Lin-Manual Miranda’s musical Hamilton is as popular in my household as it seems to be around the globe. Despite its popularity and the fact that the touring group came through Nashville last month, we have not scraped together the two-grand it would cost for our family of four to see it. We’re very much looking forward to the film adaptation. That doesn’t mean that we don’t have most of the songs memorized. While not 100% age appropriate for our kids, they found the soundtrack and have been singing every non-swear word to every song for more than a year now. One our favorites is “Aaron Burr Sir,” which depicts the moment when Alexander Hamilton first meets Aaron Burr, who (spoiler alert) will one day be the man who kills Hamilton in a duel. In the song, Hamilton seeks out Burr to talk about his desire to attend Princeton in an accelerated program, which Burr had just recently accomplished. Upon finding out that both he and Burr were orphans, Hamilton exclaims, “You’re an orphan? Of course, I’m an orphan. [Gosh], I wish there was a war then we could prove that we’re worth more than anyone bargained for.” In the song, Burr, only about 20 at the time, is already a polished politician. While in real life he was active in the Revolutionary War effort, in the musical, Burr is depicted as a quiet, behind the scenes, negotiator type. He encourages Hamilton to keep quiet, “fools who run their mouths off wind up dead.” A rousing pub song by some of the revolution’s key players interrupts their meeting, until the song comes to an end with Hamilton bluntly asking the young lawyer, “If you stand for nothing Burr, what’ll you fall for?”
Hamilton’s question is one that has been asked over and over again in so many different ways throughout human history. Life in America in 2020 has many of us asking this same question. The Bible has a lot to say on the question of what it is that we are called to stand for. In fact, all of our lessons for today invite us to think long and hard about what we stand for so that we might be better prepared to not fall for whatever our favorite outside force, false god, or social media feed might have us believe. These lessons invite us to make a choice between the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this world. Like it was for Aaron Burr, making the choice between these two kingdoms can be quite challenging.
Standing near the edge of the Jordan River, just outside the Promised Land after forty years of wandering in the wilderness, Moses spoke to the children of Abraham. After years of teaching, leading, and settling disputes, the now 120-year-old Moses is ready to impart his final wisdom upon God’s people. Moses knows that he won’t be entering the land with them. He knows that they have been prone to wander from the commandments of God. He knows that they will need all the help they can get to stand firm in their faith when they come into this land thought to be flowing with milk and honey, and so he says, quite simply, “You’ve got a choice to make between life and death.” Life is the way of love. Life is available to those who put the love of God above all else, who walk in the way of Lord, who obey the commandments, and who follow the Torah. Death, on the other hand, comes to those who fall for the allure of false gods, who choose the love of self over the love of neighbor, and who seek power, privilege, and prestige. “What will you stand for,” Moses asks, “life or death?”
Rarely does the Psalm seem to fit in the with the overarching theme of our lessons, but even here, the psalmist is clear that those who stand in God’s commandments will find joy, while those who fail to keep the law will be forsaken.
In his first letter to the Church in Corinth, Paul is forced to respond to several conflicts in the life of the church. In the midst of their fighting with one another, Paul writes to remind them of the faith upon which they first learned to stand in the light of Christ. He calls them infants in Christ – they have forgotten how to stand in love, and instead are crawling around in anger and bitterness. It isn’t about Apollos or Paul, Paul writes. They are not the ones in whom your faith stands, but rather, it is in God alone that we are able stand. They might have planted the seed, or tended the soil, or watered the earth, but it is God who made each Christian in Corinth to stand upright, to grow in faith, and to produce the fruit of righteousness.
Finally, then, we come to a rather challenging portion of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Jesus takes many well-known laws and turns them on their heads. “You have heard it said, ‘you shall not murder,’ but I say to you, if you insult a brother or sister, you are liable.” “You have heard it said, ‘you shall not commit adultery,’ but I say to you, if you look at someone lustfully, you have already committed adultery.” “You have heard it said, ‘you shall divorce your wife by decree,’ but I say to you, if you divorce someone out of convenience, you have sinned.” “You have heard it said, ‘you shall not swear falsely,’ but I say to you, don’t swear an oath at all, let your yes be yes and your no be no.” I can’t know for sure, but I’m guessing that everyone in this room has fallen short of the ethical standard that Jesus sets for us here. Jesus lifts the bar so high as to be impossible to achieve, which is the whole point. As followers of Jesus, the first step toward standing tall in our faith is recognizing that we are totally incapable of doing it on our own.
History has shown, over thousands of years, that left to our own devices, human beings will fall for anything that makes us feel good. We are suckers for instant gratification. Each time your phone dings to let you know someone liked a photo, your brain shoots off a hit of dopamine, which makes you feel good, and eventually, it happens enough that you become addicted, seeking that rush that comes with each notification. We’ve fallen for it. The twenty-four-hour news channel of your choosing is there to make you angry or scared, which again, releases chemicals in your brain that over time you begin to think you can’t live without. That chemical addiction keeps more eyeballs glued to the TV for longer periods of time, which allows them to sell ad space for more money. We’ve fallen for it. The entire advertising industry is built upon the reality that human beings can be convinced that we don’t have enough of whatever it is they are selling and that only by buying, drinking, eating, coveting what they have to offer will we ever be truly happy. We’ve fallen for it. Unable to stand, infants in the faith, too many of us spend our days watching the news and crawling around social media lobbing insults at each other.
Jesus invites us to stand up. Better yet, Jesus takes us by the hand and helps us to stand, and then to walk, and then to work, building up the Kingdom of Heaven on earth by choosing life, and obeying the commandments of loving God and loving our neighbors. So, what do you stand for? Is it the cross of Christ or have you fallen for whatever it is that the world is selling these days? Choose life. Choose the way of love. Choose to stand with Christ. Standing with Jesus is so much more rewarding than crawling around in the messiness of anger, fear, and vitriol. The Psalmist is no Lin-Manual Miranda, but he does sum up the reward of our call to stand with God quite well, “Happy are they whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord!” Amen.