Date: August 26, 2007
Scripture: Luke 13: 10-17
Sermon: Forgiveness: Always in Season
Pastor: Rev. Kim Wells
In 1820, the brig Thaddeus, carrying 150 missionaries recruited by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Mission (ABCFM), arrived in the Sandwich Islands, or Hawaii. This Board is the organization that was formed to advocate for the freedom of the Africans on the ship, Amis- tad. This is the Board that sent teachers to the South to establish schools for the freed slaves following the Civil War. This Board is part of our United Church of Christ Congregational heritage. With the best of intentions, 150 of these missionaries went to Hawaii, risking their lives to share the Gospel. They sincerely wanted to bring the Good News of Jesus Christ to the people of these exotic islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
They arrived in a sovereign country governed by a monarchy. There was a policy in place assuring free use of land and ocean resources with taxes paid to local managers and monarchs.
By 1820 when the missionaries arrived, Western influence was already clearly evident as commerce, trading, alcohol, guns, and disease had already been brought to the Hawaiian Islands following the visit and charting of the islands by James Cook in 17_8.
So, in 1820, these 150 missionaries arrived. But they were committed to bringing more than just the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In the instructions from the Prudential Committee of the ABCFM to members of the Mission to the Sandwich Islands the missionaries were charged to “aim at nothing short of covering these islands with fruitful fields and pleasant dwellings, and schools and churches; of raising up the whole people to an elevated state of Christian civilization… to turn them from their barbarous courses and habits.” [Quoted in “Why Our Church Apologized to Hawaii” by Charles McCullough, available on line at http://www.ucc.org]
The missionaries were very successful in fulfilling their charge. In less than 80 years Western people had gained control of the land, commerce, and government of Hawaii.
In 1893, 73 years after the arrival of the missionaries, things had deteriorated to the point that the USS Boston arrived in Honolulu with 162 military personnel armed with gatling guns to protect,
“the lives and property of American citizens and to assist in preserving public order,” while the Honolulu Rifles and the Committee of Safety including descendants of the missionaries took over the main government buildings and deposed the Queen, Liliuokalani, of this sovereign nation. Mind you, the Queen was a devout Christian and a supporter of many churches and mission societies in her country. She was imprisoned in the Iolana Palace and the 1,800,000 acres of her nation were taken without compensation.
The Hawaiian Evangelical Association, which later became the Hawaii Conference of the United Church of Christ, endorsed the deposing of Queen Liliuokalani. In 1893, the year of the take-over, the editor of the Hawaiian Evangelical Association newsletter, “The Friend,” wrote, “Dead and rotten is the monarchy, beyond chance of resuscitation … so hopelessly fallen into heathen mental and moral vileness, it only remains to be speedily buried out of sight.” [Also from McCullough]
In 1990, the native people of the Hawaii Conference of the United Church of Christ brought a resolution to their Conference and in 1991 to the national General Synod of the UCC calling for support of Native Hawaiian sovereignty. As part of the initiative the UCC affirmed, “in recognition of our historic complicities in the illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893 [the General Synod] directs the office of the President of the UCC to offer a public apology to the native Hawaiian people and to initiate a process of reconciliation between the UCC and native Hawaiians.” [Quoted by McCullough]
This apology was made on January 17, 1993, one hundred years to the day after the overthrow of Queen Liliuokalani and the sovereign nation of Hawaii. The apology was made at the Royal Iolani Palace, where the Queen had been imprisoned, to an estimated crowd of 10,000 people. Subsequently, substantial grants were given by the Hawaii Conference, and the national UCC as redress.
Eleven months later, then President Bill Clinton issued a formal apology to the Native Hawaiian people on behalf of the United States for the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii, citing the action already taken by the United Church of Christ.
The native Hawaiians are also working on forgiveness. On April 23rd of this year. thirteen people from the UCC in Hawaii ventured to Princeton, New Jersey, to honor Grover Cleveland. They placed leis and leaves and beads at the monument marking his grave. Why honor Cleveland? When he was informed of the takeover of Hawaii he issued a declaration advocating the speedy return of the throne to Queen Liliuokalani. He opposed the invasion of a sovereign nation. But his initiative was overruled by the US Congress.
One hundred years after the take over, all the people who were directly involved had died. No one in the churches of the Hawaii Conference of the United Church of Christ in 1993 was personally involved in the unjust overthrow of the sovereign monarchy of Hawaii. So why apologize? Well, the consequences of the overthrow are still being felt in significant ways. The takeover by the U.S. of the nation of Hawaii meant not just the annihilation of a government, but of a culture. Today, native Hawaiian people continue to have the lowest life expectancy and the highest rate of major disease, suicide, homelessness and incarceration in Hawaii. In addition, the land owned by the native Hawaiians was taken in 1893, and the Hawaii Conference of the UCC has churches on beautiful pieces of oceanfront property that was confiscated in the overthrow. The Native Hawaiians continue to suffer because of the overthrow and the perpetrating entities continue to benefit. Thus there is need for forgiveness and reconciliation.
The UCC apology and ensuing reconciliation dialogue has sought to address some of the continuing injustices and resultant feelings of anger, pain, and resentment. The Hawaiian people continue to carry the burden of their overthrow. They continue to feel beaten down.
In the Gospel reading we heard this morning, we were told of a woman bent over for 18 years and in extreme pain, physically, socially, and spiritually. Jesus removes the burden. He liberates her from whatever it was that diminished her quality of life. Jesus bears witness to the God, who from the beginning has a heart for liberating people from injustice, oppression, and suffering. We are told Jesus frees this woman, unbinds her, looses her and restores her to her full stature. But the leaders of the synagogue are not happy about this because it is done on the Sabbath. They see it as a violation of the law of God they are committed to following and enforcing. Jesus’ action is completely consistent with the intention of the God they are worshipping on the Sabbath. But the challenge to authority, to legalism, to tradition upsets those in power. They are bent over by bad theology but don’t realize it. God seeks to liberate all people from whatever burdens they carry. God seeks restoration and full stature for all people.
The process of forgiveness is part of God’s work of liberation and restoration. The apology to the Hawaiian people made by the UCC was intended to help lift the burden they are carrying by recognizing the wrong that had been done to them and the full nature of the consequences. The apology was also part of a process of liberating the UCC and specifically the Hawaii Conference, of the burden of guilt and shame as accomplices and beneficiaries of the overthrow of the sovereign Hawaiian nation. Through forgiveness and reconciliation God seeks to free us from all that keeps us stooped and bent over. God seeks to restore our full stature, our wholeness, our well-being.
In our UCC Statement of Faith, we affirm God’s promise of “forgiveness of sins and fullness of grace.” Whatever we have done, whatever systems keep us bent over, God seeks liberation through forgiveness and grace. This extends from our personal relations to the impact of institutions and organizations and the relations between nations. There is no pain or suffering in this world beyond redemption and restoration through God’s forgiveness and grace. This is the heart of Christianity.
This afternoon we will give thanks and celebrate the life of Ken Kinzel, a member of this church who was brutally murdered in Nicaragua. Why was Ken in Nicaragua? He had moved there to start a farm, to restore some of the land depleted as a consequence of US military and economic activity. He wanted to be part of restoring Nicaragua in the wake of US intervention and oppression. He wanted to employ some people, create fair wage jobs, help the economy. He wanted to have some small part in helping Nicaragua stand up straight and tall, assume its full stature. Ken intended to be part of reconciliation and forgiveness. This included the restoring of his own dignity as one bent over by the shameful acts of the US government done in Nicaragua in his/our name.
And what about the young woman who murdered Ken? He would be the first to see the forces that kept her bent over, stooped, suffering. He would have compassion on her as a victim. And he would be committed to her healing from all that has damaged her. He would seek the restoration of the image of God, the goodness within her as a child of God. There may be varying perspectives on the particularities and practicalities involved, but not the intention, the goal, the sought after outcome.
Forgiveness of sins and fullness of grace are the Good News of the Gospel. They are the source of our hope. They are the path toward transformation and healing.
The apology of the UCC to the native people of Hawaii was a beautiful symbolic action of the power of forgiveness, grace, and the process of reconciliation. A process so desperately needed on all levels for the healing of the world.
But long before that apology was a gesture of reconciliation, in 1893 another very meaningful statement was made. After the US takeover of Hawaii, Queen Liliuokalani was put on trial by those who had taken over her country. In her statement at the proceedings she concluded:
I must deny your right to try me in the manner and by the court which you have called together for this purpose. In your actions you violate your own constitution and laws, which are now the constitution and laws of this land.
There may be in your consciences a warrant for your action, in what you may deem a necessity of the times; but you cannot find any such warrant for any such action in any settled, civilized, or Christian land. All who uphold you in this unlawful proceeding may scorn and despise my word, but the offence of breaking and setting aside for a specific purpose the laws of your own nation and disregarding all justice and fairness, may be to them and to you the source of an unhappy and much to be regretted legacy.
I would ask you to consider that your government is on trial before the whole civilized world and that in accordance with your actions and decisions will you yourselves be judged. The happiness and prosperity of Hawaii are henceforth in your hands as its rulers. You are commencing a new era in its history. May the divine Providence grant you the wisdom to lead the nation into paths of forbearance, forgiveness, and peace, and to create and consolidate a united people ever anxious to be in the way of civilization outlined by the American fathers of liberty and religion.
In concluding my statement I thank you for the courtesy you have shown to me, not as your former queen, but as an humble citizen of this land and as a woman. I assure you who believe you are faithfully fulfilling a public duty, that I shall never harbor any resentment or cherish any ill feeling towards you, whatever may be your decision.
This statement attests to the fine Christian character of Queen Liliuokalani. She had learned well the heart of the Gospel from the missionaries. She opened her heart to the God of liberation and was not stooped down, in spite of her circumstances.
May we be true to the God who promises to all forgiveness of sins and fullness of grace. Amen.