Honoring the Nestorian Christians

Tuesday, March 28, 2017




 (Editor’s Note: The following sermon was delivered by the Venerable Irene Maliaman Igmalis as Guest Preacher at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, 130 Jerusalem Avenue, Hicksville, New York 11801 last March 26, 2017. Based in Guam, the Rev. Irene M is Archdeacon of Micronesia which is currently under the Episcopal Diocese of Hawaii. Holy Trinity’ Hicksville in the Diocese of Long Island is a traditional parish emerging into an intercultural and multiracial church operating on a new vision of Revival, Evangelism and Discipleship.– Fred Vergara+)

The gospel lesson is a happy story with a tragic twist. A grand miracle happened. Jesus healed a man born blind. I imagine him dancing up and down and shouting: “I once was blind, but now I see.” One would expect that his family, neighbors and religious leaders share his joy and celebrate this wondrous healing. But the only person who is happy is the healed man. Not only are the neighbors and Pharisees unable to share his joy, they also had a hard time believing that the healed man was the same man they knew as the blind man before. As the story unfolds we glean that this unbelief come from the notion of the Jews esp. the Pharisees that if God were to show up, and if the miraculous healing were God’s work, the Pharisees would know for sure because they would recognize God’s way of doing things. In the mind of the Pharisee, God looks just like them, acts like them, thinks like them and follow their rules. They were certain that God is not present in this Jesus fellow because he healed during the Sabbath.  God would never heal on the Sabbath, they claim. Healing from God occurs only in prescribed ways and times and anything else cannot come from God. The Pharisees were blinded by their hard core adherence to their traditions and perceptions of what God does, and how God works and what God looks like. They could not think of God and God’s work outside of their preconceptions and rules. And so they drove the man out from the synagogue.

This passage reminds me of the Allegory of the cave by the 4th century philosopher Plato. Plato tells of prisoners chained inside a cave with their backs toward the entrance. All their lives, these prisoners can only see the wall in front of them. Unable to turn their heads all they could see are shadows on the wall. The prisoners name these shadows and discuss among themselves what these objects are. They see shadows of dogs, cats, and people walking and believe the shadows are real. One day a prisoner breaks out of his chain and went outside of the cave for the first time. Initially the light hurts his eyes and finds the new environment outside the cave disorienting. When told that the things around him are real and the shadows in the cave are just reflections, he cannot believe it. The shadows appeared much clearer and more real to him. But gradually his eyes adjust, and he was able to distinguish reflection from the real thing. He returns to the cave to share his discovery to the prisoners. The prisoners thought the journey outside the cave has made him stupid and blind and they started to laugh at him thinking him crazy. They violently resist any attempts of the freed prisoner to free them from their chains so they too can go outside and look and enjoy the beauty of the real world.


Plato used this story to make the point that most people are not just comfortable in their ignorance, they are also hostile to anyone who points it out. That is actually happened to the teacher of Plato, Socrates, who was imprisoned for disrupting the social order in Greece and corrupting the youth because of his philosophy.


I think that one of the ways we are blind to the new things God is doing in our midst is through stereotyping. Stereotyping is our tendency to define people and put them in certain categories or boxes for our convenience. In the gospel lesson, the neighbors of the healed man knew him only as “the blind man” and when he became a seeing man, they could not recognize him.


The past two weeks I was with 19 other women from the Episcopal Church as one of many Non-Government Organization participants to the United Nation’s Commission on the Status of Women (UNCSW).  The UNCSW is the largest gathering of women around the globe to advocate for gender equality and empowerment of women. Women hold one half of the globe, yet they are often rendered invisible, nameless, and voiceless, by “blind” society which does not treat women as equal human beings with men and does not include women in the decision making tables. Let me cite to you some UN data about the marginalized and disadvantaged status of women:


·        For an equal work, women earn 23 cents lower than men to a dollar. The UNCSW calls this the 23% robbery. According to research the pay gap moved closer by 2 points only from 2004 to 2014, and at this rate, parity will be reached by 2059. As Patricia Arquette has pointed out, an ambassador to the UN, a lot of things have changed in the world i.e. cellphones, self-driving cars and yet, women still get paid lesser than men for an equal work.


·        Women are also over represented in the care economy otherwise known as domestic work which are mostly unpaid or underpaid. And because caregiving work is mostly done by women, and are not monetized, many women do not get the benefits of regular employees such as health insurance, pension or social security which also make them vulnerable. Many women stay in abusive relationships because they do not have economic means and social security.


·        Worldwide, 1 in 3 women experience sexual abuse mostly from their partners.


·        15 M girls are married off before the age of 18. This means every 2 seconds a girl is given away for marriage. But a marriage of a 10 years old girl to an adult man three times her age is not actually a marriage, it is legalized rape of a child. That is a lot of girls. And this will continue if it will not be stopped. (If you want to know more about the status of women in the world and the advocacy work of UN on this matter, google UN women).


Many people remain oblivious to the plight of women, pointing out that women’s status have improved a great deal. They trivialize and ridicule the advocacy for women’s rights as human rights. Indeed a lot have changed since women were allowed to vote, ordained as priests and bishops, became military generals and walked on the moon, but there are still many unnecessary barriers that prevent women from flourishing. There are traditions, stereotypes and norms that box women to certain roles in life.


The gospel makes the point that although we have eyes to see, there are things that blind us and prevent us from seeing even what is obvious. We all have blinders. These blinders draw lines around what is of God and not of God, or what women can and cannot do, or what men can and cannot do. It helps to be aware of our blinders and see beyond these so as not to remain in the dark.


Additionally, we learn that change is disruptive is therefore uncomfortable and painful as it challenges old models and old views of seeing things.


As we continue our journey this season of Lent, the gospel challenges us to come out of the darkness, come out from shadows of the past, of old images of ourselves, and of things that keep us in chains. Let us come out of the shadows of biases and stereotypes that degrade other people and that prevent us from celebrating the new things God continues to create in the world. And just like Jesus opened the eyes of the blind man that he might see, we pray that God opens our eyes, remove our blinders that we may see clearly as God sees. Amen.


I could end here, but just for emphasis, and also just for fun and for kicks in this cold morning, I invite you to stand and let us do a karate chop as our act of kicking open the prison doors that keep us in the dark. At the count of three, let us do the karate chop and shout “hee ya! Hee ya! Hee ya! three times. Amen.


Saturday, March 18, 2017



(Delivered by the Rev. Canon Dr. Winfred B. Vergara at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, Hicksville, New York, 03/19/2017. Text: John 4:4-54)

It is amazing how wonderful things can happen even in the most mundane of places.
We live in an apartment building in Queens, New York and one of the places in our neighborhood I frequently hang out is the nearby Laundry Mat. New Yorkers live very busy lives and frenetic lifestyles. We seldom have time for socialization. So it is in the laundry mat where I meet my neighbors and have the opportunity to chat with them. Even Mayor De Blasio go to the Landry Mat.
In the Laundry Mat, you have the chance to meet and talk with men, women, and even children. From the time we load up our clothes to the washer, to the time we transfer them to the dryer and fold them up on the table, it’s a good couple of hours. I have had great conversations with people in the laundry mat, gained many friends and in some cases was successful inviting them to church.
During the time of Jesus, such places of meeting was not the Laundry Mat but the Well. It is still true in many rural areas in Asia and Africa where people do not have running water. In rural Philippines, for instance, it is common for men to carry two jugs of water suspended on a bamboo pole. In rural India or Africa, it is common to see women carry a jar of water on their heads.
Like my Laundry Mat, it is at the Well that people, especially women, come and meet. Such is the case of this Samaritan woman in the gospel today. There was nothing extraordinary with what she intended to do. She thought she would simply draw the water, fill her jar and then trudge back home. But at this ordinary well, she met a man who told her extraordinary things; or shall we say, she found extraordinary meanings to very ordinary things through an ordinary encounter with an extraordinary man.
The conversation she had with Jesus gave her tremendous insights into three W’s: Water, Worship and Witness.
We take water for granted, but we couldn’t survive without it. We drink it, bathe in it, swim in it. We nurture our plants with it and even put it in our cars. Most of us in the city, have no trouble obtaining it for we have steady, running water. We also have drinking fountains and bottled water and for those with money and luxurious houses, they even have Olympic size swimming pools.
But the well in biblical history has so much similarity to my Laundry Mat. Significant relationships started at the wells. Abraham’s servant found Rebekah at a well, and brought her home for Isaac. Jacob met Rachel at a well. Moses met his wife, Zipporah at the well.  And Jesus, taught his first woman evangelist at the well. The encounter began with Jesus asking the woman, “Will you give me a drink?,”
It seemed like an ordinary a request, but for the Samaritan woman, there was something strange. So she said, “Sir, you are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?”
The question gives an insight into the racial and cultural discrimination of that time. The puritanical Jews had nothing to do with the Samaritans, whom they called dogs. Although the Samaritans were direct descendants of the Joseph tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, the Jews believed they are mongrels, mixed-race people, a product of people living in Samaria and other peoples at the time of the conquest by Assyria. In other words, they were not pure Jews. A typical Jew would wake up in the morning and thank God saying, “O God, thank you that I am a Jew, not a Samaritan; a man and not a woman.”
So when Jesus asked water from a Samaritan woman, He actually broke the racial, ethnic, religious and gender barriers! The water by the well became the contact point by which God and human exchanged common needs. “Will you give me a drink?” became a profound request from the incarnate Son of God who would later utter on the cross, “I thirst.”
Then Jesus said to the woman: “Everyone who drinks this water will become thirsty again but whoever drinks the water I give, will never thirst again, because it will become a spring to eternal life.”
Jesus was speaking heavenly things but the woman was earthy: ”Sir, give me this water so I won’t be thirsty and don’t need to come here to draw from the well.”
“Go call your husband,” Jesus said and the woman replied, “I have no husband.”  And Jesus said, “Yes, you have had five husbands and the man you now have is not your husband,” Instead of being embarrassed, the woman marveled at Jesus for she believed He was a prophet.
The conversation then turned to worship. Between the Jews and the Samaritans, the point of contention was the place where God ought to be worshipped. To the Jews, it was in Mount Zion in Jerusalem where God ought to be worshipped; to the Samaritans, it was in Mount Gerizim in Shechem, Palestine. But Jesus again shattered the myth when He said: “Believe me, Woman, the time is coming when you will worship the Father, neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. The time is coming when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth. God is Spirit and those who worship must worship in spirit and in truth!”
The English worship comes from two words, “worth” and “ship.” It means God is worthy of our worship. Last Thursday, one of my former acolytes in another church I once served, met a terrible accident. She was “brain dead” when we visited him at the hospital and the parents were greatly devastated. Shawn was only 11 years old; he was handsome, very smart and so much promise ahead of him. But he was cut off from life at this young age. Being my former acolyte, I felt so attached to Shawn and my heart was breaking as I saw the pain and agony that his mother and father were feeling. It is definitely an experience no one needs to go through. In our culture, children are supposed to bury their parents and not the other way around.
It reminds me of the difference between Praise and Worship. Praise is thanking God for what He has done and all the blessings He has given us. But there are times in our lives when misfortune knocks us down, when pain and misery almost crush us to the ground, when suffering becomes intolerable. When you are in this position, it is hard to praise God. It is at this point that worship takes over, because worship is thanking God for Who God is. God is worthy of our worship----in any circumstances we are in.  
The story of Job was a perfect illustration. Job was a righteous man and lived in total obedience to God. But one day, Satan said to God, “Job, your servant is righteous because you have given him everything: good family, wealth and fortune. Take them away and he will curse you.” God said, “do anything to him but just spare his life and we shall see.”
From that point on, God removed the wedge that covered Job. One after another, misfortune came to Job. He lost his cattle on a thousand hills, he lost his crops, he lost his family, and lastly he was afflicted with boils all over his body. All his friends expected Job to curse God and die but Job but Job, the paragon of patience and long-suffering, took off his robe, filled his body with ashes and knelt before the Lord, saying ”Naked I came from my mother’s womb and naked I return to my Maker. The Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away, blessed be the name of the Lord.”
Now, that is true worship! Blessing or no blessing, God is worshipped and adored.
The amazing encounter with Jesus transformed the woman into a witness to the Good News. All her life she was seeking for things that could not satisfy. Then she heard the Savior talked about the well that never runs dry, of the water that will spring into everlasting life. And she became the first woman evangelist, the bringer of the Good News to the Samaritans.
She went back to her community, the village in Samaria and told everyone about his amazing encounter----and many believed in her story.  If John the Baptist was the forerunner of Jesus to the Jews; then this unnamed Samaritan woman was the forerunner of the Jesus to the Samaritans. And when Jesus finally came to Samaria, the Samaritans urged him to stay longer and he stayed two days, teaching them and performing miracles they have never seen before, to the point that they finally said to the woman, “We no longer believe just because of what you said; now, we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world.” Amen

Tuesday, March 7, 2017


THE TEMPTATION (Matthew 4:1-11)
The Rev. Dr. Winfred B. Vergara, Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, 130 Jerusalem Avenue, Hicksville, NY 11801
March 5,2017- 1st Sunday of Lent

A man was circling the city block looking for a place to park. He drove around several times but could not find a spot. Finally, he gave up and decided to leave his car at the No Parking Zone. Before leaving, he wrote a note on the windshield with these words. “Dear Parking Officer, I circled this block many times but could not find a place to park. Now, I know I parked illegally but I must report to my boss or else I’ll be in trouble; so I hope you will find it in your heart to forgive me and not give me a ticket. After all, the Lord’s Prayer says, “Forgive us our trespasses.”

A couple of hours later, he came back and found a ticket on his car with these words. “Sir, I understand your predicament, but you see I also must perform my duty or else, I would also be in trouble. So I hope you will find it in your heart to understand. After all, the Lord’s Prayer says, “And lead us not into temptation.”

“Lead us not into temptation” is probably the part of the Lord’s Prayer that is hard to understand. “Forgive us our trespasses” is OK; after all God is a God of forgiveness. But lead us not into temptation? Why would God lead us into temptation? Isn’t temptation the work of the devil? Why would God lead us first into temptation and then deliver us from evil? What is the point of all this exercise?


It has been suggested that maybe one of the good subtitles for the Bible would be "The Book of Temptations." First, the Bible opens with the story of Adam and Eve being tempted to eat the forbidden fruit; then it proceeded to tell that Cain being tempted to kill his brother.

Then Noah being tempted; and Abraham being tempted; and Moses being tempted; and King David being tempted; and the prophets being tempted; and the Apostles being tempted…and now in this Gospel of Matthew, it is Jesus being tempted. Matthew’s narrative began by saying “Then Jesus was led by the Spirit out into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil" (Matthew 4:1).

What is the nature of temptation? Where does temptation happen?

First, temptation happens everywhere. It is possible you can run from temptation but you can’t hide. It is present in the city, it is present in the countryside, it is present in the air, it is present in the open air, it is present in a closed door. Here, in this gospel of Matthew, Jesus was tempted in the desert, a place of nothingness, a dry and arid place.

Second, temptation is a test of our will; how strong or how weak our will is. And oftentimes, the testing of our will happens when we are weakest and vulnerable. It seems that Satan knows our blind spot, our weak point, and that is where he would launch his attack. Judas was tempted on his weak point, money. As treasurer of the apostles, he was always counting the money. So he was tempted with 30 pieces of silver to betray his Lord.

Third, it seems that temptation is a way of helping us to make choices. God did not give us only one choice. God gave us two choices: life or death; light or darkness; good and evil. Temptation gives us a stress of making the hard or the right choice.

Making the right choice is not easy and the more choices you are presented, the harder it gets. When I was a child, when I sat on the breakfast table, I had only once choice of bread, we call pandesal, that was the only bread available. Nowadays, I had to make a choice from a white bread, a wheat bread, a rye bread, a corn bread, a sweet bread, a ginger bread, a croissant, a bagel or a doughnut.

So let us examine what kind of temptations Jesus experienced and what kind of choices did he make:

The first temptation of Jesus was this: “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”

Now this temptation comes at a time when Jesus was vulnerable to eat bread. He had fasted for forty days and forty nights. Any ordinary human being would have perished by then. Satan was testing the identity of Jesus as the Son of God. If there is nothing impossible with God, then certainly Jesus can make loaves out of rocks. But would He make that choice?

Jesus did not yield to the temptation to materialism and instead uttered these spiritual words: “It is written; Man does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”

By not yielding to this temptation, Jesus was establishing the identity that man is more than the beast. St. Teresa de Avila wrote, “Human beings are not material beings with spirits. Human beings are spiritual beings with bodies.” That’s what distinguishes us from the animals, from the birds and the bees, and the flowers and the trees. As the crown of God’s creation, we are firstly spiritual beings. We do not live by bread alone…someone said but also with butter and orange marmalade.

The second temptation of Jesus was about pride. While the first temptation was about his physical vulnerability, the second temptation was about his popularity. The devil took him to a high point on the temple and said, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down and the angels will lift you up so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.” That would be a great sensational news! It is like superman falling from the air and being carried by invisible wings!

Again Jesus did not yield to that temptation and replied, “It is written: Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” By not yielding to the temptation of pride, arrogance or sensationalism, he underscored the virtue of humility.

The third temptation was about power. While the first temptation was about physical vulnerability, the second was about spiritual pride, the third temptation was about moral ascendancy. Can Jesus be corrupted by power? If power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, could He be tempted to accumulate more power? Is this not what every man wants: wealth, fortune, economic, social political power?

So the devil took Him to a very high mountain and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world. “All this I would give you,” Satan said, “if you will bow down to worship me.”

But again, Jesus did not yield to the temptation. The choice of riches and power is at the expense of His loyalty to God, the Father. At this point, Jesus exercised His God-given authority by rebuking the devil a saying, “Away from me, Satan!  For it is written, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.”

At this point, the devil left Him and the angels ministered to him. When you resist temptation, the tempter flees away!


First lesson is that we must establish our identity in Christ, the Son of God. By faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, we become adopted children of God. The Bible says, in John 1:12, “To as many have received Jesus, who believed in His name, He gave power to become children of God.” The word Christian can be divided into two words “Christ and Ian.” If you remove Christ from your life, then Christian becomes IAN- “I Am Nothing.”

Second lesson is that Jesus was tempted in every way as we are yet, He did not sin. He overcame temptation by making right choices. Every day of our life we make choices: our marriage, our job, our vocation, our health. The gift of “free will” is what makes us human. God did not make like robots who had no choice. Rather, God made us in His own image, so that we may use that freedom for good. But the choice is ours to make.

In 1973. the novel “The Exorcist” was made into a movie. It was a very scary movie. It tells the story a cute and innocent 12-year-old girl named Reagan. She was possessed by the devil, who took control of her body. Sometimes the body would have a terrible convulsion and at other time her head would spin. Her mother was an actress and an intellectual; she might have believed in God but was never religious. She considered demon possession as a product of a wild imagination. But as the situation of their daughter became worse, and after submitting her daughter to several unsuccessful psychiatric and medical treatments, she was forced to consult with a young Jesuit priest from Georgetown University, named Fr. Karras. Fr. Karras was himself experiencing a crisis of faith. Brought about by the loss of his own mother and the troubles happening in his ministry, he was beginning to doubt the existence of a loving God. Nevertheless, he arranged for an exorcist, an elderly priest, Fr. Merrin, played by Max von Sydow, to perform the exorcism.

The exorcism became a terrifying contest between the demon and the exorcist and it was in that contest that Fr. Damien saw that the devil was very powerful but that the power of God was far more superior than the power of the devil. It was in that deliverance ministry that the faith of Fr. Karras was restored and the healing of the girl Reagan happened. The devil was expelled and the good triumphed in the end.

It was a movie that generated so much controversy because of the portrayal of the devil possessing a child. When asked what was the role of the devil in this story, the author William Peter Blatty, said “In the age of unbelief, God can even use the devil to accomplish God’s purpose.” It was the deliverance from evil that faith was restored, first to Karras the priest, and then to Regan’s family.

In the final analysis, when temptation has overcome us and the testing of our faith reached to a point of us making the wrong choice, the is still the third lesson. So long as you hold on to that even a minutiae of the point of faith, God’s love is always there waiting for you, when we repent. Like the Prodigal Son returning home, the Father is there waiting. Or even like the thief on the Cross with Jesus, there is the promise, “Today, you will be with me in paradise.”

Today, is the first Sunday of Lent: 40 days and 40 nights of opportunities for prayer, penitence and spiritual renewal. “Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.” Amen.

Saturday, December 17, 2016


The Rev. Canon Dr. Winfred Vergara, Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Hicksville, New York. December 18, 2016)

In the town of Irisan near Baguio City, Philippines there is an Episcopal Church named “Joseph, the Husband of Mary.” This was the first time I heard of such a parish in the Episcopal Church in the Philippines (ECP) and so I googled and found a number of Roman Catholic Churches named “Joseph, the Husband of Mary” including a huge church in Las Vegas, Nevada.

The name honors the role that Joseph played as husband of the Virgin Mary and foster father of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. 

Unlike in some Christian quarters where Joseph is de-emphasized, in the rural Philippines Joseph is quite popular. At some point of time, during my childhood in predominantly Roman Catholic Philippines, I thought that the Holy Trinity means “Jesus, Mary and Joseph.”

When I sneezed my devout grandmother, a folk Catholic, would quickly make a sign of the cross and utter “Susmariasep” which is the murdered pidgin version of “Jesus Mary and Joseph!” She also told us to pray this Ilonggo prayer before we take a bath: “Susmaryasep, apok masakit, kadto sa manggaranon,may sarang galastuhon.” (Jesus, Mary and Joseph; take my sickness away and let it go to the rich, they have the bucks to pay the docs.” ) I guess it might have worked for I seem to outhealth my richer schoolmates, but that's another matter.

So what exactly is the role of St. Joseph in the history of our salvation? What sacrifices did he make to protect his wife, Mary and the Holy Child of God? How did he serve as mentor to Jesus? There are three things which was unique to Joseph, the husband of Mary:

I.           Joseph loved Mary to the point of self-sacrifice.

The Gospel this morning begins: “This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.”

Before they came together, Mary was found to be pregnant. Can you imagine what this means to Joseph? Can you imagine what this means in the context of patriarchal, conservative, small town of Nazareth where they lived?

Walls in small towns have ears and this was an invitation for gossip. Young Mary must have relations with another man prior to her engagement to old man Joseph! The Bible further says, “Because Joseph was faithful to the law and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace so he had in mind to divorce her quietly.”  Do you know what was the law operating in the mindset of that time? It was no different from the fundamentalist, Islamic jihadist ISIS. The punishment is death!

The Book of Deuteronomy says about the law on sexual promiscuity: “If the man finds out that her bride is not a virgin and no proof of her virginity can be found, she shall be brought to the door of her father’s house and there the men of her town shall stone her to death” (Deuteronomy 22:21). The groom himself shall participate in the stoning, even the father of the young woman will participate in the stoning.

So it was a very serious situation. The Bible did not highlight this danger because it was more concerned with establishing the fulfillment of the prophecy that a Virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, but the gospel of Luke gives us a hint when it says:“At that time, Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judah” (Lk.1:39)

That hill country is the village of Ein Karem, around five miles from Jerusalem and quite a long distance from Nazareth. And “hurried” means escape! It is my hunch and the hunch of many biblical scholars that Joseph and Mary had to escape, to flee from Nazareth and hide in Ein Karem in the house of Zechariah and Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin.

In 2010, I had the privilege of traveling to Israel and Palestine and went to Ein Karem. It was in that place that Mary sung the song Magnificat “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord” and where Elizabeth sang what would later be a Roman Catholic angelus “Hail Mary full of grace, the Lord is with thee, blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus.”

II. Joseph Protected Jesus from Herod

When Jesus was born, Israel was ruled by wicked King Herod I. He was Herod, the Great who would not want another king of the Jews. Herod I was the father of an equally wicked Herod Antipas. Antipas was the King who himself would later order the crucifixion of Jesus, the Man. Jesus, the Child would have already been killed by Herod I had it not for Joseph.

Joseph named the Son of God “Jesus,” in the Hebrew word “Yoshua” which means ”God Saves.” This name would be a prophetic word for the Messiah who comes to save the world. But this Savior of the world must first be saved---and that role belongs to Joseph.

The Bible tells us that when the Three Magi went to see Jesus, they passed by Herod I who told them once they see Jesus the Child, they should return and make their report. They disobeyed Herod because they sensed that he had something else in mind so they went on another route. But when they left, Joseph had a dream. In that dream, the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph and said, “Get up, take the Child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stayed there until I tell you to come back for Herod was searching for you and he wants to kill the child.”

Joseph bundled Jesus again and left with Mary to escape to Egypt. They stayed in Egypt as “undocumented immigrants” until King Herod died (Cf. Matthew 2:13-15.) So now that you know, you should tell President-Elect Donald Trump that Jesus was also an also an undocumented immigrant, a Refugee seeking asylum hoping for a safe world.

It is a divine irony that the One who owns the world and everything in it, has to be a Refugee in the land He made. Perhaps it is to show us to be kind to strangers. And so when we welcome the undocumented immigrants and refugees, we may be welcoming Jesus unaware!

III. Joseph was Mentor to Jesus

When Herod died, the Holy Family went back to Nazareth, their hometown. There Joseph worked as a carpenter. It was said that Joseph manufactured best yokes in town. A yoke is a wooden beam used to fit the neck of an ox to enable it to pull a heavy load or to plow a field. A good yoke is one that is neither too loose nor too tight but one that perfectly fits the neck of an ox---and the yokes made by Joseph was of good quality that oxen found it easy to carry their load.

That is why when Jesus talked about resting in God, He must have made reference to the yoke of Joseph. He called out to the workers, the laborers, those who are stressed out, those who are harassed and helpless, those who are about to give up and said: “Come to me, all you that labor and are heavy-laden and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart and you will find rest for your souls; for my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).

Yes, the yoke made by Joseph, the carpenter, was easy and will make your burdens light. Where Jesus learned to memorize the Word of God, the psalms and the proverbs from his mother Mary, He learned of the practical matters of ministry from his foster father, Joseph.

The impact of Joseph upon Jesus was so great that when He was speaking about being the Bread of Life and all the amazing parables of life, accompanied by the miracles from His hand, the people in the synagogues would say, “Where did this Man get His wisdom and these miraculous powers? Isn’t He the carpenter’s son?”


So today, we honor Joseph the Husband of Mary and the foster father of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Jesus is not only the only-begotten Son of God; He is also the carpenter’s son. May the tribe of Joseph increase among us. Amen.



Friday, November 18, 2016

COMPASSIONATE EVANGELISM: A Non-Judgemental Approach to Sharing the Christian Faith

(The Rev. Canon Dr. Winfred B. Vergara. Evangelism Summit. Dallas, TX. 11/18/2016)

I will begin with a testimony: I believe all of us, children of God, have been given spiritual gifts to be used for God’s glory. As priest in the Episcopal Church, I believe my gift-mix is pastor-missionary-evangelist. With God’s grace, I use this spiritual gift-mix when I pastor a church, plant a church, revive a church or grow a church.

In the national church level, I serve as Missioner for Asiamerica and Pacific Islanders Ministries. One of the new things we want to do is ANDREWS –a mentoring program for our diverse constituencies, the 7 ethnic convocations: Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Filipino, South Asian, Southeast Asian and Pacific Islanders.

ANDREWS means “Asiamerica Network of Disciples, Revivalists, Evangelists, Witnesses and Saints.” I have a booklet for you to explain what it means.

In the local level, I serve as a very part-time revivalist of declining parishes. Three years ago, even as full-time missioner in the Episcopal Church, I was used by the Lord to revive a declining parish in Queens, New York. When I first came to St. James in Elmhurst, New York the average Sunday attendance was 20 and they had $93,000 deficit. The church was a candidate for closure as some churches had been. By God’s grace, I led the church to a revival and evangelism program. After my three-year contract, I left the church with 150 Sunday attendance, $43,000 surplus and a clear plan for continued development. Today, I am at Holy Trinity in Hicksville, Long Island addressing a program called RED-Revival, Evangelism, Discipleship.

One of my evangelism stories involved Seema. She came from a Hindu background, a Brahmin, the highest class in the Indian caste system. It was Christmas Eve of 2015. Seema and two other Hindu friends stopped by to listen to our Christmas pageant. After the midnight mass that followed, she stayed behind to ask me one question, “Father Fred, I listened to your sermon and I want to become a Christian. How do I become one?”

One thing I learned in India’s history was about Mahatma Gandhi. He was fascinated by Christianity but as a Hindu, he “could not put Christ on a solitary throne.” So I told Seema that I respect her religious background and make no judgment on the Hindu religion. As a Christian however, I told her I believe that Jesus is “the way, the truth and the life.” Then I shared with her a brief narrative on the life and person of Jesus Christ and prayed for her.  I gave her a copy of the Bible and gave some specific scriptures to meditate upon.

A month later, Seema came back and accepted Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour. Together with a few  others, she joined the Baptism Class and learned the ”Baptismal Vows” in the Book of Common Prayer. I baptized her on Easter Sunday of 2016. She continues to be an active member in the Episcopal Church, even when I am no longer a priest in that congregation.

As Christians, it is our bounden duty and joy to share our faith, to call people to repentance, and when they are receptive to our message, to lead them to accept Jesus as Lord and Savior.  But how many of us know how to share our faith and lead others to Christ?

Looking back to the conversion of Seema, I kept on wondering. What if she did not wait for me and asked an average church member the question, ”How do I accept Christ?.” What answer would they have said? I can only imagine one thing they would say to Seema: ”Let’s go to Father Fred.” This is because I have not taught them how to evangelize, I have not taught them how to share their faith, I have not taught them how to lead others to Christ.

Many of our typical Episcopalian members are “sacramentalized” but not evangelized. When asked, why are you a Christian, they respond with “I am a cradle Episcopalian; I was born a Christian.” Well, the fact that you were born in a garage does not make you a car. So even if your father and mother were Christians and you were baptized Episcopalian, these do not mean that you know your faith and consistently growing up into the full measure of the stature of Christ.

There are three imperatives in the Christian journey: “You must be born again;” “you must be filled with the Holy Spirit”; and “you must be a servant of the church.” This is a progressive step towards discipleship in Christ.

Christianity is a journey, a journey of relationship, a journey towards the ultimate destination, our union with God in Christ, the doctrine of atonement of "at-one-ment." In another way of saying, we are under construction. As Presiding Bishop Michael Curry said, ”God is not finished with me yet.” As we journey in faith, we beckon others to join us. Jesus said in his prayer for his disciples, “And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” (John 10:16)

First, you must develop compassion. Matthew 9:36-38 says: “When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”

What is compassion? Compassion literally means “to suffer together.” In Greek, the word compassion gives the image of being gripped in the guts, in the intestines. Among emotion researchers, it is defined as “the feeling that arises when you are confronted with another’s suffering and feel motivated to relieve that suffering.”

In India, there is a proverb that says, “You can never know what someone is carrying until she is bumped.” The image is a woman in a village carrying a jar on her head; you don’t know what’s inside, milk or water. Then there are children who were playing around and accidentally bumped the woman and the content of the jar spilled. Now everyone knows what she has been carrying.

Yes, we can know what burdens people carry but only in the context of interaction, of relationship. We can program our action but we cannot program our reaction. That is why we need to have compassion, not just empathy to understand their burdens they carry but also a desire to help carry that burden.

The poet George Elliot wrote, “If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel's heartbeat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.”

Today, how many of us feel the pains and heartaches of millions of undocumented immigrants who fear that anytime soon, there will be knocks on their doors and they would be rounded up and deported? The President-elect Donald Trump has made mass deportation as one of the hallmarks of his presidential campaign and now that he won, the stigma of his words cut deep into the hearts of this section of the population. Are they not the massa perditiones, the ochlos, the crowds whom the bible describes as “harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd?”.

How many of us feel the fear of their children, who were born here and who know no other country and yet being part of the threat to their survival? How many of us feel their dreams fading, their hopes dropping and their despair rising?

How many of feel the pains and heartaches of the Native Americans in Standing Rock, fighting for one of the few lands left to them. They are fighting and appealing for one basic commodity, water,  clear and clean water being threatened by the proposed oil pipeline. Their ancestors were the first peoples who lived here for thousands of years. Every one of us--- white, black, brown, yellow or what have you--- who come after are simply immigrants. They deserve our gratitude and respect and the remains of their ancestors buried in their land do not deserve the desecration. It is sacred ground, holy land.

How many of us feel the pains and heartaches of our neighbors: a single mother struggling to keep her children while working and going to school dreaming they could make it one day. A businessman so successful materially but empty of spiritual meaning; who surrounded himself with things money can buy but unable to find joy and satisfaction in what he does?

How many of us feel the pain and heartaches of dysfunctional family, whose relationships are ruptured by alcohol and drug addiction, unable to free themselves from the quagmire of poverty and destitution?

There is so much pain and so much heart aches in the world and there are people who constantly live in the shadow of oppression and despair. Our compassion should move us to share our faith and be creative with our desire to help.

As Christians, we believe the grace of God is sufficient. For somewhere in this universe there is a place where all the heartaches and pains of humanity are funneled into---and that place is the heart of God. And if our hearts are too small for God, God’s heart is too large for ours. Then that compassion of Christ would also move us to share our faith.

 Second, we must share our faith with humility. D.T. Niles, pastor and theologian from Sri Lanka wrote this famous definition of evangelism. “Evangelism is a beggar, telling another beggar where to find bread.”
In the economy of God, we are all sinners in God’s redeeming. If God takes his hand from my life, my lips will turn into clay.

Maya de Angelou, the poet laureate wrote:

When I say... "I am a Christian "I'm not shouting "I'm clean livin'." I'm whispering "I was lost,
Now I'm found and forgiven." When I say... "I am a Christian" I don't speak of this with pride. I'm confessing that I stumble and need Christ to be my guide.

When I say... "I am a Christian" I'm not trying to be strong. I'm professing that I'm weak  and need His strength to carry on. When I say... "I am a Christian “I’m not bragging of success. I’m admitting I have failed and need God to clean my mess.

When I say... "I am a Christian “I’m not claiming to be perfect, my flaws are far too visible
But, God believes I am worth it. When I say... "I am a Christian “I still feel the sting of pain. I have my share of heartaches so I call upon His name.

When I say... "I am a Christian “I’m not holier than thou, I'm just a simple sinner who received God's good grace, somehow!

Third, we must practice non-violence in our speech and actions.
The saying “stick and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me.” That is not true. Violent words, vitriolic words, negative words can hurt our souls and crush our spirits.

In this country, we have free speech but we have taken them as license to bully, to insult, to discourage, and to break the spirits of others. The recent election was filled with vitriolic words, lying words, threatening words, insulting words, hate words, violent words. Their deleterious effects are still felt even today. We have heard of the increase of children being traumatized by the threats they heard on television.

Words have power and energy. They can inspire us, comfort us, and enliven us. Or they can hurt us, maim us, even kill us. We need to use our words to better the world, not make it more miserable. Even a simple “Good Morning” or “Thank You” can make someone feel like they are worth something.

I like the words from the Book of Proverbs 25;11 which say, ”Words aptly spoken are like apples of gold in a setting of silver.”

So, what comes out of your mouth?

Are you quick to make a rude remark?
Do your words fluctuate with your moods?
Do you defend what you like and attack things you don’t?
Are your words made up of gossip, negativity, and complaint?
Do you use words like loser, stupid, and idiot, imbecile?
Do your sentences end with a sneer and rolled eyes?

 We have the power to bless people or to curse.

The Book of James say,” The tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man, but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? My brothers, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water. Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.”  - James 3: 2-13

So if you want to be used by God as the bearer of the Good News, you must develop a "golden tongue." “How lovely on the mountains are the feet of them who bring Good News, Good News, announcing peace, proclaiming news of happiness, Our God reigns, our God reigns!”

Seek God for healing and forgiveness, and your heart will blossom with the love of Jesus Christ. Only when we truly walk in the Spirit of God, will our words reflect what is in God’s heart.

So having cleansed your heart with malice and wrong intentions, having rid your tongue from all manner of aggressive, judgmental and arrogant words, you are ready to become bearers of the Good News of salvation. This is evangelism with no value judgment of others but only with compassion, humility and graceful words.

I’m still in the process of working out a formula for faith sharing but from what I learned in the past, the following outline has worked. I call this the ABCDE. When a person has expressed a desire to become a Christian I help him or her to work through ABCDP (Accept, Believe, Confess, Decide, Pray):

  1. ACCEPT: Accept that there is a God who loves you and cares for you. He loved you so much that He gave His only begotten Son (John 3:16). This God is not a tribal God but a universal God. He has no partiality because He created all human beings unique but also equal before Him. Accept that you need God. St. Augustine said, “There is a God-shaped vacuum in human hearts that cannot be filled except by God Himself.” Jesus said "I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; but apart from me, you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)
  2. BELIEVE:  Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved. In John 10:10 Jesus says, “I come to give you life and have it abundantly.” And in John 14:6, he says “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” In Acts 4:12, Peter declared: “Salvation is found in no one else, but in Jesus, and there is no other name under heaven given to men.” The name “Jesus” means Savior.
  3. CONFESS: Romans 10:9 says, “If you confess with your mouth that ‘Jesus is Lord’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. The central affirmation of the Christian faith says: “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” The resurrection is central to the Christian faith. Because Jesus lives again, we can face tomorrow.  If we confess our sins to God in the name of Jesus Christ, we will be forgiven and move on to live a transformed life.
  4. DECIDE: Make a decision that will transform your life by accepting Jesus Christ as Savior, Redeemer and Lord. Decide to be baptized in the name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit and become a member of the Church, the Body of Christ in the world. Then talk to your priest or pastor about Baptism.
  5. PRAY: Lead the person to this prayer: Heavenly Father, thank you for loving me so much. You gave Your Son Jesus Christ to suffer and die for me on the cross; and because He lives, I can face tomorrow. I confess that I have sinned and fall short of the glory of God and now desire to receive Jesus as Saviour and Lord. Give me your Holy Spirit to be with me forever and to guide me along the path of new life and growth. Lead me to a church that shall help me to grow in my faith. I freely give myself to your leading, O my God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Let me now conclude my presentation with at least three reminders about the nature of evangelism:

First, evangelism involves the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of persons. 
Ultimately, we are simply instruments in the hands of God. Evangelism, the proclamation of the Good News by words and deeds----and sometimes silence--- is a divine-human cooperation. God calls and we respond; God initiates and we follow; God leads and we act.

There was a story of a little boy who found a lot in his neighborhood. It was full of weeds, junks and garbage. He felt the call to clean it up, to cultivate it and to plant a rose garden. And he did it. In due time, the roses grew and the flowers bloom. As he stood there admiring the work of his hands, a priest came by and equally admiring, said: “Wow, Young man, look what God and you have done for this garden. It’s so beautiful!” The little boy replied, “Yes, Father; but you should have seen it when it was left to God alone.”

In Romans 10:14, the Bible says: “How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?” Brothers and sisters, we are entrusted with a holy task, to preach the Good News.

Secondly, the supremacy and uniqueness of Jesus Christ.
Christianity is inclusive but its claim is exclusive: “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life; no one comes to the Father but by me” (John 14:6). We must respect all religions and be sympathetic to other faiths but we must affirm what was handed down to us from generation to generation. Peter and John, in the face of persecution and threat of death, affirmed that “there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).

 As St. Paul to the people of Athens in his famous sermon in Aeropagus, “I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and examined your objects of worship, I even found an altar with the inscription: ‘To an unknown God.’ Therefore what you worship as something unknown, I now proclaim to you.”

St. Paul urges “that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all people, for kings and all who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity. This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:1-4).

Thirdly and finally, Christ is the ultimate Reality, the final answer to our confounded longings. To illustrate my point let me tell you a couple of stories; one from rural Asia and the other one from urban America.
In Asia, there’s a popular folk tale of a loving mother, a widow, who lived with his only son. They lived as farmers in a typical agricultural village. Now her son had a face that, to use a figure of speech, “only a mother could love.” In other words, he was not attractive. Now he fell in love with a woman on the other side of the mountain, who said to him, “I would reciprocate your love if you can give me the heart of your mother.” Maybe it was just a figure of speech or that the woman was wicked but the man thought about it quite a lot. He was deeply and fatally infatuated and the fantasy that he can have this woman tormented him. And one day, in one moment of madness, he killed his mother, took her heart out and hurried to offer this heart to the object of his infatuation. He ran through the fields and rice paddies and accidentally stumbled upon a rock. The heart flung into the muddy field and he recovered it. As he was cleaning up the heart, blooded and muddied, the heart spoke, “My son, my son, are you hurt?”

The bible says that Christ did not wait for us to be good “but when we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” If I consider my own sinfulness and disobedience, my frailty, my weaknesses, my wretchedness and imperfections, I can not but thank Jesus who suffered and died for me on the cross. I cannot save myself. I need a Saviour and He is Jesus. This Jesus is what I proclaim to you.

Now I shift to another story in the setting of urban America. There was a new immigrant woman who was lucky enough to marry a rich businessman in Wall Street, New York.  After the wedding, he brought her to his plush apartment in Manhattan where they lived for quite a while.  Being a busy man, the husband would often come home very late and when he does, having had dinner meetings, he would simply go right to bed and sleep. This went on for quite a while so this young bride had been starving for physical affection. It was at this point that a youthful sexual fantasy invaded her mind. This is a fantasy that she can actualize because she had money, she was attractive and she had opportunity. So one night, while he husband was fast asleep, she slipped out of their room, got dressed and hurried to a nearby nightclub and indulged herself.  After a couple of hours, she went back to their apartment, slipped back to the cover of their blanket and she began to sob. She was crying quietly but so deeply. And her husband asked, “Honey, what’s wrong?”  And she replied, “Nothing…just nothing.”
My friends, the most empty feeling, my theological professor would say, ”the most difficult existential vacuum” is when you realize that what you thought was the ultimate, turns out to be nothing!

Yes my friends, Jesus alone is the Ultimate Reality, the Ultimate Answer, the Absolute of Absolutes. Jesus alone can truly answer our deepest needs, he alone can truly mend our broken hearts, he alone can truly wipe the tears from our eyes, and he alone can truly give us new and abundant lives. Jesus is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. In Him we live and move and have our being. If Christ takes His hand from my life, these lips shall turn into clay; if Jesus removes Himself from my Church, we shall be like the chicken who lost its head. We would circle around with much activity but in the end fall down and breathless and dead.
So our message to the world is, "turn, turn, to the Lord Jesus Christ. Turn to Him now with all of your heart!"
And the message to us, the Church, bearers of the Good News, is this 2nd Letter of St. Paul to Timothy, chapter 4:verses 1-4:

 “I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths. But you, be sober in all things, endure hardship, DO THE WORK OF AN EVANGELIST, fulfill your ministry.” Amen and Amen!


For more information, contact: wvergara@episcopalchurch.org