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!

No comments:

Post a Comment