World and Text in Ancient Christianity (Liverpool University Press, 1996), pp. 110-11

But as Augustine explains in De doctrina and elsewhere, to put a short-circuit what other people and other things mean is to defy the very work of the Incarnation. It is a false judgment that loves and regards others as having no value. It cuts us off from them and them from the beauty and goodness of the whole creation. To use Augustine’s words, it is to fail to see them and thus ourselves as signs.

So the good news: Jesus has already undone what Trump is trying to do. Pentecost undid Babel. Just as we can pray for each other even we really don’t like or understand one another, we can also commit to seeing ourselves as part of the same conversation. For anyone to attain the transcendence which Augustine diagnoses as the basic desire behind all of our communication, we need every human being in on the conversation. This does not mean that we all speak the same language or say the same things. When the Holy Spirit was given at Pentecost, the first Christians did not all start speaking the same language. They started speaking every language. 

The fullness of conversation is something that will have to emerge amidst all the tensions, failures, and misunderstandings of our glorious cacophony. But to invoke one more Augustinian conviction, there is another voice speaking behind and through ours, enabling understanding to emerge. It is the “light that enlightens all peoples,” the Word of God.

God’s word is not chained. So don’t despair, and don’t believe the lies. Call your representatives, find a march to attend, invite someone different from you to coffee. And for the love of God, pray! Trump may have invoked God in his inauguration speech, but he has actually declared open warfare on everything God is trying to do. He will fail. He will go the way of  Nebuchadnezzar and Nero. He may be saved, but his works will lie in ruin. Sad.