Honoring the Nestorian Christians

Monday, May 20, 2013


(Sermon by Fred Vergara at St. James Episcopal Church, 84-07 Broadway, Elmhurst, NY 11373 on May 19, 2013)

Number 3 (three) is my favorite number. It reminds me of one God in three Persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It reminds me of the three-fold ministry of Christ: king, priest and prophet. It reminds me of the three levels of my Christian duty: worship to God, fellowship with the Church, and service to the world. It reminds me to look at the three areas of a parish: we are a church, we are a campus, and we are a community center. It reminds me of myself: a spirit, mind and body.

Number 3 also reminds me that it is the strongest number. Why? When we lift a heavy load, we count “1-2-3” and it is on this number that we are able to do it.

So this morning, we shall hold three events:  a celebration of Pentecost Sunday; a commemoration of Asian American Heritage Month; and a Forum on the proposed Immigration Bill. It is an observance of three areas of time: yesterday, today and tomorrow. In all these three occasions, we shall remember that “Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8).

What is Pentecost? The word Pentecost comes from the Greek word “Pentekoste,” which literally means fifty (50). To the Jewish people, Pentecost is a celebration of the giving of the Torah (Law) or the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, 50 days after their Exodus from Egypt. To the Christians, it is the celebration of the coming of the Holy Spirit and the birth of the Church, 50 days after the resurrection of Jesus Christ. 

It was on the Day of Pentecost when the promised Holy Spirit came down upon the disciples. Shaped like tongues of fire, the Holy Spirit rested upon the disciples of Jesus and they began to speak in various languages. They were ordinary fishermen from Galilee but the words they spoke that day were understood by people in Jerusalem, people from various nations and cultures. 

It was a miracle that the disciples of Jesus were given by the Holy Spirit the gift of languages; and it was a double miracle that the people from many nations heard the word of God and understood them. On that Day of Pentecost, 3,000 people received the Lord Jesus Christ and were baptized. They began to gather in homes and synagogues. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship and the breaking of the bread and prayers. God worked wonders in their midst and the Church was born.

So today, Pentecost Sunday, we celebrate the birthday of the Church. Will you turn to the person next to you and say, “Happy birthday, Church!”

You and I today are fortunate that we are in the borough of Queens, the most diverse borough in the United States. State Senator Jose Peralta, in his recent visit to Elmhurst, said that Queens is the “united nations of the world.” Here you will find people from various nationalities, ethnicities, races and cultures. When you stand by and listen just outside this church for one day, you will hear a hundreds languages spoken in our streets. 

So I have a story of an extra terrestrial bird, which came down to Queens. The first ones who caught it were the Native Americans, and they worshiped the bird. It flew and went to the Anglo/Europeans and they studied the bird; then it went to the Black or African Americans and they sang songs about the bird; then it went to the Latino/Hispanic, and they had a Fiesta around the bird. Finally, it went to the Asians, and the Asians cooked the bird!

I suspect that many of you today are not familiar with the history of Asians in America. Most of our history books were written from the perspective of Anglo-Europeans, and seldom, if ever are you able to find churches where they teach you about immigration. 

The first Asians who set foot in America were said to be the Filipinos in the year 1573. They were a group of Manila men or “Luzon Indios” who served as crewmen or “slaves” in the Galleon (ships) of the Spaniards who sailed from Manila to Acapulco. While they were in the sea in Louisiana, they jumped ship because of the maltreatment from their Spanish masters. They settled in what was known as “Malong village” in New Orleans and intermarried with the natives. Little was known about them, except they figured as pioneers in the “shrimp drying” industry. Some oral history claim that their descendants participated in the American War of Independence in 1776.

So it was really in 1849 when the first Asian immigration happened among the Chinese. Recruited by American contractors, they came to California to help mine the mountains for gold and to build the transcontinental railroad. It is a sad part of American history that after the mining industry succeeded and after the railroads were completed, hospitality to Chinese turned to hostility. It culminated into the Anti-Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. In 1886 while the Statue of Liberty is being unveiled in Ellis Island to welcome the immigrants from Europe, the Chinese in San Francisco and Seattle, were being driven out of the United States. 

After the Chinese came the Japanese (1885-1924) who took to the fields in Hawaii and the West Coast and became great farmers. Many of them became American citizens but when the Second World War broke out in the Pacific, many of them were incarcerated in the Internment camps in remote areas of the country. One of our Japanese Episcopal clergy, the Rev. Hiram Hisanori Kano, a farmer-priest from Nebraska is being proposed in the book of “Holy Women, Holy Men” for serving as spiritual leader during the Internment era.

After the Japanese, followed the first Korean Immigration in 1902, the time when Korea was under the Japanese Empire. For Koreans, it was an escape from their homeland which was under Japanese control. 

Then came the Filipino immigrants, which began in 1906 when the Philippines became a neo-colony of the United States. They were composed of both students who were to be trained American democracy and the bulk of immigrants being farm workers for Hawaii and California and fish cannery workers for  Alaska. 

Like the Chinese and the Japanese before them, Filipino farm workers suffered from racism and discrimination. Restaurants in such places as Watsonville in California had signs “No dogs, No Chinese and No Filipinos Allowed.” Most of them who came as young men, were not allowed to marry because of the “anti-miscegenation law” that prohibit intermarriage between white and colored people, thus ended up being bachelors until  they died. Despite their suffering, however, the Filipinos became the pioneers in community organizing. Larry Itliong and Philip Vera Cruz were the first ones who organized the farm workers in California, an organization which was later consolidated by Mexican American Cesar Chavez as the “United Farm Workers Union.”

Today, in history things are changing for the better. Gone are the blatant discrimination and the unjust laws, thanks to the work of the Civil Rights Movement, championed by Martin Luther King, Jr. Today, San Francisco is led by a Chinese mayor; Milpitas is led by Filipino mayor; and Hawaii had once a Japanese senator and a Filipino governor. Asian Americans (coming from over 20 countries), are starting to excel in politics, business and arts.

This leads me to comment on the Forum on Immigration which will be held following this Church service.  I would like to ask you to remain and listen to our three invited immigration attorneys: John Whitfield, representing a Black perspective; Ramon Guerra, representing a Latino perspective; and Felix Vinluan, representing a Filipino/Asian perspective. Elmhurst Community leader, Jean Lu, will translate in Chinese.

As you listen to their presentations, I would like you to remember what the Bible says about immigrants. First, Abraham who is the father Jews, Christians and Muslims was an immigrant. Second, the Church was born on the Day of Pentecost among the many immigrants that gathered in Jerusalem; third the Scriptures remind us to be kind to immigrants ---because we are all immigrants. Exodus 22:21 and Exodus 23:9 both say, “Do not oppress or mistreat strangers for you were strangers once, in the land of Egypt.” I would like to adapt it to say, “Be kind to undocumented immigrants, for you are all undocumented once.” In America, as a culture or ethnicity, only the indigenous, the Native Americans are not immigrants.

In a manner of speaking, we are all strangers in this world. There is no permanent resident on earth. We are all passing through this world, which is not ours, but God’s.  Let me read from the Book of Hebrews, something about our father Abraham and it says:

“By faith, Abraham when called to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. By faith, he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country. He lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking to the city with foundations whose builder and maker is God.” (Hebrews 11:8-10)

My friends, you may live in a mansion, in an apartment or a condo but mark this. At best you are only living in a borrowed tent. I visited a park one day and saw a sign, “take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints.” Yes, we are all visitors in a park, strangers and sojourners, travelers and pilgrims in this world. Our ultimate citizenship is in heaven, where there is no more pain or sorrow but life everlasting. So while we are on earth, let us make it a better place than when we found it not only in the physical and the material world, but in the lives of “the least of God’s people.” We pass through this park only once, and so whatever service we can give to our fellow visitors, let us do it. For we can take nothing and leave nothing from this park, but photographs and footprints. Amen.

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