Honoring the Nestorian Christians

Sunday, April 20, 2014


 (The Rev. Dr. Winfred B. Vergara, St. James Episcopal Church, 84-07 Broadway, Elmhurst, NY 11373. 04.20.2014)

“Alleluia. The Lord is risen!” Response: “The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!”
"Who rolled the stone away?"
The Christian faith always has an element of unpredictability about it. As Forest Gump of the movie once says, “life is like a box of chocolate; you’ll never know what you’re gonna get, until you open it.” 

Early on that first Easter Sunday morning, at dawn, the three Mary’s: Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Mary Salome came to the tomb where Jesus was laid. Jesus died on the cross on Calvary. He was laid in the tomb owned by a rich man, Joseph of Arimathea.  

In life, Jesus said that the Son of man had nowhere to lay his head. So now he rested on a borrowed tomb. It was a gesture of generosity that Joseph of Arimathea, who was a member of the Jewish Sanhendrin---and a secret follower of Jesus---offered his own grave for free!  The tomb was carved out from the rock. A huge circular stone covered the tomb. Was it of the Holy Spirit that he knew it was a tomb on temporary loan?

It has been three days since Jesus died. The body might be smelling bad by now, so the women brought with them an alabaster flask of ointment to anoint the body of Jesus. On the road, they worried among themselves. “Who will roll the stone away?  How can we roll that stone away, the stone door that covers the tomb?” 

But what a surprise!  The tomb was empty and when they look inside, Jesus was not there. And the angel of the Lord asked them, “Who are you looking for? Jesus of Nazareth?  He is not here; for He has risen!” 

I believe the miracle of the empty tomb is the greatest miracle on earth---and this is the centerpiece of the Christian faith. What is the significance of the “empty tomb” in our life as believers of Jesus Christ?  I offer today three meanings of the empty tomb: one, it established the uniqueness of our faith; two, it provides a final answer to the problem of death; three, it gives us a mission in life.

The empty tomb is the hallmark of the Christian faith. Our faith is anchored in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again” is our mantra. The empty tomb established that of all religions in the world, we alone can claim that Jesus rose again and opened for us the entrance to eternal life.

The uniqueness of the Christian faith, to claim that Jesus is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life” is, to use the words of St. Paul, “a folly to the Jews and a stumbling block to the Gentiles, but to us who are being saved, it is wisdom of God and the power of God.”

 Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and all major religions in the world believe in God---but only Christianity claims that God was in Christ, who came down from heaven, lived among us, was crucified, died, buried, and on the third day, rose from the dead.

I admire Mohammad, whose followers of Islam number some 2.6 billion people and considered the fastest growing religion in the world today.  Mohammad was a bold prophet, a great religious reformer, a brilliant political leader. He triumphed against the atheism of his time and united the diverse and conflicting tribes of Arabia into one single Arab community. But Mohammad died and his body was buried in Medina in Saudi Arabia. Millions of Muslims do a pilgrimage to Mecca every year and hoping to get a glimpse of the green dome of the mausoleum in Medina, the Al-Masjid-an Nabawi, where his relics are located. 

I admire Siddhartha Gautama Buddha, whose Buddhist followers number over a billion people and whose philosophical, cultural and religious influence continue to dominate many parts of the world, especially in Asia. I like the Buddhist concepts of human suffering (dukkha), self-denial (anatta, shunyata), ethics, karma, rebirth and enlightenment and Nirvana---and some of them correspond with basic Christian concepts of faith, hope and love. But the Buddha, the Enlightened One, died and did not rise again. His ashes and relics are to be found in Uttar Pradesh in India.

One of my heroes, the great Mahatma Gandhi, admired Christ but did not become a Christian because as a Hindu, Gandhi believed in many gods. Gandhi studied the Bible and was greatly influenced by Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. His philosophy of non-violence (ahimsa) was greatly influenced by Christian values. He loved Christianity (though he has problems with some Christians) but he could not reconcile one thing “to put Jesus on a solitary throne.”

But that "solitary throne" is precisely the uniqueness of the Christian faith. Only Jesus rose again. Mohammad, Buddha, Zoroaster ---all prophets and martyrs, philosophers and holy people. They all died but did not rise again. The solitary throne of God-incarnate belongs to Jesus because He alone died and rose again!

Our faith is anchored in the resurrection of Jesus Christ! Alleluia! Jesus alone is Savior and Lord.

There was a little girl who was seriously drawing a figure. She had all the crayons and pencils and the drawing pad. Her father asked, “Honey, what are you trying to do?” Then little girl said, “Dad, I am trying to draw the picture of God.” “But honey, no one has seen the face of God,” the father said. The little girl replied, “Dad, they will see; once I am finished drawing it.” 

Prior to the coming of Jesus, the problem of death was unanswerable. What happens when we die? Is there a soul? Will our spirit separate from our body? Where will our spirit go somewhere? Or will it be reborn in another form? 

So death is either to be feared or be conquered as the last enemy.  Every fear known to man ultimately leads to the fear of death. Why do we eat? To live. Why do we work? To survive. Why do we keep our body in good health? To live longer. We are afraid to die because we don’t know what lies ahead. The mystery of the unknown drives us to fear adventure, to fear death.

But the resurrection of Jesus provided the final answer to this question of life. St. Paul explains it in 1st Corinthians 15:51-55

“Listen, I tell you a mystery: we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed---in a moment,  in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound and dead will be raised imperishable and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothe with the imperishable and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: death is swallowed up in victory. “Where O death, is your victory? Where O death is your sting?”

After the resurrection, there will be a new body, a spiritual body, a glorious body, to rise up and dwell with God in the heavens. The lost Paradise has been regained. The resurrection of Jesus opened to us, who believe, access to eternal life. Jesus said in John 14: “Let not your hearts be troubled…In My Father’s House there are many mansions. I go to prepare a place for you; and when I go to prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you with me so that where I am, there you maybe also.” 

The Book of Revelation speaks of that new life in heaven: “there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain…but life everlasting.” 

The empty tomb of Jesus is the assurance of this promise of everlasting life. Jesus is the first fruit of this promise and we who live and believe in Him will not perish but have everlasting life.

When Jesus was arrested, tortured and crucified, his apostles were filled with fear, with shame and with guilt. Judas who betrayed Jesus for thirty pieces of silver was overcome with guilt that he went and hanged himself. Peter, who denied Jesus three times, was sulking in depression and shame. Only John, the youngest of the apostles and Mary Magdalene and Mary, his mother were there beneath the cross of Jesus. 

Later on, Peter and the other apostles would go back fishing. That was what they did when they first met Jesus. They were rugged fishermen of Galilee and Jesus called them and transformed them from being fishermen to being "fishers of men." 

Do you know the difference between the fishermen and the fishers of men? The fishermen catch fish alive and put them down dead. The fishers of men catch men dead and put them down alive. Jesus taught them to proclaim new life and called them for a mission to heal the sick, the cure the lepers, to drive out demons, to save the lost. But when Jesus died, they also lost their passion for mission.

When you tried and failed, you tend to go back to doing what you did before. Mission is like a lifeblood that gives you energy and strength and meaning to your existence. With the death of Jesus, they felt they lost their sense of mission and decided to go back to their former comfort zones.

Once I read a testimony in “The Upper Room Magazine” written by one Stephen Bishop of North Carolina. He said that as a boy he had mastered the art of catching crickets which they used as bait for fly fishing. First he had to find a patch of tall grass. Then he would walk systematically through the grass, with one foot sweeping forward in a slow and dance-like motion. Scared crickets would leap, at which point, he would crouch, cup one hand and sweep up the crickets. 

But somewhere along the line, in his adult life, Stephen lost the passion of catching crickets—and on a larger scale, “the art of trying and mastering new things.” After experiencing failures, rejections and disappointments, he retreated into his comfort zone, scared to try new things. He lived “more like a cricket than a person, hiding and leaping in fear.”

Brothers and sisters, do you sometimes feel like a cricket cowering in fear and unable to move on from your failures and disappointments? Remember that success is failure turned upside down. And if at first you don’t succeed, try and try again. In life, there is adventure in keeping the balance: “take care and take risks.” You do not want to live the rest of your life with “what ifs?” For me, the greater sin is in not trying, and in not living life to the full. And we can only live our life to the full if we have a sense of mission.To the Christian, life is full of surprises!

Mission is our reason for being. The Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Katharine Jefferts Schori said, “the heartbeat of the Church is mission, mission, mission.”  The Swiss theologian Emil Brunner wrote, “The church exists by mission as fire exists by burning.”Former Archbishop Desmond Tutu of the Anglican Church of South Africa asserted, “We are missionaries or we are nothing.” 

Brothers and Sisters, do you have a mission? What is your mission? To know Jesus and make Him known? To know the power of His resurrection? To live, love, learn and leave a lasting legacy? 

The resurrection of Jesus was the spark that re-ignited the apostolic mission. The empty tomb opened the hearts of the apostles to the excitement of proclaiming the risen Lord and turning the world upside down. No other faith can compare to the uniqueness of Christ as the Son of the living God. They moved out from their comfort zones and proclaimed the Gospel with power--- from Jerusalem to Judea, to Samaria to the ends of the world.  The  empty tomb opened their hearts to the breadth and length and height and depth of God’s universe and the desire of their Master that all people will be saved and come to the knowledge of the Truth.  The empty tomb emptied their hearts from the fears of the unknown and empowered them to face even death with such courage, dignity and honor.

Because He lives, I can face tomorrow. Because He lives, all fear is gone;                             Because I know, He holds the future. My life is worth the living just because He lives!

May this Easter Day, re-ignite your mission, infuse new energy and empower you to live the life worthy of the risen Christ. Amen.

Thursday, April 10, 2014


Canon Bruce Woodcock,Canon Peter Ng, Prime Bishop Edward Malecdan and just me.

I am not preaching this Sunday; I am in Asia for bridge building meetings. So I penned what would have been my sermon this Palm Sunday.  – Fred Vergara.04.10.2014. Antipolo, Rizal, Philippines

Every Holy Week, we are reminded of Jesus’ words: “If you want to be my disciple, deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me” (Luke 9:23).

The last time I preached about “taking up your cross,” I saw a lady lifting up her husband!

What is the cross? The cross to me is anyone or anything that crosses your path. It may be your family, your friend, your enemy. It may be your mission, your challenge, your purpose in life.
Oftentimes the cross is a problem to be solved or a burden to bear. To some, it is a health issue such as a debilitating disease; to others, it is a weight issue, such as obesity or anorexia.  To some, it is an economic issue like loss of a job or abject poverty; to others it is a life and death issue, like losing someone you love or being called for an IRS audit.

The cross is also a symbol of commitment and responsibility.

The cross of Jesus is the epitome of all crosses. Jesus was sent by the Father to take up the cross as a ransom for the sins of the whole world. It was a commitment hard to bear and a terrifying responsibility. Jesus as fully human agonized in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Father, take this cup away from me.” And as he prayed, tears and blood came out from his flesh. As fully divine, he resolved to obey the Father: “nevertheless, not my will but thy will done.” The rest is history. Our sins were washed away by the blood of Jesus. We are cleansed, forgiven, redeemed. We are given entrance to everlasting life.

The Good News about the Cross is that it is temporary. You do not carry the cross forever. There is a time when problems are solved; burdens are lifted and challenges are won. After crucifixion comes resurrection. Crying turns into laughter, sorrows turn into joy, and mourning and sighing flee away. Even the mountains and the hills break forth in singing and the trees of the fields clap their hands. The cross becomes a crown!

I believe the Church today is bearing the weight of the cross. In fact, not just one cross but three crosses. If we are able to carry these crosses the way Jesus carried His own cross, the Church will have a great future of a new resurrection:

The first cross of the Church is a crisis of faith. The Church is supposed to be a repository of faith once delivered to the saints, but ironically, there is so much lack of faith among many Christians. Oftentimes, they turn into skepticism, fear or unbelief. And what happens when there is lack of faith? Nothing happens!

We know the story of the Apostle Peter. He saw Jesus walking on water and he got excited. “Master, let me walk on water like you.”  And Jesus said, “Come.” Peter stepped on water in faith but when he saw the waves; he got frightened and began to sink.  And Jesus said, “O man of little faith!”

Christianity is not about fear. It is about faith. It is not about feeling secure, about taking precautions. It is about taking risks and engaging in adventure. Christianity is an adventure, an act of faith. Our parents Abraham and Sarah taught us about adventure. They obeyed God and traveled unknown lands looking for the city whose builder and maker is God--and God did not disappoint them. I left home at age 15 to escape rural poverty and since then my adventure in faith has led me to places beyond my childhood dreams.

The Church must venture into obedience to where God is leading anew. The old institutions which have outlived their usefulness must give way to the new explorations and new ways of understanding mission. In Christ there is newness and fullness of life.

The second cross of the Church is a crisis of hope. John Wesley said, “If you lose money, you lose nothing; if you lose your health, you lose something. But if you lose hope, you lose everything.” Hope is the virtue that makes a person stands up after every fall. A person of hope is one who does not get discouraged when things do not turn out successfully. The person of hope believes that success is a failure turned upside down. A hopeful person is one who continually hopes even when hope seems gone. He believes that the same sun that sets in the west will rise again on the east.
One of my colleagues said that when she attended a course in church leadership, many of the clergy in the class were talking “the church is dying, the church is dying, the church is dying.” She could not bear it any longer so she said, “if the Church is dying, then let it die!”

Yes, if the church has lost hope, let it die. A church with no hope is of no use for Christ. The Church which Christ blesses is the one that always hopes, always perseveres, always expects.

We, the Church are a people of hope; we preach hope; we live with hope, and even if we die, we shall die with hope. “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again”---that is Trisagion of the Church. The crucified Lord has risen. The Church of the Risen Lord is filled with hope.

The third and final Cross of the Church is a crisis of love. The world has a love deficit. It is not money that makes the world go round. It is not fame that makes the world go round. It is not power that makes the world go round. It is love that makes the world go round. If God removes His love from the world, its foundations will crumble. The reason why we are still standing is that God’s love is steadfast, enduring and immovable. .

During our recent Tour to Italy, we visited the ruins of Pompeii.  We learned that Pompeii was once a great and prosperous city in the first century A.D. In their prosperity and success, their love for God had grown cold. Their hedonistic values, selfish ambitions and utter disregard for the welfare of others made them lukewarm and cold for God. The city that lives for itself will die by itself. The volcano Mount Vesuvius erupted and the whole city was covered with six meters of lava. It was completely destroyed and lost from view for 1700 years. Today, its ruins tell the story of a generation who lost their love for God and for one another.

Today, as we prepare to enter the Holy Week, we must be reminded of the Cross of Christ. But the remembrance of this Cross will be meaningless until we learn to take up our own crosses---and deal with the crises of our faith, hope and love.

Let me end with the prayer of confession from the Sinfonia Oecumenic and adapted by the Episcopal Church in the Philippines’ Book of Common Prayer:
Confession: (Lord, we confess): We have committed ourselves to be one people in the Spirit of Christ---and we are still divided. We have committed ourselves to be a fellowship of pilgrims---but often we have refused to move and change. We have committed ourselves to be servants to the world---but we have turned away into our concerns and closed our eyes to the pain of others. Forgive us, O God, and help us to renew our commitment to love and to live out the hope to which we are called.
Assurance of Pardon: In Christ our hope is new every day and there is no condemnation. Rise up and live as free People of God! Amen.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Missioner's Mooring:If They Don't Embrace Change, Some of our Dioceses May Become Extinct


The Rev. Dr. Winfred Vergara (Address delivered at the New Community Clergy and Lay Conference in Kanuga, North Carolina, March 13, 2014.

My name is Fred Vergara, missioner for Asiamerica Ministries of The Episcopal Church. I’d like to be candid today. The New Community is a safe place and I like to model an honest sharing, speaking the truth in love. 

I also wrote down my words. When you are young, you can speak extemporaneously because you have more time to correct your mistakes; when you get old, you do not have much time. I also tend to lose two things: one is my memory; the other, I can’t remember. 

On May this year, I will celebrate my 10th year as missioner. I am fortunate to have served two Presiding Bishops, three Chief Operating Officers and five Mission Directors, each of them have their own styles of management.

I survived three reorganizations and three General Conventions. 

As missioner, you have to be a “trail blazer and a risk taker” but at the same time understand, that as staff of the Presiding Bishop, you operate in a structure which has its own bureaucracy and protocols. So I borrowed wisdom from cultures: One Chinese proverb says, “Always take two steps forward and one step backward;” and one African proverb says, “Do not test the depth of the river using both feet.” One Anglican archbishop puts it this way, “passionate coolness.”

 I must confess that I have not been very good at keeping that balance, so it is only by the grace of God that I am still here today. So what have I learned? What can I impart?

Advocacy and Congregational Development: that’s how I understand the nature of my job.  For me, they are like two wings of a bird. If one wing is broken, the bird will have difficulty flying.

When I came to the Missionary Society (short for Domestic and Missionary Society or DFMS, the official and legal corporate name of The Episcopal Church) in 2004, I was told that the main goal of Ethnic Ministries was to grow congregations towards the 20/20 vision. Some of you may remember what 20/20 means: “We are to double the membership of the Episcopal Church by the Year 2020.” 

Not too many of us are still talking about it now, because we know we cannot make it, judging from the trends. In fact, those who were very vocal about 20/20 in the year 2000 are no longer around!

So this preference on one wing was imbedded in structure when it was called “Ethnic Congregational Development” (ECD). The Advocacy wing was clipped. As a matter of fact, there was some sort of an unwritten law that missioners were prohibited from doing advocacy. This was exacerbated by the fact that there was another and much bigger department called “Congregational Development” which refers to “white CD” compared and contrasted to “ECD.”

My predecessor used Asian pragmatism by creating the EAM Council as 501c non-profit organization and having a convocation called “EAM Advocates.” I think they were trying to create an advocacy group similar to the Union of Black Episcopalians (UBE) but closely connected to the Missioner. The implied strategy was for the EAM Council to do the advocating to keep the Missioner "unprophetic" and therefore safe from any political backlash and confine himself to only congregational development.

Well, I am not one who wants to profit from being a “non-prophet.” I soon realized that congregational development alone without advocacy was not effective. The missioners are the ones being paid to connect with their constituencies. We know the struggle and the suffering of our people; we hear their cries and see their tears, and our hearts ache with compassion. We are also buoyed up by their dreams and visions.

Going around churches, I learned that most of our mainstream parishes and dioceses are predominantly white and existing under some kind of patronage system that makes it difficult for ethnic members to thrive. New groups within the existing parishes are considered by the dominant congregations as poor cousins at best, and a burden at worst. Ethnic congregations and their clergy are marginalized. Mutual understanding, respect and affirmation of cultural diversity was wanting. It was almost impossible for vestries to accept rectors of color and doubly rare for Asian clergy to be considered for bishops. One of our ethnic leaders who became rector or a mainstream church, puts it this way, “If you are a clergy of color, you have to be an ethnic super star or an honorary white, to be considered in this position.” There are indeed a “white privilege” and a “colored responsibility.” One has a privilege of being there; the other has a responsibility of proving he or she deserves to be there. 

That is why I was overjoyed when Rev. Allen Shin was elected Suffragan Bishop of New York because although we have a few bishops from Asian heritage, Allen is really the first one to emerge from Episcopal Asiamerica Ministries.

Now, I am not saying this because the Presiding Bishop is here today, but she did the right thing when she restructured Ethnic Congregational Development into “Diversity & Ethnic Ministries.” This new name implies both Advocacy and Congregational Development. I guess that as a pilot, Bishop Katharine knows that it is very hard, maybe impossible, to fly a plane with only one wing!

Advocacy and Congregational Development must go together. Asian American history bears the truth that the sudden death of the first Chinese Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Nevada was due to lack of advocacy against the unjust Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The demise of many Japanese Churches after World War II was due to the lack of advocacy against the unjust Japanese American Internment. In Vancouver, they even sold the Japanese churches while the Japanese church members were in the internment camps. I am glad that there was a repentance made by the Anglican Church of Canada (thanks to the advocacy of some EAM leaders, notably Rev. Timothy Nakayama). 

When we stand for justice, when we advocate for the oppressed, when we empower the marginalized, we are building the Kingdom of God! And when we are faithful in proclaiming the Good News of justice and love, God’s favor, including Church growth of will be upon us. 

WHAT’S NEW IN ASIAMERICA MINISTRIES?                                                                                                                                                                                 We invest on education and training. Our Episcopal Asiamerica Ministry Consultations, Convocational gatherings and collaborative events with our the Diversity & Ethnic Ministries Team have resulted in a cadre of leaders trained in development and mission. The New Community has provided a new impetus by which the four ethnic groups can learn from each other and support one another. 

In Asiamerica Ministries, we have at least three innovative programs: 

1.     Doctor of Ministry Program for Asiamerica Studies – This is our partnership with the Episcopal Divinity School to develop advanced pastoral studies for our clergy. The program is tailored for working clergy-theologians so they do not have to leave their work. They only have to spend two months at EDS and the rest of the three years are by distance learning. So far we have two students, Ada Wong Nagata and Thomas Eoyang and they are now on their dissertation stage. We have obtained a grant from Constable Fund to support at 12 scholars.

2.     Asia-America Virtual Classroom – We are building a Virtual Classroom at St. James Church in Elmhurst (Queens), New York which will be used for our “Asiamerica Theological Exchange Forum (ATEF),” “Asiamerica Congregational Development Academy (ACDA)”; “Asset-Based Community Development” (ABCD) training. We envision a “classroom without walls” where instructors from Asia, America and the world can present internet workshops on best practices with regards to Bible Studies, Church planting, evangelism, worship and mission. 

3.     Advocacy Works. The Office of Asiamerica Ministries is currently involved in the supporting Comprehensive Immigration Reform, Human Trafficking and TPS Philippines in partnership with the Office of Government Relations (Alex Baumgarten), Office of Global Relations (Lynnaia Main), Episcopal Migrations Ministry, Domestic Poverty & Social Justice (Mark Stevenson) and other entities of the Missionary Society. (TPS means “temporary protected status” for Philippine migrants in light of the devastation from recent typhoon Haiyan.) 

On May 10, 2014 in observance of Asian American Heritage Month, we are sponsoring a “Summit on Human Trafficking: Focus on Asia-America” in Queens. Warren Wong of the EAM Advocates is the co-author of the General Convention Resolution on Human Trafficking and Fr. Ray Bonoan is our clergy engaged in ministry to victims of Human Trafficking. We are networking with local and global agencies on this fight against “modern slavery.”

How do I see the future of The Episcopal Church (in the USA)?
There was a man who loved the color yellow. He painted his house yellow, his kitchen yellow, his bedroom yellow. Around the house, he planted yellow roses. Then he wore yellow pajamas. One day, he got sick---of hepatitis! He called 911 and when the paramedics arrived they looked for him--- but they could not find him!

I think, unless we learn to embrace change, some of our dioceses will be like this “hepatitic” man. They could not be found. 

Sometime ago, I was in a predominantly white Diocese where I observed that most of the clergy and lay leaders are on the verge of retirement. The demographics have changed but the Diocese has not. At least, not yet. The bishop made a challenge to reach out to the young. I hope he will be followed and I hope, the young would include the youth from racial-ethnic communities (the New Community).

A week ago, I brought six Asians to the Clergy Discernment Conference of Long Island. There were sixteen seekers and only one is Anglo-American. Majority are Asians, Latinos, Blacks and Indigenous. Exactly like what I see in this New Community gathering today!

So I believe the future of The Episcopal Church belongs to racially, ethnically and culturally diverse dioceses such as Long Island, Los Angeles or Hawaii---and we in the New Community will have a role to play in this revolutionary change. Let us take the challenge. Maybe 20/20 is still possible. Thank you.