Honoring the Nestorian Christians

Thursday, June 12, 2014


Sermon by The Rev. Canon Dr. Winfred Vergara on the 3rd Anniversary Celebration of the Covenant Between Holy Child (Filipino) Church and St. Joseph’s (Anglo) Church in the presence of St. Philip’s Church, held at the United Methodist Church building at 355 Dixon Road, Milpitas, California on June 8, Pentecost 2014) 

They were gathered in an Upper Room in a house in Jerusalem, praying and waiting. Then something tremendously astounding, something remarkably wonderful, something indescribably amazing happened. A journalist and historian named Luke could only say that it sounded “like the rush of a mighty wind” as  “tongues as of fire fell from heaven and rested upon the apostles.”  

Not unlike Anderson Cooper of CNN doing a “blow by blow” account of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines or Brian Williams of NBC doing a rap on You-Tube, Luke of ACTS proceeded to narrate, in staccato fashion, the events that happened: the Holy Spirit had come, the Church was born, and the gifts of the Spirit were given to the first believers of Jesus Christ!

What were these gifts that the Holy ­­­­­Spirit gave?

1.   The Gift of Dreams
The Book of Joel in the Hebrew Scripture earlier said, “In these last days, God declares, I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh and they shall prophesy. The young shall see visions; the old shall dream dreams and whoever calls upon the Lord shall be saved” (Joel 2:28)

Visions and dreams are the gifts of the Spirit. Visionaries and dreamers like Teresa De Avila or Martin Luther King, Jr. or Jose Rizal would say, “I have a dream” but it is not their dream. It is a dream of God planted in their hearts and minds by the Holy Spirit. What distinguished them from other dreamers is that they acted on the dreams of God. Do you have God’s dream? Do you have God’s vision?

When I was a child, I had a dream. It was such a high dream; I wanted to become a bus driver. I wanted to drive on the road and bring passengers from one village to another. Then I had another dream, a higher dream; I wanted to become a ship captain. I wanted to steer the ship and cross the ocean and bring people from one island to another. Then I had another dream, my highest dream; I wanted to become an airline pilot. I wanted to pilot a plane and cross the skies and bring people from one country to another.

Neither of these dreams ever came true. The closest thing for me to driving a bus was driving a 15-seater Holy Child Church Van. The closest to steering a ship was when I ran away from home at age 14 and hid in the kitchen of the ship bound for Manila; and the closest thing to being in the pilot cockpit was when I was upgraded from economy to business class in Cathay Pacific Airlines.

But no, I was mistaken: the dream of God for me was not to be a bus driver, a ship captain or an airline pilot. God’s dream for me was to help bring people from one place to another, not in the physical sense but in the spiritual sense. As a priest, a missionary, a teacher and a pastor, I have driven and steered and piloted people in their spiritual lives, from one degree of spiritual maturity to another. In the final analysis, it is not what you are that matters to God but who you are and whose you are; and it is not your job or profession that matters most but what you do with and for the people whom God has brought into you.

The apostles of Jesus dreamed only of becoming good fishermen. They wanted to catch more fish because sometimes they came home with nothing. They had such lowly dreams that they were amazed when at the advice of Jesus; they dropped their nets and caught so much fish. Is He a magician able to multiply fish from the scarcity of the Galilean Sea? But Jesus had a higher dream for them. “Come, follow me; and I will make you fishers of men.”

On the day of Pentecost, Peter acted on that dream. He cast his net and many fish were caught. He preached one sermon and three thousand men were converted---aside from women and children. What a record! I preached three thousand sermons and was lucky to convert, at least one, my wife! (Yes, she was Methodist and became Episcopalian!)

2.   The Gift of Languages
Luke of ACTS also reported that before he ascended to heaven, Jesus was asked by his disciples, “Lord, will you at this time restore Israel to its former glory? “ Jesus replied, “It is not for you to know the times and seasons which the Father has set by His own authority. But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you shall be my witnesses, from Jerusalem to Judea to Samaria and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)

How can the lowly fishermen of rural Galilee witness to the Word of God among the well-educated, intellectually trained and sophisticated people in the city of Jerusalem? They could only speak Aramaic, the dialect of Galilee. Probably they also spoke little Hebrew; or Greek, the lingua franca of the empire during that time.

But the account of Luke is, again, amazing:  Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome  (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?” Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine.” (Acts 2:5-13)
“They had too much wine” reminds me of my father. He finished Grade 7 before  the Second World War and when the American GI’s came to the Philippines, he was one of the few residents in the barrio who can speak English. But he was so shy; they had to let him drink wine (tuba) before he could speak English. And when he was drunk, he could speak English very well, although in heavy Visayan accent.

Communication is a funny thing. In 1999, the Episcopal Asiamerica Ministry Consultation was held in Hong Kong. One day, during our free time, a group of us from California, decided to find a restaurant outside of the hotel. We found a very small shop, a local eatery that did not even have a display of food or a list of menus. We were all Filipino delegates and none of us spoke Cantonese or any Chinese dialect and we wanted to order chicken. It so happened that the cook, who was also the manager and waiter rolled into one, did not speak English, so we had such a challenging dialogue. I said, “We would like to order fried chicken.” And he could not understand and so, just like what ordinary tourists would do, I spoke very slowly “C-H-I-C-K-E-N.” Now I learned that if the person does not know the language, no matter how slow you speak, still he would not understand it. So I spoke louder, “Chicken!” Well, I also learned that if a person does not know the language, no matter how loud you speak, still he could not understand.

So frustrated of speaking, I decided to change my strategy: I would act out, dramatize a chicken! So I flapped my two arms and said, “wak, wak, wak;tuktulaok: cock-a doodle do.” The cook just laughed but did not understand me. Finally, as my last strategy, I decided to draw a chicken. I took a pen and paper, draw my chicken and showed it to him. We were so happy when he said, “Ahhh!” Finally he got it. We waited. And then he came out with our food. It was not a chicken. It was beef!  (My chicken drawing looked like a cow!)

So there you are: The Rev. Canon Dr. Fred Vergara. One BA degree, two Master’s degrees, two Doctorate degrees---could not even get a chicken from a Chinese cook! When there is no Holy Spirit in you, you can have all the degrees and education in the world but you will fail to communicate.

The simple fishermen of Galilee were filled with the Holy Spirit that when they spoke, the sophisticated peoples gathered in Jerusalem were able to understand them. As a matter of fact, not only that they understood Peter’s sermon; they were “cut to the heart” and cried out, “Brother Peter, what are we supposed to do?” And Peter replied, ”Be baptized, every one of you, and you too, will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit!” And they were baptized that very day! I think that must be the beginning of sprinkler baptism. For how can you immerse or dunk into the water over 3,000 people in one day and there was no river in the city. The river Jordan was quite far away.

3.   Gift of Community
After they were baptized, Luke of ACTS tells us, And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:42-47)

From the gifts of dreams and the gift of languages, there emerged a faith community. The Church was not born on the Day of the crucifixion; the Church was not born on the Day of the Resurrection; the Church was not born on the Day of Ascension. The Church was born on the Day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came.

Immediately, ministries came about: teaching and fellowship, holy Eucharist and prayers; healings and miracles; sharing of wealth and possessions; meeting in church and in homes; eating together with glad and sincere hearts.
Notice the last parts, “they ate together with glad and sincere hearts and enjoying the favor of all the people.”

Well, it is possible that the food on their table is more sumptuous and more delicious than the Coffee Hour of our Episcopal churches; but it is more likely that there was fun, there was laughter, there was joy, there was communion---there was---community!

Brothers and sisters, if you desire to have more people in the church, not only that your food must be delicious; you yourselves must have glad and sincere hearts. Do you remember the Sunday School song, “If you’re happy and you know it… then your face will surely show it?” Well, the reason why many of our parishes are dying is because the faces of their parishioners do not show their happiness in Christ! Brothers and sisters, it is not our Anglican stiff upper lip that will draw people to our church. It is our glad and sincere hearts radiating on or faces.

This week, we had a gathering of 70 young adults of color in CDSP in Berkeley: Asian, Latino, Black and Indigenous youth discerning their call. What they brought with them was the consciousness that the younger generation today are “spiritual but not religious.” They believe in God and have a practical knowledge of Christ but they are seeking for an authentic spiritual community. They will not be drawn to churches that are fighting over doctrines or money or wrestle about dogmas or prayer books. They will not be drawn by our intellectualism and via media theology, no matter how lofty they are. They will not be drawn even by our hymns and liturgy even when they are so beautiful and orderly. But they will be drawn by our faces that radiate glad and sincere hearts. Jesus said, “Whoever believes in me, rivers of living water will flow from within them.” The joy of the Lord will be their strength, the peace of God will be in their smiles and the love of God will shine from their lives.

When I became priest-in-charge of St. James Church in Elmhurst, New York last April 1, 2013, I preached my first sermon the Sunday after Easter. I found that the 25 original members, the remnant of what once was a large church, had no resurrection on their faces. I started a joke and nobody laughed. Most of them were not young. They were hurting, they were angry, they were defeated. Years of conflicts, theological and otherwise, were on their minds. Their hearts were heavy. They were skeptical, suspicious and untrusting. I could hear no noise, for there were no children and no Sunday School. I could see no one using iPhone or iPad for there was no youth group. They were as quiet as the cemetery behind our church. But I spoke of God’s dream. That we will become a community again; that we will bear witness to the mission of Christ; that we will be on a new journey; that we will be revived, and renewed, and be born again
I announced that we will become a healing, welcoming and serving church in Elmhurst; that our mission, as written in the Book of Common Prayer, will be “to reconcile all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.”

I believe that was not my dream, but God’s dream, planted in my heart and I prayed that the Word of God sown into their hearts will not return empty but will accomplish that which God purposed and prosper in that for which God sent it.

Today, a year after that April Fool’s Day of 2013, St. James’ membership and attendance have grown from 25 to over one hundred. We now have Sunday School for children; a Healing Service, a Chinese service, a Bible Study, youth and young adults; there is now an Episcopal Women’s Fellowship and the Brotherhood of St. Andrews have learned to cook! We are becoming a community again! And we are reaching out to the outside community with our Coalition Against Human Trafficking; our proposed Community Wellness Program and we are reaching to the world with our Virtual Classroom. And now, we are planning to develop our buildings and properties, so that they will earn revenues to fund our emerging and growing ministries.

Now, when I speak to Holy Child Church and St. Joseph’s Church about buildings and properties, I can immediately read your thoughts. You are saying to yourselves, “If only we have a church building; if only we have enough funds and properties.” But I tell you, there are many congregations that have buildings but they languish and die because they developed an “edifice complex.” They become so attached to their buildings that they do not want to go and reach out to the world. Their buildings have become a fortress or a hiding place from the outside world rather than a command post of their mission to the world. And so eventually, they declined and have to sell off their precious possessions.

I can tell you that in many places, church buildings are being sold away because they have become a burden to support than a resource for growth. When you have visions and dreams; when you speak the language of the Holy Spirit; and when you have community----all the rest will be yours as well. Throughout the 36 years of my priesthood, I have learned this one very important truth:” Where God guides, God provides.” God’s work, done in God’s way and in God’s time, will never lack provision. The Holy Spirit is the Comforter, the Counsellor, the Giver of Life, and the Lord of the Harvest. Seek the anointing of the Holy Spirit---and all these things shall be added unto you!

When I was a youth growing in the ‘60’s, there were two popular songs: one was the song “I Who Have Nothing” composed by Ben King and sung by Shirley Bassey and the other was “Crazy” composed by Willie Nelson and sung by Patsy Cline. “I Who Have Nothing” seems to be the song of Holy Child Filipino Church and every new immigrant congregation. You think you have nothing! But let me tell you that when you look deep inside you, you have something. You have each other: you have a community and you have a dream.

The song “Crazy” seems to be the song of St. Joseph’s Anglo/Euro Church. The first line of the song says, “Crazy, I’m crazy for feeling so lonely.” But I tell you, you are not crazy for feeling so lonely because that feeling would make you want a companion on your journey.

Yes, there are times when our scarcity becomes an asset, when our loneliness becomes a motivation to reach out. Out of scarcity, we become creative and inventive. Necessity is the mother of invention. Out of our loneliness, we desire to find companions. Even God was lonely; he needed someone in His own image; so God created Adam. Adam himself was lonely; the animals and the birds and the bees were not good enough; so he asked God to make an Eve.

Many Anglo Episcopal churches today are small and aging. They are becoming lonely and so they need to reach out to others, especially the growing ethnic immigrants. I am glad that St. Philip’s Congregation which has a building are with us today. Three years ago, Holy Child and St. Joseph’s, two congregations without a building, had signed up a covenant. Do you have to wait for another three years to finally join into a three-congregation covenant? Maybe its time to combine your dreams, your assets, your languages and build a stronger community!

At the risk of revealing your age, those of you who know the song will remember that although “I Who Have Nothing” began with the tone of scarcity, it ended up with the last line that is triumphant and saying, “but it is I, who love you.” And the song “Crazy” ended up by saying, “I’m crazy for loving you.” If you love dearly and care deeply, things will change. 

Authentic love is what makes the church attractive. People will know you are Christians by your love.But it is not enough that you simply reach out to each other in love. Because you have found that you can live together in community and you have found strength in that unity, then you can enlarge the circle of your company. God loves the excitement of big families even as God delights in the intimacy of the small ones. 

So reach out and touch the world with your love; reach out and let your faces radiate the light of Christ. Let your laughter and songs sound the joy of the Lord; reach out and touch the world with your compassionate hearts; reach out and touch the word with your burning spirits. Then the communities of Milpitas and San Jose and the whole Santa Clara County will be attracted to you as the presence of Christ in the world. Then the Holy Spirit, the Lord of the Harvest, will add to your number daily those who are being saved. Then the Holy Spirit, the Giver of life, will provide you with a building, and resources and funding. Then there will be miracles of healing and reconciliation and signs and wonders as the glory of the Lord will shine upon you, and the anointing power of the Holy Spirit will cover you, as the waters cover the sea. Amen. Alleluia!

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