Sunday, April 16, 2000


Asbury First United Methodist Church
Palm Sunday

Text: Mark 11:1-11


Our two boys grew up bicycling and batting with two brothers of their own ages, Dan and Mike. Daniel the prophet and Michael the archangel,we used to say. We have photos like similar ones that you have of those ages,6-13, with Chris and Danny, Ben and Mike—dousing each other in the lake,learning to water ski, sledding in the cemetery, pitching and hitting. My favorite is taken from behind the backstop: Mike pitches, Ben catches, Danny is at bat and Chris is in the warm-up circle.

These two Old Testament figures have the blessing of aBrighton High School graduate mother, a close friend of our own Jeanne and DavidStrong, and who did vocal work at the Eastman. She is a talented soprano. Herhusband, Fred, the boys’ father, has played now 25 years for the SyracuseSymphony.

The family name is Klemperer. Fred Klemperer’s famous greatuncle, Otto Klemperer, was a talented musician, mentioned here to keep the choirawake, but also to tell those hiding in the balcony about salvation. AnotherKlemperer, Victor, Otto’s cousin, grew up as a Jew who converted toChristianity near Dresden in southeastern Germany, during the first half of thelast, the twentieth, century. He was born in the late nineteenth century, andlived to write a chilling diary about life as a yellow star wearer in the Naziyears, 1933-1945—1400 pages in all. I implore you to buy and read his books (2volumes). He tells in awful detail about life behind enemy lines, which is,frankly, your condition, too.

You are meant for freedom and love, that is the image inwhich you are made freedom and love. God is loving us into love and freeing usinto freedom, hard as it may be to remember from the corner of whatevercalaboose you are sitting in.

Roger Angel, the baseball essayist, wrote about the Yankeesand the Mets, saying that we all are part Yankee and part Met, though moreYankee than Met. I would add that we are all part Churchill and part Hitler,though maybe at our worst more Hitler than Churchill.

Victor Klemperer is hiding out, behind the line of battle, ina Jews’ House in Dresden, 1943.


Meanwhile, on the Mount of Olives, Jesus readies himself.

Under the Roman occupation—and it was the Romans finallywho crucified Jesus—the people of Jerusalem also knew the lash and boot of anoppressive culture. Hence the appearance in the Gospels of centurions and taxcollectors, of Pontius Pilate and Quirinius of Syria, of commands about cloakand coat, about one mile and two. Jesus was a Jew, as Hitler forgot, and we tendto as well. He lived in an occupied Palestine. His spiritual cousins are NatTurner, Sojourner Truth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Matthew Shepherd, Elian Gonzalez,Joan of Arc, Martin King, Oscar Romero. And, of course, children everywhere.

These are voices of truth, like that of Jesus, speaking aboutlove and freedom, in a land—your neighborhood—of lust and greed.

Hence the palms. The people, oppressed poor people, ofJerusalem awaited a Messiah, a Savior, to save them from the rape and pillage ofthe Roman Overlord. Are you the one, or are we to wait for another? This washardball. Remember the only mother and daughter scene in the New Testament, whenHerodias cuts off the head of John the Baptist? The colt providentiallyavailable is providentially provided and providentially ridden in publiccelebration of the great Messianic hope—death of the Romans!

A man on the promenade in Barcelona in 1978, a Protestantpastor, said, "La resurrecion significa la insurrecion."

The Palm Sunday procession was a first century Boston TeaParty, a first century Red Guard overthrow of Kerensky, a first century LechWalesa with the dock workers, a first century Bull Run, a first century collapseof the Berlin Wall. It was an uprising. Jesus said and did something that costhis life, something the civil authority, Rome, feared.

He touched the lingering hope in the human heart for love andfreedom.


Love and freedom we know best when we have lost them. Likeall the valuables of life—health, friends, virginity, church, peace—we knowthem fully when they are taken from us. I fear in our denomination, we may haveto learn to love the freedom of our pulpit—Methodist connectionalism—thehard way, by losing it to the warring ideologies of left and particularly thisyear of right. And in our country, we may have to learn the importance ofresponsible democratic process and leadership the hard way, through lurchingfrom anarchy to tyranny. Lenin and the Bosheviks rid themselves of all thosepesky legislators and decide to run the country with a 14-person cabinet, in thename, of course, of the proletariat. You don’t know what you’ve got ‘tilit’s gone.

Victor Klemperer, of Jewish blood, lost nearly everythingfrom 1933-1945. It happened bit by bit. He lost his job. He lost his driver’slicense. He lost his car. He lost his passport. He lost his bank account. Helost part of his pension. He lost his house. He lost his library. He lost hisbelongings. He lost four different lodgings. He lost his clothing, his teeth,his tobacco, his food, and his closest friends. Finally, starving, he and hiswife Eva, cringe under a synagogue roof through the fire bombing of Dresden, inthe winter of 1945, utterly destitute. Bit by bit.

What did Martin Neimoller say? "In Germany they camefirst for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t acommunist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’ta Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because Iwasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics and I didn’t speakup because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time no onewas left to speak up."

Maybe he had read Abraham Lincoln’s Letter to Joshua Speed:"Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As anation we began by declaring that ‘all men are created equal’. Now wepractically read it, ‘all men are created equal, except Negroes…foreignersand Catholics.’ When it comes to this, I shall prefer emigrating to some othercountry where they make no pretense of loving liberty—to Russia, for instance,where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.

From behind the lines, deep in the heart of the Third Reich,there was beating all that time at least one true heart, at least one voice oflove and freedom.


Meanwhile, back in Bethpage, Jesus makes his way through themisunderstanding of the people and the peremptory, premature praise of thecrowd.

We are not going to find our way out of this world’smultiple jailhouses, this world’s varied cellblocks, with ideological orpolitical uprising alone. For every Kerensky downed, means a Lenin raised, andevery Lenin downed means a Stalin raised. Calvin said our minds are idolfactories. Today he would perhaps say they are ideology factories.

Let us look at Jesus today as he walks into Jerusalem,Dresden, Rochester and every city of every age. Here he is. He is a Jew, areligious minority. He is a single man at middle age, a suspicious category. Heis a person of color, black we would say. He is a former fetus, the child ofMary. He is a nonviolent agent of change and good will. He is alone.

Dresden and Jerusalem

Last Easter I spoke about the liberal balance and the hope offreedom and love. Galatians inspired me to look for space, for openness. I wentto two annual conferences and implored the gathered to give each other ‘landlots of land’, to agree to disagree agreeably, like Peter and Paul had done solong ago. I ended by saying, remember the words of Jesus in his week, "Inmy Father’s house there are many rooms…"

A week ago I finished Victor Israel Klemperer’s Diary ofthe Nazi Years. Imagine my feeling when I read, page 466, from the winter of1945, at the point of starvation, that Klemperer wrote, his affirmation offaith, after more than ten years of hell, "A liberal stands by thesentence: ‘In my Father’s house there are many rooms…’"

Our hope in this life is to know the power of God who isloving us into love and freeing us into freedom.

In the heart of Jerusalem, Jesus is adorned with palms and psalms. His way has not yet become fully known. His hour is upon Him. In just a few days, he will ascend the staircase of a small city hotel. He will preside over a common meal. He will bend to his knees and wash his students’ feet.Then he too will say, "In my Father’s house there are many rooms…"

Our hope in preparation for a heavenly life is to know the power of God who is loving us into love and freeing us into freedom.

Sunday, April 09, 2000

The Hour Has Come

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: John 12:20-33
1. Not So Long Ago

It is not so long ago that we lifted our hopes and desires to God in anticipation of the birth of Jesus. We sang carols and hymns about a manger and a star, a word become flesh.

Nor is it that long ago that we witnessed again Jesus’entrance into a public life, alongside his compatriot John the Baptist. Weremembered our own baptism, and were comforted and made confident, given thecourage to lift our own voices, and the power to resist all that hurts andhobbles.

Just a short while ago, it seems just a moment, we marveledat God’s grace, flowing through Jesus’ life and into our own, grace thatfalls like glistening snow to cleanse and restore.

Was it not just a little ago that we marveled at Jesus’power to heal? We too need healing, and look for the power to heal.

How long ago was it that Jesus took our full measure, and weHis, as we honored the gentle spirit that is our inheritance from Him? How wehunger and thirst for a daily portion of gentle love! People want to know howmuch you care, before they care how much you know.

It is not so long ago that we ascended the Mountain ofTransfiguration. There we saw Jesus, in white robes, conversing with Moses andElijah. He gave us insight that day. He gave us clarity that day. He gave us aMountain view of life that day. How good it is to view things from a higherperspective! Every passage in the Gospel of John is a transfiguration passage.

Nor is it very long ago that we walked with Jesus into awedding feast, in Cana of Galilee, and found human courage and divine presencecrossing the thresholds of life.

No, not so long ago.

Not so long ago did Jesus interrogate Nicodemus. We heard Himright here: "You must be born anew".

It was not long ago that Jesus tenderly touched the woman atthe well, that Jesus healed the man born blind, that Jesus raised Lazarus fromthe dead.

No, no. Not so long ago.

And now there is a great hush, a magnificent silence. NowJesus stands at the door of his glory, his passion, his mission, his revelation,and at the door of our deepest life. The hour has come.

2. The Hour Has Come

Now Jesus stands before us at the feast, talking with Greeksas a reminder in John that Jesus came for us, the non-Jews, so that theboundaries of Israel might be expanded, and a branch might be grafted onto thetree of life. Today Jesus stands before us in all his young masculinity, in allhis vigorous virility. He stands before us as a young man facing certain death.He is a grain of wheat that is cast into the earth and that then brings forthmuch fruit. His is a life of servant love, given over against so many others whoclutch at life, and tragically lose it. Selfishness kills. Generosity saves.

But now the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.

For John and his church, this meant that the hour has comefor faith. The hour has come to see past and see through the physical reality ofdeath to its true significance.

The hour has come to see past and see through the shamefuland painful reality of crucifixion to its true significance.

The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Thisfourth gospel trims out of the story of Jesus’ death almost all the harsherdetail, all the spitting, all the degradation, all the abject humiliation, allthe brutality-they are gone. Peter’s denial and the crown of thorns aloneremain. And this is because for John the cross of Jesus Christ is notcrucifixion alone, nor departure alone, nor exaltation alone. This hour is firstof all the hour of glory.

So Matthew may end his gospel with a cry: Eli Eli lamasabacthani. Luke may conclude his gospel with a prayer: Father forgivethem for they know not what they do. But John ends with a single word, teleestai-itis finished.

What the world sees as defeat is really a triumph and whatthe world sees as the end of Jesus’ hopes and aspirations is really thebeginning of his ascent to glory. (Blessed Ashton)

The heart of life is found in love and death, and today weare right at the heart of life. Love and death, these are our existential spaceand our daily time.

We are told today to find our life by losing it, to drop ourgrain that fruit we may gain, we are taught again to love our neighbor as if shewere our very self.

  1. Loss and Love in John
  2. In these verses, John 12:20-33, there lingers an essence, afragrance that eludes description. Why did Doestoevsky choose these verses asfrontispiece to his greatest novel, Crime and Punishment? John seems tohave distilled a potent nectar, more potent than that found elsewhere, from hisknowledge of loss. Why are these verses so haunting?

    I believe they astound us so, because they reflect a doubledeath. I believe the sense of glory found in the cross here comes from the hardlesson of loss, in a little church, somewhere in Turkey, turned out of thesynagogue, and losing or about to lose, long after the death of Jesus, theirlast link with the primitive church. In the cross, in their loss, they saw boththe death of Jesus, and the death of their beloved disciple, their belovedpreacher, their pastor, John. The fourth Gospel is so strange and so startlingbecause it operates at two levels, first that of Jesus and second that of John.After decades of pastoral care, guiding them through change, leading them out ofthe synagogue, protecting them from their own worst selves, reminding them ofChrist the Lord, and showing them how to walk in the light, the toweringfigure of their beloved preacher was overtaken by death.

    First they lost Jesus, then they lost John. Both losses hurtwith unspeakable pain. But here is what they learned: love carries us throughloss. Love carries us through loss. Love outlasts loss. In fact, only selfopening love can bring any meaning through loss!

    You know this Gospel in your bones, in the old bone structureof Asbury First. For you too have known the loss of Jesus, and the loss of abeloved disciple, an originating pastor, who guided and lead, and reminded andshowed, and at last was overtaken by death. You too know about the two leveldrama of faith, the loss and love of Jesus Christ our Savior, and also the lossand love of a beloved disciple who brought us out from the city, who located uson East Avenue, who helped us through a depression and a war, who had a visionand built a building. And then one day, in the pulpit, he did not feel well. Andthen, soon, he died. He is buried right under our cross, his ashes are interredhere. And every moment of loyal offering, and every baby baptized, and everycouple married, and every moment of eucharist, and every funeral service bringus back here, to the twin shadows. The cross of Christ and ashes of WeldonCrossland.

    We can feel the Fourth Gospel here.

  3. Glory

From Calvary to the altar at Asbury, the same voice ringsout. I overhear it at Westminster Abbey, where John Wesley is buried. I overhearit down in Maryland where Bishop Francis Asbury is buried. I overhear it inDelaware, Ohio, at the grave of James Whitford Bashford. I overhear it everySunday here, beneath the cross of Jesus and before the ashes of Dr. Crossland.

The hour has come for the glorification of the Son of Man.This is an hour, amid this beautiful music, an hour for faith. It is an hour foryou to let the grain of selfishness fall down into the earth, where it can bereborn as love. Love outlasts loss. No. Love alone outlasts loss. Lovemeans offering yourself. Love means tithing your income. Love means talkingabout tithing your income. Love means keeping physical faith with those whom yousexually love-sharing board with others but not bed. Love means giving away yourlife. For the preacher, at least in our church, it means itinerancy, thespiritual journey of an annual appointment, subject to change every June, tovarious leaky roofed parsonages. Love means taking charge without takingcontrol. Love for the layman means enduring the endless contention andintractable difference of the church, and her meetings. Love means going tochurch and knowing there are people there whom you do not like, maybe evenclergy whom you do not like, but whom you are intending to love. Love meansprayer and reading in a world of action. Love means, according to this passage, serving,following, and honoring.

I go back 20 years to a trailer straddling the Canadianborder, and a legless man dying from diabetes and cancer, on a dirt road, closeto nowhere, with a scraggly beard and tobacco stained fingers. I hear his son,guitar in hand, singing at the man’s funeral, about love that outlasts loss.

Are ye able? Still the Master

Whispers down eternity

And heroic spirits answer

Now as then in Galilee

Lord we are able

Our spirits are thine

Remold them make us

Like Thee divine

Thy guiding radiance

Above us shall be

A beacon to God

To love and loyalty.