Honoring the Nestorian Christians

Monday, March 30, 2015


(A Sermon on Palm Sunday by the Rev. Dr. Winfred B. Vergara, St. James Episcopal Church, 84-07 Broadway, Elmhurst, NY 11373. 03/29/2015)

There are many lessons we gain from the episode of Palm Sunday but foremost among them is the lesson on humility. While it is often dubbed as “the triumphal entry of Jesus to Jerusalem,” it is actually a prelude to his humiliation and defeat. 

As he entered Jerusalem on a donkey, he would be met by the crowds shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” Later the same crowds would shout, “Crucify him!” As he drove away the money changers from the temple with a whip, he himself would later be whipped and tortured by the Roman soldiers.

In all these shaming, Jesus as the Son of Man and Son of God, showed extraordinary meekness and humility and never used his power to exact vengeance upon those who rejected him, mocked him, spat upon him and crucified him. So if there is anything that we can learn most from Jesus, it is his humility. 

What is humility? Humility is the opposite of pride. In Christian ethics, pride is one of the “seven capital sins” (pride, greed, lust, sloth, gluttony, envy, wrath,) from which many of us needs redemption.

It is ironic that we, who are Christians and so-called “servants of God,” also have pride. I must confess that I am guilty of this myself. How is pride manifest in our lives?

1.     First, pride manifest itself in self-worship.
When you love yourself too much that you are no longer sensitive to the needs and feelings of others, you are falling into self-worship. 

In Greek mythology, there’s the story of Narcissus. He was so handsome and so attractive that when he looked at the pool, he fell in love with his own reflection, that he remained fixated to the water and drowned. 

In the Bible, there was Lucifer, the most beautiful of all the angels that he was called the “morning star.” Lucifer was also the most talented musician. It is said that whenever Lucifer moved, there was music. But with his beauty and talent, Lucifer wanted to occupy God’s throne and make himself “like the Most High” and so he was cast down from heaven.

The worship of self, this “narcissistic” or “luciferous” temptation, is often marketed in our modernistic, consumerist and me-generation. We love to take “selfies” with our iPhones or iPads and put them on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.  In movies and television, we call actors and actresses as celebrities and starts. We are crazy about the American Idol, the Voice, and Dancing with the Stars. Even in the games such as Football, considered to be a “team sport,” some players would dance in self-congratulation---even before reaching the end zone. A teenager was asked what her dream is and she said, “I will be the next American Idol!” 

In Philippine culture, we even had degrees of stardoms. We call actress Nora Aunor as the “superstar;” singer Sharon Cuneta as the “megastar”; and actress-dancer Vilma Santos as “the star for all seasons.”

In the Bible, Jesus was asked by Pilate, “Are you the king of the Jews?” Jesus was silent. The character of Leonardo De Caprio in Titanic proclaimed, “I am the king of the world!” But this “King of kings and Lord of lords,” the “Maker of heaven and earth,” “the One” who owns the world and everything in it, kept silent. That must be the loudest silence ever!

2.     Pride manifests itself in false modesty.
While pride manifests itself in self-congratulations, pride likewise manifests itself in self-devaluation. This is called false modesty. 

Many people, especially coming from situations or marginality or oppression, often do not want to be complimented. This may be due to “internalized oppression.” They have been used to being put down and so when someone makes a compliment, they feel uneasy. They are experts on what is called “self deprecation.” For instance, when someone said, “you’re beautiful,” instead of saying, “thank you,” they would say “No, I’m not beautiful; as a matter of fact, I’m ugly.” When someone says, “you have a beautiful dress,” they reply, “this dress? This is cheap; I bought this in the clearance sale.” 

False modesty is not humility. We are created by God in His image so that we can shine in human dignity. It does not do God any glory by us playing less than what we are created for. We should not worship or idolize ourselves but we should also not dishonor our human dignity by failing to be light of the world and salt of the earth. 
One of the baptismal vows in The Episcopal Church asks, “Will you respect the dignity of every human being?” And our response is “I will.” But respecting the dignity of every human being means respecting our own dignity as well. This is similar to what Jesus said, “Love your neighbor as (you love) yourself.” 

Jesus bore all humiliation but when he saw merchants and money changers in the temple cheating other people, Jesus was filled with righteous indignation. He took a whip and drove away the money changers and overturned their tables. He shouted at them, “My Father’s house is a house of prayer but you made it a den of thieves!” We should not keep silent when the human dignity of others, especially the poor and oppressed,  and ours are being trampled upon.

3.     Pride manifests itself in racism and cultural arrogance.
Individual pride hurts relationships but communal pride hurts the whole society. When one race or culture exalts itself as superior over the others, it becomes racism. Racism is a systemic sin not only by individuals but by people. 

What is racism?Racism is prejudice plus power. For instance, almost every racial-ethnic person has certain amount of prejudice over others. White maybe prejudiced against black, black maybe prejudiced against brown, brown maybe prejudiced against yellow, yellow maybe prejudiced against red. Sometimes there is even prejudice within a racial-ethnic group. Thus Filipinos maybe prejudiced against other Asians; Chinese maybe prejudiced against Indians; Mexicans maybe prejudiced against Cubans. Sometimes Filipino immigrants who have become U.S. citizens are prejudiced against Filipino immigrants who are undocumented.

So it is common to have prejudices but when you act out that prejudice with power, then it becomes racism.  Just as example, the employee who is black or brown maybe prejudiced against his employer who is white but he has no power to execute his prejudice. But his boss who is white has the power to fire his employee whom he is prejudiced against. So racism is prejudice with power---and in this country, the United States, the so-called “white privilege” is embedded in our political systems and social structures.

In this country, the natives are the Indians, our indigenous brothers and sisters. We are all immigrants--Anglos, Europeans, Asians, Middle Easterners, and to certain degrees---Latinos. The origin of Black History is one of African slavery and so racism by white against black is deeply imbedded in history. That is why the struggle against slavery is a struggle for human dignity, a struggle for human equality that God has given all of God’s creation. 

In God’s economy, no race can arrogate superiority over other races. God created all human beings equal in His sight. And so we, who are Asian Americans, Latino Americans and Anglo Americans as well, owe it to our Afro-American and Indigenous brothers and sisters, the struggle to free us all from any racial-ethnic superiority and to see ourselves equal as we are equal in God’s sight.

So the coming of Jesus on Palm Sunday was an extraordinary example of humility to show to us that God humbled himself and became a human being so that human beings would treat one other with equal worth, status and dignity.

4.     Pride manifests itself in Sexism, Homophobia and Bigotry.
When I was in Israel studying “The Palestine of Jesus,” I learned that “sexism, homophobia and bigotry” are the lot of the “scribes and the Pharisees” who rejected Jesus and whom Jesus called “hypocrites.” The typical “Pharisaic prayer,” goes like this: “God, I thank thee that I am a Jew, not a gentile; a Man, not a woman; a Son, not a dog.”

Sexism is gender discrimination and prejudice; homophobia is an irrational fear or hatred against gays and lesbians; and bigotry is an irrational intolerance of diversity of ideas or perspectives. On the whole, they are “pharisaic” attitude that accepts only one orientation, one perspective and does not have an open mind nor embraces the diversity and plurality of human natures.

I must confess that the Church of our generation, as in past generations, needs liberation in humility and openness to God’s continuing revelations. Some strongly conservative and fundamental Christians need to be freed from sexism, homophobia and bigotry; others need to come closer to the embrace and celebration of God’s amazing diversity. By oppressing, marginalizing and demonizing the gays and lesbians--and those different from them---they have unwittingly allied themselves with the scribes and the pharisees.

This is also true to the arm chair liberals. For a long time, many of us who call ourselves “balanced Christians” have skillfully avoided celebrating sexual diversity. Our tacit policy with regards to GLBTQ (gays, lesbians, bi-sexual, transgender, and queer) was one of “don’t ask, don’t tell”. While we have known many friends and family members who are GLBTQ, we keep them under wraps, seemingly hiding from shame. While we proclaim being open and tolerant, we do it from a safe distance, from the theology of convenience and from the security of our comfort zones. 

On Palm Sunday, Jesus did not enter Jerusalem riding on a horse, a symbol of certainty, strength and superiority. Instead, he entered Jerusalem riding on a donkey, a symbol of vulnerability, weakness and humility. Come holy week, He would be despised and rejected; betrayed and denied; beaten and tortured. He would be acquainted with grief and sorrows, he would be stripped naked, crowned with thorns, bearing our shame---and crucified for our sins. 

The Bible says Jesus did not use his power as God, a thing to be grasped but he humbled himself in human form and became obedient-- even to death on the cross. Therefore God, the Father has highly exulted him and given Him a name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow and every tongue confess---that Jesus Christ is Lord to the Father’s glory.

So the lesson we have on Palm Sunday is that our dignity, our honor, our standing with God is attainable through a life of humility.A wheat that is full of rich grains, stoops down; but a weed that is empty and has no grain, stands up. The richer the grains grow, the lower the wheat bends. So it is with us, God’s created beings. If we are rich because of God’s grace, we humble ourselves; if we are empty because of human pride, we are arrogant. May we learn from the way of Christ, the way of humility?