Honoring the Nestorian Christians

Monday, August 8, 2016


 (The Rev. Canon Dr. Winfred Vergara, Holy Trinity & St. Benedict’s Episcopal Church,412 Garfield Avenue, Alhambra, California. August 7, 2016 )

A Pentecostal preacher was invited to the Episcopal Church. He asked, “Brother, how long do I preach?” The Episcopal priest replied, “You can preach as long as you like but at 12noon, we’re out of the church.”

The acolyte asked the Vicar, “Father, do you make holy water?” The priest replied, “I boil the hell out of it.”
The rector made an announcement: ”Brothers and sisters, I have good news and bad news. The good news is we now have money to fix our leaking roof; the bad news is the money is still in your pocket.”

Joking aside now, let me thank you for inviting me to be your preacher today. We just concluded the EAM Filipino Convocation and without appearing bias, I would like to say that this convocation was the happiest, the funniest, the craziest and the largest of all the convocations I have attended!
I also would like to congratulate your vicar, the Rev. Brent Quines, Jr. for being elected, along with the Rev. Gerry Engnan, as the co-conveners of this Convocation. Thank you Holy Trinity & St. Benedict’s for sharing his gifts to us, in the Episcopal Asiamerica Ministry.

The gospel this morning, Luke 12: 32-40 speaks to me of three things: Be not afraid; Get Ready; and Take risks.

A.BE NOT AFRAID: Jesus said:  “Be not afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.  Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Story is told of a selfish billionaire who died and the embalmers could not find his heart. They searched in every place and they finally found his heart on top of his treasure chest. The question oft-repeated: “Where is your heart?” “What motivates you to do what you do?” “Why are you hoarding stuff?” “Are you afraid of the future?” 

“Be not afraid,” was the hallmark of God’s message to His people that has rung though the ages. In the Old Testament, God spoke through the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 43): “Fear not for I have redeemed you, I have called you by name. When you walk through the rivers I will be with you and the waters will not overflow you; when you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not consume you.”
“Be not afraid” because “I love you” and “I will never leave you nor forsake you.”
In the New Testament, “Be not afraid” was the hallmark of the Christian message of salvation. The angels said to the shepherds watching their flocks by night, “Be not afraid for I bring you Good News: A Child was born today on the manger.”

Jesus to his disciples, “Be not afraid; come follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” Jesus to the faithful “Be not afraid; my yoke is easy and my burden is light. Come follow me and I will give you rest.”

Be not afraid was the word that has given God’s people with tremendous inspiration, courage and strength in times of need and in times of persecution. Many have given their lives and their treasures in exchange of riches that cannot be counted or measured by time and space.

When I was a child, poor and needy, I knew that the little beautiful island in the Philippines where I was born was not enough to contain my dreams. When I looked at the horizon of the sea, I wondered, “What is beyond that shining sea?” When I looked up the mountain, I wondered, “What’s on the other side of the mountain?” I wanted to travel, I wanted to discover the unknown, I wanted to have higher education, which my family could not afford.

So at age 13, I run away from home, stowed away on a ship to Manila, to risk an adventure of my life. Since then, this priest who ran away from home has never looked back. My adventure has enabled me to travel the distance in life, in ministry, and in outlook in life. I obtained higher education, my wife and I have practically traveled the world, and my ministry in the church had been a tremendous blessing.

And the word that has sustained me all these chapters of my life is “Be not afraid.” “Where God guides, God provides. God’s work, done in God’s way, in God’s time, will never lack provision.”Where God calls, he enables; where he enables, he equips; where he equips, he empowers; and where he empowers, he sustains. If today, you worry about the present and the future, listen to his voice, “Be not afraid.”

The second word of God today is “Get Ready.” Get ready because God has something for you to do. In the context of this gospel, Christ is coming soon so get dressed and get ready.

Sometime ago, I did a Bible Study to a group of Filipino immigrants and I asked the question, “If you know Christ is coming soon, what are you going to do today?” I received so many noble and spiritual answers but one that surprised me was from a mother who said, “Father, I will max out my credit cards and give my children all they want. Then I will eat, drink and be merry for I would be ready to die---and I don’t need to worry about paying the bills.”

The other side of that answer of course, when thinking about the end of the world and death, is to say “I pass through this world only once and so whatever good I can do or give to my fellow human beings, I will do it now for I will not pass through this world again.”

In June 2010, billionaire Bill Gates and Warren Buffett announced a new charity initiative for billionaires: the Giving Pledge. So far, Gates and Buffett have received pledges from 137 billionaires from around the world who have pledged to donate at least half of their fortunes to charity. Five years in, a total of 365 billion dollars has been pledged.

These are tremendous and noble achievement which can be measured by facts and figures but they cannot erase the gross inequality in the world. Dom Helder Camara once said, “When I give money to the poor, they call me a saint; but when I ask why there are so many poor and few who are filthy rich, they call me a communist.”

The fact of the matter is that the best system we can think of, the capitalist system, has always benefited the 10% percent who are rich and leaving the rest 90% poor. The capitalist system and free enterprise seems beneficial as a form of superior wealth to the fittest and bare survival to the rest.

The Kingdom of God that Jesus has inaugurated is world where no one is wallowing in poverty, where no one is sweltering in the heat of injustice, and where everyone enjoys shalom or peace. This is the world that God is asking us to get ready for---and we are called upon to get ready.

God speaks through Isaiah 43, “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland. because I provide water in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland, to give drink to my people, my chosen, the people I formed for myself that they may proclaim my praise.”

C. TAKE RISKS: Take risks for the kingdom of God; take risks for the gospel of peace; take risks for the ministry of love and reconciliation.

The Kingdom of God is not a pie in the sky that we get by and by. The Kingdom is right here and right now. The Kingdom of God is in our midst. People who take the Kingdom as only realized in heaven will not take care of the environment, will not take care of the planet earth, will not struggle to improve the quality of life, will not fight for equality and justice for all.

But we learned from the Lord’s Prayer what Jesus want us to pray “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” While we are on earth, we must pray and work that this Kingdom be on earth, as it is in heaven, where peace and justice and love are realized, not only in the eschaton, on the last day, but now, right now.

At this point, let me address myself to Filipino-Americans, the immigrant Filipinos in America and especially those who, like me, have chosen to become citizens of the United States of America. I would like to point to the special calling and destiny which God has prepared for Filipinos in America.  To borrow an oft-repeated word in American politics, I would like to call this the Filipino American Exceptionalism. This Filipino American Exceptionalism” is founded on three things:

First, among Asians, the Filipinos share the birthright of being the first to set foot on American soil. It was way back in 1587 when the first Filipinos jumped ship from the Spanish Galleon Trade and settled in New Orleans in Louisiana. They were called the “shrimp people” because they swam the sea and crawled on the mud and as they built the “Malong Village” and intermarried with the Mexicans and Native Americans, they became pioneers of the shrimp drying industry in Louisiana.

Second, the Philippines is the first nation in Asia to have a special relationship with the United States. Shortly after Philippine Independence from Spain in 1898, we fell under the tutelage of American democracy and were at some point called “the brown Americans.” It was of course an unflattering comment at that time, referring to our “colonial mentality” and “internalized oppression.”

But in reality, so much of what Filipinos know about politics, about higher education, about social affairs, about entertainment, the owe to America.  The famous playwright Nick Joaquin says, “Filipinos were under the Spanish convent for 300 years and under Hollywood for 50 years.” I say, even more years than that.  Philippines was, in fact, as author Stanley Karnow called, “created in the American image.”

Third, in the greater Asia-Pacific basin,  the Philippines is the first and only predominantly Christian country. Of course, there is South Korea which has now around 33% of its population being Christians; there is East Timor, which is predominantly Roman Catholic. But when it comes to the size of population and length of its Christian history, Philippines ranks as “the first and only Christian nation in Asia.”

 Filipinos are also the most traveled people in the world, with many of its people traveling overseas as migrant workers, as crewmen in the ships, as nannies and care givers in urban centers. Go to Europe, go to the Middle East, go to other parts of Asia and Africa and you will find Filipinos in the factories, in construction industry, in hotel industry. One captain of a European liner was once quoted as saying, “If all the Filipinos in my ship refuse to work or jump ship, we cannot move.” That is why Filipino chaplains to seafarers are needed because there so many Filipino men in the maritime industry.

These Filipino diaspora have innate and imbedded Christian values. When a Filipino nanny in Singapore or Saudi Arabia or Amsterdam hears her baby cry, (i.e., the baby of her employer) she pacifies him with a Christian song she learns from childhood. “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.” These nannies are what I call the cryptic missionaries. They can penetrate a Muslim home, a Buddhist temple, an atheist enclave. I have seen Filipino nannies in Hong Kong and Singapore introducing their employers to the Anglican Church.

So we, Filipinos in America have also the innate gift as well as nascent and insipient ability to lead in what Presiding Bishop Michael B. Curry says as “The Jesus Movement,” the movement for compassionate evangelism and racial reconciliation.

We should not be content to follow but to lead. So I will call on you to move from being followers to being leaders, from disciples to disciple-makers---and to take risks for God.

I will call on you to take risks in the ministry. If you are a Filipino American clergy, I challenge you to be creative and let your imaginations run wild. Do not be content on staying by the sidelines. Get into the arena.  Don’t stay on the river bank, jump into the river because you know how to swim. Don’t stay on the shores, let down your sails and ride the waves because you are a sailor and a fisher of people. Life is an adventure----and the Christian faith is full of surprises!

 If you are a lay leader, I call on you to take risks in politics. I was appalled to learn that there are many Filipinos who have been U.S. citizens for a long time but have never voted. They have not exercised their right of suffrage. When asked why, they said “the politicians are all the same” and “I do not want to get involved.” Well, this coming presidential election on November is quite different. The stakes couldn’t be higher. The outcome of the elections may determine whether there will be a new resurgence of racism and hostility against new immigrants or a continued march to inclusion and multiracial unity.

The talk about building walls, deporting 12 million undocumented immigrants and banning Muslims is frightening not because it cannot be done without a having a constitutional and social crises, but because it can be done and had been done in the past. Racism is no respecter of persons. It has caused so much suffering not only on the Native Americans, the Black Community, the Latino/Hispanic community but also on the Asian cmmunity!

U.S. history is replete with racism against Asians. In 1882, after they helped build the California mining industry and the transcontinental railroads, the Chinese Exclusion Act was promulgated. As Ellis Island in New York City was welcoming new immigrants from Europe, Angel Island in San Francisco became the clearing house of mass deportation of the Chinese whom American racists demonized as “the yellow peril.”

In the 1930’s while the Philippines was still a vassal of the United States, Filipinos were sent to America for two reasons. Some were sent to American universities to study and to return to Philippines to institute American democracy. They were called the “fountain pen boys.” But the others were sent to farm the field of California and to work the canneries in Alaska. They were called the “Manongs” as most of them were Ilocano males. They were not allowed to bring their wives or petition their girlfriends and were not allowed to marry by virtue of the “anti-miscegenation laws.” This whole generation of Manongs lived and died as the bachelor society.

In 1942, following the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the onset of the Pacific War, over250,000 Japanese in the West Coast, many of them US citizens, were imprisoned in Internment Camps, just because they looked like the enemy. Some were able to return after the war to their homes but many of their properties destroyed, their lives shattered and their spirits crushed.

So if we do not want a repeat of this bad US history, we Filipinos and Asians should shake off our complacency and get ourselves wet in this equal struggle for “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” which are the foundations of American society.

If you are a community leader in your own right, I would even challenge you to run for public office. When I was a priest in San Jose, California in the 1990’s, I served as spiritual adviser to the Filipino American Council and get to know some leaders who made a difference in the community. I was encouraged by their faith and concerned of their blunders, especially when they fought among themselves. But I particularly remember seeing the victory of the first Filipino mayor in Milpitas, Henry Manayan. Then he was followed by another Filipino, Mayor Jose Estevez.

I had invited Mayor Manayan as guest preacher at the church I founded, Holy Child Episcopal Church, and in one of his visits, Manayan preached: “There are three equalizers in American society: first, hard work; second, education; and third, politics.” So if you are a Filipino American, and if you have the gift and skill of leadership, and if you have a “high moral compass and empathy for people,”(as the famous South Asian American, Mr. Kassir Khan would say), get into politics! Start by being involved in your local community as what Mayors Manayan and Estevez had done, then affiliate yourself with a political party that speaks of Christian values and morality and finally run and win an election!


So this is the challenge I’m giving you today. And let me sound a warning. If you have a talent and you do not use it, it will be taken away from you.  If you have a calling and you do not respond, God’s judgment will be upon you. In the Old Testament, God said to Israel: “Of all the people in the world, you only have I known, you only have chosen, therefore I will punish you for your disobedience.”  

God’s calling is irrevocable, and to us Filipino Americans, God’s calling for us, bearing our Christian history and upbringing, is to become ministers of love and reconciliation. We must work for justice and peace, we must preach of love and forgiveness and we must call people to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. As “beggars who found bread,” let us tell others beggars where and how to find this Bread of life.  Let us therefore, rise up to the  challenge of the Jesus Movement!

Now, we seldom do it in the Episcopal Church, but today, I ask you: If the Holy Spirit is convicting you to this message, if the Holy Spirit is asking you to respond to God’s calling, I ask you to stand and I will pray a special prayer.
(Note: Around 2/3 of the congregation stood up and responded to the call. The Rev. Dr. Winfred Vergara  prayed extemporaneously for the Holy Spirit to guide and govern the lives and ministry of those who responded.)

Thursday, June 9, 2016



(Homily of the Rev. Canon Dr.Winfred B. Vergaran. Episcopal Chapel of Christ the Lord, New York City. June 9,2016)

Today we commemorate St. Columba, the Abbot of Iona. He was a monk, an abbot and missionary credited to have spread the gospel in Ireland and Scotland. He founded several  monasteries, the most important being the abbey in Iona which became  a dominant religious and political institution for centuries. The patron saint of Derry, he is remembered today as one of the three chief saints of Ireland, along with Saint Patrick and St. Brigit.
St. Andrew's Theological Seminary in MetroManila where I first preached about St. Columba.
Come to think of it, “St. Columba” was the topic of my very first homily as seminarian at St. Andrew’s Theological Seminary in the Philippines.The reason why I can’t forget was that I was called to the Dean’s Office right after that sermon and was not given another chance to preach in the chapel again. 

In that homily, I spoke highly of Columba as an ascetic. At that time in the early ‘70’s, there were some faculty members in our seminary (as in the whole Philippines) who were chain-smokers and heavy drinkers and their examples were being emulated by seminarians. (Not anymore. I think SATS is now a non-smoking zone)

So after having defined an ascetic as “a person who dedicates his life to the pursuit of contemplative ideals and practices self-denial or self-mortification for religious reasons,” I added in a snide remark. I said, “St. Columba never smoked and was not fond of drinking alcohol---unlike some of our faculty members!” 

There was a brief but deafening silence in the chapel and the amiable Dean Charles Clark, motioned me to follow him to his office. I was a rookie and a wet-in-the-ears preacher and learned a lesson or two on how not to offend your hearers…and not to pontificate on your professors---if you wish to receive a “faculty award,” which of course I did not get. 

But on the other hand, I might have saved some from lung cancer and liver disease, if they followed my advice. But that’s another matter…

Another reason I can’t forget Columba is because of “columbarium,” a structure of vaults lined with recesses for cinerary urns holding the cremains of the dead.
Columbaria had been a fixture in many cemeteries and now also in many churches since cremation has become a popular alternative to burial. 

Columba which is the Latin (as well as Irish) word for “dove” and columbarium is derived from “dovecote,” a compartmentalized housing for doves and pigeons. Columba’s original name was Crimthan, meaning “Fox” and for some reason, change into “Dove.” 
 The name "Dove" speaks not only of his disciplined, abstemious and ascetic character but also of his life, a sinner saved by God’s grace and thereafter, a life lived in the power of the Holy Spirit---a far-cry from the meaning of "Fox."

Born and raised in Ireland, Columba was a striking figure of great stature and powerful build, with a loud but melodious voice which could be heard from one hilltop to another. He used that gift to enhance his evangelistic and missionary skills which covered the multitude of his sins.

Tradition says that sometime around 560, Columba became involved in a quarrel with Saint Finnian of Movilla Abbey over a psalter. Interesting how ancient saints quarrel over a psalm as modern saints quarrel over a laptop.  
Saint Finnian disputed his right to keep the copy that eventually led to the pitched in battle, during which many men belonging to each of their clans were killed. 

The second grievance that led him to incite the clan Neill to rise and engage in battle against King Diarmait at Cooldrevny in 561 was the king's violation of the right of sanctuary. Prince Curnan of Connaught, who happened to be Columba’s kinsman, had fatally injured a rival in a hurling match and had taken refuge with Columba, was dragged from his protector's arms and slain by Diarmaid's men, in defiance of the rights of sanctuary. Another battle ensued and again many men died. 

A synod of clerics and scholars threatened to excommunicate Columba for these deaths, but St. Brendan of Birr spoke on his behalf, pleading that he be exiled instead. Columba was bothered but on advice from an aged hermit, Molaise, he pledged to expiate his offences by going into exile voluntarily and win for Christ as many souls equal or more in number as those that had perished in the battles he was involved in. 

He left Ireland and traveled to Scotland with twelve companions in a wicker currach (Irish boat) covered with leather. 

According to legend he first landed on the Kintyre Peninsula but he could still see Ireland (just as Sarah Palin could see Russia from Alaska, just joking) so he moved north to the west coast, where the island was given to him as his headquarters. 

It was in Iona that his abbey was established to become the “mission center” where monks and missionaries would be trained, empowered and sent all over Scotland and Ireland.
Aside from the missionary and literacy services his abbey provided, his reputation as a “holy man” led to his role as a diplomat among the tribes. There are many stories of miracles which he performed during his work among the Scots and the Picts, the most famous (and outrageous) was his supposed to be victorious encounter with an unidentified animal that some equated with the “Lock Ness Monster!”

Aside from his physical prowess, Columba was a renowned man of letters, having written several hymns and having transcribed 300 books.

Columba died in Iona and was buried in 597 by his monks in the abbey he founded. In 794 the Vikings descended on Iona. Columba's relics were finally removed in 849 and divided between Scotland and Ireland. 

Today St. Columba is venerated all over Christendom particularly in Ireland, Scotland and Canada which until 2011 has the largest ethnic group coming from Scottish ancestry. 

The name “St. Columba” became attached to many Roman Catholic, Anglican, Episcopal, Presbyterian and even Orthodox churches worldwide. Not a bad legacy from the man whose name transformed from a “fox” to a “dove.”  Amen.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016



 (Homily of The Rev. Canon Dr.Winfred B. Vergara at the Chapel of Christ the Lord, 815 Second Avenue, New York City, June 7,2016)

Today, we celebrate and honor the pioneers of the Episcopal Anglican Church of Brazil. It was on June 1890 when two Episcopal missionaries from Virginia: Lucien Lee Kinsolving and James Watson Morris) came to Brazil. They were followed by three more: William Cabell Brown, John Gaw Meem and Mary Packard. 

These five Americans partnered with six Brazilians: Vicente Brande, Américo Vespúcio Cabral, Antônio Machado Fraga, Bonaventura de Souza Oliveira, Júlio de Almeida Coelho, and Carl Henry Clement Sergel. Together, they founded, organized and established Igreja Episcopal Anglicana du Brazil (IEAB).

The partnership in mission bore fruit. In 1899, Kinsolving became its first bishop, and in 1907, the Igreja was declared a missionary district of The Episcopal Church and 58 years later, in 1965, it became an autonomous province of the Anglican Communion. 

What lessons can we learn from the missionary enterprise of the Episcopal Anglican Church in Brazil?

A few years ago, I had the privilege of meeting Primate Bishop The Most Rev. Francisco de Assis Da Silva in the Episcopal Church Center in New York City. He had just come down from a meeting with then Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori and my colleague, Canon Peter Ng, introduced him to me. We had a wonderful conversation. Among other things, he mentioned he had a couple of priests who have the same surnames as mine, “Vergara.”

Bishop Francisco is a dynamic leader, an energetic evangelist and a great conversationalist. In just 15 minutes or so, I learned much about Brazil and the Episcopal Church there. I learned three things that are distinctive of the Church in Brazil:

1.     Commitment to partnership between missionaries and indigenous people
Right from the start, the five missionaries from Virginia Theological Seminary engaged in partnership in mission with the six local Brazilians to organize the church. They were advanced in years with regards to missionary thinking that we don’t bring Christ to the local context for Christ is already there.  Our task as missionaries is to affirm and discover Christ from the context in which we find ourselves. Japanese theologian Kosuke Koyama wrote that “Cultures are whatever is good, whatever is lovely, whatever is worthy of praise… and cultures are fingers of God pointing to Christ.” 

Portuguese and Spanish missionaries brought “the cross and the sword” as Christianization and colonization came hand in hand. Other European missionaries brought “both guns and ointment” as ambiguous characters of Western civilization. Missionaries preached Christ garbed in Western culture with very little regard to the cultural dignity of indigenous people of their mission fields. 

The Episcopal missionaries distinguished themselves from their English Anglican counterparts in that at the early stage they coalesced with local leaders and celebrated worship services in the lingua franca of the Brazilians post colonialization, Portuguese.

2.    Commitment to the Social Gospel
Evangelism and Social Action are the two wings of the Christian enterprise. Christians, following the Great Commission of Jesus Christ (Matthew 28:19) and Jesus mission statement (Luke 4:18) are to save the lost and defend the oppressed. They are to preach the gospel to the poor and to proclaim the acceptance time of God. Often, this dichotomizes churches into evangelical and social gospel adherents.

Brazil is the fifth largest country in the world, with over 200 million members. It is a member of the “BRIC nations” (Brazil, Russia, India and China) whose economies are advancing rapidly. Despite its economic advances, however, the chasm between the rich and poor widens.

Due to the predominance of the “liberal” theologians in the Episcopal Church of Brazil, a preferential option to the plight of the poor and marginalized found resonance among Brazilian Episcopalians. IEAB rejected religious “fanaticism” and advocated that the church should be “an instrument of social change, seeking to engage congregations and communities in debates still considered taboo in Brazilian society,” such as those involving land concentration, domestic violence, sexism, racism, homophobia and xenophobia. 

3.      Commitment to Inclusion
The Episcopal Church in Brazil is ahead of its time with regards to the theology of inclusion. It welcomes and embraces people from historically marginalized groups such as LGBT, women, indigenous people and the landless. Enshrined in their canons is a statement "As Christians, we bear the promise of the Holy Spirit, which leads us to the Word made flesh, who welcomes the oppressed, the neglected, the misunderstood and the marginalized".

IEAB ordains women and LGBT. It is vocal social inequality, land concentration, domestic violence, racism, homophobia and xenophobia. Its stance as an Inclusive Church has caused schisms and conflicts with conservative segments of the church and society, a price they have to pray for committed discipleship. Separated Roman Catholics and marginalized Evangelicals and those belonging LGBT community however, have found acceptance in the IEAB.

So back to Bishop Francisco da Silva: He came to us in New York, with an invitation to a celebration of mission in Brazil. In 2015, that celebration was held in Porto Alegre, the birthplace of IEAB. It was not one, not two, but three celebrations: their125th Founding Anniversary; their 50th Year of Autonomy; and their 30th Year Women’s Ordination. What began as a mission station of the U.S based Episcopal Church has expanded into a great Province in the worldwide Anglican Communion  and continues to reverberate in missionary fervor even into the remote corners of the Amazons and to every nook and corner of what is now the largest country in South America, BRAZIL!

May God continue to guide and provide for the life and mission of Igreja Episcopal Anglicana du Brazil. Amen.

(Note: The Chapel of Christ the Lord is located at the ground floor of the Episcopal Church Center, 815 Second Avenue, New York, NY 10017. Morning Prayer is at 8:45 AM and Eucharist at 12:10 P.M. and it is open to the public.)