One Far Fierce Hour and Sweet

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April 13, 2014

One Far Fierce Hour and Sweet

Passage: Matthew 21:1-11

Palm Sunday

When fishes flew and forests walked

And figs grew upon thorn

Some moment when the moon was blood

Then surely I was born.

With monstrous head and sickening cry

And ears like errant wings,

The devil’s walking parody

Of all four-footed things.

The tattered outlaw of the earth,

Of ancient crooked will;

Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,

I keep my courage still.

Aye! But I also had in my years

One far fierce hour and sweet:

There was a shout about my ears,

And palms before my feet.

“The Donkey,” G. K. Chesterton

Their tax dollars went to Rome, where their hard-won cash helped to build pagan Pantheons and aqueducts that would never do Palestine any good. Foreign policemen defended the peace, alien armies occupied the land, Greek or Latin all but eclipsed the Hebrew language, and Jewish culture was all but buried under the flashier splendors of Athens and Rome.When Jesus came riding regally into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey that first Palm Sunday around 30 A.D., Israel had been a vassal state for about 600 years.   Exploited over the centuries by one world superpower after another–Babylon, Persia, Greece, and finally Rome–the Jews were more like the American colonies before the Revolution than an autonomous, independent nation, but in Israel’s case all their Boston Tea Parties went sadly awry, and no George Washington rode in to stun a mightier foreign army into abject defeat.

And then one day the Jewish imagination was energized with eager expectancy by a modest peasant whose singular life promised a new world. He fed the hungry masses with his own meager store. He spoke with passion about the kingdom of God, and he preached release to the captives and freedom to the oppressed. There were rumors that at his touch the blind man saw and the lame leapt. They said that even the unspeakable demons of the deranged obeyed his command. His integrity unimpeachable and his compassion inexhaustible, he promised justice, practiced goodness, challenged inequities, and preached good news to the poor.

And then one day seated on the back of a donkey he rides down toward Jerusalem in a manner reserved for visiting dignitaries and royal scions alone. And the crowds remember an obscure 200-year-old promise from the prophet Zechariah: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem. Behold your king comes to you, triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey. He will cut off the chariot from Israel, and the war horse from Jerusalem, and the archer’s arrow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.”

And in the first-century version of a ticker-tape parade, they laud his honor and shout his glory as if he’d just ridden into Storrs, Connecticut, like Kevin Ollie and Geno Auriemma bringing home the hardware from both NCAA Basketball Championships. Forgive my lack of modesty; I will become a Northwestern fan in due time, but for now I’m still a Connecticut fan. Men and Women both in the same year: this has been done only once before, and guess who did it the first time! Have you ever been to Storrs, Connecticut? Until Calhoun and Auriemma came along, U. Conn. was a Cow College. Well, that has almost nothing to do with this sermon but it had to be pointed out.

Back to Jesus: they give him the poor man’s red-carpet treatment, laying their coats in the road for the donkey to trample upon with his dusty hoof-prints, no small thing from people with but a single hard-won coat to their names. Would you throw down your Ralph Lauren or Yves St. Laurent for some dusty donkey to tramp upon? “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” they shout. “Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest,” the same words the angels sang to shepherds 30 years before. Is he the king?

Jesus is King, but just for a day. As with every monarchy founded by the whim of the temperamental multitude, this one appears to have the life expectancy of an Italian prime minister. During the uncertain early days of the struggling Roman Republic, political chaos made for short-lived governments. At least one Roman President’s tenure lasted less than a day, prompting the Roman orator Cicero to observe, “We have a president of such vigilance that during his entire term he never slept a wink.”[1] That was about the duration of Jesus’ kingship. He was king, but only for a day.

Of course, it was his own damn fault. Because as soon as he gets to Jerusalem he demonstrates that he is as tone deaf to political nuance as Ted Cruz himself. The first thing he does when he gets to Jerusalem, he goes straight to the Temple, the epicenter of Jewish authority, and like a maniac starts turning over the tables of a few money-changers who are simply trying to make an honest buck. Jesus ought to have known that you can’t attack people’s livelihood or they’ll run you out of town on a rail in a flash, which of course is exactly what they did five short days later.

So just after they crown him King on that first Palm Sunday, Jesus plants his throne in the holiest place he knows anything about–the Jerusalem Temple; the Temple, for God’s sake! For God’s sake! He doesn’t storm the ramparts of Herod’s Palace. He doesn’t muster a menacing military from the worshipful hordes to assault Pilate’s Praetorium. He doesn’t sail for Rome with a fleet of bristling warships to confront Emperor Tiberius. He goes to reclaim the Temple–a holy place, a spiritual place–to show the world that his Kingdom is not of this world.

And the Jerusalem crowds go: “Oh shoot, that’s not what we wanted. That’s not what we meant.” He means to lay claim to their hearts and their lives and their undying allegiance, and that’s never what they intended, so the same crowds who shout ‘Hosanna!” on Palm Sunday holler “Crucify him!” on Black Friday.

So 2000 years later, what does the Palm Sunday story teach us about ourselves? What timeless truths does it convey? Well, I’m glad you asked. The Palm Sunday story dances to the three-beat rhythm.

Step 1: Jesus the Christ enters the Holy City, and we are delighted; we think we want Jesus; we think we want peace; we think we want justice; we think we want God’s way; we think we want Christ’s Kingdom, so we welcome Christ the King with Hosannas and palm branches.

Step 2: when we discover the implications of Christ’s kingdom, we decide we were misled; Christ’s Kingdom is not all what we had in mind, so we kill it, for once and always, or so we thought.

Step 3: we discover that you can’t kill the Christ, and we will live in God’s world whether we will or no.

Let me give you an example of Christ’s Kingdom entering the city, and then the city spurning what it thought it wanted. My son Michael works in Manhattan and lives in Stuyvesant Town, on 20th Street just off 1st Avenue on the East Side. If you’ve been there you know that it is the most charming neighborhood, with playgrounds and parks and fountains and an ice rink. Michael pays an obscene rent to live there, but he loves it.

Stuy Town was opened more than 60 years ago in 1947, so the trees are mature and as tall and serene as the ten-story, red brick buildings. There are 35 buildings in all, covering 18 square blocks, or about 80 acres, with 8,757 apartments and 25,000 residents, or about the same population as Wilmette.

Stuy Town was built on land that was once the farm of Peter Stuyvesant, the famous mayor of New Amsterdam in the seventeenth century, so I find it poetic that my tall blond Dutch kid now lives on land that once belonged to one of the most famous Dutch-Americans of them all.

With a son who lives in Stuy Town, I was interested to learn that Lee Lorch died on February 28. He was 98 years old. Does anybody know who Lee Lorch is? Lee Lorch was a college mathematics professor with a Ph.D. from the University of Cincinnati. He served with the Army Air Corps in the Pacific and returned to New York to teach at the City College of New York in 1946, but among a horde of returning veterans, he could find no decent place to live with his wife Gracie, so he lived in a Quonset hut in Brooklyn for two years, until Stuy Town opened.

One hundred thousand people applied for a Stuy Town apartment, and as I said, there were only 8,757 apartments there, but Mr. Lorch scored one for his family, because, as he put it, he had all the right credentials: a steady job, a teaching appointment at City College, and, perhaps most important of all, he was not black. His words, not mine.

At the time, the President of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, which developed and owned Stuy Town, told The New York Post that “blacks and whites don’t mix; if we let them in, they will drive property values down.” New York City had given Met Life all the land and huge tax breaks, but somehow Met Life got to decide who could live in those apartments. “Stuy Town is a grand old town, but you can’t get in if your skin is brown,” went one popular chant of the time.

Almost as soon as he moved in, Lee Lorch started campaigning for fair housing in Stuy Town. When City College heard about Mr. Lorch’s activism, it fired him as a troublemaker. He went looking for another teaching appointment and found one at Penn State University, but as soon as he got to State College, PA., the President told him to turn around and go back home; they fired him as soon as they hired him.

Mr. Lorch obtained an appointment at Fisk University, a black college in Nashville, and since, living in Nashville, he didn’t need his Stuy Town apartment any longer, he rented it out to a black family. Fisk, a black college, fired him too when he refused to face Joe McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Then Mr. Lorch went to another tiny black college in Little Rock, which also refused to renew his appointment after one year. In 1956, a journalist wrote, “Because he believed in the principles of decency and justice and the equality of all people under God, Lee Lorch and his family have been hounded through four states from the North and the South like refugees in displaced persons camps.” This is a man who had defended democracy against tyranny with his life in the Pacific.

He finally had to move his family to Canada to take a teaching job at York University in Toronto, and he lived there for the rest of his life, for 50 years, because America would not have him; he died on February 28 in Toronto. We banished this war veteran and civil rights hero from our fair land because he was about two decades ahead of the rest of us.

In 1959, twelve years after the opening of Stuy Town and the year Mr. Lorch fled to Canada, there were still only 47 African Americans living in Stuy Town, but Mr. Lorch’s agitation led directly to the Fair Housing Act of 1968. In 1990, City College of New York, now City University, which fired him in 1949, awarded him an honorary degree.

Three years ago, when he was 95 years old, a journalist asked Mr. Lorch: “If you had the chance to do it over again, what would you have done differently?” Mr. Lorch thought about that for a minute, and finally said, “More and better of the same.”[2]

“More and better of the same.” We think we want justice. We think we want God’s way. We think we want Christ’s kingdom. But when it comes riding into the city, we chase it away. But there are some who hold fast to their integrity no matter what the crowds say.

Palm Sunday was a fleeting glimpse for a brief time in the midst of time of what will be true for all time at the end of time. And I love the way Gilbert Keith Chesterton talks about it in his poem “The Donkey.”[3] If it seems an odd and childish thing to think about on this portentous day, please notice that it is actually quite theologically and historically astute. It isn’t the first time a donkey speaks in spiritual literature. Remember Balaam’s Ass?

Mr. Chesterton’s poem is about the brief glorification of the disdained and the abused, and his donkey is, oddly, a cipher for the Christ. “With monstrous head and sickening cry, and ears like errant wings…the tattered outlaw of the earth, of ancient crooked will.

“Aye! But I also had in my years, one far fierce hour and sweet, there was a shout about his ears, and palms beneath his feet.” It is about the triumph of the One who keeps his ancient crooked will no matter what, and it was “one far fierce hour and sweet.”



[1] The Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes, ed. Clifton Fadiman (Boston: Little Brown, 1985), p. 127.

[2]Some of the statistics about “Stuyvesant Town” come from Wikipedia, but all the information about Lee Lorch comes from David Margolick’s obituary, “Lee Lorch, Desegregation Activist Who Led Stuyvesant Town Effort, Dies at 98,” The New York Times, March 1, 2014.

[3]G. K. Chesterton, “The Donkey,” The Wild Knight, quoted by Peter L. Berger, in Redeeming Laughter (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1997), p. 217.