FAITH: THE STEPPING STONE OF MISSION
(Sermon by the Rev. Canon Dr. Winfred Vergara at the Closing Eucharist of the Filipino Convocation of Episcopal Asiamerica Ministries at the Holy Trinity & St. Benedict’s Church in Alhambra, California, August 10, 2014)
Let me begin with something funny. A story is told of two Pinoy priests: one an Episcopalian, the other IFI (Aglipayan) who are avid fishermen. Every time they have a day off, they would go to the lake and fish. One day, a pastor of another denomination, a fundamentalist preacher, asked if he could join them. Actually, he wanted to “befriend” them so that he can proselytize and convert them to his church. He believed that his church is “the only true church” and that the Episcopal Church and the Iglesia Filipina Independiente are not good enough. Moreover he thought that the clergy of these churches do not have enough faith.
So they drove into the site, got into the boat and paddled till they reached the middle of the lake. As they were fixing their fishing poles, the Episcopalian priest said, “Brothers, I left the bait in the car by the bank of the lake; just stay on the boat and I’ll get it.” So he stepped on the water and walked right to the shore and came back to the boat. A few moments later, the IFI priest also said, “Brods, I’ll get three bottled water; just stay on the boat and I’ll come back.” So he also stepped into the water, walked right to the shore and returned to the boat. At this point, the fundamentalist preacher was really amazed and said to himself, “My God, I must have made a terrible mistake. These guys must have tremendous faith to be able to walk on water!” So he silently prayed for forgiveness and for more spiritual power and said, “Friends, I forgot my sun screen lotion; you just stay on the boat, and I’ll get it from the shore and come back.” When he stepped out of the boat, there was a big splash as he went right down to the bottom. As he came bobbing up and swimming back to the boat, the two priests said, “Brod, sorry. We forgot to tell you where the stepping stones are!”
My three questions this morning in relation to the Gospel, are: (1) Where is your stepping stone? (2) How strong is your foundation stone? (3) What kind of ripple does your pebble make?
Let me emphasize a portion of the Gospel just read: “Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus. But when he saw the waves, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”
1. What is your stepping stone?
It is obvious from this gospel that Jesus is teaching Peter and the other apostles the power of faith. At some point, he taught them, “if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain 'move' and the mountain will move.” Faith has the power to make visible the invisible, and if you have faith, there is nothing impossible. In healing the sick, opening the eyes of the blind and casting out demons, you need faith. Faith is the stepping stone of mission and ministry. Mission is an adventure, it is risky and unpredictable. It is like stepping on water and defying the law of nature. Hebrew 11 says, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” It is calling things that are not yet as if they are, and visualizing dreams as if they are real.
Without faith it is impossible to please God. Without faith, we cannot do great things for God, but with faith, we are able to do exceedingly more than what we can even hope or imagine. Faith in Jesus is the stepping stone, the foundation stone, the cornerstone of the Christians and of the Church. The church that has lost faith has lost its message; the church that has lost faith has lost its power; the church that has lost faith, has lost its reason for being.
Just as Elvis has left the building, without faith, the mission of the church is gone. Without faith, the building may still be there, the people may still be there, but the mission has gone with the wind. If you want your church to move from maintenance to mission, if you want your church to thrive, pray for faith that can move mountains and can walk the stormy sea.
2. How strong is your foundation stone?
We often sing the hymn, “The Church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord; she is his new creation by water and the word. From heaven, He came and sought her to be His holy bride and by His blood He bought her and for her life He dies.” The question we ask today’s church is “how strong is your foundation?”
One of the things that many churches are trying to do today is to re-examine the structure of the church so that she may be able to respond meaningfully to the changing times. The Episcopal Church has a commission called TREC- Task Force for Re-imagining the Episcopal Church. Its purpose is to gather data, hear voices, collect dreams, hopes and expectations from across the church and submit its findings to the next General Convention. Whatever their findings and recommendations are going to be, may become the stepping stones for changes that will occur in the institutional church.
When I was a young adult leader in the Iglesia Filipina Independiente in 1977, I participated in the major restructuring of this Filipino Church. It was the change of the church Constitution and Canons that transformed its papal polity into a more egalitarian and semi-democratic form of church government. The IFI is the only tangible product of the Philippine Revolution of 1898; the result of the religious reformation initiated by Don Isabelo Delos Reyes and Bishop Gregorio Aglipay. While politically departing from the Roman Catholic Church, it pretty much retained the structure that places the Obispo Maximo in similar status to that of the pope. While the former constitution allowed for election every four years, it was always a forgone conclusion that the reigning Obispo Maximo would be reelected because of his built-in power to control the Supreme Council of Bishops. So the IFI constitution of 1977, crafted by lay leaders, bishops and priests, placed the tenure of the Obispo Maximo to “six years without reelection” and shared power to the National Priests Organization, the National Laymen Organization, the WOPIC (Women of the PIC) and the YIFI (Youth of the IFI). In my recent visit to the IFI Philippines, I heard the oft-repeated comment: ”Isn’t the six year term too long for a bad OM and too short for a good OM? Isn’t it time for a new change?”
“How strong is your foundation” is the question that we, individually and corporately, have to wrestle from time to time. The apostle Peter was bold; he was courageous; and he was an adventurer. But he was also impetuous. Peter had faith but he was also impulsive, hasty and precipitate, driven by strong passion and emotion. At the drop of a hat, he would jump out of the boat, leaving the other disciples behind, without much discernment. His heart would go miles ahead of his head. Remember when he struck the servant’s ear with his sword? Or when he ran naked when he saw the Lord? Like a lone ranger or a Rhinestone cowboy, he would shoot first and ask questions later.
Peter was as human as we are and our institutions are as imperfect as we are. That is why I really love what the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie said about the Anglican ethos. Runcie said that when it comes to mission, the Anglican ethos is “passionate coolness.” To me it speaks a lot on how we approach change. It is a dialogical relationship between two propositions: “Take risks because mission is an adventure” but “Be careful not to marry the spirit of this generation or you will become a widower in the next.” Mission is a process of constant discernment and decision-making between two affirmations: “God has spoken and we must obey” and “God is still speaking and we must listen.” Passionate coolness is another word for the Anglican via media or middle way.
This tedious process of discernment, decision-making and community building (with Jesus as the chief cornerstone), is our assurance that we do not disintegrate, that we do not shoot each other on the foot, that we do not devour each other. The foundational values of “unity in diversity,” “striving for justice and peace” and “respecting the dignity of every human being” are the assurance that in the midst of theological typhoons, earthquakes, tsunamis and tornadoes, our faith will rise above the clouds and our structures will stand the test of time.
3. What Ripple Does Your Pebble make?
Changing the image of typhoons to earthquake, I was reminded about an earthquake who appeared as a passenger in a plane. (Now don’t ask me how an earthquake can ride a plane; my task is just to tell the story and your task is to listen. I hope my task is done, before yours. ) The earthquake told the stewardess, “I am going to that city and kill 100 people.” As soon as the plane landed, there was an earthquake and several buildings collapsed. That very day, it was reported that as many as 200 people were killed. The following day, the earthquake was again a passenger in the plane. The lovely stewardess approached him and angrily said, “Mr. Earthquake, you are a liar! You told me you’re going to kill only 100 people. Why is it that 200 people died?” The earthquake replied, “Miss, I only killed 100 people; the other 100 died out of fear.” So fear less and live longer.
As I changed from storm to earthquake, I will now shift from stone to pebble. You know that when a pebble is thrown into a pond, it creates a ripple. Now in transmitting the news, what kind of ripple does our pebble make? Is it Good News or a Bad News? We have learned in our ABCD (Asset-Based Community Development) study, that everything, including life itself, is either half-empty or half-full. We learn that we all have needs but we also have assets. Where do we base the development of our community? From needs or from assets? From our lack or from our abundance? From our inadequacy or from our potential?
What kind of message do you send from the pulpit Sunday after Sunday? Do you bring hope and inspiration or do you bring despair and discouragement? I am part of a Facebook Group that is named “Inspire Before Expire.” My prayer is this: “Lord, use my eyes to see greater things; use my lips to speak inspirational words; fill my heart with compassion; and use my hands to reach out and touch the world with your love.”
Now a ripple is defined by Wikipedia as “small waves or undulations, as water agitated by a breeze.” You notice from experience that when you throw a pebble into the pond, the water must be calm before you can make a ripple. In other words, if the water is stormy, you cannot see the ripple effect. If the church is conflicted, if there is no harmony and peace, it is difficult for the church to send its message. Jesus said to the Father, “I pray that they maybe be one, so the world may believe that thou hast sent me.” If we cannot be one in sharing a cup of coffee or tea, how can we truly be one in sharing the Body and Blood of Christ? So I pray for unity, peace and reconciliation in the church and in the world.
Let me re-read the gospel: And Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus. But when he saw the waves, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” And when they got into the boat, he rebuked the wind and the storm ceased. Then those who were in the boat worshiped him, saying, "Truly you are the Son of God."
Yes, only Jesus can calm the storm. Today, you come to this church with your hopes and your fears,with your problems and needs. My prayer is that you will see Jesus. Jesus alone can answer your deepest needs, mend your broken hearts, wipe the tears from your eyes and give you that peace that surpasses human understanding. As we reflect on the storms in our lives, in our church and in our world, let us once again turn to Jesus. He will calm the storm so that the ripples of Good News can touch every human heart, so that all people ---those in the boat and those outside the boat---may worship Him and proclaim “Truly you are the Son of God.” Amen.