TOWARDS EASTER CHURCH: HOW DO WE LIVE AGAIN?(Sermon by the Rev. Canon Dr. Winfred B. Vergara, Presiding Bishop’s Staff as Missioner for Asiamerica Ministries in the Episcopal Church & Priest-in-Charge of Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, 130 Jerusalem Avenue, Hicksville, NY 11801. Easter Sunday, April 19, 2017)
Life is full of surprises. As Forrest Gump once said, “Life is like a box of chocolates. You’ll never know what’s inside until you open it.”
Early Sunday morning, the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene and Mary Salome went to the tomb of Jesus. They brought with them spices to anoint his body. He died on the cross last Friday and placed into the tomb owned by Joseph of Arimathea. As the Tres Marias were walking towards the tomb, they said to one another, “Who will roll the stone away from the tomb?” But surprise of all surprises! When they arrived, the stone had already been rolled away, and the tomb was empty: Jesus has risen from the dead. Alleluia! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!
The story of Easter is a story of faith, hope, love and life. It is a story of faith overcoming fear; hope overcoming despair; love overcoming hate---and life overcoming death. The essence of this message for us is captured in the gospel song which says, “Because He lives, I can face tomorrow. Because He lives, all fear is gone. Because I know, He holds the future. My life is worth living because He lives!”
On this Easter Sunday, I thank God for a new hope, a new life and a new spiritual awakening at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Hicksville. Our church is transforming from being an aging, declining and monochromatic church into a thriving multiracial, multicultural and multi-generational church. Our Program RED---Revival, Evangelism and Discipleship---is being blessed by God as we see our church becoming a better reflection of the diversity of our community.
I hope you would all get excited with this new life bursting forth in our Church. And I thank you from the bottom of my heart that you allowed me to be your leader in this task of revival. Many things are improving in our church and there is indeed a great hope that we shall not only survive but will prevail as a strong church, able to fund our ministries and become a light of Christ in Hicksville. Like the resurrection of Christ, Holy Trinity Episcopal Church will rise again! Alleluia.
Since this is my first Easter Sunday as your priest, I would like to preach on the vision of the Easter Church. By calling “Holy Trinity is an Easter Church,” I do not mean a people who come only during Easter. I mean a people who have come to understand that the resurrection of Jesus is the foundation of our faith. As St. Paul said in 1st Corinthians 15 “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is useless and our faith is futile. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of most people to be pitied. But indeed, Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruit of those who have fallen asleep.”
So what is meant by an Easter Church? How do we live as an Easter Church?
A. THE EASTER CHURCH LIVES TO GIVE THAN TO RECEIVE
So many best-selling books today tell us how you can get the most out of this world. That is not the essence of the Easter Church; that is not the essence of the resurrection.
The essence of the Easter Church is not how much you can get from this world but what you can give to this world. John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son.” Our resurrected life is not meant to be on the receiving end; our resurrected life is meant to be on the giving end.
Jesus said: “If you save your life, you will lose it. But if you lose your life for my sake and the Gospel, you will save it.” This must have been a very important lesson because it was written in the Bible five times.
So what really matters to God is not the duration of our life but the donation of our life. It’s not how long you have lived on earth but what difference did you make when you lived on earth. Methuselah was the oldest man in the Bible. He lived to be 969 years old but nothing much was spoken about him, other than that he was “the son of Enoch, the father of Lamech and the grandfather of Noah.” In contrast, Jesus lived to be only 33 years old but the whole Bible is devoted to Him, and the impact of His life and teachings reverberates from generation to generation.
We are all pilgrims on this world and prophets of a future not our own. What have you given from your life to make this world a better place than when you first saw it?
The Dead Sea versus the Sea of Galilee is an ever-present example of the difference between a receiving life and a giving life. The Dead Sea receives water but it does not give out water, so nothing lives in it. On the other hand, the Sea of Galilee receives water but also gives out water, so it is full of life and abundant of fish. The Easter Church is a giving Church!
B. AN EASTER CHURCH LIVES TO SERVE THAN BE SERVED
When I was first called by the Vestry to be your priest-in-charge in June last year, they told me about their predicament. The church has been in decline: “We do not have enough money, the church roof is leaking, the steps to the church gate is shaky, there are many things that need repair and we do not have enough members and our attendance is low.” I asked your Senior Warden, Sandy Brunson: “And what do you expect from me?” She replied, “Can you make miracles?”
Well of course, my name is not Jesus Christ. My name is Fred Vergara. I do not make miracles but I know Who can make miracles. Jesus Christ is the Head of the Church and the Church is the Body of Christ. If the Body listens and follows the Head and if all the parts of the Body function, then miracles will happen.
Today, in less than a year we have together fixed our leaking roof, repaired our broken steps, repainted the ceiling and walls, fixed our classrooms, repainted our rectory---and we have sparkling new signage. Alleluia! Praise God who makes miracles in His time.
Yes, we have made a lot of progress, but we still have many things to do. We have yet to grow into maturity in Christ. And what is spiritual maturity? Spiritual maturity is when we no longer live for ourselves but for Christ and for His service. Spiritual maturity is when we no longer ask, “Does this church meet my needs?” but instead we ask, “Does this church challenge me enough to serve Christ and neighbors?”
One of the lessons of Maundy Thursday was when Jesus took a towel, knelt down and washed the disciples’ feet and saying, “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give His life for many.” Christian leadership is not a profession; it is a vocation. A vocation is when your greatest joy meets the world’s greatest need. Christianity is not a religion; it is a way of life lived in the service of God and neighbors.
So many local churches today are dying because the members are unwilling to serve. There are three kinds of church members common to many churches: 10% are those who makes things happen; 10% are those who criticize what happens; and 80% are those who watch things happen. Most Christians think and act as if Church is a spectator sport.
If the parts of the Body do not function as they should, then that Body will soon die. If we do not parish, we will perish. To borrow President John F. Kennedy in his challenge to Americans: “Ask not what you church can do for you, but ask what you can do for your church.” We are the Church, we are the Children, we are the Body of Christ!
I am happy that since I came to this church, there are already many members who have stepped up and asked me the question, “Father, what should I do? What task do you want me to do in church? Which area can I serve?” Now I am in trouble thinking where to assign them.
C. AN EASTER CHURCH LIVES TO LOVE THAN BE LOVED
Mother Teresa, the diminutive saint who gave her life in service to the lepers, the poor and the oppressed in Calcutta, India once said: “Holy living consists in doing God’s work with a smile…Not all of us can do great things but all of us can do small things with great love.”
If you love what you are doing, it ceases to be work. It becomes a joy. If you truly love God and neighbor, God will show you the ministry reserved for you---and your life will be filled with joy.
And God is no respecter of persons. It does not matter who and what you are. God does not look at your outside appearance. God looks at your heart.
Actually, if you study the Bible very carefully, there is no excuse for anyone not to be able to do God’s work: Abraham was old, Jacob was insecure, Leah was unattractive, Joseph was child-abused, Moses stammered, Gideon was poor, Samson was henpecked, Rahab was immoral, David had an affair and Solomon had 300 wives and 700 ‘porcupines’ (concubines)!
Elijah was suicidal, Jeremiah was depressed, Jonah was a deserter, Naomi was a widow, John the Baptist was eccentric, Peter was hot-tempered, Martha was a worrier, the Woman at the Well had seven failed marriages, Zacchaeus was short, St. Paul had a thorn in the flesh and Timothy was shy and timid.
Now if God was able to make use of these “misfits,” would God not be able to make use of you? And you’re from New York---so what is your excuse?
If you live with love and not with hate, then God will never leave you nor forsake you, because God is Love. As the Latin song says, “Ubi caritas et amor; ubi caritas. Deus ibi est.” Where charity and love are, God is there.
Today, there are many hate groups existing in the world. And with the propensity of current world leaders to demonize their perceived enemies, the number of hate groups have multiplied.
In the United States alone, there are over 1,000 social organizations identified as “hate groups.” According to Wikipedia, “a hate group is a social group that advocates and practices hatred, hostility or violence towards members of another race, ethnicity, nation, religion, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation or any other designated sector of society.”
The Easter Church, the Body of Christ must never be counted as a “hate group.” If the light of Christ stops shining, it is no longer a church; if salt has lost its taste, it will become useless; If love flies out of the window and hate enters our door, then we’re no longer worthy to be called the Church of Christ.
In the final analysis, God is not so much interested in what we do as in what we are becoming: Are we becoming a giving Church? Are we becoming a serving Church? Are we becoming a loving Church? In other words, are we becoming an Easter Church?
In answering this question, I remember an old story about a boy who came to his grandpa with a little bird hidden in his fist. He asked, “Grandpa, if you are wise would you be able to tell if the bird is dead or alive?” The old man thought for a moment. If he says it’s alive, then the boy will squeeze the bird to death. And if he says it’s dead, then the boy will just open his hand and the bird will fly. The old man looked with love at the boy and said, “Young man, the answer is in your hand.”My friends: Is Holy Trinity in Hicksville becoming an Easter Church? Are we being challenged to give like Jesus? As we being challenged to serve like Jesus? Are being challenged to love like Jesus? The answer is in your hands---and your heart. Amen