Sermon: Do Not Throw Away Your Shot (audio & text)

Opening Reflection
You have no control/Who lives, who dies, who tells your story… /History has its eyes on you.
Alexander Hamilton has not been the most known of historical figures — we knew the superficial bit about his death in a duel with Aaron Burr, but never heard much about his hopes and dreams and influence on the country we call home. Hamilton, An American Musical, has changed that. In fact, he was an integral part of the creation of our nation, as a senior aide to George Washington and later Secretary of the treasury, he influenced the economic policies of the Washington administration, created our financial system, and was an author of the Federalist Papers, which are still today the primary reference for constitutional interpretation.
The musical is an intricately constructed and musically complex example of the musical theater genre – with a modern hip hop vibe and lots of non-traditional flourishes. With tickets sold out for years in advance, it is certainly a sensation. It’s worth a listen, for sure. I hope you will enjoy the music today – some from the original Broadway recording, and some pieces that have been prepared by the choir and their guests – I am grateful for your time and practice!
The musical relies heavily on the biography by Ron Chernow, and teaches us lots of previously unnoticed information about Alexander Hamilton himself, at the same time it paints a picture of the origins of America that can be instructive to us even today as we Resist and try to re-orient our communities and government toward the core values of our country as we understand them.
This is not a service about Alexander Hamilton himself, it’s an exploration of the American ideals he helped create, and how they both undergird our values today, and how they miss the mark.
President Obama said of it, “Part of what is powerful about this performance is that it reminds us of the vital, crazy, kinetic energy that’s at the heart of America—that people who have a vision and a set of ideals can transform the world. Every single step of progress that we’ve made has been based on this notion that people can come together, and ideas can move like electricity through them, and the world can change.”
What are our dreams and visions, and where are our blind spots?
History has its eyes on us. Who will tell our story, and what will our legacy be?
And now, please RISE UP and sing hymn # 188 Come, Come, Whoever You Are
Spoken & Silent Meditation
An essential thread that runs through this show is the relationships between people. It is, of course, what makes it a powerfully accomplished piece of art:
We are not just getting a history lesson, but also one person’s interpretation of an historical narrative, and how the people involved live together because of and despite their varied and complex relationships. They are committed to a cause larger than themselves, and yet they still have their everyday struggles and needs. And so do we.
When we come together at the center of this sanctuary and light candles of joy and sorrow, we lift up and honor the relationships among us as we bring our hopes and dreams and ideals to the vessel.
I invite you now into the silence.
Music – The Room Where It Happens
Reflection – Do Not Throw Away Your Shot
The first track of the Hamilton Mixtape – which is an album of new versions of some songs from the musical, as well as some other tracks that wasn’t included in the original score. It features artists like Andra Day, Kelly Clarkson, Busta Rhymes, and the Roots band, and begins with a short song .called No John Trumbull – it refers to the iconic paintings by the 18th century painter.
“You ever see a painting by John Trumbull?
Founding fathers in a line, looking all humble
Patiently waiting to sign a declaration, to start a movement
No sign of disagreement, not one grumble
The reality is messier and richer, kids”
It isn’t that the paintings are untrue – it’s that they don’t tell the whole story. Lin-Manuel Miranda turns the static reality of a painting created after the struggle into a living tableau of commentary, reflection, and possibility.
The intentional casting of actors of color in the lead roles brings a new level of reflection to the narrative – what does it mean to have people who were excluded from this process of resistance and revolution sing the words of the founding fathers? It doesn’t absolve the sins of slavery, segregation, Jim Crow, or white supremacy, but it does give us an entry into the historical narrative that illuminates some of the blind spots that dog the American dream even today.
For example, why didn’t the Southern states support Hamilton’s plan for managing states debt? Because they had no debt – as Miranda’s lyric says, “Your debts are paid cuz you don’t pay for labor “We plant seeds in the south. We create.” Yeah, keep ranting, we know who’s really doing the planting.”
Hamilton’s character emerges as something of an outsider – an immigrant with no name recognition or family wealth who nonetheless gets into the room where it happens, and spends his adult life pushing the edges of what is acceptable. He had an insatiable need to write and reflect and make sense of things, continually digging deeper than anyone else wanted to, untangling knots nobody else saw. He was one of those people who just had to understand everything.
For me, the American revolution has always been characterized by the militias – the revolutionaries who fought the established British army with few tools or tactics, because they were defending their homes and families and neighbors – as the lyric goes, “I’m just like my country, I’m young, scrappy, and hungry, and I’m not throwing away my shot” – and there is some truth to that, at the beginning, the men who dreamed America, with all their blinders and foibles and mistakes, were trying to make a world that could hold complexity and the dreams of all. That’s not an easy task, as we know well.
Bottom line, these guys were in the room where it happens, they had a vision, they fought for it, and they continue to influence us today, in both wonderful and terrible ways. When I look out across our beautiful sanctuary, I see so many people with skills and interests and connections and power in many different areas.
So many of us have access to the room where it happens. How will we use that access in service to the ideals that the founding fathers dreamed for us, and the dreams we have for our own community?
Let’s not throw away our shot.
Music: Dear Theodosia
Reflection: Dreaming In the Dark
In some ways, Alexander Hamilton and the founding fathers are is responsible for many of the challenges we face today – This is the challenge of the ages: Systems of all kinds, created with the best of intentions and the highest of ideals, still reflect the culture in which they originate. And the culture of early America was one in which indigenous people and people of color and women were not included as full citizens. It was also one in which economic inequality was standard and largely unquestioned. These realities dog our heels still today.
And yet. And yet, we see in Hamilton and his colleagues a vision of a world of possibility, in which this sweet ballad is a love song from Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton to their newborn children.
“We’ll give the world to you,” they sing, “and you’ll blow us all away… I’ll make a million mistakes, We’ll bleed and fight for you, we’ll make it right for you, If we lay a strong enough foundation, we’ll pass it on to you, we’ll give the world to you…”
It’s a dream that every parent has for their child, and a dream that as a religious community, we hold for every parent’s child. (Wait)
Universalism tells us that all souls are “saved,” which is a call to treat all people as if they are worthy. All children deserve not just food, shelter, and loving care, but the space and support to imagine their own future, to dream and become.
We are dreaming in the dark, wishing and hoping for all children to be given the world, for all children to be fought for.
Every time I welcome people to this sanctuary – no matter if it is for a service or an outside event, I begin with our “whoever you are, you are welcome in this place” words – as I did on Thursday at the press conference for the Declaration of Solidarity with Immigrants in WNC – and that day the over 200 people gathered broke into applause. Those words are, by all accounts, essential to our identity as a congregation – so many of you tell us that hearing them was the thing that told you that you were at home in this place.
I believe that the founding fathers, though they didn’t explicitly state it this way, understood the America they were creating to be a kind of sanctuary. They wanted everyone to be welcome in this place. We know now that they didn’t understand the ways that they excluded women and people of color, and the ways that their creation also codified and perpetuated the system of economic inequality that we struggle with today.
And so today we find ourselves in a social and political reality that requires resistance, it requires reflection and understanding of the ideals that bring us to church and call us to look outside these walls to create a just and equitable community.
At the sanctuary press conference, the speakers talked about the need to provide sanctuary for our neighbors, but more broadly, to create a culture of sanctuary in our community. These are ideals that this congregation has lived with for decades – and on Wednesday a group of folks started planning our discernment process around whether we will declare UUCA a sanctuary congregation. I hope that you will all participate in this conversation.
Let’s create a world in which all children can dream – not in the dark, but out in the full sunlight, arms outstretched, welcomed and honored and seen.
Because whoever you are, whatever your history, whatever your heritage, whomever you love, you are welcome in this place.
May it be so.
Music: History Has Its Eyes on You
And so we come to the end of our brief sojourn with Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. There is enough material for many more services here, but for now I leave you with this, quote from The World Was Wide Enough: Legacy. What is a legacy? it’s planting seeds in the garden you never get to see.”
Closing Words
I leave you this morning with the words of Maya Angelou, from her poem On the Pulse of the Morning which I dedicate to all who need sanctuary in our community:
I, the rock, I the river, I the tree
I am yours – your passages have been paid
Lift up your faces, you have a piercing need
For this bright morning dawning for you.
History, despite its wrenching pain,
Cannot be unlived, and if faced with courage,
Need not be lived again.
Lift up your eyes upon
The day breaking for you.
Give birth again
To the dream.
Go in peace, and always with love.