Honoring the Nestorian Christians

Thursday, June 9, 2016



(Homily of the Rev. Canon Dr.Winfred B. Vergaran. Episcopal Chapel of Christ the Lord, New York City. June 9,2016)

Today we commemorate St. Columba, the Abbot of Iona. He was a monk, an abbot and missionary credited to have spread the gospel in Ireland and Scotland. He founded several  monasteries, the most important being the abbey in Iona which became  a dominant religious and political institution for centuries. The patron saint of Derry, he is remembered today as one of the three chief saints of Ireland, along with Saint Patrick and St. Brigit.
St. Andrew's Theological Seminary in MetroManila where I first preached about St. Columba.
Come to think of it, “St. Columba” was the topic of my very first homily as seminarian at St. Andrew’s Theological Seminary in the Philippines.The reason why I can’t forget was that I was called to the Dean’s Office right after that sermon and was not given another chance to preach in the chapel again. 

In that homily, I spoke highly of Columba as an ascetic. At that time in the early ‘70’s, there were some faculty members in our seminary (as in the whole Philippines) who were chain-smokers and heavy drinkers and their examples were being emulated by seminarians. (Not anymore. I think SATS is now a non-smoking zone)

So after having defined an ascetic as “a person who dedicates his life to the pursuit of contemplative ideals and practices self-denial or self-mortification for religious reasons,” I added in a snide remark. I said, “St. Columba never smoked and was not fond of drinking alcohol---unlike some of our faculty members!” 

There was a brief but deafening silence in the chapel and the amiable Dean Charles Clark, motioned me to follow him to his office. I was a rookie and a wet-in-the-ears preacher and learned a lesson or two on how not to offend your hearers…and not to pontificate on your professors---if you wish to receive a “faculty award,” which of course I did not get. 

But on the other hand, I might have saved some from lung cancer and liver disease, if they followed my advice. But that’s another matter…

Another reason I can’t forget Columba is because of “columbarium,” a structure of vaults lined with recesses for cinerary urns holding the cremains of the dead.
Columbaria had been a fixture in many cemeteries and now also in many churches since cremation has become a popular alternative to burial. 

Columba which is the Latin (as well as Irish) word for “dove” and columbarium is derived from “dovecote,” a compartmentalized housing for doves and pigeons. Columba’s original name was Crimthan, meaning “Fox” and for some reason, change into “Dove.” 
 The name "Dove" speaks not only of his disciplined, abstemious and ascetic character but also of his life, a sinner saved by God’s grace and thereafter, a life lived in the power of the Holy Spirit---a far-cry from the meaning of "Fox."

Born and raised in Ireland, Columba was a striking figure of great stature and powerful build, with a loud but melodious voice which could be heard from one hilltop to another. He used that gift to enhance his evangelistic and missionary skills which covered the multitude of his sins.

Tradition says that sometime around 560, Columba became involved in a quarrel with Saint Finnian of Movilla Abbey over a psalter. Interesting how ancient saints quarrel over a psalm as modern saints quarrel over a laptop.  
Saint Finnian disputed his right to keep the copy that eventually led to the pitched in battle, during which many men belonging to each of their clans were killed. 

The second grievance that led him to incite the clan Neill to rise and engage in battle against King Diarmait at Cooldrevny in 561 was the king's violation of the right of sanctuary. Prince Curnan of Connaught, who happened to be Columba’s kinsman, had fatally injured a rival in a hurling match and had taken refuge with Columba, was dragged from his protector's arms and slain by Diarmaid's men, in defiance of the rights of sanctuary. Another battle ensued and again many men died. 

A synod of clerics and scholars threatened to excommunicate Columba for these deaths, but St. Brendan of Birr spoke on his behalf, pleading that he be exiled instead. Columba was bothered but on advice from an aged hermit, Molaise, he pledged to expiate his offences by going into exile voluntarily and win for Christ as many souls equal or more in number as those that had perished in the battles he was involved in. 

He left Ireland and traveled to Scotland with twelve companions in a wicker currach (Irish boat) covered with leather. 

According to legend he first landed on the Kintyre Peninsula but he could still see Ireland (just as Sarah Palin could see Russia from Alaska, just joking) so he moved north to the west coast, where the island was given to him as his headquarters. 

It was in Iona that his abbey was established to become the “mission center” where monks and missionaries would be trained, empowered and sent all over Scotland and Ireland.
Aside from the missionary and literacy services his abbey provided, his reputation as a “holy man” led to his role as a diplomat among the tribes. There are many stories of miracles which he performed during his work among the Scots and the Picts, the most famous (and outrageous) was his supposed to be victorious encounter with an unidentified animal that some equated with the “Lock Ness Monster!”

Aside from his physical prowess, Columba was a renowned man of letters, having written several hymns and having transcribed 300 books.

Columba died in Iona and was buried in 597 by his monks in the abbey he founded. In 794 the Vikings descended on Iona. Columba's relics were finally removed in 849 and divided between Scotland and Ireland. 

Today St. Columba is venerated all over Christendom particularly in Ireland, Scotland and Canada which until 2011 has the largest ethnic group coming from Scottish ancestry. 

The name “St. Columba” became attached to many Roman Catholic, Anglican, Episcopal, Presbyterian and even Orthodox churches worldwide. Not a bad legacy from the man whose name transformed from a “fox” to a “dove.”  Amen.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016



 (Homily of The Rev. Canon Dr.Winfred B. Vergara at the Chapel of Christ the Lord, 815 Second Avenue, New York City, June 7,2016)

Today, we celebrate and honor the pioneers of the Episcopal Anglican Church of Brazil. It was on June 1890 when two Episcopal missionaries from Virginia: Lucien Lee Kinsolving and James Watson Morris) came to Brazil. They were followed by three more: William Cabell Brown, John Gaw Meem and Mary Packard. 

These five Americans partnered with six Brazilians: Vicente Brande, Américo Vespúcio Cabral, Antônio Machado Fraga, Bonaventura de Souza Oliveira, Júlio de Almeida Coelho, and Carl Henry Clement Sergel. Together, they founded, organized and established Igreja Episcopal Anglicana du Brazil (IEAB).

The partnership in mission bore fruit. In 1899, Kinsolving became its first bishop, and in 1907, the Igreja was declared a missionary district of The Episcopal Church and 58 years later, in 1965, it became an autonomous province of the Anglican Communion. 

What lessons can we learn from the missionary enterprise of the Episcopal Anglican Church in Brazil?

A few years ago, I had the privilege of meeting Primate Bishop The Most Rev. Francisco de Assis Da Silva in the Episcopal Church Center in New York City. He had just come down from a meeting with then Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori and my colleague, Canon Peter Ng, introduced him to me. We had a wonderful conversation. Among other things, he mentioned he had a couple of priests who have the same surnames as mine, “Vergara.”

Bishop Francisco is a dynamic leader, an energetic evangelist and a great conversationalist. In just 15 minutes or so, I learned much about Brazil and the Episcopal Church there. I learned three things that are distinctive of the Church in Brazil:

1.     Commitment to partnership between missionaries and indigenous people
Right from the start, the five missionaries from Virginia Theological Seminary engaged in partnership in mission with the six local Brazilians to organize the church. They were advanced in years with regards to missionary thinking that we don’t bring Christ to the local context for Christ is already there.  Our task as missionaries is to affirm and discover Christ from the context in which we find ourselves. Japanese theologian Kosuke Koyama wrote that “Cultures are whatever is good, whatever is lovely, whatever is worthy of praise… and cultures are fingers of God pointing to Christ.” 

Portuguese and Spanish missionaries brought “the cross and the sword” as Christianization and colonization came hand in hand. Other European missionaries brought “both guns and ointment” as ambiguous characters of Western civilization. Missionaries preached Christ garbed in Western culture with very little regard to the cultural dignity of indigenous people of their mission fields. 

The Episcopal missionaries distinguished themselves from their English Anglican counterparts in that at the early stage they coalesced with local leaders and celebrated worship services in the lingua franca of the Brazilians post colonialization, Portuguese.

2.    Commitment to the Social Gospel
Evangelism and Social Action are the two wings of the Christian enterprise. Christians, following the Great Commission of Jesus Christ (Matthew 28:19) and Jesus mission statement (Luke 4:18) are to save the lost and defend the oppressed. They are to preach the gospel to the poor and to proclaim the acceptance time of God. Often, this dichotomizes churches into evangelical and social gospel adherents.

Brazil is the fifth largest country in the world, with over 200 million members. It is a member of the “BRIC nations” (Brazil, Russia, India and China) whose economies are advancing rapidly. Despite its economic advances, however, the chasm between the rich and poor widens.

Due to the predominance of the “liberal” theologians in the Episcopal Church of Brazil, a preferential option to the plight of the poor and marginalized found resonance among Brazilian Episcopalians. IEAB rejected religious “fanaticism” and advocated that the church should be “an instrument of social change, seeking to engage congregations and communities in debates still considered taboo in Brazilian society,” such as those involving land concentration, domestic violence, sexism, racism, homophobia and xenophobia. 

3.      Commitment to Inclusion
The Episcopal Church in Brazil is ahead of its time with regards to the theology of inclusion. It welcomes and embraces people from historically marginalized groups such as LGBT, women, indigenous people and the landless. Enshrined in their canons is a statement "As Christians, we bear the promise of the Holy Spirit, which leads us to the Word made flesh, who welcomes the oppressed, the neglected, the misunderstood and the marginalized".

IEAB ordains women and LGBT. It is vocal social inequality, land concentration, domestic violence, racism, homophobia and xenophobia. Its stance as an Inclusive Church has caused schisms and conflicts with conservative segments of the church and society, a price they have to pray for committed discipleship. Separated Roman Catholics and marginalized Evangelicals and those belonging LGBT community however, have found acceptance in the IEAB.

So back to Bishop Francisco da Silva: He came to us in New York, with an invitation to a celebration of mission in Brazil. In 2015, that celebration was held in Porto Alegre, the birthplace of IEAB. It was not one, not two, but three celebrations: their125th Founding Anniversary; their 50th Year of Autonomy; and their 30th Year Women’s Ordination. What began as a mission station of the U.S based Episcopal Church has expanded into a great Province in the worldwide Anglican Communion  and continues to reverberate in missionary fervor even into the remote corners of the Amazons and to every nook and corner of what is now the largest country in South America, BRAZIL!

May God continue to guide and provide for the life and mission of Igreja Episcopal Anglicana du Brazil. Amen.

(Note: The Chapel of Christ the Lord is located at the ground floor of the Episcopal Church Center, 815 Second Avenue, New York, NY 10017. Morning Prayer is at 8:45 AM and Eucharist at 12:10 P.M. and it is open to the public.)

Sunday, June 5, 2016

REVIVE US, O LORD: Revival, Evangelism, Discipleship

REVIVE US, O LORD: Revival, Evangelism, Discipleship
(The Rev. Canon Dr. Winfred B. Vergara. Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, 130 Jerusalem Ave. Hicksville, NY. 6/5/2016. This is the Rev. Vergara’s first sermon as part-time Revivalist/Priest-in-Charge of Holy Trinity Hicksville) 

Today, I call for the revival of this Church. I have studied the history of Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, Hicksville, New York. Just like many other typical churches, it has experienced its golden years. It has experienced ups and downs. And like so many other declining churches of our time, it is now in need of a new revival. 

Revival begins with prayer. So I would like to introduce to you a prayer with some action; a prayer I composed and called “The Christian Tai Chi.” I invite you to join and follow what I do and say:

I am a child of God; I stand on His holy word. I breathe the Holy Spirit. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. I push out negative thoughts; I take in positive thoughts. I push out sickness; I take in good health. I push out poverty; I take in prosperity. I push out hate; I take in love. I push out despair; I take in hope. I push out sadness; I take in joy. And now, I will share the Good News to my family, to my friends, to my neighbors, here and all over the world. In Jesus’ Name. Amen

That is right. Revival begins with making the right choice. As people of the resurrection, we choose positive instead of negative, good instead of evil, light instead darkness, life instead of death. As people of the resurrection, we can even turn a negative into a positive.

The other day, Muhammad Ali died at age 74. I was a seminarian in 1975 when Ali defeated Joe Frazer in the Thrilla in Manila, to become the undisputed Heavyweight Boxing Champion of the world, for the third time. I remember the whole Philippines and the world stopped and stared at the television to see this guy who “floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee.” What made Ali so popular was that he combined boxing with poetry and comedy. Everybody loved Ali not only because he could box but also because he could dance and could speak in rhymes and reasons all at the same time. 

At his death, we learned more about his life. His rise from a humble beginning as Cassius Clay to become one of the most admired Mohammad Ali began when, as a child, his bicycle was stolen. He vowed to box the person who stole it but someone said to him, you must first learn how to box. So at age 12, he began his boxing career that eventually catapulted him to become the greatest athlete of all time. He also became an icon of inspiration for those who love freedom, respect for dignity, struggle against racism and bigotry and the courage to fight for what you believe.

Some years ago, I was in Hong Kong and Macau for my Sabbatical. One of the things I did was to help bless the world famous “Lord Stow Egg Tart.” Everyday in Macau, thousands of egg tarts with darkened top, are packaged and sent to various parts of the world for export. I had quite a good taste of that delicious egg tart of Macau.

The discovery of “Lord Stow Egg Tart” was accidental, or shall we say providential. Mr. Andrew Stow who was an Anglican and his wife, Eileen, a Chinese were cooking the tart and they forgot to remove it from the oven so it was burnt. Instead of throwing them away, they ate some and they tasted so good. From then on, the egg tart with the burnt top, became the icon of the best egg tart in the world.

The life of Mohammad Ali and the story of Lord Stow Egg Tart are just a couple of examples of how we can turn negative into positive.

 In the Bible readings for today, there are two examples of revival and reawakening.
In the Old Testament, the prophet Elijah, with God’s help, turned the widow’s sorrow into joy when he raised her dead child to life. In the New Testament, Jesus turned a funeral into a celebration when he raised the dead man to life.

Because of the miracle, the widow came to believe that Elijah was a true prophet of God. Because of the miracle, the whole funeral party believed in God and the news of this miracle spread throughout Judea and the surrounding country. The miracle of turning negative into positive, of turning darkness into light, of turning death into life is an amazing work of God and breaks open the heart of the people to God. (1 Kings 17:17-24; Luke 7:11-17)

I’ll tell you something:  There was a time that I thought I can also raise the dead. It happened in one of the churches I preached and I was reading the gospel about the raising of Lazarus from the dead. In order to make my point clear, I read the verse where Jesus called Lazarus from the tomb , “Lazarus, come out!” I spoke loudly at the microphone, which incidentally, was wired all over the building and I shouted, ”Lazarus, come out!” From the basement of the Church, there was a louder shout, “I’m coming out!” It was the janitor of the church and his name is Lazarus!

So as your new priest-in-charge, what is your expectation of me?  I asked that question to the vestry, and Sandy our Sr. Warden, replied “a miracle.” 

I read a book on parish revitalization and one comment says, “Parish Revitalization is one of the most difficult endeavors a priest can undertake. In fact the most common prescription is to simply close down and start a new one. It is easier to have a new baby than to raise the dead!”

Another comment says, “Revitalization is a full-time job and it takes between 4-7 years and the longer the decline, the longer the time for revitalization.” I am a part-time priest and my contract is only for three years. How can I make it to revitalize Holy Trinity which has been in decline for over ten years? 

Obviously, I can’t make a miracle; I can’t raise the dead; I can’t make this Church alive again. But I know God can! Amen! All things are possible with God. Without God, there is nothing we can do; but with God, greater things we can do.

So I prayed for a vision and God showed me the color RED. Firstly, Red is the color of love. The poet Robert Burns wrote, “My love is like a red, red rose that newly sprung in June.” Love will help revitalize this Church. Jesus says, “they will know we are Christians by your love.”

Red is the color of blood, the blood of Jesus which washes away our sins and unrighteousness. The blood of Jesus protects us, so that the angel of death, will pass over our doors and life, instead of death shall come in. 

Red is the color of Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit, like flames of fire resting upon the apostles and empowering them for ministry. Prior to the Holy Spirit, Peter preached 3,000 sermons but converted only one, himself. But when the Holy Spirit came, Peter preached one sermon and he converted over 3,000 people.

Such is the power of RED. For the next three years, as your priest, pastor and teacher, I will help you know about the power of the color Red: love, blood and Pentecost.
But red is not just a color. RED is the acronym for three priorities that we shall address ourselves. RED means “Revival, Evangelism and Discipleship.” 

For the next three years, we shall address ourselves towards Revival: reviving our faith in God who makes all things possible. Let us renew our love and commitment to Jesus Christ.

For the next years, we shall address ourselves to Evangelism. As a local part of the new Jesus Movement which our new Presiding Bishop, The Most Rev. Michael Curry inaugurated, let us be evangelists, calling people to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ.

For the next three years, we shall address ourselves into “making disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything God commanded” (Matthew 28:19).

My friends, we owe it to the memory of our predecessors, particularly the Rev. Canon Dominic Cianella and Mother Joan Grimm Frazer, who passed away recently, that we make the church alive, that we keep the legacy of those before us alive and active in the world.

My friends at Holy Trinity Hicksville, these are exciting times. Let us move forward; let us move forward in seeing RED; in achieving RED; that God will enable, equip and empower us in reviving this parish; in evangelizing the Hicksville community; and in making disciples among all nations.

Alleluia! Thine the glory. Alleluia Amen. Alleuia, thine the glory. Revive us again. Yes, Lord, revive us again. Amen.