Honoring the Nestorian Christians

Tuesday, September 16, 2014


(Sermon by Rev. Dr. Fred Vergara at St. James Episcopal Church, Elmhurst, New York last Sunday, September 14, 2014)

 “To err is human; to forgive, divine” (Alexander Pope). Peter asked, “Lord, how often should I forgive my brother, seven times?” Jesus answered, “Not seven times but seventy times seven.” (Matthew 18:21-22)

Forgiveness is one of the Christian values that is often easier said than done. Sunday after Sunday, during the mass, when we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we include these words: “And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

We seek God’s forgiveness of our sins from the basis that we also forgive those who sinned against us. But we know in our hearts that there are some people in our lives whom we found hard to forgive.

When you factor in reconcilion into forgiveness, it would be even difficult. Jesus says in Matthew 5:23-24 :”If you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother (or sister) has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother (or sister), and then come and present your offering.” If we take this injunction very seriously, I wonder if there be enough people left in this congregation.

Forgiveness is not easy; in fact, it is difficult from a human point of view. For how can you forgive someone who hurt you, abused you, betrayed you, lied to you, utter all kinds of gossip about you, caused you all kinds of pain and suffering?.

A story tells about a man who went around the village slandering the wise man. One day he went to the wise man’s home and asked for forgiveness. The wise man, realizing that this man had not internalized the gravity of his transgressions, told him that he could forgive him on one condition: that he go home, take a feather pillow from his house, cut it up, and scatter the feathers to the wind. After he had done so, he should return to the wise man’s house.

Though puzzled by this strange request, the man was happy to be left off with so easy a penance. He quickly cut up the pillow, scattered the feathers and return to the house of the wise man.

“Am I now forgiven?” he asked. “Just one more thing,” the wise man said, ”Go now and gather up all the feathers.”

“But that’s impossible,”  the man protested, “the wind has already scattered them!”

“Precisely,” the wise man replied, “though you may truly wish to correct the evil you did,  it is as impossible to repair the damage done by your words as it is to recover the feathers. Your words are out there in the marketplace, spreading hate, even as we speak.”

What makes forgiveness difficult is the damage that sin has done. Often, the degree of  difficulty depends on the gravity of the offense; the greater the sin, the more difficult it is for forgive.  It also assumes that the person who sinned, has repented and is seeking forgiveness and reconciliation.

The gospel this morning (Matthew 21:18-35), however, offers a different perspective. In the context of a community, the apostle Peter came to Jesus and asked, “how often should I forgive my brother? As many as seven times?”

In the Hebrew numerology, the number 7 is the number of completeness. God created the world and everything in it, including the human beings, in six days---and on the 7th day having completed everything---God  took a Sabbath rest.

So when Jesus answered, “Not seven times but seventy times seven,” he was talking over and beyond the final number. He was talking “infinitesimal.” The number of times one must forgive is beyond completeness. It defies numbers because it is limitless.

As there is no limit to how God has forgiven us, and so there is also no limit to how often should we also forgive others in our hearts. Just as we are to love God with all our hearts, our souls and our minds, so we also must love others as ourselves.

Even Christians of many shades and colors would find this “infinitesimal forgiveness” hard to understand, let alone to practice,  and so it is only through the power of the Holy Spirit that we can approximate this Christian value.  And there were some who did it!

This is one story in distant history (1915): During one of the persecutions of the Armenians by the Turks, an American girl and her brother were pursued by a blood-thirsty Turkish soldier. He finally trapped them at the end of a lane and killed the brother before the sister's eyes. The sister managed to escape by leaping over the wall and fleeing into the woods. Later she became a nurse.

One day a wounded soldier was brought into her hospital. She recognized him at once as the soldier who had killed her brother and had tried to kill her. His condition was such that the least neglect or carelessness on the part of the nurse would have cost him his life. But she gave him the most painstaking and constant care. When the soldier finally recovered, he recognized the nurse as the girl whose brother he had slain. He said to her, "Why have you done this for me who killed your brother?" She answered, "Because my religion teaches me to love and forgive my enemies."

This is another story in recent history (2006): Last October 2, 2006, a gunman entered an Amish school in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania. In front of horrified pupils, a crazed man, Charles Roberts ordered the boys and the teacher to leave while keeping ten other girls hostage. Roberts prepared to shoot the girls with an automatic rifle and four hundred rounds of ammunition that he brought for the task. The oldest hostage, a thirteen-year-old, begged Roberts to "shoot me first and let the little ones go." Refusing her offer, he opened fire on all of them, killing five and leaving the others critically wounded. He then shot himself as police stormed the building.  

The story captured the attention of broadcast and print media in the United States and around the world. By Tuesday morning some fifty television crews had clogged the small village of Nickel Mines, staying for five days until the killer and the killed were buried. The blood was barely dry on the schoolhouse floor when Amish parents brought words of forgiveness to the family of Charles Roberts, the man who had slain their children. 

The outside world was incredulous that such forgiveness could be offered so quickly for such a heinous crime. Of the hundreds of media queries that the authors received about the shooting, questions about forgiveness rose to the top. Forgiveness, in fact, eclipsed the tragic story, trumping the violence and arresting the world's attention. Instead of glorifying the violence, the media, on that instance, emphasized the power of forgiveness.
St. Paul said about his own conversion, “It’s no longer I that lives but Christ that lives in me.” This transformation was clearly evident in the nurse who cared for the enemy and the Amish community who forgave their children’s murderer.

Today, in light of terroristic acts that we see and learn around the world, particularly the savage killings and beheadings of some Christians and minorities by extreme elements of Islamic militants in Iraq and Syria, it is a big question on how forgiveness can take place, without repentance. I could not presume how the families of the victims and the rest of the world can ever forgive such acts. And I could not discount the need to put an end to such evil.

But in the context of community, forgiveness has beneficial effects not only on the ones being forgiven but also to those who actually forgave. Medical studies have proven that there is a correlation between healing and forgiveness. According to a study done in Stanford University Hospital (Google Wikipedia),  the following wellness has been associated with forgiveness:
1. Lower heart rate and blood pressure
2. Greater relief from stress
3. Decrease in medication use
4. Improved sleep quality and decrease in fatigue
5. Decreased physical complaints such as aches and pains
6. Reduction in depressive symptoms
7. Strengthened spirituality
8. Better conflict management
9. Improved relationships (not just with the offending party but in other relationships as well)
10. Increase in purposeful, altruistic behaviors

In other words while anger, worry, resentment and desire for revenge, cause diseases, forgiveness offers a cure. When you are “punishing” someone by choosing not to forgive, it is in fact you, who will suffer in the end. So the logical thing to do is to let God be the avenger, let go of the bitterness and receive health and wellness but choosing to forgive. Incidentally, the Amish are some of the people who have better health and longer life span.

Forgiveness is a hard decision to make but it wins in the end. It may take a lot of prayers, efforts and letting-go, but it is well worth in the long run for the person who forgives---spiritually, psychologically and physically.  The message of this gospel is therefore: “Forgive and live.” Amen.

Monday, September 15, 2014


(Sermon by the Rev. Dr. Winfred B. Vergara at the “Celebration of Life” (funeral mass) for Al Jaug Adlaon held at St. James Episcopal Church, 84-07 Broadway, Elmhurst, NY 11373 .09.13.2014)

Let us pray: Lord, we look up to you today. You alone can truly answer our deepest needs. You alone can truly mend our broken hearts. You alone can truly wipe the tears from our eyes. You alone can truly comfort us. You alone can give us life abundant here on earth and in the age to come life everlasting. Amen.

Having known Al for quite some time, I believe he would not want us to have all tears and sorrows. I believe he also wants us to have smiles and laughter. After all this is a celebration of his life. So I will begin with something funny.

Two men died and went to heaven: one was a priest, the other a New York taxi driver. In heaven there are many mansions, so the driver was given a huge and beautiful mansion. But the priest, he was given only a little condo. Naturally, he complained. St. Peter explained: “I’m sorry Reverend, but we reward people in heaven based on their faith in Jesus Christ but also on their performance while on earth. You see, when you preach, the people are sleeping. But when this driver drives, people are praying!”

Well, I pray you won’t sleep during this sermon, because I also want to have a mansion in heaven.

Life is short. To quote one Shakespeare: “Life is but a walking shadow, a poor player. That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more.” 

It was only last May 11 when Al and Sany were here in this church. It was Mother’s Sunday and we had a wonderful time. Then we went to their home in Rockaway near the beach. We witnessed the blessing of their house. It was destroyed by Hurricane Sandy a year ago. It took almost a year to finally restore it to its beauty.

After the house blessing, we went to a nearby restaurant for dinner. Al described the place as “a French Restaurant owned by an Italian, managed by a Chinese and staffed by Latinos.” I was fascinated by Al’s wit and sense of humor.

A couple of years ago, Al and Sany, Fr. Ray and Uning, and Angie and me were in a Group Tour in Europe. We had a longer time for fellowship and conversation. Al and I were former journalists. We love reading. We love writing. We were both editors.  So I always look forward to have another meeting with Al.

But last month, August 18, Father Ray called me up to say that Al collapsed after playing tennis and never recovered. Al Adlaon, born 1955, died 2014. He was barely 59 years old. It was shocking: he was young, healthy-looking, and sports-minded. How could he die that soon? 

Life is short. St. James, the apostle of Jesus wrote, “For what is life? It is like a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away” (James 4:4)

David, the shepherd boy who became the greatest king of Israel and author of most of the Psalms, wrote: “Our days are like grass: or as flowers of the field, it flourishes for a while and the wind passes over it and it is gone” (Ps. 103). He put our average lifespan to be “seventy years---or eighty, if we have the strength…and then we quickly pass and fly away” (Ps. 90). And then he prayed, “So Lord, teach us to number our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”

“Number our days,” means order our lives, set our priorities right. “Heart of wisdom,” make sense of our short life. How do we do that? 

Stephen Covey, one of Al’s favorite authors, (“Seven Habits of Highly Effective Persons”) said that each one of us should have a four-fold mission statement which says: “To live, to love, to learn, and to leave a legacy.” If we give due attention to this “four L’s,” we will make sense of our short lives.

1. Mission one is ‘to live.’ To simply live life to the full; to live with a sense of adventure and meaning. We should not waste our short life with worries, anger and resentment but simply live with joy, contentment and peace. 

My wife and I love to travel. As missionaries and tourists, we’ve been to so many parts of the world. We also lived in at least three countries---Philippines, Singapore and the United States. We’ve collected many souvenirs, heard many stories, learned many cultures and met many friends. One of my friends was a British priest, Canon Roy Yin, who lived to be a hundred years old. During my last visit, we had dinner and when we parted, I said, “Roy, take care” and he replied “Fred, take risks.” That was a great advice. If we must live life to the full, let us not be afraid to take risks, to venture in unknown territories. In the words of Captain Kirk of Star Trek, “to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.” If life is short, we should live it to the full.

2. Mission two is “to love.” Love is the greatest commandment and the Bible says “love is the fulfilling of the law.” If you have love, you can do anything and everything you do would make sense.

One of Al and Sany's best friends commented in his eulogy that
Al died “because his heart was overworked, overworked in loving his wife, Sany.” He said that Sany was the envy of her fellow nurses because when she goes home from work, dinner has already been prepared by Al.

I am reminded of a group of Filipino husbands who died and went to heaven. Before assigning them their mansions, St. Peter wanted to know how they performed as “men of the house.” Peter said, “All of you who were ‘henpecked husbands’ on earth (‘Andres De Saya’ in Tagalog), move one step backward.” Everybody moved except one. So Peter said, “Well, I’m glad there is at least one who is ‘macho,’ who was not a henpecked husband.” He came over and whispered to the man, “Well, Sir, what is your secret?” The man replied, “No secret, St. Peter; my wife just ordered me not to move!”

One of the benedictions being used in Church says” “Life is short and we have never too much time for gladdening the hearts of those who are travelling the dark journey with us. So be swift to love and make haste to be kind.’ Surely Al loved his wife.

Love is often easier said than done. Often, our love is conditional. We love only the people who love us. We find it hard to love the unloving and the unlovable. But true love is unconditional. It is not subject to the treatment we receive. It is a self-transcending and self-abdicating. It is a gift that is simply given away, expecting nothing in return. As one poet said, “A house is still a house even when there’s no one living there; a chair is still a chair even when there’s no one sitting there; but love cannot be love, until it is given away.”

God’s love is so radical, so lavish and so unconditional. Jesus did not wait for us to be good when he loved us. It was “while we were yet sinners that Christ died for us.” So our second mission in life is to approximate Christ’s unconditional love in the life we live and in the relationships we create.

3. Mission three is “to learn.” This is where Al really shone like a star. He believed that education is a never-ending process. His resume contains so many educational attainments. BA in Journalism in Silliman University; MA in Communications in the University of Hawaii; MA in Journalism in New York Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. He worked as a teacher, a professor, an editor, and as a self-taught financial adviser. Even in his early retirement, he never stopped learning new things. He was member of many civic groups including Rizal Youth Club, Silliman University Alumni Association, the Riverdale Chorale Society and the Philippine Jaycees.

The world is so full of mysteries waiting to be explained. The world has many secrets waiting to be discovered. It makes you young when you have the curiosity of a child. Education is also one of the great equalizers in any society. If you are highly educated, you stand better chances of improving your life and the life of your family. We must have a hunger for learning and a zest for life.

4. Mission Four is “to leave a legacy.” Sometime ago, I was in a park and saw this sign: “Take nothing but pictures and leave nothing but footprints.” 

Of course, it meant don’t take anything valuable from the park and don’t leave any of your belongings behind, but its meaning to me was more than that. There is nothing we can take from this world. Naked we came into this world and naked we will go back. From dust we came and unto dust we shall return. But there is something more precious than silver or gold, more valuable than money or estate that we can leave behind. It is a legacy of faith, faith in Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God.

St. Paul had a disciple name Timothy. It is rare for a teacher to admire a student, but St Paul said, “Tim, I am reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also.

This is the legacy that will surely bring us to heaven: the continuity of the faith from generation to generation. It is faith in Christ and the power of His resurrection. Jesus said in John 14, “Believe in God, believe in me. In My Father’s house, there are many mansions. If it were not so, I would have told you. I will go to prepare a place for you, and if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to myself, so that where I am, there you maybe also.” Thomas asked, “Lord, how can we know the way?” And Jesus said, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life; no one comes to the Father but by Me.”

I believe Al is at the moment being welcomed in the mansion in heaven because of his faith in Jesus Christ. And if there is a lasting legacy that he has left with us, it is his “sincere faith.”It is this faith in the promised resurrection that will remove our sadness, that will soothe the pain of separation, and that will overcome the sting of death. It is this faith that will assure us that our loved ones who departed will rest in peace and rise in glory in that utopia of peace and tranquility.

Let me end with this simple image of how I view Al’s funeral today. Years ago when Al left his country, the Philippines, and came to America, his family and friends, gave him a farewell party. Then they brought him to Manila International Airport. As the plane lifted up, the people below saw it disappeared in the clouds. Al might not return to Philippines. Meanwhile, after few hours of air travel, another set of Al’s family and friends were waiting to welcome him in America. They saw the plane emerged from the clouds and finally landed at JFK Airport. These family and friends of Al in America received him and gave him a Welcome Party.

My faith tells me that we are here today in an earthly airport having a Farewell party for Al; but there, at the heavenly airport, he will be welcomed by Jesus in the company of the saints and of those loved ones who have gone before. And one day, when our own time comes, we will also fly to the Heavenly Airport---and Al will be there, with Jesus and the Welcoming Party. With his big smile and open arms Al will say, “Welcome to Eternity!”