Honoring the Nestorian Christians

Monday, June 22, 2015


(The Rev. Dr. Winfred Vergara. St. John’s Episcopal Church,316 El Dorado Street, Stockton, California.6.21.2015)

It’s a joy for me to be with you again. It was sometime last year when we first came here for the Filipino Fiesta, honoring Father Justo Andres. Today, I am here for the Renewal Conference. Thank you for inviting me to preach on this Fathers' Sunday.

I learned also that today is the last day of the Rev. Anne Smith as your priest-in-charge. We would like to wish her God’s blessing as she concentrates on her other parish in Sacramento. Balancing life as a priest of two churches in two dioceses is not easy and I hope you all would give thanks to God for the ministry that Anne+ (with husband Keith and daughters Kate and Zoey) shared while she was with you.

As a missionary from Philippines to Singapore, to California, to New York for the last 37 years, I am no stranger to comings and goings. My wife and I have moved so many times in so many places and have experienced so many welcome and farewells.

I remember in 1986, after spending six years in Singapore as church planter and priest at St. Andrew’s Anglican Cathedral, we decided that it was time to move to the United States. At the Farewell Party, many lay people gave their testimonies and thanked us for the ministry we shared. Then it was time for the worship leader to introduce a hymn. Being a charismatic, he closed his eyes and in solemn voice, said “It was Jesus who brought Father Fred to us; and it is Jesus who is taking him away from us. So let us stand and sing his favorite song, ’What a friend we have in Jesus!”

In one sense, a priests or a missionary is like scaffolding. When the building is finished or when it is no longer necessary, or another scaffolding is needed, the former scaffolding is removed. As St. Paul wrote, “I planted; Apollos watered, but it is God who gives the growth.” So even as Anne departs as your P-I-C, you who remain here at St. John’s must continue to do the work that Jesus has called you to do.

THE GOSPEL (Mark 4:35-41)
This brings us to the gospel this morning. Jesus and the apostles rode in a boat and experienced a storm at sea. The winds and the waves were beating up the boat but Jesus was asleep. The apostles were terrified so they woke Jesus up. Jesus commanded the storm to be quiet and then rebuked his apostles for their lack of faith. 

Storms are a regular occurrence in this universe. I grew up on an island in the Philippines always visited by typhoons. Several times, I experienced storms while in a small boat at sea. And like the apostles of Jesus, I got terrified and rebuked for my lack of faith.

Storms are symbolic of trials and challenges in our life. The loss of a job, the death of a loved one, the breaking of a relationship, a life-threatening illness, a severe challenge in ministry, a seemingly-insurmountable problem: How do we deal with these storms in our lives?

Lesson 1: On the high plains of North America, there is a lesson to be learned by observing the behavior of cattle and buffalo when they are confronted with an impending storm. The herd of cattle will, as a group attempt to run away from the oncoming storm. Ranchers lose scores of cattle each year due to these futile attempts at flight. Despite the herd's best efforts, they could not outrun the storm. They bumped into each other in confusion or fall in the ravines and greater suffering occurs.

In contrast, a herd of buffalo seems to recognize instinctively that a crisis must be confronted head–on if it is to be survived. When storms pop up on the plains, the buffalo turn resolutely to face it, put their heads down (as in prayer), and walk through it. Many fewer buffalo die in storms than cattle. So the first advice seems to be: when the going gets tough, the tough gets going---forward.

Lesson 2: In the fertile soils of Asia, there grow many bamboos, pliant and pliable. When the winds blow, the bamboos bend down. While the strong and standing-proud Philippine mahogany would finally back down to the stronger typhoon, the humble bamboo bends down too low and would finally snap back after the storm. So the second advice seems to be: be patient, endure suffering for a while because the storm won’t last.

Bishop Chiu Ban-it, my former bishop in Singapore used to advice us clergy on how to handle stress. He said, “There are problems that can be solved in a day, others in a month, others in a year---and there are those which cannot be solved until kingdom come. If you just hang in there, you would outgrow these problems---and they will cease to be problems at all.”

Lesson 3: At the sea of Galilee, Jesus taught the apostles one valuable lesson. Take authority over the storm and command it to be still. St. Paul, the post-resurrection apostle, expressed, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Without God, there is nothing we can do. With God, there is nothing we cannot do!  

Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen (Hebrews 11). We call things that are not yet as if they are. We live by faith and not by sight. In the economy of God, even the storms in our lives, has a purpose in making us a better people. God works in mysterious ways but in the end God works for the good of all who love Jesus. Suffering produces endurance and endurance character.
Late last year, I was diagnosed with prostate cancer. It was a threatening storm in my life. In my family in the Philippines, my father died of lung cancer, my mother died of bone cancer, my oldest sister died of brain cancer and my younger sister died of breast cancer. My family medical history was not very encouraging.

But with God’s grace, I faced the problem head on and took authority on making choices. I underwent 44 days of radiation, followed every doctor’s advice, took every prescribed medication, drank every herbal tea my wife prepared. Prayers abounded from my family, colleagues, Church members and from my 4,000+ Facebook friends. Now as you see me, you may not recognize that I have just come out of that storm---or the storm got out of my life.  At the last blood test and MRI, all my vital organs are good and my psa level went down from 10 to 2---and I feel good!

As an “Easter People,” washed in baptism and redeemed by the blood of Jesus, we can triumph against the storms in our lives. Instead of being terrified by the waves, we can surf and ride above the waves. Instead of being paralyzed by the winds, we can soar like eagles and fly above the skies.

As people of faith, we are seated with Christ in the heavenly places, with God who is enthroned above the floods. Like the buffalos of America and the bamboos of Asia, we can look down the storm because we are above not beneath, the heads not the tails. We shall not only survive but will prevail ---because in Christ, we are more than conquerors. Amen.

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