Honoring the Nestorian Christians

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)

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