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January 30, 2005 (Epiphany IV)

Pastor David Barber

Micah 6:1-8; I Corinthians 1:18-31; Matthew 5:1-12

Sisters and brothers, grace be unto you and peace from God our loving Creator and from our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
 

The ritual of sacrifice has played a central role in almost every major religion. In fact, one year when Karen and I vacationed in Cancun on the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, we took a fascinating side trip to Chichen Itza.

This is one of the sites for ancient Mayan ruins. While Europe was still in the midst of the Dark Ages, these amazing people had mapped the heavens, evolved the only true writing system native to the Americas and were masters of mathematics.

Without metal tools, beasts of burden, or even the wheel, they were able to construct vast cities across a huge jungle landscape with an amazing degree of architectural perfection and variety.

Besides the Castle of the King and the Temple of the Warriors, another fascinating landmark at Chichen Itza is the Great Ball Court. Not only is this the place where athletic contests were held, but also this ball court is an acoustical marvel. A whisper at one end can be heard at the other end--500 feet away.

There's also an interesting twist to the reward received by the winning captain of these athletic contests. Legends tell us that the winning captain would present his head to the losing captain, who then decapitates him.

This, of course, was an ultimate honor. The winning captain gets a direct ticket to heaven instead of going through the 13 steps that Mayans believed they had to go through in order to receive this ultimate reward. I guess this would also be a way of leveling the playing field, and eliminate the need for free agency.

I don't know if it's much different today. Nations often sacrifice some of their brightest and best when they go to war and then we build national monuments in their honor. Some terrorists also believe that they will gain the gates of Paradise by their suicidal acts.

In circles of religion we hear much about the word sacrifice, and often it's held up as something to be valued and modeled. But it can also be distorted, which can then lead to some very destructive and violent behavior.

Today, in our Old Testament reading from Micah the question of sacrifice is raised, "What can I do to appease the Lord?"

"Shall I come before the Lord with burnt offerings or with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams or even with ten thousand rivers of oil? Or how about if I give my first born--the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? Will this make the Lord happy?

God is very disappointed with Israel. They've been unfaithful to his promises. In spite of all that God has done for them, they've been a faithless, disobedient, and rebellious people.

So God takes them to court. And God cross-examines them by asking: "What have I done to deserve the way you're acting toward me? How have I have been a burden to you? Why have you taken advantage of my generosity?"

God cuts to the core of their relationship, and the people respond by asking, "How can we make amends? How can we make it up to you?"

Sacrifices are mentions and these are not cheap offerings. These are the best calves, thousands of sheep, gallons and gallons and gallons of olive oil, and the ultimate offering--the sacrifice of the first-born child.

Will this be enough to appease God and make God happy? Will this satisfy God and put us back in God's good graces?

The answer is NO! Absolutely not! It's not enough! God wants from us something far more precious and much more valuable. What God wants, and what God requires is not a constant supply of offerings and sacrifices.

But rather God wants a life style--an everydayness--which is characterized by the doing of justice, the pursuit of kindness, and the exercise of humility. It's you that God wants--not something!

And if these ingredients aren't present, then all the offerings and all the sacrifices in the world--including human sacrifice--aren't worth a hill of beans. You might as well forget it!

Doesn't the Apostle Paul tell us something similar in his great chapter on love? "If I give away all that I have, and even if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing." It's simply a wasted effort.

True and faithful response to God says Micah consists of this: "to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God." These three ingredients are like a three-legged stool. You need all three for the stool to be stable and balanced.

At different times I've seen this verse used as the mission statement for some congregations, and in spite of all our monumental efforts, it's not easy to come up with something better than this to define our ministry and purpose.

On this day of our annual meeting I would like to explore what this means for us as a congregation--the doing of justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with God. What does this mean for our life together?

During the Lenten Season we'll be studying a classic book by Dietrich Bonhoeffer entitled Life Together. What does it mean to live together in community and to be the body of Christ for each other? Justice, kindness, and humility are not just worthy ingredients for relating to others, but these are also core values for living together in this place.

This community has served as a beacon of hope and healing, and welcome and acceptance for many people. Often times we hear testimonies about how this church community has been a shelter and a refuge in the midst of turbulent times.

These are challenging times in which we live, and there is much which tries to fracture and separate us. It's important that we do all that we can to nurture and sustain our life together so that this congregation will continue to be a wellspring of life and vitality for all who partake of God's life-giving nourishment in this congregation.

To provide such a place--a place of justice, kindness, and humility--in the very face of the dangers that surround us is crucial to being faithful as the people of God in this critical and challenging time.

Besides, if we through God's grace can grow into becoming even a more faithful and healthy community, then there is hope for the larger worldwide community. For if we can't live together in a life-giving way for each other, why should we have this expectation for the rest of the world?

What does this mean for us? It means that every voice needs to be heard because every voice is welcome, respected, and important. And it means that every person in this community is valued, accepted, and loved, and a part of our church ohana.

One of the gifts that Martin Luther gave us was the "priesthood of all believers." There's no hierarchy in this priesthood--with some more important and some more powerful than others. We're all priests set apart to do God's work through the ordination of our baptism.

We may have different functions and different gifts but my voice is no more important than a child's voice or no less important than the bishop's voice. To do justice means that every voice - especially the smallest and the weakest voice--needs to be heard. In that sense, the "priesthood of all believers" creates a more equitable and just community.

In my annual report I refer once again to a book by Parker Palmer, A Hidden Wholeness. A major portion of this book is devoted to promoting and creating "circles of trust." Within a circle of trust, where folks can be vulnerable and respect one another, the hidden wholeness, which is in all of our lives, can break through and we can live an undivided life.

Within a circle of trust, the participants practice non-violence, which means, "we act in ways that honor the soul because the soul is worthy of honor."

Palmer says, "When we act from that motivation, we may or may not change the world. But we will always change ourselves for the better by practicing reverence and respect."

This is the kind of climate we need to continue to cultivate so that we can be a safe-haven for each other and for all who enter within our midst.

Shouldn't Lutheran Church of Honolulu be a safe place--a place where everyone - absolutely everyone--can walk through these doors and expect to be treated with respect, reverence, and kindness? Actually, this is one of the easiest things we can do.

It doesn't cost us any money. We don't need to have a special training session. We don't have to hire professional "kind people." We just need to do it, and it needs to be a part of our personal and our corporate life together,

Sometimes, as in our physical bodies, viruses can creep in and create an environment, which is less than Christ-like. That's why we need to hold each other accountable and covenant together to do our part to create a life-giving space just as Jesus creates that space for every single one of us.

We have been given a precious and valuable gift. We have been given the gift of each other. And when we see each other in this way, we will respect, honor, and love one another as created and redeemed children of God.

When we see each day and our life together as a gifted existence, and we walk together in God's amazing grace, then this community is marked by humility, by doing justice, and by loving-kindness.

This is the sacrifice that God asks of us, but in God's steadfast and eternal love through Jesus Christ, this requirement isn't a heavy burden but a joy and a delight and good news - giving life to all.

Amen.


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