Honoring the Nestorian Christians

Sunday, December 21, 2014


(Sermon by the Rev. Canon Dr. Fred Vergara, St. James in Elmhurst, New York 12/20/2014)

The world’s a stage and we are like actors and actresses in a godly play. 

A few years ago, I took a course on acting at Stella Adler School in Manhattan. I guess it was one of my fantasies should I retire or lose my job, I would venture in Broadway or the movies. Actually, the course included voice lessons and I needed that in preaching. I often use my throat instead of my diaphragm and I needed to correct myself. 

The course on acting included “scene imagination” and a lot of memorization. When you are acting on stage, you also need to deal with stage fright. So it was not easy. I remember a friend of mine who was cast in a role of an extra. All he needed to do was to simply hold the saddle of the horse and when the rider says, “Sebastian, is the horse ready?” all he needed to say was “It is!” Well, there was nothing complicated about the role and not much memorization. But when the actual stage play happened, he was filled with fright. So when the rider asked, “Sebastian, is the horse ready?” He coyly said, “Is it?”

William Shakespeare, the most famous s playwright in history wrote that “all the world’s a stage and we are all like actors and actresses in a play. We have our entrances and we have our exits.” We play various roles: priest, husband, brother, sister, friend, son, daughter, employee, boss, rich man, poor man, beggar.

Sometimes and in some mysterious ways, we are cast in a very special role by God Himself. The casting is oftentimes a great privilege and at other times, a terrifying responsibility. That is the story of Mary, the young virgin from Nazareth. 

Thousands of years before Christ, the people of Israel heard a prophecy that a virgin would conceive and bear and son and he shall be called “Emmanuel, “ God-with us. (Isaiah 7:14). All over Israel, hundreds of young girls might have wished the prophecy would fall on them. But it fell on Mary. The bible account is summarized in this angelus: ”The angel of the Lord appeared unto Mary” and gave her the good news. 

The Luke version told of the angel Gabriel appearing to Mary and saying, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you.” Mary was perplexed by the greeting but Gabriel again said, “Do not be afraid, Mary for you have found favor with God. You will conceive in your womb and bear a son and you will name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.”Mary asked, “But how can this be since I am a Virgin?” Gabriel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; the child you bear will be holy and will be called the Son of God!’

Mary, whom scholars guesstimated to be between 12 to 15 years old said, without much thought, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be done to me according to your word.”
From the outset, this entrance into the stage play was amazing! Who would not want to be in Mary’s role? But wait a minute. There are some problems here:

First problem: Mary was engaged to Joseph, the carpenter. What would Joseph do if he found out that the innocent looking girl he was to marry was pregnant with child? 

Second problem: In the culture in which they lived, the punishment for adultery was death by stoning. In fact, in the culture of the Pharisaic Jews, the husband himself and the father of the woman, would lead or participate in the stoning of an adulterous bride. How could she ever explain in the context of a conservative patriarchal society that she was pregnant out of human wedlock but impregnated by Jehovah?

The Bible tells us that the angel dealt with Joseph, who upon knowing the truth, wanted to divorce her quietly.  Joseph was a good-natured man and would not want to lead or participate in the stoning of the woman he loved. The Bible tells us that in a dream, the angel  explained to Joseph the nature of Mary’s pregnancy and advise him, to take Mary as his wife and not to abandon her. At this point, Joseph was given a role in this godly play: to be foster father to Jesus, which incidentally, he did so well.

Ein Kerem, five miles from Jerusalem
 But the gossip mill in the village might be hard to handle and Joseph and Mary had to leave Nazareth to hide in the place of her cousin, Elizabeth in Ein Kerem, about five miles from Jerusalem. In Ein Kerem,  the traditional greetings are sung and when Elizabeth saw Mary, she sang as in Roman Catholic prayers,  “Hail, Mary full of grace; the Lord is with thee, blessed are thee amongst women and blessed is the fruit of your womb Jesus.” 

And Mary responded by singing the great Magnificat:

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord! My  Spirit rejoices in God my Savior.  For he has looked with favor on his lowly servant and from this day, all generations will call me blessed. The Almighty has done great things for me and holy is his Name. He has mercy on those who fear him from every generation; he has shown the strength of this arm, he has brought down the proud and has lifted up the lowly.

So it was an amazing and wonderful story but with lots of twists and turns. The calling was a rare privilege but also a terrifying responsibility. At the birth of Jesus back Bethlehem of Nazareth, there was no room in the inn, so the baby had to share his crib with the animals. Three kings visited the baby and one of them gave the gift of gold, instantly making the poor baby so rich! Then King Herod, insecure about his kingship, started inquiring about this news about a baby king, and sought to kill him. The holy family again had to flee to Egypt, as Herod went about killing the baby boys on holy innocents’ day.  

At the death of Herod the Holy Family went back to Nazareth as the young Jesus assisted his father, Joseph in making furniture, particular the yokes of oxen. Meantime in the river Jordan, John was baptizing with water and proclaiming that the one who is coming, “whose sandals I am not worthy to untie,” was coming and will baptize believers with the Holy Spirit. In that instance Jesus appeared and as he was baptized with water, the heavens opened and the Holy spirit came upon him and the voice was heard in heaven, “This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased.”

The then Spirit led Jesus to be tempted in the wilderness where he triumphed against all temptations known to human beings. And when he returned to the scene, with power, he went about Galilee healing the sick, opening the eyes of the blind, cleansing the lepers and liberating those oppressed by demons.

But the Pharisaic religious society rejected Jesus and accused him of blasphemy. They plotted to kill him. Finally, they were able to convince the Roman colonial government to sentence him for inciting a riot. Judas, one of the twelve apostles betrayed him; and Peter, his most senior apostle denied him. After torture, beatings and death march, he finally reached  Calvary where he was nailed to the cross between two thieves. 

And where was Mary in all these? She was there feeding Jesus when he was a suckling child, she was there teaching Jesus how to sing the Psalms, she was there coaxing Jesus to make miracles, like changing water into wine. And yes, she was there at the foot of the cross!

There is a portion in scripture that we seldom read when we talk of Mary, because this was about Mary’s suffering. It is found in Luke 2: verses 25-35 and let me read:

Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying:  Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.”

Luke then tells us that Joseph and Mary marveled about these words from Simeon. But not only that, and listen to this very carefully. “Then Simeon blessed (Joseph and Mary) and said to Mary, Jesus’ mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

“A sword will pierce your own soul.”This grim prophecy was fulfilled on the cross. As the son suffered on the cross, the mother agonized at the foot of the cross. As the body of Jesus was pierced by the spear, so the soul of Mary was pierced by the sword. In the whole drama of human redemption, Mary became the theotokus, the bearer of God’s pain and glory. She acted excellently the godly play for our salvation. The blood of Jesus cleansed us from sin and his death opened to us the gate of eternal life, the mission of Jesus was accomplished and Mary became a holy accomplice. The piercing of her soul was the sacrificial part of her role as the bearer of God’s Son!

As we prepare to celebrate Christmas, let us thank Mary and remember all the mothers who likewise bear the joy, the pain, and finally the hope for their children’s glorification. Surely, the Almighty has done great things for Mary.  Blessed is she among women and blessed is the fruit of her womb, Jesus. Amen.

(Note: Sunday Worship at St. James Church, 84-07 Broadway, Elmhurst, NY 11373. 9:30 AM Chinese; 11:00 AM English; 1:30 P.M. Spanish. Call 718-592-2555 when in New York)

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