Those of us who follow trends in musical theatre have been captivated by the success of the current Broadway hit Hamilton. Believe it or not, it’s a hip hop or rap musical based on the life story of Alexander Hamilton–one of the founding fathers of the US. Hamilton’s story is the stuff of good drama—born, out of wedlock, in the West Indies, Hamilton made it to New York where after a university education, became a leader of the US revolution, serving as George Washington’s right hand man. He married into a prominent family, had two children and is credited for inventing the US monetary system, was the founder of the US Coast Guard, served as Treasury Secretary in Washington’s government, and founded the New York Post newspaper to name but a few of his storied accomplishments. And his life of course included tragedy as well: a well known affair out of wedlock pretty much ended his political ambition, his son was killed in a duel as was Hamilton, shot by the Vice President Aaron Burr. Probably most of us know Alexander Hamilton as the dude on the US $10 bill.
Now what makes Hamilton the hip hop musical so very interesting is that the cast is almost entirely non white, with characters like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and even Alexander Hamilton played by Hispanic and African American actors. The author and composer of the musical, Lin-Manuel Miranda, a Puerto Rican actor plays Hamilton and has already won a Pulitzer prize for his composition. Hamilton has received the largest ever number of Tony award nominations and is widely expected to win most of them at the upcoming ceremony.
Audiences have responded with huge enthusiasm. The show is sold out—the next available block of tickets is for January 2017. You can’t get a ticket prior to that—and believe me, I’ve tried. And what’s happening is this: particularly non-Anglo folks are going to see this show and their response is immediate and powerful because, for the first time, they see themselves included in the unfolding history of the US. No longer is it a story of white dudes making decisions—now folks from a wide variety of perspectives can witness the amazing story of the founding of the US with their lives and music represented.
In some ways, there’s a a parallel between the phenomenon that is Hamilton and the gospel according to St. Luke because Luke, like Hamilton appeals to an audience that had not previously been included in the narrative. Luke’s gospel was written not for the Jewish followers of Jesus but for the Gentiles, the Romans, the dominant culture whose lives had not been included in the story of salvation history that Jews had told for millennia.
Throughout Luke’s gospel narrative, Romans are given prominent and important roles to play, including, at the end of the gospel, when it’s a Roman centurion who, witnessing Jesus death on the cross, says, “Truly, this was the Son of God.”
Written for citizens of the Roman Empire, Luke’s gospel goes out of its way to underline and affirm that the God who Jesus called Father was the same one whose mercy and healing broke beyond cultural boundaries to include each person.
So tonight we hear the story of the healing of the slave of the Roman Centurion. It’s a story found not only in Luke’s gospel but also in Matthew and John. In Luke’s account there’s no question that this Roman Centurion is one of the good guys. You can imagine the readers of Luke’s gospel, whether Roman or Jewish would like this guy.
His request for healing comes to Jesus first from the Jewish elders. This Centurion had helped build the synagogue in Capernaum. And a slave of his, who he valued highly is gravely ill. So the elders ask Jesus to go and heal this slave, and Jesus, quite remarkably, does go. But before he gets to the house, the Centurion sends out some of his friends, presumably Romans, with a message to Jesus not to come, but simply say the word and the slave will be healed. Which is exactly what happens.
There are a few things here to note. First is that the Centurion outlines the assumptions of the empire and its authority structure. In his communication to Jesus, he asks his friends to describe him this way,
“I am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and the slave does it.”
And that’s the way it worked then, and now. It’s known in military circles as ‘the chain of command.’ It’s a necessary social organization when the goal is to create fighting and killing machines. There’s no room, in this kind of structure, for insubordination or for freedom of individual expression. It’s an essential element of the structures of empire and it’s an essential element of structures of oppression and slavery.
For lest we get too sentimental about this Centurion and his plea, remember that the one for whom he is seeking Jesus’ attention is his slave.
Now there’s a lot of speculation about the nature of the relationship between the Centurion and this unnamed slave. In the account of this story in Matthew, there is a Greek word used to describe this slave which would imply that the slave is not just anyone, but the Centurion’s young male lover.
Luke’s account doesn’t include this description directly, but queer commentators on this passage see, in the compassion of the Centurion, more than just a concern for another slave. And for all of us LGBTQ+ identified people, here is a where we might see ourselves in the narrative of Jesus—those of us who have been touched by the illnesses of our lovers and who cry out to God for mercy.
But what’s most important here is a universal truth and that is this: regardless of the circumstances, of the social structures that surround us, of the identity that we claim as sexual beings, illness can disrupt all of that.
Even though in the Roman world the Centurion had literally the power of life and death, he was as vulnerable to human suffering as the next person. And so he turned to one who had been known to heal and restore life.
The Centurion turned not to the Roman gods but to the one who called God Father. And in the Centurion’s request, he mimics a line that is essential to the Genesis creation story when he says, “only speak the word and let my servant be healed.”
Of course, Jesus is the Word made flesh, the creative force of God in human form walking the troubled roads of Palestine, confronted by a Centurion pleading on behalf of his slave. Luke tells a story where we can find ourselves in the narrative as non-Jews, as ones who know the structures of empire, as sexual minorities, as people whose lives are touched too often by tragedy and misfortune.
We know what it’s like to realize the limits of our own power and be brought to our knees pleading for mercy. We seek the creative life giving word of God to speak healing into our lives.
And as we gather for Eucharist this evening we trust that the same God who in Jesus Christ reached beyond cultural boundaries will see even us and say the word that will bring us healing and hope now and always.