Honoring the Nestorian Christians

Monday, November 30, 2015


(Sermon of The Rev. Canon Dr. Winfred B. Vergara at St. James Episcopal Church, 84-07 Broadway, Elmhurst, New York. 11.22.2015)

"God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself and giving to us the ministry of reconciliation." 2nd Corinthians 5:19
We live today in a broken world. We have broken homes, broken schools, broken churches, broken bodies, broken relationships, broken hearts, and broken spirits. This brokenness is felt by nature itself. One scientist describes the planet earth as suffering from a cancer that has metastasized and manifests this dis-ease in super-typhoons, earthquakes and climate change.

We live not only in a broken world but in a dangerous world. Crime and violence have invaded streets, our schools, our homes, our churches. The increase of school shooting in the United States, the recent terroristic act in Paris and Beirut among others, illustrate that there is no safe place anymore. Even sporting events, shopping malls, movie houses, restaurants can be targets of those who want to sow seeds of terror. When we are on the plane, when we drive our cars, when we ride the train or when we are on vacation cruise, there is no guarantee that we are safe. To many people of color who have seen blacks being unnecessarily shot at by white police officers, even so-called enforcers of the law, could not be trusted.

So how shall we live in this broken and dangerous world? As Christians, what kind of witness can we offer? As a Church what kind of people shall we be?

I began thinking about this sermon in the aftermath of the Paris tragedy. I listened to the fears and hopes expressed in the mass media and the social media, the rhetorics of political and religious leaders as well as the voices of ordinary citizens. And I wrote down three things on how Christians must be:

First, we must be a people of visions.
Visions and dreams are language of the Holy Spirit. The Bible says in the Book of Joel and in the Book of Acts, “In these last days, God declares, I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh. The young shall see visions; the old shall dream dreams and everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” 

Proverbs 29 reminds us that “without vision, people perish” but we must discern whether our vision is of the right spirit. For while there are visions that are lofty and noble, there are also visions that are born from a different spirit.

In the United States where presidential election is coming, we hear some of these visions that appeal to our basic instincts. There is a vision that appeals to our instinct for self-preservation: “This is our country, this is our land. Let us deport the 12 million illegal immigrants, let us build a great wall and close our borders. Or else we will have no land and no country.”

There is a vision that appeals to our basic instinct of fear. “There are 10,000 Syrian refugees coming to our country. They maybe potential terrorists, so let us close our doors. We cannot jeopardize our sense of security.”

There is a vision that appeals to our basic instinct of partisanship, discrimination and prejudice: “Let us only welcome Jews and Christian refugees. We must not accept Muslim refugees because we are not sure if they come with good intentions. For all we know, they might be the Trojan Horse of the ISIS!”

While these visions may appeal to our emotions and feelings, the questions we should ask are: “Are these visions godly? Are these visions holy?” To use an evangelical jargon “WWWD” or  “What would Jesus do?” 

If this world in which we live is broken, if this relationship among us is broken, then our vision should not be about fragmentation and exclusion but one of healing and reconciliation. 2 Corinthians 5:19 says, “For God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting our trespasses but giving to us the ministry of reconciliation.” Christians, among other peoples, should become leaders and prime movers in this ministry of reconciliation.

When I first came to this church two years ago, I addressed myself to see an interracial congregation at the 11 o’clock service. Elmhurst in Queens is one of the most racially, culturally, ethnically and religiously diverse cities in New York and in the world. There are more than 200 languages spoken in a two-mile radius; there are some 125 countries represented; there are many churches, synagogues, shrines and temples representing various religions.

If St. James must serve as a “light of Christ” in this community, then we must see a vision of harmony, where people from diverse backgrounds may experience ease in relationships. Our vision must be in sync with the mission of the Episcopal Church, which is “to reconcile all people to unity with God and each other in Christ” (BCP page 855). Our vision must approximate the vision of Shalom, the peaceable Kingdom where “the wolf lives with the lamb, the leopard with the goat, the lion with the calf---and they neither hurt each other” (Isaiah 61).

I quoted Martin Luther King, Jr. who in 1968, spoke these words “We must face the sad fact that at eleven o’clock on Sunday morning, when we stand to sing ‘In Christ there is no East or West,’ we stand in the most segregated hour of America.” More than 30 years have passed and there are still vestiges of this American apartheid which MLK, Jr. referred to. The White Church, the Black Church, the Asian Church, the Latino Church, the Korean Church, and the Filipino Church, etc. .. 

To a certain extent churches in America were formed out of proven principles in church growth. The principle of homogeneity; "birds of the same feather flock together." The principle of language and culture: "we must worship God from the language of our hearts." But to a large extent, "separate and unequal churches" in America were formed out of hostility than Christian hospitality, out of prejudice than Christian charity, out of fear of the stranger than Christian embrace.

I remember when my wife and I first came to the United States many years ago. We went to a small parish and expected to be welcomed. We thought they would be happy to have new members. But when we entered the church and introduced ourselves as coming from the Philippines, the ushers said, “Don’t you know there is a Filipino Church in the next corner? “ Outwardly, we thought they simply wanted to be helpful; inwardly, we felt we were not welcomed. We did not belong there.”

Recently, at the Diocesan Convention of Long Island, Bishop Larry Provenzano made a special mention of the growth of St. James. In just two years, we made a lot of progress. We have become a “turn-around church.” From 20 to over a hundred members in just two years. We have moved from maintenance to mission, from decline to renewal, from death to life and growth.

But the one progress cannot be measured is the growth of our vision of a healed church and a reconciled world.  We have become a growing congregation of rainbow colors: White, Black, Brown, Yellow and Red---Anglos, Latinos. Caribbean, West Indies, Chinese, Filipinos, Koreans, Indians, Bangla Deshi, Indonesians, Burmese, Thai, etc.. We are becoming a shining symbol of a one Church with many races and cultures, striving to become ministers of reconciliation.

But I would be lying if I say that it is easy to build community in the context of diversity. For it is our basic instinct to build walls. I simply do not mean the fence outside this building that shields us from malevolent intruders. I mean the walls that we build in our hearts that cover our eyes from seeing the possibility that when we welcome strangers, we actually welcome angels unawares. Our walls maybe the color of their skin, the accent of their English language, the smell of their food, their sexual orientation, their cultures and traditions, their political ideology, their theological backgrounds---even their ability to pledge financially!

No, we cannot be free of prejudice through words; we cannot be united by a committee; we cannot be reconciled by the Vestry. Only Jesus can free us, only Jesus can unite us, only Jesus can reconcile us!

Secondly, we must be people of prayer.
Prayer changes things because God changes things. II Chronicles 7:14 says, “If my people who are called by My name shall humble themselves and pray, and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I shall hear from heaven, and will forgive their sins, and heal their land.”

Much of our prayers are prayers for only ourselves. There’s nothing wrong with that, but too much petition and little thanksgiving would make our prayers self-serving. Like talking to Santa Claus, we present God with a shopping list. “Lord, give me this and give me that and I want it right now!” The Book of James 5 says, “You ask and do not receive because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your own passions.” 

Some people come to church only when they are in need. But once they met that need, they don’t return to give thanks. Very much like the ten lepers who were cleansed and only one returned; they come to pray for jobs and when they get a job, they don’t come to church again. I know I have blessed many cars and after they were blessed the drivers don’t visit the church again. So let our prayers be more of thanksgiving than asking. Today is our Thanksgiving Sunday. One of the most effective ways of giving thanks is to pledge for the work of the Church. 

In this broken and dangerous world, the prayers that we need to develop are prayers of transformation. That God in His mercy and grace would transform the hearts of all of God’s children; that they will truly repent and be converted so as to “turn their swords into plows and their spears into pruning hooks”; that they turn their guns into ointment and their bombs of destruction into balms of healing grace.

I remember the story of a missionary who went to Africa to evangelize the natives. While in the jungle he saw a big bad lion, looking hungry and ferocious. He tried to run away but the lion was faster so he decided to stop, knelt down, closed his eyes and prayed, “Lord, change the heart of this lion into a heart of a Christian, so he won’t eat me.”When he opened his eyes, he saw that the lion was kneeling in front of him. He was so happy that the lion was “converted” until he heard the Christian lion praying, “God is great and God is good and I thank him for this food!”

Well, maybe our prayers cannot change the nature of the beast. But if our prayers cannot change others, our prayers might change us. When I was young and spiritually immature, whenever someone did something wrong to me, I wanted to take revenge. I get stressed just thinking how I can get even. But when I learned to pray, I am able to look at things from another perspective. Jesus said, “you have heard that it was said, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ but I say unto you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”  Mahatma Gandhi, an admirer of Christ added, “If we live with eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth, then we will have a world full of people who are toothless and blind.”

Let us also pray for the leaders of the nations. Here in the Episcopal Church, we pray every Sunday for our president, Barack Obama; and our governor, Andrew Cuomo. We do this not only perfunctorily, so that they “may make wise and just decisions and serve the welfare of the people.” We pray for them with the awareness of the burdens of leadership that they carry. In the political spectrum as well as in other forms of leadership, it is easier to criticize than to act and to lead. True leadership is servant leadership and it is not easy.

We also pray for the spiritual leaders of the world that religion will not become an opiate of the people or a tool of oppression or violence. With the rise of religious fanaticism, it is easy for unscrupulous spiritual leaders to exploit their people at the expense of others.  Sometimes war can become more brutal when religion is brought into it. When someone says, “I kill you because I hate you,” the blood is only on his hands; but when someone says, “I kill you because God hates you, “there is double jeopardy.  God, Jehovah, Yahweh, Allah or whatever we call the true God becomes a false god. 

In the Old Testament, Moloch is the name of the false god, who demands sacrifices from his people and delights in the blood of his people’s enemies. This is not a true God. No, the true God is not a jihadi God; the true God is not a crusader God, the true God is not a holy war god. 

The true God is not a tribal god who shows partiality over other tribes. The true God is a universal God who shows no partiality and who loves the whole world. The true God yearns to draw all humankind to Himself and want them to live in peace. He loved the world so much He gave them the Peace Child, Jesus the Prince of Peace.

One of the things that struck me about Pope Francis was his oft-repeated words to the masses: “Please pray for me.” We are used to thinking that the clergy are the ones duty-bound to pray for the lay. The truth of the matter is that the ordained leaders need more prayers. I have known of bishops who have suffered from depression, burn-out and stress from the job. If I, as a priest, has a headache this big, the bishops have a headache THIS BIG! So we must pray for our Presiding Bishop, the bishops, the archbishops, the cardinals and the pope. 

And for you, my dear ones; please pray for me also. After two years that I have been to this church, I have known which pew you often sit. It’s funny but Episcopalians are creatures of habit. There are those who sit on the front because they want to hear my sermon and find out which part they can examine; and there are those who sit at the back so they can sneak out whenever they don’t like my sermon. And so whenever I had a chance, I come to this sanctuary alone and imagine you sitting on your favorite pew and I would be pray for you. And then I will look into the pews that are empty on Sunday and would pray that whoever comes for the first time and sit on that pew, they would be able to meet the Lord in the preaching of the Word and the celebration of the Eucharist.

Third, we must be a people of faith.
Hebrews 11 defines faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Faith is calling things that are not yet as if they are. One of our Sunday school kids who just arrived from the Philippines was excited to see so many foods on the table and told his grandma, “We are rich!” That’s right! Let the poor say, “I am rich!” Let the weak say, “I am strong!” Because of what the Lord has done! 

The opposite of faith is fear. Faith, along with hope and love, is one of the highest values but fear is one of the basest instincts. When we think and act out of faith, we hit the mark of God. But when we think and act out of fear, we miss the mark. Peter was walking on water straight to Jesus. He had just defied nature. But when he saw the waves and became afraid, he sunk. 

It is no wonder that the message of the angels to the shepherds of Bethlehem was “Do not be afraid.”  Fear paralyzes us to inaction or jerks us up to violent or irrational reaction. 

In Tagalog, we have a word for faith. It is “Bahala Na.” It means “in the end, God wins.”
In the Book of Revelation, we see scenarios of gloom and doom that seem to correspond with the events happening in our own time.  Revelations 6 speaks about the “end times,” the coming of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse: war, famine, pestilence and death. Even Jesus spoke of these cataclysmic events:”There will be wars and rumors of wars. Nation will rise against nation; kingdom against kingdom…there will be famine and earthquakes in various places” (Matthew 24:6).

But the Jesus Story does not end in death but in resurrection and ascension and the promise of His coming again in glory. The Bible Story essentially hinges on the words of God: “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.” When I rise in the morning and fly to the uttermost part of the earth like to Borneo or Timbuktu, God is there; when I climb to the highest peak like Mount Everest, God is there. When I go down to the lowest depths of the earth like in Death Valley, California, God is there.

Our new Presiding Bishop Michael Curry summoned Episcopalians to the “Jesus Movement.” It is a twin vision of evangelism and reconciliation. To me it sounds like back to the basics and back to the future. Hebrews 13:8 says, “Jesus is the same, yesterday, today and forever.” His mercies never changed; his love never changed. If He saved you yesterday, He will save you today, and he will save you forever. If he loved you yesterday, he loves you today and he will love you forever. He will never leave us nor forsake us. 

So let us join the Jesus Movement and get into this line dance of human redemption. Indeed,  “don’t worry; be happy.” In the end, God wins. So let us be people of visions, of prayer and faith and serve Christ in His ministry of reconciliation. Fear not, rejoice and be glad!

Saturday, November 28, 2015


(Sermon of The Rev. Canon Dr. Winfred  B. Vergara at St. James Episcopal Church, 84-07 Broadway, Elmhurst, New York 11373 last November 8, 2015)

Henri J.N. Nouwen's celebrated book highlights Jesus' ministry in the image of "The Wounded Healer."

Good morning. Today I would like give a special sermon entitled “Good Grief: How to Move On from Sorrow to Joy.” 

 I would like to address this message to a friend who lost a son from accident and the pain and sorrow seem too hard to bear. I would like to address this message to an acquaintance who recently lost a child from a car accident. I would like to address this message to some of you who lost parents, who lost a job, who lost something precious. I would like to address this message to some of you who experienced a failing health or a broken relationship.

As your pastor and priest, I would like to address your concerns, hoping that the words from my mouth and the meditation of all our hearts will bring light to your darkness and become a healing balm to your aching souls. I have chosen this verse from Isaiah 61:3 which says “He gave me beauty for ashes, an oil of joy for mourning, a garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness, the planting of the Lord, that He might be glorified.”

This verse is part of the scroll from the Prophet Isaiah, which Jesus Himself read in Luke 4:“The Spirit of the Lord God is upon Me, because the Lord has anointed Me to preach good tidings to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord, And the day of vengeance of our God; To comfort all who mourn,To console those who mourn in Zion, To give them beauty for ashes, The oil of joy for mourning, The garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; That they may be called trees of righteousness, The planting of the Lord, that He may be glorified.”
 As human beings, we are made by God to somehow bear pain and sorrow and even tragedy. However when sorrow is overwhelming, we are sometimes shocked, anesthetized and traumatized.  Oftentimes,  grief may linger for a few days but sometimes due to the severity of pain and sorrow, the feeling of grief may linger for weeks or months---and became abnormal or neurotic grief. When this happens, we need to extricate ourselves from the bondage of grief and sorrow. We need to wrestle openly and honestly to the grim reality of our loss and get out of the stranglehold of depression. We need to resist being sucked into the hole of existential darkness and move on to the grieving process that leads to light. Then coming out of grief, we put on the garment of praise and become stronger, deeper and better able to help others in their pains.

There are three steps from sorrow to joy.

1.      CRY: The first thing you have to do when you lose something or someone precious is to cry. Yes, cry! Cry and cry and cry until tears wash away your pain, your guilt, your grief. 

You know what children do when they lost a game? They cry, they cry and cry until the pain is gone. Then they move on and play again.

As children of God, we are gifted with tear glands and they are there to be used when we need them. And in grief, the tear glands are there are water faucets to be used in washing away our sorrow and pain, our guilt, our shame, our grief---especially when our grief is overwhelming.

In many of our societies, it is very difficult for men to cry and express their emotions because we have been taught as children that boys don’t cry. My father was a soldier during the Second World War and maybe in their military training, they were made tough and strong and to treat crying as a sign of weakness. And so he taught us not to cry. When my brothers and I would come home crying after a fist fight with neighboring kids, he would belt us up until we stop crying. Yet for my sisters, it was okay to cry. We got the impression that crying was for babies, for “sissies” and for girls. 

And so when my father died, I shed no tears, but deep within me, my heart was bursting! I repressed my emotions as some sort of respect for him but I know deep in my soul, it was not right! From then on, I felt a depressive spirit within me that gnawed my soul. I appeared happy on the outside, I laughed on every happy occasion but later on that depressive spirit would hang down on me like a black drape to suppress and repress my joy.

My deliverance from this depressive spirit happened when I meditated on the Scripture about the humanity of Jesus. There is a verse in the Bible, which is considered the shortest verse. And that scripture is “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). Jesus wept when he was informed that Lazarus, his friend, was dead. In this instance, the image of Jesus is not a superman who is invulnerable from sorrow and pain.  He is not even pictured as a man who controls his emotion and struggles to be strong and immovable. In this image, he is fully human,

That ”Jesus wept” is an image of a normal man, an authentic man, a man who can be overwhelmed by sorrow and pain---and because of that He can also minister to those who are overwhelmed by their own sorrows and pains. The bible further says, “He was wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities, upon him was the chastisement that made us whole and by his stripes we are healed.”

That crying like Jesus became my own model when I visited patients in hospitals.  At St. Luke’s Hospital in Manila, I ministered to a cancer patient, the first time I came across the reality of this dreadful  disease. The hospitalization took too long with various surgeries, chemotherapy, cobalt radiation until she became terminally ill.  It took a toll on the family’s finances, the health of her husband and the pitiful struggle of their daughter. One day, as I was praying for her as she agonized in pain, tears just welled down from my cheeks. She and the family were a bit surprised, as if that was the first time they saw a priest crying. But the patient smiled and said that the pain had miraculously disappeared. She eventually went home and died peacefully. The bereaved family moved on with their lives, but the image of Jesus weeping would remain to me, to be the very heart of the humanity of Jesus. Jesus wept!

So when necessary, cry. Cry, Cry! It is human to cry. It is good to cry. It is Christ-like to cry. Cry away your grief and sorrow.  Like Jesus, express your emotion, your love, your compassion and remove the dross and impurities that clog your heart, the lump that clog your throat. Cry until your tears wash away the darkness that covers your mind; cry until your tears wash away guilt and shame. "So foul a sky clears not without a storm," wrote William Shakespeare in Hamlet. Let your crying storm out the clouds from your soul until the sun rises up and breaks open a new day.

2.       HOPE: The second step to move on from sorrow to joy is to hope. 

As human beings, we are created with built in mechanism to bear pain, sorrow and loss. In fact, within our body are built-in systems that can bring healing without outside intervention. For instance, if you cut your skin, all you have to do is clean it up, bondage it to prevent infection, and the broken skin would close up and heal itself.

But there are times when wounds are deep and we need surgery and antibiotics. It is the same with sorrow and loss. There are times when sorrows are too overwhelming that we go into shock, panic, depression and mental break down. It is at this point that we need to remember that there is hope.

Hope springs eternal within us but extreme pain and sorrow suppress it. Recently in South Korea, we visited Jeju Island and one of the things that fascinated me are the underground springs. Some of these fresh water springs burst out from the sea. Hope is like a fresh fountain that wells within us and we can allow it to spring forth even when we are experiencing a salty feeling on the surface.

There is a scripture in 1st Thessalonians 4:13 which says, “Grieve not as those who have no hope.” The proper way of reading it is not “Grieve not” but “Grieve, grieve! But not as those who have no hope.” Grieving is as natural as breathing. Every person has and will experience griefs. There are minor grief and major grief. But there is also such thing as normal grieving and neurotic grieving.  Normal grieving is to grieve with hope; neurotic grieving is to grieve as there is no hope.

One of the ways to understand hope is to understand who you are. You know that I travel a lot due to my job as Asiamerica missioner in the Episcopal Church and every time I am on the plane some 35,000 feet above the earth, I am always conscious that when I am up there, I am no longer Fred Vergara but I am an SOB---a “Soul On Board.” The thought that I am a soul enables me to overcome my fear of flying and erases my fear of heights. That is why I can sleep soundly and even snore in the plane ---to the envy of my wife who can hardly sleep (either from worry or hearing my snore) ---while on the plane!

St. Teresa De Avila, the great mystical writer wrote that “we are not material beings with spirits but we are spiritual beings with bodies.” In other words, we are like aliens in this world, immortal souls inhabiting temporal and mortal bodies. Nowadays politicians are talking about illegal immigration. We are all immigrants in this world. Our mortal bodies are passing like undocumented immigrants crossing the borders of Mexico.

One of the striking phrases in the Bible is “and it came to pass.” Yes, everything must come to pass. This gnawing feeling inside must come to pass. This pain, this sorrow, this grief will come to pass. They will come to pass because they are temporary. The Bible says, “All flesh are like grass and like flowers in the fields. The grass withers, the flowers fall. Only God remains forever.”

So I look to the hills from whence my help comes? My help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth. The Lord is my light and my salvation. I put all my hope in you my God.

Yes, hope. Hope! To paraphrase John Wesley: “If you lose money, you lose nothing; if you lose health, you lose something; if you lose a loved one, you lost a great thing. But if you lose hope, you lose everything.” So don’t lose hope. Eventually, all shall be well.

3. PRAISE: The third and final step to move on from sorrow to joy is to praise. Praise God from whom all blessings flow, praise him all creatures here below!

One of the greatest persons of praise was Job.  Job was a righteous man. He always do the will of God. He loved God with all his heart, his soul, his mind. He loved his neighbor as himself. The bible says there’s no one as righteous and as obedient a servant of God as Job. God was so pleased with Job and bestowed upon him blessings after blessings: seven sons and three daughters, 7,000 sheeps, 3,000 camels, 500 oxen, 500 donkeys and many servants.

But one day, in some strange twist of faith, Satan and God had a conversation that led to Job’s destruction. Satan claimed that Job’s righteousness and godly obedience was due to God’s blessings. And so if God removes those blessings, it would likely mean that Job would become like any other man. He would be just as bad and evil. God agreed that Job would be tested and said to Satan,  “Do anything you wish but just spare his life.”

So the reversal of Job’s fortune happened. Overnight, he lost his family, he lost his possessions, and then he was sick with boils all over his body. The physical pain, the emotional sorrow, the spiritual trauma, you name it, Job had suffered every one of them. But what did Job do? Job cried out, tore his robe, shaved his head and said, “Naked I came out from my mother’s womb and naked I will depart. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Praise be the name of the Lord.”

We’ll I am not anything close to Job. My righteousness from the start is like filthy rags. I am a wretched sinner in Christ’s redeeming. But I too had shares of grief as Job had. At age 7, I lost my grandpa who brought me up; then I lost a childhood friend from a drowning accident right before my eyes. I lost my Dad while I was in Singapore; and while in New York, I lost my Mom and my two sisters to cancer in just a span of two years. Then I was sick with cancer myself. At that moment, I have a taste of Job’s agony. And some of you, or all of us, for better or worse have some shares of pain and agony.

The story of Job did not end in tragedy. It ended into a restoration of joy with blessings double what he had before. As for me, the loss of my parents and sisters, are restored because as a priest in this and many other churches I served, I have many fathers and mothers and sisters and brothers. Like Jesus, every Christian who has overcome grief has the opportunity to be a "wounded healer" and everyone who suffers and grieves can always look to the One who was acquainted with grief, who bore our sorrows and pains, and the One from whose stripes we are healed. 
Fred Vergara+ lived,studied and worked in three countries:Philippines, Singapore and the United States. He now lives with wife, Angela in New York, serving as full-time Missioner for Asiamerica Ministries in The Episcopal Church Center (Domestic & Foreign Missionary Society) and part-time Priest-in-Charge and revivalist at St. James Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Long Island 11/8/2015.