xmlns:og='http://ogp.me/ns#' The Mid-Week Message: February 2008

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Hope Against All Odds

February 26, 2008
Dear St. Paul’s Family,
It would certainly be anachronistic to suggest that Jesus was a student of the Socratic Method, but it appears that in John’s gospel, he loved to teach lessons by asking questions.  Some examples:
  • To the paralyzed man in chapter 5, he asked, “Do you want to be made well?”
  • To the man born blind in chapter 9, he asked, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”
  • To Mary, at the empty tomb, the resurrected Jesus asked, “Woman, why are you weeping?  Whom are you looking for?”
  • And at the end of the gospel, Jesus  three-peated a question to Peter:  “Peter, do you love me?”

In each of these moments, Jesus asked questions not out of ignorance of the answers, but as an invitation for people to deepen their faith.  And every time a person answered Jesus’ question correctly, their lives were transformed.  Right answers brought right belief, which led to new life.  Here’s a question from Jesus to the disciples that sums up John’s central premise:

His disciples said, "Yes, now you are speaking plainly, not in any figure of speech!  Now we know that you know all things, and do not need to have anyone question you; by this we believe that you came from God."
   Jesus answered them, "Do you now believe?

When Jesus asks you a question, it’s never out of ignorance of your response.  It is to engage you in a deliberate exercise of clarifying your beliefs, solidifying your commitment, and taking a risk.
This week we focus on the question that Jesus asked the disciples on the mountaintop while viewing the starving multitude.  While the three other gospels record Jesus telling the disciples,
“You give them something to eat,” John plays Jeopardy! by framing it in the form of a question:  
“Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?”

And look at the responses.  Phillip reacted with a realistic assessment of the situation.  There was not enough money to buy enough food.  And even if they had a stockpile of six months’ worth of salaries, it wouldn’t be enough.
In contrast, Andrew went on a search and found a possibility, albeit a remote one.  He brought to Jesus a boy with a few fish and a handful of loaves.  And the rest, as they say, is history.
Andrew’s response is a model for each of us to follow during this Lenten season.  Faith enables us to see divine hope in the most remote of possibilities.  And it calls us to place our finite lives and limited resources in the hands of the one can feed the masses.
The noted preacher, theologian, and social activist Walter Rauschenbusch wrote:
Salvation is always a social process.  It comes by human contact.  The word must become flesh if it is to save.  Some man or woman, or some group of people, in whom the saving love of Jesus Christ has found a new incarnation, lays hold of an enfeebled, blinded human atom and infuses new hope and courage and insight, new warmth of love and strength of will, and there is a new breathing of the soul and an opening of the inner eye.  Salvation has begun.  (from Christianizing the Social Order)

We continue our Lenten series “Something to Believe In” focusing on the One who called himself the Bread of Life.  Together, let us answer the questions correctly, and join in feeding a hungry world.  
See you on the journey,

The Rev. Magrey R. deVega
St. Paul's United Methodist Church
531 W. Main St.
Cherokee, IA  51012
Ph:  712-225-3955

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Power of a Name

February 19, 2008
Dear St. Paul’s Family,
It’s official. The WebKinz craze has swept into the deVega family.
Here’s a primer for those of you who either don’t have children or have been successfully immunized against commercial toymakers.  WebKinz is a line of small, stuffed animals, similar to the “Beanie Baby” dolls from the 1990’s.  Except these toys have a high-tech, virtual dimension:  Register your WebKinz on-line, and you can care for and play with your little friend in a massive virtual universe, along with other registered WebKinz owners around the world.  
It was only a matter of time before my girls caught onto the craze.  My younger daughter Madelyn and I were in a local store on Saturday, and she happened to see a big display of them.  Her eye immediately caught one of the pink ponies, which she picked up, gripped tightly in an embrace, smiled, and started walking toward the cashier.
            “Hey,”  I said.  “What are you doing?”
            “Can I have it, Please?  This is the one I want.”
            “Hmmm…I’m not sure.  We should talk about it.”
            “Why don’t we talk to your mother first and see what she thinks?”
            “Please, daddy?  I’ve named her Crystal.”
And then I knew it was over.  End of discussion. The moment she gave that pony a name, I knew it was coming home with us.  She had gotten too attached to it, and giant tractors weren’t going to separate them.  
Names signify attachment.  Know a person by name, and your relationship takes on whole new meaning.  That person is no longer the “other,” no longer an anonymous stranger.  Your relationship is now fluid and dynamic, with possibility for growth and intimacy.
Just think of the numerous biblical examples:
  • God’s command to Adam to name the animals coincided with the command to be stewards of all creation. Naming produces connection, and a desire to protect and preserve.
  • God’s revelation to Moses of God’s divine name introduced a new level of understanding between God and the people.  Moses and the Israelites would not be alone; God’s power would guard them and God’s love would provide for them.
  • The angel’s visit to Mary introduced the world to the name Immanuel, the very presence of God drawn near to us in Jesus.


Our next stop in this journey through the “I am” statements of Jesus in the gospel of John is “I am the Good Shepherd.”  Listen to how Jesus characterizes his relationship with those who follow him:
“The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.”

It may be hard to believe, but this great God of the universe, this awesome and austere Holy Presence, knows you by name.  You may feel your past is too blemished, your present too shameful, and your future too dark to ever think you are of value to a holy and righteous God.  But your life is not an incidental blip in the grand scheme of the cosmos, and you are not anonymous to God.  
At the moment of your baptism, God named you, as God’s very own child, a recipient of God’s grace.   And it means that your life really does count.  You matter to God.  And God is calling you by name today.  
Another gospel writer would underscore this with another parable:
"Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?  When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices.  And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, 'Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.'”  (Luke 15:4-6)
Join us this week as we continue our Lenten series “Something to Believe In” and discover more about Jesus, your good shepherd.  And together, let’s follow the leader.
In Christ’s name,

The Rev. Magrey R. deVega
St. Paul's United Methodist Church
531 W. Main St.
Cherokee, IA  51012
Ph:  712-225-3955

John 10:11-30
11  "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
12  The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away--and the wolf snatches them and scatters them.
13  The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep.
14  I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me,
15  just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep.
16  I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.
17  For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again.
18  No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father."
19  Again the Jews were divided because of these words.
20  Many of them were saying, "He has a demon and is out of his mind. Why listen to him?"
21  Others were saying, "These are not the words of one who has a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?"
22  At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter,
23  and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon.
24  So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, "How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly."
25  Jesus answered, "I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father's name testify to me;
26  but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep.
27  My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.
28  I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.
29  What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father's hand.
30  The Father and I are one."

Monday, February 11, 2008

Doors, Doors, Doors

February 11, 2008
Dear St. Paul’s Family,
Have you read any good stories about doors lately?
Think for a moment about the many ways some of the great literary works have used the image of the door as a central metaphor.  
  • Nathaniel Hawthorne begins The Scarlet Letter with a chapter called, “The Prison Door”, which introduces a shadowy undercurrent of human depravity in the midst of a Puritan community.  
  • Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights uses numerous locked doors and gates to symbolize the confinement that comes from social convention and desires for revenge.
  • A concealed door becomes the entryway for a young girl to experience long-lost happiness and peace in Frances Hogson Burnett’s The Secret Garden.
  • And a hidden door in the back of a wardrobe becomes the passage for four children to enter the magical world of Narnia, in C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia:  The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

Even the Bible has its own fair share of door imagery:
  • In Exodus, the Hebrew slaves sprinkled blood on the doorposts of their homes in Egypt, saving them from the death angel as it passed over them.
  • In the Temple, a veil separated the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies, symbolizing exclusive, privileged access to the presence of God.
  • And as the Israelites ascended the hill to worship in the Temple, they enthusiastically chanted the words of Psalm 24:   “Lift up your heads, O gates!  And be lifted up, O ancient doors!  That the King of glory may come in.

Centuries later, John Wesley would continue the metaphor, in this classic formulation of the salvation journey.  Listen to how he equates a door with one’s saving faith in Jesus Christ:
"Our main doctrines, which include all the rest, are three: That of repentance, of faith, and of holiness. The first of these we account, as it were, the porch of religion; the next, the door; the third, religion itself."
Whether in the Bible or in works of literature, doors symbolize entrance into new freedom and new life.  It invites deliberate movement, from the trouble and trauma of the past into hope and possibility for the future.   It’s no wonder that John would seize this image for his gospel, including it among the ways that Jesus would identify himself as the Son of God.
So again Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

Consider the possibility that Jesus is offering you a doorway to a new, abundant life. What will it take for you to walk through that door?  If repentance is the front porch of religion, what will you need to leave behind in order to come in?  And if a life of holiness lies just beyond the threshold, what new commitments will be demanded of you?
This week we continue our “Something to Believe In” sermon series based on Jesus’ seven “I Am” statements with a sermon titled, “I am the Door.”  To prepare for this Sunday, I invite you to continue reading the scripture bookmark you were given last Sunday in church.  Additional copies are available at the church.  
See you on the journey,

Monday, February 4, 2008

I Believe....

February 4, 2008
Dear St. Paul’s Family,
What do you believe in?
We’re all familiar with the famous phrase
“I think; therefore I am” penned by Rene Descartes, the 17th century French philosopher.  Centuries later, contemporary German theologian Eberhard Jungel reframed the saying as follows:
“I believe, therefore I am—namely, a new creature and as such, one called to represent the being of Jesus Christ in the communion of saints, as a person existing as a member of the church of Jesus Christ. The believer knows that he or she is called to represent the foundation of his or her faith before the world by a life which corresponds to God…”  (from Theological Essays II, 1995)
If Jungel is right, then what we believe shapes who we are.  It is more than a matter of thinking, it is a matter of believing. It is more than a matter of thought; it is a matter of conviction.  And to Jungel, the only belief that is an adequate foundation for one’s life is a belief in the triune God fully revealed in Jesus Christ.
But in the secular world around us, many choose to believe in other things.  I stumbled on a rather non-scientific survey (and by that I mean, an on-line message board!) that asked people to complete the phrase: “I believe….”  Look at some of the responses:
I believe that faith and dedication are the foundation for success.  (“Bobby”)
I believe that the best way to double your money is to fold it and put it in your pocket. (“Patricia”)  
I believe that a wise man does not play leapfrog with an unicorn.  (“Anthony”)
I believe in a tall glass of iced tea on a hot summer day.  (“Lillie G.”)  
I believe Michael Keaton was by far the best Batman.  (“Aaron”)
I believe the purpose of life is to have one amazing adventure that would inspire other people to make the most out of their lives. (“Jessica”)
I believe that Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.  (“Jesse”)
I believe you should treat others the way you want to be treated, with respect. Also take the time to listen to the elderly, they absolutely love it!  (“Sharon C.”)

So how would you complete the statement?  What do you believe in?
That is the central question of the gospel of John, which will serve as our tour guide through this season of Lent.  Whereas the other three gospels carefully craft the
story of Jesus, John is more interested in one’s belief in Jesus as the savior of the world. Its theme verse is found in John 20:31:
But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
There has been some scholarly discussion over this key verse in John.  Some early biblical manuscripts translate the Greek word pisteusate as “that you may continue to believe”, suggesting that John’s original readers were predominantly believers in need of encouragement against Jewish and Roman persecution.  Other manuscripts, including the NRSV version of the Bible, translate it as “that you may come to believe” suggesting that John’s work was primarily evangelistic, targeting people who were not yet believers.*
Regardless of which version was John’s original intent, it’s fundamental message is the same, and it agrees with Eberhard Jungel.  You are what you believe.  And believing in Jesus brings life.
Come along on this deeply meaningful, thoughtful reflection on the person and work of Jesus Christ. Our signposts on this journey will be Jesus’ seven “I am” statements that mark John’s gospel.  Each one makes a unique claim about Jesus and offers a personal path to new life and deeper commitment.  Together, we will follow the well-worn, familiar path that leads us to the power of the cross and into the triumphant glory of the empty tomb.  
See you on the journey!

The Rev. Magrey R. deVega
St. Paul's United Methodist Church
531 W. Main St.
Cherokee, IA  51012
Ph:  712-225-3955

*For a further look at the background of John’s gospel, I recommend John: The Maverick Gospel by Robert Kysar (Westminster John Knox, 2007), which has been very helpful in my preparations for this sermon series.)

John 8:1-12
8:1  while Jesus went to the Mount of Olives.
2  Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them.
3  The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them,
4  they said to him, "Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery.
5  Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?"
6  They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground.
7  When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, "Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her."
8  And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground.
9  When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him.
10  Jesus straightened up and said to her, "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?"
11  She said, "No one, sir." And Jesus said, "Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again."
12  Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life."

John 9:1-5
9:1  As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth.
2  His disciples asked him, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?"
3  Jesus answered, "Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God's works might be revealed in him.
4  We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work.
5  As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world."