Sermon of the Week:
When Things Just Look Different
Transfiguration of the Lord
Keywords: Hamilton, Skeptical, Artistic Imagination, Elijah and Elisha, Transfiguration, Principle. #pcusa
Permission to podcast / stream the music in this service obtained from ONE LICENSE with license #A-733469. All rights reserved.
I re-watched Hamilton the Musical this week.
One of the central themes of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s breathtaking masterpiece
Is a call to pay attention to our defining moments:
Those moments in our lives, and in our country.
Can we talk about Hamilton yet?
For a while there, it was too soon to talk about Hamilton,
Because everyone I knew wanted to go see it.
It has been six years now, and a movie version came out last year
So it is probably safe to reflect on it a bit this morning.
If you’ve not seen it yet, my apologies.
I loved the musical,
But I wasn’t sure that I was going to.
Whenever powerful or widely-known historical moments
become the focus of artistic reflection
years even centuries later
I tend to approach them with a sort of skepticism
about how moving the experience is really going to be.
Oh, look. It’s a movie called Titanic…about the Titanic.
Boy, I wonder how THAT one is going to end…?
Oh, Saving Private Ryan is a war epic about storming the beaches at Normandy.
It is going to be a massacre.
What can it really convey that we don’t more-or-less already understand?
But when really powerful, gifted works of art, like these,
Start unpacking some of the context, the emotions, the texture of the scene…
You can begin to feel the panic caused by the icy waters
as it starts to fill the lower decks
Where the poorer passengers were seeking refuge…
You hear, you shudder at the gunshots whizzing by
As you watch the sacrifice of wave after wave of America’s bravest…
teens mainly, and young adults, the average age was 20…
Someone’s son, someone’s partner, someone’s parent…
Push toward the French coast, in spite of all odds…
And you realize that your skepticism was misplaced
And you’ve been changed by this encounter.
You understand differently. You get it, just a bit more than before.
So, if I’m honest, I wondered, when I first saw Hamilton,
what I was going to get out of it, really.
Some catchy music. Innovative choreography.
A symbolic representation
through its amazing cast
of the blessedly diverse America
that our originally slavery-cursed country would become…
Sure, I was expecting all of that.
I read the reviews.
I heard what people were celebrating about the Musical. And I was glad for all of that.
But maybe not much else beyond that.
Alexander Hamilton, the person, the historical figure,
wasn’t anywhere near my very top tier of the most influential Americans.
Sure, I knew he was important,
he’s the ten-dollar founding father without a father, after all
but I could probably get through 100 names that came to my mind before his,
if you had pressed me to name Americans of importance.
But the musical was riveting, it is riveting.
From the first note about his impoverished upbringing on St Kitts and Nevis
To his military career as an attaché to George Washington
To his influence on the Constitutional Convention,
early American financial systems,
his fall from grace,
The powerful experiences of loss and mourning
upon the death of his son, and the fissures he caused in his marriage,
and finally, of course, his dueling death at the hands of Mr. Aaron Burr, Sir.
And when I was done watching it,
Like the best works of the human artistic spirit,
I came away with a much deeper understanding, and a far greater appreciation,
Of Hamiliton specifically,
and of the tensions and the challenges
of that moment in our history more generally.
Throughout the musical, Miranda wants those of us who are watching
to reflect on the way that HUGE, important moments
Are experienced in real time,
the preparation for them, the context, the circumstances, the relationships
And then, when the moment comes, how the key people act:
How they operate out of principle, or out of self-interest,
How they choose a greater good, or personal reward…
And then how those choices reverberate afterward,
sometimes in ways that cannot always be anticipated at the time,
but ways which, with the benefit of a bit of hindsight, seem obvious enough.
In Hamilton, these moments are pivotal decisions during the War of Independence,
Decisions made by the first US Congress about the Banking System of the United States,
A gentle kiss and assurance to a spouse that you’ll be back soon
As you slip off to New Jersey to meet your lieutenant for a pistol showdown over honor.
Each of these moments, and others, loom large,
And would have such monumental consequence for today, for this nation of ours.
It is amazing how the choices before you can ripple out so far, so powerfully.
Miranda draws attention to these themes, for example, through the music itself,
Songs like Not Gonna throw away My Shot
and Room Where it Happens
and History Has its Eyes on You
where each song shows us these larger-than-life figures reflecting on these things
On their legacy, their decisions, their convictions, their compromises
“how the sausage gets made,” as it were.
When George Washington invites Hamilton to help him write his Farewell Address
After deciding not to run for a third term,
Thereby setting an incredible and almost unheard-of precedent
Of the voluntary abdication of power to the next leader,
and you see actor Christopher Jackson playing Washington
plead with Hamilton, citing scripture,[i]
that he is ready to go sit under his own vine,
his own fig tree, that he had done enough,
you marvel that such a thing actually happened,
setting off such an important part of this nation’s strength,
and if you’re like me, you’re moved to tears at the thought of it all.
It is incredibly powerful.
And when you take it in, and you consider the importance of someone like Hamilton
You can appreciate the power of a story to help you dive just a bit deeper,
To help you place these important people and events within our common history,
And you can’t help but see their plain importance for what we’re living through
in days like ours.
As I thought more about it
I was impressed by some of the similarities
between my experience with Hamilton
the founding father,
and these two readings that are before us today.
Both Elijah, the prophet, and this story of the Transfiguration of Jesus
Loom large in Jewish and Christian history, respectively,
Though I’m not sure that they are that well known or appreciated by most of us these days,
Kind of like Hamilton: sure, he’s on the ten-dollar bill,
But, if not for Lin-Manuel’s amazing vision, would he be nearly as appreciated today?
True, every year we pause to take a look at the story of Jesus’ transfiguration,
But if you are a churchy type and I were to ask you to name the 10 top stories about Jesus
I don’t know if you’d list this one.
I probably wouldn’t, either.
But the Transfiguration of Jesus was rather important to the early church.
A version of this story is found in Matthew, Mark, and Luke,
Many scholars think that John refers to it as well (John 1:14)
And there’s a discussion about it in the epistles of Peter.
Thomas Aquinas, one of the great theologians of the thirteenth century,
Called the transfiguration “the greatest miracle.”
But today, even as it concludes this season of Epiphany,
Or ordinary time if you prefer, and offers us a gateway to Lent,
Sometimes it is more like an afterthought.
Same, too, perhaps with Elijah,
Who holds great prestige among our Jewish cousins-of-the-faith,
As one of the greatest of all prophets.
He was a miracle worker,
who lived in the northern Kingdom of Israel
During the reign of King Ahab,
which dates him around the 9th Century BCE.
Like Moses, God performed many miracles through him,
Bringing fire down from the sky,
Parting water so you could pass on dry land
(he did that in today’s reading),
And he’s particularly famous for having been taken up into heaven before his natural death
So the story goes.
And there was a thought that Elijah would return.
That God would send him back…
which is why some people thought that Jesus was maybe Elijah, back in the flesh
Or maybe Elijah was John the Baptist…
And that’s in large part why it is such a big deal
That John wore camels hair and ate locusts and had a belt around his waist,
Because that’s what Elijah did, too.
But it was an open question,
Which is one reason why the transfiguration story was such a big deal…
There was Elijah,
And Moses too,
Up there on the mountain
When Jesus is transfigured
And his face shines like the sun
And his clothes are blinding.
If Elijah is there, then Jesus Can’t be Elijah.
If Moses is there, then Jesus Can’t be Moses, either.
Jesus is something else, something different…
Certainly part of the same story, the same narrative,
but new, important, special.
For many of our Jewish cousins, to this day, Elijah plays an important role in their faith.
There is always an extra chair set at Jewish Brit ceremonies, circumcision ceremonies,
Because Elijah is said to witness all of them.
At the Passover seder, there is often an extra cup
and an extra table setting
reserved for Elijah.
The door of the house is opened, and Elijah is invited in.
Someday, it is thought, Elijah will return.
Malachi, the last book of the prophetic writings, anticipated it.
But most of us, I think, don’t know much about Elijah.
I’ve not preached on this passage before,
And we don’t spend much time in First and Second Kings,
where his amazing and rich and bizarre-at-points story unfolds.
And if we were to ask you to lift up the top ten figures of ancient Judaism
Elijah wouldn’t probably get a mention either.
He doesn’t have a book in his name
Like Isaiah or Jeremiah or Amos or Joel or the rest.
He doesn’t even have Alexander Hamilton’s advantage of at least being on the 10 dollar bill.
But yet there he is, on the mountaintop with Jesus,
next only to Moses during this powerful meeting of the minds,
the metaphorical room where it happens
discussing who knows what
as Peter and James and John watch from the mezzanine
and wonder what kind of musical they happened upon.
Pay attention to these powerful moments, Lin-Manuel Miranda advises us.
History has its eyes on you…
The things we do and say and think and decide, in those moments,
Reverberate through history.
They speak to who we are, whose we are
What values we uphold
What kind of world we might imagine and seek to make into reality.
So we have this quite touching story of the elderly Elijah
And his young protégé Elisha
Who are moving towards Elijah’s final scene…
And they make a few stops along the way.
Everyone knows that it is Elijah’s final scene.
Everyone sees what is looming around the corner.
And both Elijah, and the resident Prophets at each stop
Try to get Elisha to spare himself the hurt, the heartache, the pain of Elijah’s departure.
There’s a lot going on here, for sure.
More to unpack than we have time for,
but the most powerful thing, to me, is Elisha’s heartfelt response
to these calls for him to leave Elijah, to let him journey to the end alone:
No. As the Lord lives, and as long as you yourself live, I will not leave you. Says Elisha.
This is a testament to Elisha’s principles, his values,
That he didn’t take the easier route,
The easier path that the town prophets and Elijah both, apparently, urged him to take.
No. Elisha would accompany Elijah all the way to the end.
And he did…watching him get swept up in a whirlwind
Rending his garment in two pieces,
A sign of powerful heartache and grief.
And I’m convinced that the power of that moment mattered,
That it rippled through history as people saw the friendship between Elisha and Elijah,
And Elisha’s conviction, his stick-to-itiveness.
How many people, throughout history,
would get strength to stand next to the one they love
As they journey toward their final days….
Because of the witness of someone like Elisha?
It is a profoundly important and touching example of steadfast care,
One which many of us will, very likely, be called upon to emulate
With a parent or a partner or a child or a friend.
Often this example is compared to that of Naomi and Ruth,
Two other key figures in the Hebrew Bible who stuck together,
Who supported each other through difficult and challenging times
Because of friendship and love for each other.
And after this moment, when Elijah is taken away
And Elisha is there mourning in the aftermath
Things just look different…
The sun sets, and it rises, and love moves on…
And the mantel has passed to Elisha
As he continues the work Elijah had begun…
Even as Elijah becomes one of the more important figures in Jewish self-understanding…
We can see perhaps
why the people who suggest scripture readings for this Transfiguration Sunday
Commend that reading about Elijah and Elisha to us
Alongside Mark’s version of Jesus’ sudden glow.
One of those questions I often hear
When we look at this passage in Bible Study
Or someone considers the transfiguration for the first time
Is Ok, why Moses and Elijah? Did Jesus just plan a little meet and greet up there?
This is the moment, in Mark’s story
That pivots from Jesus’ ministry, generally understood,
toward the events of holy week
When he confronts the religious and roman powers alike
Turns over the tables in the temple
Gathers his disciples in an upper room
And ends up crucified for blasphemy and sedition…
The events that lead to some of the darkest moments
Where his disciples, where Peter,
Would be challenged to stay by his side
And where he fails that challenge…
The events that would also lead, we must also preface,
To the open tomb, to Easter morning…
This story is a pivot where that happens in Mark.
He has been feeding and healing,
Restoring sight and hearing
Engaging the community
And then, all of a sudden,
In the passage just before this one,
Jesus tells them that he’s heading to Jerusalem
And that they’d be going with him
and they rebuke him…
And the next thing you know,
Jesus goes up on a hilltop
With three of the disciples
And they see Jesus glowing
With Moses and Elijah,
Two of their amazing ancestors through whom God did amazing things,
Whose actions reverberated throughout all of history,
And they knew that there was something about this moment, about this Jesus.
They really didn’t know what to say, or do…
Eh, maybe we should pitch a tent, Jesus,
It is good to be here, right now, in this cloud, all glow-y, you and Moses and Elijah
Something significant is happening here.
And then there’s that voice,
an echo back to Jesus’ baptism
at the Jordan, that same spot where Elijah was lifted up
that spot where John dunked him and the skies opened:
This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him…
And then, before you know it, its all over.
The curtain falls, the musical is over,
Head back on down the mountain.
But because they had experienced all that,
Because they watched it for themselves,
They now knew, didn’t they
Not so skeptical any longer…
They felt things differently.
They would be heading onward,
Following this Jesus
Even into dangerous and challenging places.
I’m struck that not all of the disciples got to see the show.
They couldn’t get the tickets.
They had to wait.
Sometimes I wish I could experience something like the transfiguration myself
But I, like the other disciples, had to wait for other experiences, other opportunities to get it.
How did the other’s get it, if they couldn’t see the show first hand?
Well, the actions of those key, important moments,
they reverberate through history, don’t they?
Sometimes that would be through the witness of those who were there,
Or other times it would be a different sort of experience all together
The washing of the feet
The feeding of the hungry
The courage of speaking truth and honesty
Of standing up for principle over expedience.
The story of Elijah, and the transfiguration of Jesus
May not be the most well-known, dynamic parts of our shared history
But they are such important moments nonetheless
And maybe if we spend a bit more time with them
If we allow ourselves a moment to listen for the spirit moving us as we pay attention
We might find our own courage to walk alongside our friends
As they seek to do God’s work
We might find the shining power of God
Reflecting off of our own lives, our own actions,
In such a way that we trust enough to follow
Even toward Jerusalem, even toward the cross,
As we allow ourselves to choose principle over what is convenient
Love over hate
Hope over fear
Welcome over tribalism
Grace over rejection.
And if these become part of our lives, our choices, our actions,
Others will see it in us,
Or have stronger lives because of us,
And the Reign of God will have that much more of a reach
Because of the Love of God that we are sharing.
And so, as we come down the mountain, along with Jesus,
May we find our world forever changed
By the new possibilities that God is unfolding before us.
And may we understand that the choices we make
The decisions we undertake
The faith we nurture
The Love that guides what we say and do…
These have an impact on the future,
That history has its eyes on each one of us, surely,
Followers of our Lord Jesus Christ,
Today, Tomorrow, and Forever.
May it be so.
[i] See Micah 4:4, 1 Kings 4:25, Zechariah 3:10