Honoring the Nestorian Christians

Thursday, March 28, 2013


(Fred Vergara.Chapel of Christ the Lord, New York. 03/28.2013)

Maundy comes from the Latin word “mandatum,” meaning mandate or commandment. On this Maundy Thursday, Jesus issued two mandates to his disciples by washing their feet and instituting the Last Supper. These mandates clearly demonstrate how Christians should lead and what kind of message they should proclaim in light of the heavenly Kingdom that He has inaugurated on earth.

The washing of the feet. By performing this most lowly act of service, ordinarily done only by the slaves, Jesus demonstrated the mark of servant leadership. The context of the story was the dispute among the disciples who among them should be the greatest. The brothers James and John, sons of Zebedee, knowing that Jesus had a soft spot for women, especially for mothers, asked their own mother to intercede for them, to let them sit beside Jesus one on his right and one on his left, should he become the king of Israel. Obviously, they thought that Jesus would become the new King David, who would restore the glory and the splendor of Zion. The other disciples upon hearing about this, certainly got upset because they too had the same ambitions---to be close to the Power that be.

I remember my first visit to China. I was with a group of VIP’s from the Episcopal Church as visitors of the China Christian Council. One day, we were treated by the Chinese government to an "imperial banquet" and I noticed the protocol officer was very careful in the seating arrangement. Knowing from my colleague, Canon Peter Ng, that I am the missioner for Asiamerica Ministries, the officer seated me beside the bishops and Bishop Ting, the acknowledged leader of Chinese Christians in China. Oh, how I felt being close to power! Digital cameras clicked and video cameras rolled, not for me but for the bishops and dignitaries, but simply because I was beside the VIP, I was included.

So I could resonate with Peter, James and John and the other apostles. It is exciting and heartwarming to be with the King!

But Jesus shattered the myth: Before the Passover meal, he girded his loins with a towel, knelt down and washed the disciples feet and said, “Just as I washed your feet, you should also wash one another’s feet!”

How amazing it would be if instead of fighting one another or shooting each other in the foot, we, the current disciples of Jesus would also wash one another’s feet!

The Breaking of the Bread and the Sharing of the Wine. At the Passover Meal, Jesus took the bread and asked the Father to bless it. He then broke the bread into pieces and said, “This is my body given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” After supper, he took the cup of wine and shared it with his disciples and said, “This is my blood of the new covenant shed for you and for all, for the forgiveness of sins. Whenever you drink it, do this in remembrance of me.”  

This mandatum, also called “the last supper,” illustrates the extent to which Jesus would obey His Father. He humbled himself, being found in human form, taking the form of a slave and became obedient unto death on the cross---for the salvation and reconciliation of the world.

Asian Folk Tale
There is an Asian folk tale that I used over and over again to illustrate God’s unfailing love to humankind. There was a mother who had a son with, proverbially speaking, "a face only a mother can love." One day, the son fell in love with a beautiful young woman on other side of the mountain. Seeing that the man was ugly, the woman asked him to do what she thought would be impossible thing to do and that would discourage him from the pursuit of courtship. She said, “if you really love me, give me the heart of your mother.” 

The young man was in turmoil and for a moment pondered upon this request. He loved his mother but he was also madly in love with this beautiful woman. So in a moment of madness, he killed his mother and took her heart out and ran to offer it to the object of his infatuation. While running through the rice paddies, he stumbled and fell, and the heart dropped in the muddy field. As he was wiping the mud from the heart of his mother, the heart spoke, “Son, are you hurt?”

The love of God in Christ is unconditional, extravagant and sacrificial. The Bible says, “when we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” God's unconditional love and forgiveness found their way on the cross.  Jesus said to the foolish children beneath the cross, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they do.” 

Reconciliation in Christ
I recently visited Japan and preached at the ordination of Fr. William Bulson from Minnesota who was appointed the new rector of St. Alban’s Parish of the Nippon Sei Kokai. I also had a chance to preach at St. Andrew’s Cathedral of Tokyo. The readings on that week was the commemoration of the martyrs of Japan who suffered greatly from tortures and excruciating deaths during the imperial era when Christianity was banned in Japan. I was certainly impressed by the solemnity and dignity of Japanese liturgy. I spoke about the "theology of the pain of God."

After the service, Bishop Andrew Ohata, William Bulson and myself had a photo session. One of those taking photographs was a Filipino, Arturo Dela Cruz, who accompanied us with his wife. Arturo, who is now in his eighties, experienced the atrocities of the Japanese Imperial Army when they occupied the Philippines during the Second World War. As a 7-year old boy, a Japanese sergeant made him to sing a military marching song, and he said he learned it quickly because the officer was showing him his samurai. Funny how you learn quickly under pressure. The song never left his mind but he never sang it until that night that he drank saki in the home of Japanese priest, Fr. John Sanzaki. As a matter of fact, Arturo’s wife and children never heard about his story and never heard him sing that song, until our translator, Chikako Kobayashi, who videotaped Arturo singing, posted it later in You-Tube.

But back to the photograph he took of of Bishop Ohata, William Bulson and me: a Japanese bishop, an American priest and a Filipino missionary. Our ancestors have figured in the War in the Pacific. My father was a veteran of World War II who until his death, looked at any Japanese as an enemy. Arturo, looking at the photograph, remarked, “World War II has really ended.”  Yes, it did. But it ended after so much sacrifice and deaths. The "death march" in Bataan, the atrocities inflected by Japan to its neighbors in the Pacific, the atomic bombs dropped by the United States in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Today, religious and Christian freedom flourishes in Japan. The Philippines, Japan, Korea, China, the United States enjoy the blessings of mutual peace. Reconciliation is achieved but after such a great price.

The Rev. Dr. Jim Kodera, Japanese American priest and former president of Episcopal Asiamerica Ministry Council, married Nancy Sabug a Filipina who served as the first director of Kapatiran (Brotherhood/Sisterhood) Ministry in Japan. They met during one of our EAM Consultations. Jim has a story about former Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold of the Episcopal Church. He said,

“When Bishop Griswold visited Japan, he was asked to preach at the Anglican Church in Hiroshima, where the United States dropped the first atomic bombs. He had just visited the Peace Park and the adjacent museum. He was introduced by the vicar, Kobayashi Sensei, and stood at the pulpit for a long time. Griswold did not speak for quite a long time. Kobayashi Sensei looked in to find what was wrong, only to discover that Bishop Griswold was sobbing in the pulpit and could not speak. In the words of someone who was in the congregation, ‘that was the most eloquent sermon I ever heard!’”

On this Maundy Thursday, let us hear the mother’s heartbeat and the sobbing bishop for they speak of the aching love of God. Amen.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013


 Recently on the plane, I was seated beside two teenagers who were having a very animated conversation. From what I heard, 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 (Twitter) but this time in FB (Facebook), 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 her rant, 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 Oxford Pocket 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 mean 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 of the use of the verb is this, “Suzy thought Joe was being rude, so she had to unfriend him from her page.” A story is also told of a Facebook fan who committed suicide because someone had ‘unfriended’ he. The last words she entered in FB and Twitter were , “OMG, I was unfriended!” 

And she jumped from a six-storey 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 annoyed us. 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, we all annoy others, we all mess up. I would not be surprised if God gets annoyed with us. But what if God “unfriend” us? What if by the a stroke of God’s keyboard, we get stricken out of God Facebook?

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. 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 which are not necessarily for us. But 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 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?” I don’t know if Osborne has some theological training but here song definitely smacks of the doctrine of incarnation. This Christology is one of the great mysteries of our faith. God became human like us. Like an alien from outer space, He came down and became one of us. Had he not been annoyed with Peter and James and John and the other fisher-friends who were of little faith? Had he not been annoyed by Judas who opposed and betrayed him?

In the Old Testament, God had wrestled with the temptation of ‘unfriending’ His chosen people. Israel’s idolatrous tweets, self-promotions and Facebook pages, were, pardon the term “pissing Him off.” One of God’s prophets, Elijah said that God’s people were “limping in two opinions.”  God, Elijah contended, wanted black and white, not gray: “If God is God, follow God; but if Baal is god, follow Baal.”
 In the contest of miracles on Mount Carmel, Elijah executed what he thought to be God’s “unfriending” but only to find out that God was not willing to “unfriend.” Because God did not “unfriend” God’s people, their limping dance continued.  (Read 1st Book of Kings, Chapter 18).

Another prophet of God, Hosea, accused Israel of being unfaithful. Not only were they unfaithful; they did not know they were unfaithful. The prophet said that the people did not know, or they forgot, that the gold and silver and the oil, they lavished on Baal, the false god of prosperity, comes from God. Hosea announced that they “will be destroyed for lack of knowledge” (Hosea 4:6).
Hosea learned, however that despite their unfaithfulness, God was not willing to “unfriend” them. 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” God is also “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, despite our nasty Twitter tweets, Facebook updates and MySpace entries---and even our You Tube 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 BFF ---best friends forever!

“BFF.” Maybe that is the kind of godly relationship that we should have one with another, as we build and keep community. As human beings, as family, even as Christians, there will be issues that divide us. But if we treat each other as BFF, we will be slow to anger and quick to forgive. 

We will disagree but will be civil in our disagreements. We will argue but not raise our voices in anger to drown the other’s. We will listen more and hear beyond what was said. We may still mess up  but will be assured that our BFF are there to forgive and to lift us up, not trample us down. And when our margins collide, we will be justified.

When we practice BFF as a Church and as God’s People, then we would indeed be instruments of healing in a broken, hostile and ‘unfriending’ world. As the hymn says,  “They'll know we are Christians by our love, by our love, yes they'll know we are Christians by our love.” Amen.

 (A homily of Fr. Fred Vergara delivered at St. Michael & All Angels Episcopal Church, 2197 Jackson Avenue, Seaford, NY 11783, April 22, 2012)