Honoring the Nestorian Christians

Wednesday, April 25, 2012


(A Reflection by Fred Vergara, Chapel of Christ the Lord, 815 Second Avenue, New York City, April 25, 2012)

Recently on the plane, I was seated beside two teenagers who were having a very animated conversation. From what I overheard, they were into social networking. One of them said, “I’ve just unfriended Ashley?” Oh really? Why?” replied the other.” Oh she’d been annoying me with her tweets but this time in FB, she really messed up. Our friendship is over! I say, over as in over!” And she proceeded to tell her companion about what Ashley did, even though she knew, I was overhearing it. After which, her companion said, “Good for her. She deserves to be unfriended.”

When I reached my destination, I could not wait to find out if there is a word “unfriend” in my old dictionary and I could not find it. There is a word “unfriendly,” an adjective which means “hostile or antagonistic.” But the word “unfriended” that I heard is a verb. So I googgled “unfriend” in my computer and I found it in Wikipedia, the internet encyclopedia. Actually, I found two words “unfriend” and “defriend” which obviously means the same thing.

The definition of unfriend in Wikipedia is this: “Unfriend is the act of removing a friend from your Facebook account.” It goes on to explain, “Compulsive people prune their friends list periodically, removing people they no longer have contact with. More often however, unfriending is done when a particular friend’s update or self-promotions become so annoying that you can no longer stand hearing or reading them…you may also unfriend someone when they piss you off.”

One example use of the verb is this, “Suzy thought Joe was being rude, so she had to unfriend him from her page.” One story tells of a Facebook fan who committed suicide because someone had ‘unfriended’ her on Facebook and MySpace. The last words she uttered, “OMG, I was unfriended!” And she jumped from a building!

I think it is unfortunate that friends can be tossed aside with nothing more than a few taps on a computer keyboard simply because they messed up. Scriptures tell us, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). We are all imperfect, we all make mistakes, we all stumble and fall in our words and actions. Friends are there to help us stand when we fall.

The age of computer has given us plenty of opportunities to communicate. Often we act, in the words of Bill Gates, “with the speed of thought.” We write our message via email, text, Facebook, Twitter, MySpace and many other social networks. We respond in matter of minutes or seconds. The problem however, is that when we read emails or tweets, we do not see the person and could not read his or her facial and bodily expressions. Sometimes they are tweets not necessarily for us. And so we judge the message based on what we read. And without having seen the person at the time that he or she sent the message, we can get pissed off and decide to “unfriend.”

One of the modern pop songs (by Joan Osborne) that is very popular among teens, says in part “What if God was one of us? Just a slob like one of us, Just a stranger on the bus ,Trying to make his way home?” The incarnation of God in Christ is one of the great mysteries of our faith. God became human like us. It is a mystery hard to fathom but it is comforting to know that in this mystery of God-in-man, “He was tempted in every way as we are, and yet did not sin” (Hebrews 4:15).

In the Bible, God had wrestled with the temptation of unfriending His people. Israel’s idolatrous tweets and self-promotions were pissing Him off. The prophet Elijah said that the people of Israel were “limping in two opinions” and challenging them to choose one or the other: “If God is God, follow Him; but if Baal is god, follow him.” In the contest of miracles at Mount Carmel, Elijah tried to execute what he thought to be God’s “unfriending” only to find out later that God was not willing “unfriend.” This “ritual of the limping dance” (theologian Kosuke Koyama has a wonderful reflection about this) continues because “people continue to be people and God continues to be God.” (Read the entire story in 1st Kings 18).

Another prophet Hosea said that Israel was being unfaithful and they “will be destroyed for lack of knowledge.” The prophet said that the people did not know, or that they forget, that the gold and silver and the oil, they lavished on Baal, the false god of prosperity, comes from God. But in spite of their unfaithfulness, God was not willing to “unfriend.” Listen to the soliloquy of God:

“When Israel was a child, I loved him and out of Egypt I called my Son. But the more I called Israel, the further they went from me. They sacrificed to the Baals and they burned incense to the images. It was I who taught Ephraim to walk, taking them by the arms, but they did not realize that it was I who healed them, led them with cords of human kindness, with ties of love….But how can I give you up, O Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not carry out my anger, for I am God, not a man, the holy One among you. I will not come in wrath.” (Hosea 11:1-9)

In other Scriptures but in similar fashion, God says, “I will not leave you, I will not forsake you…for I have inscribed (tattooed) you in the palm of my hands.” (Hebrews 13:5, Isaiah 49:16)

I think it is quite liberating to know that while God has become “one of us, “He also continues to be “not one of us.” Unlike the two teenagers on the plane, God would not unfriend us no matter how much mess we make of our lives. God’s forgiveness, love and grace are always ours, regardless of our nasty tweets, updates and actions. All of us mess up, all of us are imperfect, and all of us err, one way or another. But no matter how much we mess up, God’s love for us is unconditional. We are God’s “friends forever. “

Maybe that is the kind of godly character that we, humans, should have, to be “friends forever,” with God and with one another. Amen.

Monday, April 2, 2012

PALM SUNDAY: Significance of Palms at Holy Week

Fred Vergara (Sermon at St. Michael & All Angels, Seaford, New York, 4/1/2012)
“Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, ‘Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!’” (Mark 11:7-10). 

A story is told of an atheist who filed a discrimination suit against the state. He complained that all the major religions in the U.S. have holidays but not one for him. Christians have Christmas and Easter and Jews have Hanukah and Passover but not one for those who say there is no God. The judge who received the complaint readily explained: “Sir, your case has no merit. First, the word holiday originally comes from the words “holy day.” Second, you actually have a holiday.  According to Psalm 14:1 “Only a fool would say ‘there is no God!’” So you actually have April 1st –April Fool’s Day---as your holiday. Case dismissed!”

I think it is interesting that this Palm Sunday 2012 also falls on April 1st, so this is a great time for the fools and the “fools for Christ” (1st Corinthians 4:10) to be together.  So Happy Palm Sunday and Happy Fools’ Day! I think I’ve covered everyone.

Palm Sunday - Start of Holy Week
The liturgy of the Palm Sunday begins with the blessing of the palms. True to prophecy (Zechariah 9:9) that the Messiah-King would ride on a donkey, the event commemorates the “triumphal entry of Jesus to Jerusalem.” Along the way, people (men, women and children) rejoiced and spread out garments and palm branches and waved palm leaves shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord!” Palm Sunday begins our weekly celebration of the Passion Story of Jesus. What is the significance of the Palms in the context of our life as Christians?

A.    Palm as Symbol of a Victory
Among the Jews, a palm branch is a symbol of rejoicing. As soon as news of triumph is announced, people would cut palm branches as signs of a victory party. In Roman culture, a palm branch is also a symbol of victory.  It is no wonder that in welcoming the entry of Jesus to Jerusalem, he would be met with a great throng of people waving palm branches. They were Jews living as colonials of the Roman Empire.

It is said that the early Christians used the palm branch to symbolize the victory of the faithful over the enemies of their souls. Christian martyrs were usually shown holding a palm frond as a holy attribute, representing the victory of spirit over flesh. In some of the Christian tombs or catacombs, aside from the ichtus (fish symbol of Christ), a picture of a palm would also be there to signify that a martyr was buried there.

Of course, victory in Christian life is spiritually discerned. We are not talking about military conquests or socio-economic triumphs. We are talking about the triumph of the spirit against the assaults of the enemies, spoken in our baptism as “the world, the flesh and the devil.” It is a renunciation of all that hinders us from realizing our authentic selves as “imago Dei” (image of God), human beings who live and believe in God.

B.     Palm as Symbol of Life
A palm trees (tamar in Hebrew) represents survival and life since it is one of the few trees to grow in arid environments. Palm trees in the desert means either an oasis or water below the surface. In Palestine, there are many kinds of palm trees. There is the coconut palm tree, the ornamental palm tree and of course, the ever present palm dates. In many communities, the red date palm trees line up the streets, surround the village and are a great source of livelihood.

As a symbol of life, the towering palm trees also symbolize the pride and the strength of the community to withstand the assaults against their very survival. Ahmad Abu Samra, a Palestinian, recently reported that in the Palestine of today, the Israel Army have been destroying palm trees in order to starve the residents of Deir Al Balah so that they would leave the area.  Over the years of Intifada (Palestinian uprising against the Israelites who occupied their lands), Israelite bulldozers have leveled their farms and destroyed dozens of palm trees. In the spirit of dignity and defiance, the local residents said, "This will not break our will. Our palm trees will remain tall and as long as there is breath in our bodies, we will plant them again and water them with our blood like those before us.”

C.     Palm as Symbol of Righteousness
The palm tree is unique among the other trees in that the higher it grows up; the deeper its roots go down. Its imposing leaves, which are the heart of the palm tree, are fresh green or white and often remain unchanged over time. For me, it aptly describes our Christian journey to spiritual maturity. The higher we go in our spiritual lives, the deeper our roots in Christ shall be. To paraphrase theologian, Paul Tillich, God is both the Height of Meaning and the “Ground of Being.”

An ancient art often depict Jesus in heaven among palms. In the Old Testament, “palm fronds” (fern-like branches) were associated with rejoicing after the harvest on the first day of the Feast of Tabernacles (Leviticus 23:40; Nehemiah 8:15). In the New Testament, the redeemed are “standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. ...wearing white robes and...holding palm branches in their hands.”(Revelation 7:9).The palm branches therefore remind us of our righteousness in Christ, given to us, as a gift at baptism, in Christ’s death and resurrection. We are made righteous by the Blood of the Lamb.

Accordingly, the righteous are likened to a palm tree. The Psalmist says, "The righteous shall flourish like a palm tree" (Ps 92: 12). Like the palm tree, a Christian is continually growing up in spiritual height but likewise extending the roots deeply, strongly and humbly. In this Holy Week, may we learn from the ways of the Palm Tree, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.