Honoring the Nestorian Christians

Friday, October 30, 2015


 EAM KOREA 2015: First of a Series


(The Rev. Canon Dr. Winfred B. Vergara, missioner for Asiamerica Ministries in the Episcopal Church at the Opening Eucharist of the EAM International Consultation held at the Cathedral of St Mary and St. Nicholas, in Seoul, Korea, October 1, 2015. EAM Consultation of September 30-October 5, 2015 was held in South Korea in celebration of the 125th Anniversary of the Anglican Church in Korea)

I was a bit concerned when Bayani asked me to preach because the Lectionary for October 1 is on St. Remigius, Bishop of Reims, a Roman Catholic Archdiocese in France. I would have a hard time relating him Episcopal  Asiamerica Ministry. Fortunately, Bayani said that the liturgical committee had chosen the alternative Lectionary readings for mission. I was relieved!

Bayani and I are graduates of St. Andrew’s Theological Seminary in the Philippines, and the Lectionary played an important part of in our priestly formation.  We believe that “the whole counsel of God,” is not found in one or two proof texts, but in the whole Lectionary. The Lectionary is a series of interconnected Bible lessons called “pericopes,” which are arranged systematically into years A-B-C. If you attend Church every Sunday, you will hear the entire Bible in three years!

So important is the Lectionary that there was a story about a huge, run-away asteroid hurtling from outer space and was about to hit the earth. It would mean the end of the world as we know it. Since there was very little time for evacuation to other planets, it was deemed that humankind would just have to prepare for their imminent death. A group of clergy in Manila gathered to share what they would preach for their last sermon. They asked, “From what portion of the Bible would you preach from?”

The Baptist preacher immediately replied, “Of course, I will preach from John 3:16.There is nothing more important than to remind people that God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son that whoever believes in Him will not perish but have everlasting life.”

The Roman Catholic priest said, “I will preach from Matthew 16:18. There is nothing more important than to remind people what Jesus said, ‘You are Peter and on this rock, I will build my church!’”
The Pentecostal pastor said, “I will preach from Acts 2. There is nothing more important than to remind people that the Holy Spirit came down on Pentecost and rested on the disciples and they spoke in tongues.”

At this point, all eyes were now fixed on the Episcopal priest. “And you, Apo Padi, from what portion of Scripture will you preach from?” The Episcopalian replied, “I’ll check out the Lectionary!”

Mission of the 70 (Luke 10:1-9)
So our Lectionary gospel for mission says in Luke 10: “After this, the Lord appointed 70 others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them, ‘The harvest is plenty but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest…Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals and greet no one on the road... Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick and say to them, The Kingdom of God has come near you.”
There are three points I like to emphasize. (By the way, you who know me, also know why I am a three point preacher. Well, three reasons: first, I am a Trinitarian; second, I am the third child in my family; third, because as I grow older, there are three things I begin to lose. First, my hair; second, my memory; and third, I can’t remember.)

First thing I wish to emphasize is that mission is community work.   
 Mission is partnership. Jesus sent the 70 in pairs, two by two. Ecclesiastes 4:9 says, “Two are better than one because they have a good return for their labor; if either of them falls down, one can help the other up.”

The beginnings of the EAM happened in the 1970’s when the mark of mission in the Anglican Communion was MRI---“mutual responsibility and interdependence.” The Church as the Body of Christ was a powerful metaphor: “When one member suffers, all suffer together; when one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Corinthians 12).

It was also the birth of the Lausanne Covenant where the great Anglican evangelical leader, Dr. John Stott defined evangelism as “the proclamation of the whole gospel, by the whole church, for the whole man, in the whole world.”

In the Episcopal Church, it was the time when the national level started VIM- Venture in Mission. Emphasis was on congregational development and advocacy. Dioceses raised funds and engage in partnership with the Domestic & Foreign Missionary Society (DFMS) in funding start-up churches and creating new ministries.

In the U.S., it was a period of rapid immigration. The passage of the Immigration Act of 1965, abolished the restrictive quotas and ushered an influx of new immigrants from Asia, Africa and Latin America. The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, the 1930 Filipino anti-miscegenation law, the 1940 Japanese internment Act and other discriminatory and racist policies against Asians were now seemingly-forgotten as the nation braced to welcome Asian immigrants. Some Asian countries suffered “brain drain,” because their doctors, nurses, engineers, etc. went to America.

The Asian congregations in The Episcopal Church at that time were few and far between. And so the Asian priests experienced loneliness and isolation especially in dioceses where they found themselves the only Asian or person of color. Canon James Pun from San Francisco said “I am lonely;” Canon John Yamasaki from Los Angeles said, “I am lonely;” the Rev. Albany To from New York said, “I am lonely;” the Venerable Lincoln Eng from Oregon said, “I am lonely.”

Out of that loneliness, they reached out to each other and began to build community. They met to map out their mission. It was simple, just a newsletter to connect themselves with one with another. When the whole meeting was over, their proposal evolved into a resolution. At the 64th General Convention in Louisville, Kentucky of September 29-October 11, 1973, that resolution was submitted, deliberated and approved. The Episcopal Asiamerica Ministry was established, with substantial funding. In the immortal words of Canon Pun, “We asked for a bicycle but they gave us a bus. Now we need a driver.” The driver was the Rev. Dr. Winston Ching, the first EAM Missioner!

Today, we continue to see the fruit of this partnership, collaboration and community. This EAM Consultation in Korea today is a shining example that when we work together, there is nothing we cannot accomplish. When we are in partnership with God and each other in Christ, there is no such thing as mission impossible! In the words of our Latino colleagues: Si puede; yes, we can!

2. The second point I want to emphasize is that renewal and evangelism are inextricably intertwined. 

The sending of the 70 disciples in Luke 10 cannot be divorced from the sending of the original 12 apostles in Matthew 10.  In Matthew 10, Jesus sent the 12 apostles with the same mission but their mission field was limited. The 12 apostles were not to go among the Gentiles or the Samaritans but only go only to the lost sheep of Israel. However, when he sent the 70 others, the scope of the mission field was broadened. They are now to go into every town or city where Jesus intend to come.

It was the prophet Jeremiah who first called Israel “the lost sheep.” The prophets Ezekiel and Micah would later prophesy the hope that the coming Messiah would gather the lost sheep. Ezekiel’s vision is a valley of dry bones coming back to life by the breath of God.

So when Jesus the Messiah came, it seemed that his first priority was the renewal of Israel as the People of God.  Israel was chosen by God to be “a holy nation, a royal priesthood, God’s own  people.” They were given the law and the prophets. They were called to a higher standard of morality and spirituality but somehow along the way, they forgot who they were and became like any other nation. It was crucial they be reminded of who they were, so they can again speak with credibility about the amazing things God has done.

The point I am driving at is that renewal comes before evangelism. If we, the Church, the New People of God, must become effective in proclaiming the Kingdom of God to the world, then it is important that we will first be renewed. We need the fresh anointing of the Holy Spirit to empower us, once again "to preach the Good News to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed and to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor" (Luke 14:18).

The early Church received the renewal of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost before they were able to evangelize the Graeco-Roman world. Before renewal, Peter preached 3,000 sermons and converted only one soul, his. After the renewal, Peter preached one sermon and converted over 3,000 souls!

But it was not just the preaching of Peter and later of Paul that made the early Church grow from Jerusalem, to Judea, to Samaria, to the ends of the world. It was the quality of the lives they led and the relationships they created. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of the bread and to prayers. They ministered to the sick and did many good deeds. They celebrated the Eucharist with glad and sincere hearts. They worked together and shared their gifts to others in the power of the Spirit.

There was no lobbying or competition in their assemblies. No politicking in their polity. They were not motivated by selfish ambitions. They did not exhibit the “siege mentality” or the “scarcity mode” to guard their turfs or to protect their interest. Their wisdom came from above and not from beneath. They simply did what pleases the Lord---and the Lord added to their number daily, those who were being saved.

Yes, our 42-year-old EAM Bus needs a tune-up from the Holy Spirit. Maybe the Korean Hyundai can give us a lift. We need a renewal within to evangelize without. The whole Church needs renewal of its Body Life, to be able to touch the world, once again, with the love of Christ. Jesus prayed for his disciples, “that they maybe one, so the world may believe” (John 17:21).  For if we cannot be one in sharing a cup of Starbucks, so to speak, how can we truly be one in sharing the Body and Blood of Christ?

Perhaps, this is what Pope Francis is hoping to accomplish with the Roman Catholic Church, that their clergy and people would be inspired and renewed, so that they could speak with credibility of the Kingdom of God, or the “Reign of God,” as what our own Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori would say.

3. The third point I wish to emphasize is that hospitality and mission are interrelated.

Jesus said to the 70, “Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals.” Whenever Westerners preach about this text, they always emphasize “travel light.” But I would like to look at this scripture with Asian eyes. I imagine that Palestine at the time of Jesus was similar to an Asian village where people are extremely hospitable. When you enter an Asian village, you do not need anything, if you are vulnerable enough to receive what people give. In fact, be careful of saying “no,” because it is an insult to reject their hospitality. So eat what is set before you, and if you are offered to sleep in their bedroom, and they sleep in the living room, just try to sleep soundly because that is exactly what they want for you. They would feel honored if you accept their hospitality. It is by being vulnerable that you will be received like an angel in disguise.

Western Christian mission in Asia has not made much headway because it assumed a position of invulnerability, of power, of triumphalism. It has assumed that its heavy baggage of Western civilization was superior to that of Asia’s. Because it came in the form of a superior culture, it failed to accept Asian hospitality. Why must the Asian name be changed when he becomes a Christian? Why must he burn or throw away his ancestral tablets? Does the moment of baptism become the moment he becomes a stranger to his own people?

Chinese people used to say, “One more Christian, one less Chinese.” Except for the Philippines, South Korea and East Timor, Christianity is still a minority religion in Asia. Because it rejected Asian hospitality, Christianity continues to be a foreign religion.

One of the shining examples of inculturation that happened in the Anglican Church of Korea was the attempt of the early missionaries to adapt Korean architecture in church building. Tomorrow we are going to Ganghwa Island and you will see some of these early church buildings. In China, the great Jesuit missionary Mateo Ricci enculturated Chinese ancestral tablets into the funeral rite and the Chinese were beginning to accept it. It was unfortunate that in 1704, the Vatican sided with the Dominicans in the infamous “Rites Controversy” and prohibited the Jesuits from adopting Chinese culture. The prohibition was lifted two hundred years later, in 1938, but it was a little too late. I hope that our Asia-America Theological Exchange Forums would help in this dialogue of contextualization. I hope that our Young Adult Service Corps, who are here today, are learning from their mission in Asia.

In America, where peoples from all over the world have come, mission takes on a new form. Being a missionary is no longer confined to Anglo-European descent. As a matter of fact, Korea is now the largest mission-sending country. And what about the Filipino domestic workers in diaspora? I say they are “cryptic missionaries” because they can enter the homes of Muslims in Saudi Arabia or Buddhists in Singapore and HongKong where conventional missionaries could not. As nannies and care givers, they can pray for their charges or sing “Amazing Grace” and other Christian songs as  lullabies to the babies or elderly they care for. In so doing they unknowingly sow the seeds of the gospel of love and peace.

Being a missionary from America or Europe is no longer confined to those who are sent to Africa, Asia, Latin America or Eastern Europe. Being a missionary in America is simply opening the doors of our hearts and the doors of our churches to the peoples around the world who have arrived on our doorsteps. To be a missionary is to be hospitable.

America, predominantly a nation of immigrants, has become a huge mission field. There are now more than 300 Buddhist temples in Los Angeles. Muslims number more than Episcopalians or Presbyterians. Majority of the youth are “unchurched.” They call themselves “spiritual but not religious.” They now have a category called "nones."

In 1990 in Silicon Valley, a survey was made on how many go to church on a given Sunday. Out of its 2 million people, only 8% go to church. (I could just imagine the result of a similar survey in New York City.) In that same year in Silicon Valley, the Census revealed that the ratio of population was 60% white/40% Asian and Hispanic. Ten years later, in 2000, the ratio was reversed: 40 percent white/60 percent Asian and Hispanic. Recent projections say that in 2050, the Latino/Hispanic would start becoming the new majority; but by 2065, the new majority would be predominantly Asians. Asians comprise 2/3 of the world’s 7 billion people. With an open immigration from China and India and with the birthrate in Asiamerica population, that projection is not far-fetched.

Of course, many of us won’t be here in 2065 (I know I won’t), but even now, we must open our eyes to the mission field. “The harvest is plenty but the laborers are few; pray to the Lord of the harvest to increase the laborers into his harvest.”

In May 2005, a year after I became the second “driver of the EAM Bus,” the Rev. William Bulson invited me to preach at Holy Apostles’ Church in St. Paul, Minnesota. It was Pentecost Sunday and it was the welcoming of the Hmong to the Episcopal Church. Later that year, I preached at the Cathedral in Minneapolis where the Hmong were confirmed and received. It took three hours for three bishops- Bishop Jelinek, Bishop Swenson and Bishop Chang to lay hands on over 300 Hmong Episcopalians. Yes, the Hmong are now among us.

But the story of Church Growth does not end with Asians reviving declining parishes with their presence. The “re-peopling” of Episcopal churches should move on to the discipleship of the new Episcopalians as the next missionaries. This is what the Rev. Toua Vang, our first Hmong priest is hoping to accomplish through the Missionary Enterprise Zone (MEZ). This is what many Asian clergy in Long Island are doing. Once we were in the margins; now we are moving in the mainstream. Once we were no people; but now we are God’s people.

One of the things I learned during my recent cancer treatment was to be reflective about my life and ministry. My radiation therapy lasted three months and during that period I had more time to read, to pray and to reflect. Funny how a bad thing can turn out to be a good thing.

I was inspired by MSNBC Sportcaster Stuart Scott who said, “You beat cancer by how you live, why you live and in the manner in which you live.” I said to myself, how can I inspire others by my life, even in my small sphere of influence? I am missioner for Asiamerica Ministries; how I can encourage my sisters and brothers in our common mission? How can I inspire before I expire?

Then I read some words that describe a community. A community of sheep is a flock; a community of cows is a herd; a community of lions is a pride; a community of ants is a colony; a community of larks is an exaltation ----and this is what I like best---a community of eagles is a convocation!

The community of eagles is a convocation! The EAM is an umbrella of six ethnic convocations. I once was asked, “What is an Asiamerican Episcopalian?” My answer, we are a combination of Chinese inscrutability, Japanese inventiveness, Korean resourcefulness, South Asian spirituality, Southeast Asian versatility, Filipino sense of humor---and a little bit of Anglican stiff upper lip!

If therefore, EAM is convocation of eagles, then there is hope we can soar in mission and evangelism. One of the characteristics of eagles is their keen vision. They are so focused they can see the goal from 10,000 miles above the sky. So in the midst of confusions and uncertainties in the world and in the church, our Eagle Eyes should always be focused on Jesus who alone can truly answer the deepest human need, who alone can truly mend broken hearts, who alone can truly wipe the tears from human eyes---and who alone can truly heal, renew and empower us for mission.

Bishop-elect Michael Curry in his address at the recent General Convention challenged us to join afresh in the "Jesus Movement." He challenged us to "GO" in obedience to the Great Commission (Matthew 28: 16-19). So let us seek renewal in this Consultation and go forth "to make disciples of all nations." So let us, by the power of the Spirit, "heal the sick, raise the dead, drive out demons and proclaim "the Kingdom of God is near!

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