Honoring the Nestorian Christians

Sunday, November 3, 2013

TOWARDS A MISSION-DRIVEN CHURCH: An All Saints-All Souls-Dia delos Muertos Sermon

 An All Saints-All Souls-Dia delos Muertos Sermon                                                                                                        (The Rev. Dr. Fred Vergara, St. James Church in Elmhurst, New York, November 3, 2013)

 “I live through this world only once, so whatever I good I can do I must do it now, for I may not have a chance to do it again.”

“We are all pilgrims on a journey; we are all brothers and sisters on the road. We are here to help each other, walk the mile and bear the load.”

These and many other sayings remind us of our mortal and transitory life here on earth. That is why we should live with a mission. Our life should be a mission-driven life. 

The mission of St. James Church is the one written in the Book of Common Prayer which says, “the mission of the Church is to restore (or reconcile) all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.” This is derived from 2nd Corinthians 5:19 which says, “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to Himself…and has given us this wonderful ministry of reconciliation. Therefore we are ambassadors for Christ.”

In our leaders’ meeting last Saturday, we began with the question, “Why am I a missionary” and it was amazing how all of us understand that we are missionaries because we are called and sent by God, starting on the day of our baptism. At baptism, we sign into a covenant to reject evil, accept Christ, proclaim the Good News and respect the dignity of every human being. Each one of us has a calling and a mission and we simply need to articulate and embody them in the life we live and in the relationships we create.

Being missionary in today’s world no longer means crossing the ocean to convert the pagans of Asia or Latin America or Africa. Being a missionary today is simply opening the door of our hearts and flinging open the doors of our churches to welcome and embrace the people whom God has placed upon us. The mission field is right where we are: our neighborhood, our work place, our schools, our playground, our shopping mall, our hair salon, our grocery store. We are sent as ambassadors of Christ by loving our neighbor and being kind to every person we meet. 

When Christians proclaim the Good News in what they say or do, then the Lord will be glorified and the Church would grow. And if every church would be healed from discrimination and prejudice, then it will truly become a house of prayer for all peoples.

Some eight years ago, just about a year when I became missioner for Asiamerica Ministries in the Episcopal Church, I was invited to St. Paul, Minnesota to preach at Holy Apostles Parish. This church was about to be closed because of its declining membership. It was once a vibrant Caucasian Church but the shift in demographics had rendered it untenable. Its former members had migrated to other places, retired in the suburbs, or died. Fr. Bill Bulson was sent to help prepare the congregation for closure. Just like a body, when the church is dying, it is best that we prepare for its funeral. But by God’s grace, the scheduled funeral service did not happen. For out of the blue, Fr. Bulson was introduced to some Hmong residents looking for a home---and the home is where you are accepted.
The Hmong are once a nomadic tribe in the jungles of Laos, Cambodia and China. During the Vietnam War, they sided with the United States. When the Vietnam War was over, many Hmong were targeted for genocide and so the United States repatriated them as refugees, many of them in Minnesota.

So the Hmong in the Twin Cities of St. Paul/Minneapolis were looking for a spiritual community to belong to, and Fr. Bill Bulson and the remnants of Holy Apostles Parish welcomed them with open arms. The result was tremendous: some 750 Hmong joined the Episcopal Church! I was there to welcome them on Pentecost Sunday of 2005. In the subsequent months, they were baptized and prepared for confirmation. Sister Angie and I went back to Minnesota; I preached at the Minneapolis Cathedral were we had hundreds of Hmong being confirmed. Bishop Jilenik, Bishop Swanson and Bishop Chang had their hands full, laying on hands on the Hmong Episcopalians!

I gave a joke that because of the radical hospitality of the Episcopal Church,   “the African Americans are among us, the Native Americans are among us, the Latino Americans are among us, the Filipinos are among us, the Chinese are among us, the Koreans are among us, the Cambodians are among us---and pardon the pun, the Hmong are among us.” And regardless of color, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation. God has accepted us: let us accept all that God accepts.

Here at St. James in Elmhurst, we are surrounded by people from various ethnicities and cultures. Within a 3-mile radius, there are some 210 languages being spoken. Queens in New York is probably the most ethnically diverse region in the universe. The mission of St. James is to be a “healing, welcoming and serving church.” How can we be empowered for mission so that we can indeed and do the will of God in this place? 

I am greatly encouraged by the apparent revival of this parish. When I first came here six months ago, there were only around twenty five people. Today, we have reach over a hundred. Is there a secret to revival besides the work of the Holy Spirit?

I always believe that congregational development is divine-human cooperation. We must do our part by being faithful, diligent and welcoming. Mahatma Mahatma Gandhi once said that when your rose garden is so attractive, people will even climb the fence in order to smell the flowers. We must be a “healing, welcoming and serving church” and we will see this church grow in the richness of human diversity. Jesus came into the world “to save the world and not to condemn it.”

As ambassadors, Christ makes His appeal through us. Be reconciled to God and with one another. That is why I am fascinated by Hmong tradition of funerals: they would not bury the body until all the ruptured relationships in the family are healed. Let us heal all broken relationships as we are able by God’s grace.

God works in mysterious ways and God continues to be at work in the world if we are open to his leading. A friend of mine, Philip Getchell, former missionary to Brazil and retired dean of Trinity Cathedral in San Jose, California shared with me on how he became a Christian. While studying medicine at Stanford University, he read a feature story in San Francisco Chronicle about two young people on the beach close to the Golden Gate. The boy was swimming and a shark grabbed him. The girlfriend ran down the beach, plunged into the water and pulled him to shore. As he was bleeding to death, she asked him, “I know you believe in God, do you want me to baptize you?” He said, “Yes.” Right on the spot, she scooped ocean water and baptized her boyfriend. (By the way, it is called conditional baptism. When there is an emergency such as this, any Christian can baptize.) The boyfriend died in peace.

The story created an impact on Phil. He thought at the time. “What in the hell was that? A Christian girl rushing off to the ocean to retrieve her boyfriend from the shark? Was that courage under pressure? Was that presence of mind that he could not comprehend? Or was that faith in Christ embodied in that girl?” Phil said he quit pre-med and shifted to theology and later made his way into the priesthood.
In an email to me, he attached a photo of one of his first acts as a priest: baptizing three nieces in the ocean where that incident happened years ago and just recently also baptized his grandchildren by the sea---to remind him how God called him to the ministry.

Baptism and funeral are closely intertwined for when we are are baptized, we are baptized into the death of Christ, that we may rise into a newness of life. From then on, eternity has been written into our hearts. 

Today, we celebrate All Souls Day-All Saints Day-Pista ng Patay (Filipino) or Dia Delos Muertos (Mexicans). Traditionally, All Souls Day and All Saints Day are two separate occasions. All Saints Day (Nov. 1) is when we honor the saints of the church and summon the congregation to emulate their good examples; All Souls Day (Nov. 2) is when we pray for all the souls departed in faith. Today, we combine the two and added a dimension of our people’s cultures. Whether it is filial piety among the Chinese, the Undas or Pista ng Patay (festival of the dead) for Filipinos and Dia Delos Muertos among the Latinos, we are connected with those who have gone before. 

It is significant that we have a cemetery at the back of the church building. We shall hold part of our service in the cemetery so that we may be reminded that we are all pilgrims on a journey. Yes, we are all immigrants on this planet earth, and our ultimate citizenship is in heaven throughout eternity. This perspective will help us to embrace our mission as a pilgrim people, a people with a mission. Indeed, life is short, and we do not have much time to gladden the hearts of those who travel with us. So be swift to love, be ready to forgive, be willing to reconcile and be swift to be kind---and the blessing of God will be with you. Amen.

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