Honoring the Nestorian Christians

Monday, February 28, 2011

“Worry Not But Seek Ye First:” Prescription for Abundant Living


Work hard; get rich; hurry, worry and bury”---that seems to be the epitaph of our modern society. Many of us who live in New York, “the city that never sleeps “understand this so well. Just visit Manhattan and you will know what hurry means. A friend of mine who hails from Seattle came to New York City for the first time and said, “Just watching the New Yorkers run up and down the escalators at Grand Central, made me tired.”

Not only that we hurry a lot; we also worry a lot.  A story is told of a young man fresh out of business school, being interviewed for a job. The interviewer was a very nervous man who ran a small business that he had started himself. "I need someone with an accounting degree," the man said. "But mainly, I'm looking for someone to do my worrying for me."

"Excuse me?" the young accountant said.

"I worry about a lot of things," the man said. "But there is one thing I don't want to worry. It is the money. Your job will be to take all the money worries off my mind."

"I see," the young accountant said. "And how much does the job pay?"

"I will start you at $90, 000," the man said.
"Ninety thousand dollars!" the young accountant exclaimed. "How can such a small business afford a sum like that? Where do you get the money?"

"That," the owner said, "is your first worry."
In today’s gospel (Matthew 6:24-34_, Jesus addressed the crowd “Don’t worry about your life, what you will eat and or what you will drink or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food and the body more important than clothing? Look at the birds of the air, they neither sow nor reap or store in barns and yet your heavenly Father feeds them…And why do you worry about clothes? Look at the lilies of the fields; they neither toil nor spin and yet not even Solomon in all his splendor is dressed like one of them. If God so clothes the grass, which is here today and gone tomorrow, how much more would he clothe you?”

I believe Jesus does not want us to be lazy and not work for a living. It does not mean that Jesus wants us sit idle and wait for blessings to drop from the sky. Jesus came to give us life in all its fullness. Both the Father and the Son sent the Holy Spirit to apportion the gifts of talents and wisdom and looks and intelligence and all things necessary to equip and empower us to live life to the full. But our worry gets on the way.  Worry is not only a killer of the body but also a killer of hopes and dreams. Worry is one of the causes why we can not reach our peak performance, why we can not achieve our maximum potential, why we can not realize our dreams.
I remember years ago about my experience of climbing a mountain. We were having a Clergy Retreat in Sabah, (Malaysia) and in our free time ten of us, younger clergy, decided to climb up Mount Kinabalu. About half-way to the top, three gave up and discontinued the climb and a little three also gave up. Only four of us kept climbing on. I felt quite proud that I lasted that long. But as we moved further up, there was a fog that covered the way and I could not see the mountain top anymore. So I began to worry. What if the top of the mountain is really still far off? My body was already aching and my feet were hurting, would I still be able to move on? And even if I finally reach the top, would I have the strength to come down? Because of this worry, I decided to give up and joined the other six who were going down. Only three persisted in going up the mountain top. When we, the “losers” returned to home base, tired and disappointed, we were amazed to see our three colleagues who went to the mountain top, already there. As a matter of fact, they had already taken a shower and looked fresh and well-rested. We asked them how in the world were they able to return ahead of us when we saw them going up to the fog-covered path and we did not see them come down the mountain, and this is what they said: “The fog was only a few meters thick, and the summit was only less than a mile---Oh what a beautiful sight! We felt like we’re on top of the world! And how did we come down so fast? Well, there at the summit, was a cable car (which the miners use) and we hitched a ride down!”

I was so flabbergasted!  My worrying did not help. I missed the chance of a lifetime to see the world from on top of Mount Kinabalu! 

Jesus said, “Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life? Do not worry about tomorrow…”
I believe worry is related to fear and fear paralyzes us or prevent us from reaching the top. Peter, at the call of Jesus, was already walking on water but when he saw the waves, he got scared and began to sink. Martha was worried about a lot of things when all that was needed was to be with Jesus. It was her sister Mary who had chosen the better portion by sitting at the feet of Jesus and learning from his ways. The apostles worried about feeding the five thousand when all that was needed was the five loaves and two fish from a Jewish boy.

Rosa Parks, the girl icon of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, figured in a celebrated case by standing up for sitting down in the front seat of the bus reserved for the whites (during America's days of segregation). In one of her TV interviews years later, she was asked if she had ever thought that her standing up for equality might be be taken as a test case by the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) and she said, "It did not occur to me and I did not think about it at all. In fact, had I thought of it too much, I might have gotten off the bus."

One of my favorite verses in the Bible is found in Isaiah 43:1-2 and it says, “Fear not for I have redeemed you, I have called you by name, you are mine. When you walk through the waters I will be with you; and when pass through rivers they will not overwhelm you. When you walk through the fire you will not be burned, the flames will not consume you.” 

Literally, we seldom go through fires or through raging waters but virtually we have challenges and problems that sometimes threaten to overwhelm us. That would be the time to comfort ourselves with the assurance that we have a Savior who is the same yesterday, today and forever, whose love and faithfulness never change. This is the time that we need to assert who we are, children of God, and “wonderfully made” in God’s image.

In Christ “we can do all things” and “we are more than conquerors” because the God who created us, also gives us the resources to triumph over our circumstances. Moreover God promised that he will never leave us nor forsake us. “Can a mother forget her nursing infant or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. See I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands” (Isaiah 49:16).

Spiritual activist and writer, Marianne Williamson puts it this way:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented], fabulous? Actually, who are not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children. Do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it is in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

In the Gospel Jesus gave us the antidote to worry and fear and it is summarized in this phrase, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things shall be added unto you.” The key to life abundant is the kingdom of God, but where is the kingdom? It is right here inside of you. The kingdom of God is within you. 

The key to seeking the kingdom is not going far but going deep; not in looking down but in looking up; not in scatter-brain but in being focused. Another spirituality writer and nun, Sr. Joan Chittister said, “We are by nature, spiritual foragers, seekers after grails. We look constantly for laurels and trophies cast in the crystal of time or the stardust of eternity. We are all on a quest for something. The distinguishing questions are: For what am I seeking and who am I as a result of my quest?  But the grail we seek is God alone. We must seek God in the right place, and that is within the sanctuary of the centered self.” (The Illuminated Life: Wisdom from the Seekers of Life).

So worry not, fear not but seek ye first…live life to the full, smile a lot, laugh often, love much---and dance like nobody’s watching.

Sermon of The Rev. Dr. Winfred Vergara, St. Michael & All Angels, Seaford, NY in the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island, 2/27/11. Post your comments below.

(Note: Photos of Mt. Kinabalu from http://www.wikipedia.org/ and http://www.backpackingmalaysia.com/)

Wednesday, February 23, 2011


"Suffer me to be as I am. He who gives me grace to undergo this fire will enable me to stand."

Today we celebrate the Feast of St. Polycarp, a Christian bishop of the second century and martyr for Christ.

Martyrdom. Nowadays the word is used loosely. Anyone who claims to die for whatever cause is called a martyr. Terrorists would hijack planes and crashed them on buildings for their cause. Even misguided souls and gullible people would strap their bodies with bombs and blow themselves up in the crowd, thereby killing innocent people along with them, hoping to claim martyrdom.  Moammar Gadhafi, the dictator of Libya being besieged by protesters, promised that he will die a martyr, after having ordered the killing of hundreds of his own people who are simply claiming their freedom and human rights.

Martyrdom of Polycarp is not that kind of martyrdom. His was an authentic martyrdom. Polycarp became a Christian and a disciple of Christ directly from the apostles, particularly from St. John. If you remember, the young John was the beloved disciple of Jesus, who leaned on Jesus and when Peter, being mindful of his own martyrdom, asked about John’s future, Jesus said, “What is it to you if I want him to live until I return?” So it is in some degree of fulfillment that although so many people had tried to kill him, John was not martyred but died old age after being exiled in Patmos, where he wrote the Book of Revelations.

In Revelations, John was asked by the Spirit to write letters to the seven churches and one of them was addressed to the "angel of the Church in Smyrna." According to Biblical scholars, the angel being referred to here by John is none other than Bishop Polycarp. Of course, not all bishops are angels, though they received what is called apostolic succession. Polycarp received apostolic succession directly from the Apostle John who consecrated Polycarp a bishop of Smyrna prior to his exile in Patmos.  The letter to the angel of Smyrna, in the Book of Revelations, chapter 2, therefore, captures John’s personal knowledge of his own disciple, Polycarp, and it says:

“I know how much you suffer and how poor you are, but you are rich. I also know the cruel things being said about you by people who claim to be God’s people. But they are really not. They are a group that belongs to Satan.  But don’t worry about what you will suffer. The devil will throw some of you into jail, and you will be tested and made to suffer for ten days. But if you are faithful until you die, I will reward you with a glorious life” (Revelations 2: 8-10).

The suffering that Polycarp endured sounds like a line from the John Newton's hymn, “Just as I Am Without One Please” and it says “fighting within and fears without.”  The "fighting within" for Polycarp, was the assault on the authenticity of the Church from heresies and the "fears without" are from the threats of state persecution. It is interesting to note that one of the infamous heretics which Polycarp opposed was Marcion, who himself was the son of the bishop of Sinope, in Pontus and most probably was consecrated a bishop and became an assistant or suffragan bishop of his father. So the conflicts among bishops are nothing new, but that is another story.

Marcion represented the heresy of dualism or Gnosticism, claiming that the God of the Old Testament and the New Testament are distinct from each other; the one being a tyrannical and false God and that Jesus was not fully human but was sent only to impart a Gnostic (or secret) knowledge to the world.  Polycarp as defender of authentic Christian faith, championed orthodoxy (right beliefs) and the doctrine that Jesus is fully God and fully human and that the God of the Old and New Testament (and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ) is one and the same. These affirmations are found in the Apostle’s and Nicene creeds.Having been mentored by the Apostle John, his testimony was beyond reproach.

For his faith, his ministry and his life, Polycarp was tested in the crucible of fire when he was forced by Herod to bow down and burn incense before the image of the Roman Emperor (February 23, 155 A.D. in the reign of Marcus Aurelius) and to blaspheme Christ. To this pressure, Polycarp replied, “I have served Christ these four score and six years and he never did me any harm but only much good; how can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?” (www.ewtn.com/library/Mary/Polycarp.htm)

Polycarp was ordered to be burned alive but the flames formed themselves like an arch, gently encircling his body, which stood in the middle, unharmed by fire. Exasperated that he could not be consumed by fire, a spearman was ordered to pierce his body and it was at this point that a huge stream of blood gushed from her left side and quenched the fire. Bishop Polycarp became a martyr, a symbol of apostolic zeal, godly virtues and profound spirituality.

The Letter of John to the Angel of Smyrna ended with this note:” If you have ears, listen to what the Spirit says to the churches. Whoever wins the victory will not be hurt by the second death” (Revelations 2:11).

Let us pray: "Almighty God, who gave your servant, Polycarp, boldness to confess the name of our Savior Jesus Christ before the rulers of this world, and courage to die for this faith: Grant that we may always be ready to give a reason for the hope that is in us, and to suffer gladly for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ; who lives and reighs with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, foer ever and ever. Amen" (Book of Common Prayer, page 246).

(Homily of the Rev. Dr. Winfred B. Vergara, Chapel of the Risen Lord, the Episcopal Church Center, New York City, 2/23/11)

Saturday, February 19, 2011

ETHICS OF LAW AND LOVE: Three Principles from the Sermon on the Mount

“Love your enemy…Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:38-48)
If the Commandments of Moses were the highest measure of God’s teaching about the Law, then Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is the deepest measure of God’s teaching about Love.  
It is amazing that the teaching of God’s laws and the preaching of God’s love were given from two contrasting contexts. The promulgation of the Mosaic laws began when Israel was liberated from their bondage in Egypt and emerging as an independent nation; while the instruction of Jesus about love was spoken when this “chosen nation” fell under colonial rule of the Roman Empire.  The handing down of the Law was given through  Moses  from Mount Sinai, one of the highest mountains in Palestine; while the Sermon on love was given by Jesus from the Mount of  Beatitudes, which is not really a mountain but a hill, about 35 meters below sea level on the western side of the Sea of Galilee.
The contrast of locations has virtual significance. The law of God is too high for us to attain; and the love of God is too deep for us to achieve.  We need the wisdom of God to understand the love of the Law and we need the grace of God to obey the law of Love.
In the past Sundays, we have been hearing parts of the Sermon on the Mount, and the assertion of Jesus that He came not to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfill them. His teachings, though radical and revolutionary, were reassuring to his disciples and to the listeners. Jesus is no ordinary rabble rouser who has no regard for the laws of Moses and the faith of their Hebrew ancestors. Rather, He is an extraordinary rabbi who has a great mastery not only of the letter but of the spirit of the law and who has come to make them understand that even “the Sabbath was made for man (or woman), not man (or woman) for the Sabbath.”  He has come that all may have life in all its fullness (John 10:10).
Today’s reading (Matthew’s Gospel 5:38-48) is probably the climax of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and the revelation of at least three principles of Christian ethics: (1) The Principle of Non-Retaliation; (2) The Principle of Walking the Extra Mile and (3) The Principle of Loving the Enemy.
 I must say that these principles have become the hallmarks of modern philosophies of non-violence, passive resistance and peaceful revolutions as seen in Mahatma Gandhi and the Indian independence movement in the 1930’s; Martin Luther King, Jr. and the African-American Civil Rights Movement in the 1960’s; Corazon Aquino and the People Power Revolution of the Philippines in the 1980’s; and in today’s  democratic movements sweeping across the world--including the modern-day Egypt and some Arab countries. Jesus’ teaching transcends time and space and continues to be relevant in our world. Truly, He is the same yesterday, today and forever (Hebrews 13:8).
  1. The Principle of Non-Retaliation -This portion from Jesus Sermon on the Mount says: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you do not resist an evil-doer…if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, offer the left cheek also...”
From the outset, “eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” is a natural law of retributive justice. First derived from the Code of Hammurabi, the king of Babylon (1792-1750 B.C., this law operates on equal retaliation. The meaning of the law is that the person who has injured another person returns the offending action in equal measure. If the person has died or incapacitated, it would be the duty of the state to exact the punishment or retribution. The Hammurabi Code # 230 says, “If a person caused the death of another person, the killer would be put to death.” The modern death penalty still operates on this ancient framework.
This law must have been practiced in ancient Egypt during the time of Moses. If you remember, Moses, who first thought that he was an Egyptian prince, had feared for his own life when he caused the death of an Egyptian soldier who was oppressing the Jews. He ran and hid in the desert where he would later receive his call from God in the burning bush. When Moses finally led the chosen people out of Egypt, he became their lawgiver. In drafting his own laws and regulations, Moses adapted and enshrined the law of retributive justice. Thus in Exodus 21:25, the law says, “ If men who are fighting hit… and there is a serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.” In Leviticus 24:19-20, the Mosaic Law says “If anyone injures his neighbor, whatever he has done must be done to him: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.”
This law of equal retribution was designed to serve both as a penalty for a crime committed and a deterrent to others. The book of Deuteronomy (19:20-21) says:  “When the rest of the people will hear of this justice, they will be afraid and will never do such an evil thing…So, show no pity in this punishment: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.”
During the time of Jesus, not only was this law of equal retribution known among the Jews but also known among the Romans, who were then ruling over the Jews in Palestine. The Romans coined the Latin phrase lex taliones, or “law of retaliation” to refer to this law. And so when Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, “eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” but I say unto you…” it was very clear that he was handing out a new law---the law not of retaliation but of non-retaliation; the law not of human vengeance but of divine forgiveness; the law not of righteous justice but of unconditional love. It was a different kind of law.
Jesus understands from a divine point of view that vengeance belongs to God and that violence does not stop violence but begets more violence. Gandhi said to the Indian resistance movement to this effect, “If you follow the rule of ‘eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’ we will become a nation that is both toothless and blind.” Martin Luther King, Jr. would say, “Darkness cannot overcome darkness; only light can. Hate cannot overcome hate; only love can.”
  1. The Principle of the Extra Mile – Jesus further told his hearers:”If anyone takes your shirt, let him have your coat as well; and if anyone forces you to walk one mile, walk with him one more mile.”
During the Roman occupation of Israel, at the time of Jesus, it was common for Roman soldiers to ask a Jew to carry his gear, a backpack containing water, food, and some military supplies. It must have been heavy and so the soldier may only ask the Jewish person to carry it for him for only a mile. When they turned to Jesus for answer, He replied “not only one mile; make it two miles.” The first mile is the mile of submission; the second mile is the mile of volunteerism.  The first mile is the call of duty and the second mile is beyond the call of duty. The first mile is a mile of compulsion; the second mile is the ‘love ethic” of that compulsion. The goal of love is self-transformation and the liberation of both the oppressed and the oppressor.
This principle of walking the extra mile was adapted by Mahatma Gandhi in his principle of ahimsa or “passive resistance” in their struggle for Indian independence from the British. When the protest demonstrations began, the Indian protesters would resist the British soldiers and when they did, they would only incur more violence. When they adapted ahimsa, things changed. The British authorities began to listen to their cause. In the famous Salt Law March, hundreds of thousands of Indians went to the seashore and began making their own salt. At that time, the salt industry was one of the British monopolies in India and when people began to make their own salt, it began to break the back of the British companies. Though the “salt making” by themselves, was only symbolic, the British soldiers acted to stop the march, clubbing the protesters with steel-tipped rods called “lathis.”. But instead of fighting back, the disciplined protesters offered their heads and bodies to the beating and did not even raise a hand to ward off the blows. The injured ones writhed and squealed in agony but the survivors continued to move forward offering their heads and bodies to be whacked, until the soldiers, troubled by their own conscience, refused to club them anymore.
That was the signal of the end of the British occupation and the beginning of the Indian independence. The principle of walking the extra mile, of offering of the other cheek, the giving of the extra coat have proven to be the powerful weapon of the powerless against the powerful.

  1. The Principle of Unconditional Love. - Jesus finally said: You have heard that it was said. “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say unto you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,”
Nothing could be more revolutionary than this teaching. To love a friend is natural; to love an enemy is supernatural. To love a friend is ordinary; to love an enemy is extraordinary. To love a friend is human; to love an enemy is divine. 
There is a sense of mystery from Jesus’ teaching on perfect love but his explanation was clear and vivid: “If you love only those who love you, what difference does it make? Even the evil people do the same. And if you welcome only your brothers and sisters, how different are you from the others in the world? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
According to the mystics, the fullness of human life is when we have embodied God in our own being.  The purpose of life is not for self-preservation but for self-transformation.  Life in all its fullness is the freedom to love without limits, the willingness to offer one’s life in the service of the others and the commitment to transcend the boundaries of human consciousness and self-limitation.  “Those who save their life will lose it, and those who lost their life will save it” the Master said.  As Francis of Assisi prayed, “It is in giving that we receive; it is in forgiving that we are forgiven, it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”  
Our very own Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong wrote in his book, “Eternal Life: a New Vision” (2009), thus:
“I do believe that love is eternal and I am held in the bonds of love by my family, my friends and countless acquaintances. They are to me windows into eternal life. I embrace them and I embrace eternal life through them…So I end this book by calling you to live fully, to love wastefully, to be all that you can be and to dedicate yourselves to building a world in which everyone has a better opportunity to do the same. That to me is to be part of God and to do the work of God. That to me is to be a disciple of Jesus. Finally, that to me is the way to prepare for life after death.” (From Eternal Life: A New Vision, page 212)
Let us pray: “O Lord, you have taught us that without love whatever we do is worth nothing: Send your Holy Spirit and pour into our hearts your greatest gift, which is love, the true bond of peace and of all virtue, without which whoever lives is accounted dead before you. Grant this for the sake of your only Son Jesus Christ, who lives, and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. “Amen.

Sermon of the Rev. Canon Dr. Winfred Vergara, St., Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church, 2197 Jackson Avenue, Seaford, New York  11783  7th Sunday After Epiphany, 2/20/2011.


Monday, February 14, 2011


(Valentine’s Day 2011)

I see Love in every rosebud yearning to break open; in every bird cheering for an early Spring; I see Love in nature’s way of expressing itself, in healing wounded memories, and of remaking the wholeness of a broken spirit. I see Love everywhere.

I see Love in every babe that is born, releasing its nascent power by the sound of its first cry; I see Love in every child’s eyes, amazed at the world around and the vast expanse of yet undiscovered meanings. I see Love everywhere.

I see Love in every good deed, every act of kindness, and every magnanimous gesture. I see Love in everyone struggling to make their lives to count, their world a better place, and their desire to achieve something that gives meaning to their existence. I see Love everywhere.

I see Love in the laughter of the village fool, the pensive mood of the urban intellectual and the daily grind of the mundane. I see Love in everyone who passes up time so quickly wondering if there is another tomorrow and hoping that life moves on even if they don’t like what they see. I see Love everywhere.

I see Love in the way people serve God with selfless devotion; animated by the thought that whatever is said and done will have divine rhyme and reason; I see Love in the communion of the Christ breaking bread on the altar of the world; a world redeemed by His blood---expectant of His return. I see Love everywhere.

I see Love in the eyes of lovers, dreaming dreams never dreamed of, seeking realities of their fantasies, building castles in the sands of time. I see love even in unrequited loves, constantly hoping against hope that someday, somehow, love survives and revives and reaches fulfillment. I see Love everywhere.

I see Love in you who make my heart throb with joy, who make my spirit soar and my mind wander with wonders. There is not a day that I don’t think of you; not a night that I don’t dream of you, my partner, my soul-mate, my friend. I see Love everywhere and I feel Love within me and You---I and thou.

(Adapted from *I See God Everywhere: My Ignatian Spirituality Journal by Winfred Vergara July 26-31, 2010)

My colleagues heard this poem and they said:
Sarah Eagle Heart: “I love this, Fred; so powerful and beautiful; you really have a gift.”
Anthony Guillen: “I love it and needed to hear this today; a real gift to me.”
Mike Schut: “Brought tears to my eyes…”
Chris Johnson: “An extraordinary gift to our formation; thanks for sharing it.”

DO YOU HAVE A COMMENT? Post your comment below.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011


Thank you Bishop Marc (Andrus) for inviting me to speak at the installation of The Rev. Stina Pope as the new vicar of Christ Episcopal Church Sei Kokai. It’s great to be back in sunny San Francisco. In more ways than one, you’ve helped me “escape” from (the blizzards and ice storms of) New York City this week.

 There are many voices in the world and in the church today, and none of them is without significance. These voices are varied and diverse and many are fuzzy, unclear, discordant and contradictory. They can confuse us and make us lose our sense of direction. It is important therefore that we must listen carefully and discern the voices that will show us the path to life and not to death; to unity and not to division; to wholeness and not disintegration.

A story is told of a visiting preacher who came unprepared. He went up the pulpit and began to preach but at the middle of his sermon, he had a ‘preacher’s block.’ He could not find words to say. At this point, he remembered an advice from a friend that whenever that happens, you just say, “here I come” and it will come. So he said, “here I come.” Unfortunately, it did not come. He said again, “here, I come.” Again, it did not come. Too nervous as he saw the bewilderment of his audience, he pounded the pulpit and shouted at the top of his voice, “here, I come!” The pulpit collapsed---and he fell down. An elderly lady (a member of the Altar Guild) caught him just on time, before he hit the floor.  Terribly embarrassed, he said “Madam, I’m so sorry.” The lady replied, “It’s alright, Father, I listened carefully---and you warned me three times!”

So my sermon today is entitled “Three Warnings to Stina Pope And to All Who Are Engaged in Christian Ministry Today.”

1.       First warning: Listen to the Voice of God
The gospel this morning talks about the call of the apostles. Peter, Andrew. James and John were fishermen and Jesus came and called them out “Come, follow me and I will make you fishers of men.”  They obeyed the call and their lives were changed but it would take a lot of listening before they could fully understand the magnitude of the task they are to perform. They were called not for survival but for renewal;  not for maintenance but for mission; not for preservation but for transformation; not for self-enrichment but for self-sacrifice. “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me,” the Master would later show them the way.

Stina, you are called into this predominantly Japanese American congregation not as a keeper of an aquarium but as a leader of God’s people, Christ Church, Sei Ko Kai. This is not an easy task. The struggle for survival in these hard economic times and the pressure to maximize results from minimal resources would create a lot of stress to those entrusted as leaders. Often it is easier to criticize than to lead and act. That is why it is important that your ears are always attuned to the Holy Spirit. Through a discipline of prayer, study, worship and meditation, you will hear the still small voice of God to lead you, to guide you and to sustain you in your leadership. You must learn to understand that ministry is primarily not about you, nor about the congregation, but about God. If our ministry has to bear fruit, we must be in constant communication with God.   As Jesus said, “I am the vine, my Father is the vine-dresser, and you are the branches. As the branches can not bear fruit unless it abides in the vine; neither can you; for apart from me, you can do nothing“(John 15). Just as God delights greatly  to hear your voice, you must find great delight in hearing God’s voice.

2.       Second Warning: Listen to Your People.
As a redeemed community, we believe in the priesthood of all believers. Every baptized person is a minister and imbued with the gifts of service but there is a place in the hierarchy of the church where freedom and authority intersect. I had served as a vicar for many years and I learned to be conscious of the fact that in a mission congregation, the rector is the bishop and that the vicar is serving “vicariously” for the rector. It is therefore imperative that you listen to the counsel, oversight and direction of your  bishop-rector. In the spirit of collegiality and partnership, you will also gain knowledge by listening to the experience of your clergy colleagues.

Having said that, let me turn my attention to the laity. The word laity comes from the Greek root word “laos which means people. While I would not go to the extent of saying “vox populi vox dei” (voice of the people is the voice of God), I counsel you to listen carefully to your laity. The laity are not there only “to pray, to pay and to obey,’ as one clergy said. Laity are not supposed to be passive recipients of the ministry but active participants and integral partners in the ministry of all the baptized. Oftentimes, laity are more in touch with the world than the clergy and so are better ambassadors of the church to the world and vice versa.  It is therefore important that you listen to the voice of your lay people and from them gain knowledge of the communities where they live and interact. What are their needs? What are their struggles, their visions, their suffering and their hopes? And where do you find your passion in helping them become the church, the people of God, the beloved Community?

I read from your website that the vision/mission of Christ Church Sei Ko Kai is three-fold:  to be  a “Welcoming Community”; a “Community on a Journey”; and a “People Connected.” You want to welcome all people from all backgrounds; you want to share ministry with people who have lived through “migration and exile” and you want to be in fellowship with people seeking to be re-connected with their roots as they  seek to deepen their faith and lead a life with a purpose.

The history of CCSKK as a Japanese-American Church has been one of constant changes. From its formative years in 1895 to its official founding in 1902, throughout the Japanese-American  immigration and until contemporary times, this congregation has always been on the edge of mission and transitions. This church has seen countless changes of vicars and members, locations and events. Yet it has remained faithful to the call and survived as a pioneer Episcopal Japanese American Church.  In history, it has helped in the formation of other Japanese-American congregations in the United States.

The history of this Church is also tied to the struggle of Japanese Americans for acceptance and how this struggle was rebuffed in history. I refer here to the Japanese Internment during World War II, a blight in history, when some 120,000 Japanese Nisei and Issei  in the United States  were rounded up and shipped to internment camps in remote locations in the West Coast.  I have talked and listened to some of the survivors and their children and learned of their “internalized oppression.” While many have found healing and renewal, and have moved on with great successes, there are also some who continue to agonize over the “shame,” the “low self-esteem” and other psychosomatic effects of being rejected by mainstream American culture.  (Check out this awesome video)

Stina, it is wonderful that one of your gifts is the healing of memories. As this congregation moves from being a predominantly Japanese American Church to becoming an “intercultural church,” you may use this healing grace, along with your cross-cultural gift in dealing with Japanese American internalized oppression and moving forward. Prophecies often come from the margins. As people on the edge share their common experience of pain and see a common vision, authentic leadership would also emerge.
3.       Third Warning: Listen to Your Inner Voice
One of my favorite prayers was one by the late Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador and he began by saying, “It helps now and then, to step back and take a long view…the kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision. We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work…This is what we care about. We plant the seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.”
“Taking a long view” requires finding a time to listen to your inner voice. Stina, when the honeymoon is over, listen to your inner voice. When people praise you for what you have done or when people criticize you for what you have said, listen to your inner voice. The Spirit of God is in you. This is the Treasure in our earthen vessel to show that the transcendent power belongs to God.
Last year, after 33 years of being a priest, I finally got a sabbatical. In three months away from the hustle and bustle of work, I listened to my inner voice and resolved to seek constant renewal. In the Book of Common Prayer, we recite to creeds: the Apostle’s Creed and the Nicene Creed.  After my Sabbatical, I found two more creeds that apply to me: “The Optimist Creed” and the “Winner’s Creed.”
The Optimist Creed says:  “Promise Yourself. . . ”
“To be so strong that nothing can disturb your peace of mind.  
To talk health, happiness and prosperity to every person you meet;
To make all your friends feel that there is something in them.
To look for the sunny side of everything…
to think only of the best, to work only for the best, to expect only the best.
To be just as enthusiastic about the success of others as you are about your own.
To wear a cheerful countenance at all times and give every living creature you meet a smile.
To give so much time for the improvement of yourself that you have no time to criticize  
To be too large for worry, too noble for anger, too strong for fear, and too happy to permit the
presence of trouble.”
Someone said that the best way to know whether you are an optimist or a pessimist is to look at the doughnut. If you focus on the hole, you’re a pessimist; but if you focus on the dough, you’re an optimist. The optimist always hopes, always perseveres, always see the sunshine even during the storm.

And the Winner’s Creed says:
If you think you are beaten, you are;
If you think you dare not, you don't;                 
If you'd like to win, but think you can't, it's almost certain, you won't.                          
If you think you'll lose, you're lost.                                                                                 
Since out in our world we find success begins
with a person's will,                                       
It's all in your state of mind.                                   
Life's battles don't always go to the stronger or faster hand;
But sooner or later the person who wins is the one who thinks....."I CAN".

Yes, I desire to be an eternal optimist and I desire to be a winner---“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13).  But as I listen deeply to my inner self, I also agree with Archbishop Romero, when he said:
           “We can not do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
           This enables us to do something and to do it very well.
            It maybe incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
            an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest…
            We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between
             the master builder and the worker.
              We are workers, not master builders; ministers and not messiahs.
              We are prophets of a future not out own.”
As I listen carefully to God, to my people and to my inner voice, I find that my faith is revived, my spirit is renewed and my hope is strengthened. I pray this for you, Stina, and to all of us who share in this great and magnificent enterprise, we call "the Christian Ministry." Amen.
(Sermon of the  Rev. Dr. Winfred B. Vergara, Missioner of Episcopal Asiamerica Ministry at the installation of The Rev. Stina Pope as vicar of Christ Church Sei Ko Kai in San Francisco, California, January 22, 2011)

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Florence Li Tim Oi and the Asian American Struggle

“Then he (Jesus) appointed seventy others and sent them ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go… heal the sick and proclaim that the kingdom has come near.” (Luke 10:1-9)

Throughout history, God has called certain individuals or groups to become trail blazers, pioneers, explorers, discoverers, entrepreneurs, the avant garde of the march towards the future. Today, January 24, we celebrate the feast of Florence Li Tim Oi, the first woman to be ordained in the worldwide Anglican Communion. We also read about the calling of the seventy disciples to go ahead of Jesus to announce that the kingdom of God has come near.

I was privileged last year during my Sabbatical, to have the opportunity to visit Morrison Chapel in Macao where Florence Li Tim Oi served as deacon and priest. As I was looking at her photo on the wall (and the photo of  Bishop Ronald Hall who ordained her), I kept thinking what kinds of struggle that she and the others who trailed the blaze towards new frontiers had experienced, and I came up with three struggles: the struggle for meaning, the struggle for vision, and the struggle for acceptance.

Now some of you know by now understand why I am a three-point preacher: first, I am a Trinitarian; second, I am the third child in my family; and third, three points are the most that people can remember. I just turned 60 and I am learning that as you grow older you tend to lose three things: first is your memory, the second and third, I can’t remember…

  1. Struggle One: The search for meaning.
Why am I doing what I am doing? Pioneers and trail blazers are not really persons say, “ours is not to reason why but to do or die.” Rather they are persons who constantly seek for meaning to what they are doing. Karl Bushby, an ex-British paratrooper who wants to be the first one to walk around the world---on foot. He started in 1998 and still walks on. He was in his late 20’s when he began his walk from Chile and if ever he survives and succeeds in this mission, he would be able to reach his hometown in Hull, England at least in his fifties. So far, he has surmounted seemingly-impossible obstacles including walking the sea-ice of Bering Strait from Alaska to Russia. When asked why he does what he does, he replied, “Because no one else has done it.”

The struggle for meaning must have plagued Li Tim Oi even when the Chinese culture is one of pragmatism. She knew that her ordination was done because of practical reason. There was a crisis in 1944 brought about by the invasion of Japan to China. The ordination was conducted by Bishop Hall in order that Anglican Christians in Tim-Oi's parish of Macao, the Portuguese island colony, could receive the sacrament of Holy Communion. There was no male priest who was available to supply the needed ministry. But the ordination of women was a controversial issue in the mainstream Anglican Church and the ordination generated tremendous amount of pressures to the point that Lim Tim Oi was being pressed to renounce her ordination. The pressure on Li Tim Oi was so much that she was forced to resign her license (though not her orders) and gave in to the dominant culture. It would take thirty years before the ordination of women would be regularized.

There is a saying that the early bird catches the worm but there is another one that says it is the second mouse that gets the cheese. Frankly, I would rather be the second mouse than the first. But the struggle for meaning is the first struggle of the pioneers.

  1. Struggle Two: The Struggle for vision and to give shape to that vision.
Clearly the vision is clear to the visionary but how would he communicate the vision and give shape to that vision? Deng Shao Ping, the Chinese Premier who gave shape to the new economic vision of China said, “I don’t care a black cat or a white cat so long as it catches mice.”

The call to the seventy disciples must have been crystal clear to Jesus but to the seventy, there are a lot of questions and bewilderment. They were asked to go ahead and act like sheep in the midst of wolves. They were to pray to the Lord of the harvest to send out more laborers; they were told to carry no purse, no bag, no tunic, no sandals and to greet no one of the road. They were told to eat whatever is set before them; to say peace to those who welcome them and if they encounter hostility, to get back the peace. They were told to heal the sick and to announce that the kingdom has come near.

 If I were one of the seventy, I may have a lot of questions. “Lord, are we to reason why or to do or die?” How are we to see what you see; and how are we to do from the meager resources that you provide? Lord, we’ve never built a kingdom without purse, without tunic, with out sandals? What kind of kingdom are you talking about? We’ve never done it that way before.

As missioner for Asiamerica Ministry, my vision  to to see  Asian ministries move from the margins to the mainstream  of the Episcopal Church and become integral parts of its total life and mission.  I want to see more Asians in the leadership of the church at all levels of our life and at all structures of our activities---in the parishes, in dioceses and in the national church. I want to see more Asian American rectors, bishops and maybe even presiding bishop. This is not easy because Asians are known in many circles as either “model minority” or “forever foreigners.” Model minority, because they do not complain; forever foreigners, because they do not assimilate. Rather than confront, they bend like the bamboo and act with their feet. If they see hospitality, they come in; if they sense hostility, they walk out, quietly.
The struggle for vision and how to give shape to that vision is the second struggle of the pioneers and trail blazers.

  1. Struggle Three: the Struggle for Acceptance
By the way, I learned that the  best three-point sermon was done by John Wesley, the Anglican who became the pioneer of the United Methodist Church. Wesley’s three point sermon was  about money and it was addressed to the Anglicans. Wesley said, “first point, earn as much money as you can.” And all people said, “Amen.” “Second point, save as much money as you can” and all people said, “Amen.” Third point, Wesley said, “give as much money as you can” and all people said, “Lord, have mercy.”

The Asian struggle for Acceptance: Whenever I think of this third struggle, I am reminded of the Asian pioneers in this country, how they suffered in order for us to be accepted by the dominant culture. Let me cite three examples. They are stories of historical proportions and stories we can learn from and lessons we can by.

The Chinese pioneers came to this country in mid-1800’s mainly to work in two areas: the mining industry and the transcontinental railroads. They were recruited as cheap laborers and became the fodder for dynamite blasting and so suffered the most in the loss of lives and limbs. But when the mining industry and the railroad industry were accomplished, the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882  was promulgated---and the Chinese were forced out of the country. It is a blight in American hospitality that there are two islands in the U.S. that speaks about this disparity: the Ellis Island in New York which welcomed the European immigrants and the Angel Island in San Francisco which processed the deportations of the Chinese.

The second story is about the Japanese immigrants. They came to this country after the expulsion of the Chinese. They took over the Chinese work in railroads, agriculture and small business. They became exemplary citizens but when the Japanese imperial army bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941 and the Second World War erupted in the Pacific, these Japanese American citizens were herded like cattle and banished and relocated into internment camps in remote and uninhabited areas in California, Montana, Wyoming and Colorado. Although they were not gassed like the Jews in Germany, these “internment camps” were actually concentration camps. They were told that were done to protect them but the guns were pointed inside the camps not outside the camps.

The third story is about Filipino-Americans. Did you hear of the U.S. “anti-miscegenation law?” It was promulgated to safeguard the purity of the Caucasian race. The Filipinos first came to this country when Philippines became a colony of the United States from 1900-1946. Like the Chinese and Japanese, they were recruited as cheap labor to farm the fields of California and Hawaii and to work in the canneries of Alaska. They were all young males when they came but were not allowed to go home, to marry and bring their wives---and under the “anti-miscegenation law,” were prohibited from marrying Caucasians. Thus they ended up old, lonely and childless bachelors until they died.

Today things have changed and much has improved. For example, just in the Bay Area, the new deputy Mayor of San Francisco (Edwin Lee)  is Chinese; the first female mayo of Oakkland (Ms. Jean Quan ) is Chinese; the mayor of Milpitas (Jose Estevez) is Filipino and the San Jose international airport was named in honor of Japanese American congressman Norman Mineta, a survivor of the internment camp. These are just some of the few gains of Asians in the American society but it can be said that “if the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church,” the suffering and prayers of our forebears ushered in the blessings we enjoy today. 

The Challenge to us
In another way of saying that we are standing today on the shoulders of the Asian American pioneers and trail blazers who opened the gateways for us by their blood, sweat and tears. In the Church, the tears of Li Tim Oi overflowed into the mainstream and created a river of acceptance. Thirty years later after her controversial ordination, in 1971, the Anglican Communion agreed to the ordination of women.  In 1976, the Episcopal Church approved the ordination of women; and in 1989 Barbara Harris, an African American became the first female bishop in the Episcopal Church.

The challenge for us today as descendants of Florence Li Tim Oi and our Asian American pioneers, is how we can use our historical and cultural experiences to feel the pain of others who likewise suffer from the many “isms” of our time. For while it is true that things have improved since the time of our forbears, the evils of racism, sexism and discrimination continues to plague the structures of our church and society against other minorities. The challenge to us who are the legacies of Li Tim Oi and the early Asian American pioneers is how to become the new trail blazers, explorers, discoverers, entrepreneurs, pioneers and avant garde for change. Today, as we engaged in holy conversation in  this holy place, may the Lord speak to us anew, through the Holy Spirit, and commission us afresh to become laborers in God’s harvest , to heal and to proclaim that the “the kingdom of God has come near.”

(Homily by The Rev. Dr. Winfred B. Vergara, Asian American Missioner of the Episcopal Church at the Chinese Convocation Leadership Gathering held in Cathedral Center, Los Angeles, January 24-26, 2011)