xmlns:og='http://ogp.me/ns#' The Mid-Week Message: August 2013

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Day I Was Told to Sit in the Back

August 27, 2013,

Dear St. Paul’s Family,

One of the first churches I served after I graduated from seminary was a small, rural congregation in the deep South.  I was young and eager to please, but still somewhat oblivious to the realities of ministry in the real world.  Within the first few months of my arrival, we scheduled a congregational clean-up day for the church.  The campus was nestled in a canopy of mature southern pine trees, sheltering grounds covered with pine needles and acorns rather than pavement and asphalt.  Regularly, church members assembled to gather branches, rake needles, and trim overgrown brush amid the random sprinkling of grave stones dating back to the days of President Andrew Jackson.

Toward the end of this particular work day, I was hauling the last of the debris into the pick up truck of one of the church members, whom I’ll call Ben, so that we could haul it off to the burn pile for incineration.  Ben was a member of the Trustees and had a stern, commanding personality that educed power and attention within that small congregation.  With the truck loaded and Ben stepping into the driver’s side of the front cab, I opened the passenger’s door to sit next to him. 

“No,” Ben said, in a mumbling drawl.  “Minorities sit in the back.”

I looked at him as he turned the key in the ignition.  He looked the other way out the window.  I didn’t know him well enough to know if he was joking.  If he was, then he had an odd way of teasing someone he barely knew.  If he wasn’t, then he had an odd way of broaching a sensitive subject with the person serving as his pastor.  Either way, the last thing this young, eager-to-please preacher wanted to do was fan a firestorm with such a powerful person in the church, even if he was joking. 

So, for better or worse, I climbed into the bed of the truck with the branches. 

I thank God that there have been only a handful of times in my life that I have heard discriminatory words about my ethnicity.  But it is also significant that I can still remember those moments vividly:  the first-grade bullies who teased me mercilessly every recess until I bought their friendship by giving them a Star Wars landspeeder (to this day, I wish I had that toy back, and I think about it every time I see one); the homeless gentleman who came into the emergency overnight shelter where I was working in seminary and called me a derogatory ethnic slur after I served him his evening meal.

It is also no wonder that for the first few years at Grace and Maddy’s elementary school, I took opportunities at every conference to ask their teachers whether they were detecting any kind of harsh treatment of the girls by the other kids.  To my knowledge, the girls have never experienced that kind of bullying, just as I have been fortunate to never have a repeat experience like I had with Ben in any subsequent congregation I’ve served, including this one.

I’d like to say that our society has matured in its difficulties with race relations.  I understand that mine is a solitary voice, far removed from the much more severe barriers experienced by African Americans throughout history, Japanese Americans in the 1940s, and Muslim Americans since September 11.  Women have suffered from inequality in the workplace, gays and lesbians continue to struggle against discrimination, and even some white males have suffered reverse discrimination.  So I cannot – and will not - equate my journey as an ethnic minority with those who have suffered far greater than me, especially when I feel great pride in this country and more gratitude for what it has given me than any harsh memory that still lingers. 

I believe we are moving forward, not backward, in the way we treat one another. At least I’d like to think so. 

Tomorrow marks the fiftieth anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous “I have a dream” speech in Washington, best known for a powerful, lyrical ending that was not originally part of his manuscript.  It came as prompting from those standing around him, stoking him to tap into his passion, claim his voice, and “Tell them about the dream.”  We are also still in the wake of the verdict of the trial of George Zimmerman, whose killing of Trayvon Martin became the latest Rorschach test of race relations and yet another “scapegoat” for the guilt of this country’s racial sins.  We are also part of a global community watching the horrific violence in Egypt, as a glorious ancient people wrestle with the growing pains of a nascent democracy, working to bring equality and justice among differing religions and ethnicities.

And, I’m just a week removed from watching Lee Daniel’s The Butler, a powerful film about the history of the civil rights movement, told from the perspective of two African American men:  a White House butler who suppressed his ethnic heritage to effect change with loyalty and obedience, and his son whose embrace of his ethnicity prompted a bolder life of non-violent protest.  It captures beautifully the dichotomy that many minorities must wrestle with:  confront the church member in the pick up truck and directly name his prejudice, or sit in the back of the truck, trying to win him over with responsibility and fidelity.  It’s no wonder I found myself in tears several times watching that film.

In the end, Ben and I had a good relationship.  I found him to be an earnest, hardworking, faithful member of the church and a loving family man.  I never did ask him about what he told me that day, so in retrospect I’m still not sure if I handled that situation well enough.  And because I’ve had Paul a lot on my mind lately during this current sermon series, I don’t know for sure how he would have handled that moment with Ben if he were in my shoes.  All I know is what Paul has written, and his words seem like an awfully good reminder to all of us these days:

There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  (Galatians 3:28)

Grace and Peace,


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

We resume our regular Sunday morning schedule on September 8, with Sunday school at 9:00 and worship at 10:10.  

Monday, August 19, 2013

Paul's Greatest Epistle

August 20, 2013,

Dear St. Paul’s Family,

I’ve been waiting for the right opportunity to share an interesting archeological find from 2009:  a 1,600 year old joke book, dating back to the Roman empire.  That’s right.  Archeologists found a compendium of Roman humor, filled with funny stories and one liners.  [1]

It was quite a find, and a clear contrast to the image many of us have of stoic, stodgy Roman citizens standing around philosophizing and looking at the stars.  This joke book suggests that they actually had a fairly pronounced sense of humor, as evidenced by this little gem that follows the classic “three guys did something” formula:

A barber, a bald man, and an absent-minded professor go on a journey.  They have to camp overnight, so they divide the night into shifts so they can take turns watching over their baggage.  The barber takes the first shift, and gets bored watching the other two sleep.  So, he amuses himself by shaving the head of the professor.  When the barber wakes up the professor to start his shift, the professor feels his head and says to himself, “How stupid is that barber?  He’s woken up the bald headed man instead of me.”

(*cue the rim shot*)

Can’t you picture this joke being told by a bunch of knee-slapping, toga-wearing Romans? 


What is no laughing matter, however, is the epistle that Paul wrote to the church in Rome.  The book of Romans stands apart from the rest as the most important letter Paul ever wrote.  It is the most complete, methodical construction of Christian doctrine the early church would ever receive, and its impact has endured throughout time.  Consider the way that Romans has influenced some of Christian history’s most significant leaders:

John Chrysostom.  This fourth century early church father had someone read the entire book of Romans to him two times every week.

Augustine.  One day while sitting in a garden, he heard a group of children playing next door.  He then heard them say, “Pick up and read.  Pick up and read.”  He looked over and saw an open Bible on the table, the pages already turned to the book of Romans.  He was saved as he was reading it, and later reflected on the experience:  “In an instant the light of confidence flooded into my heart and all the darkness of doubt was dispelled.”

Martin Luther.  After a long period of struggling to find inner peace and the assurance of his own salvation, he read Romans 1:17:  “The just shall live by faith.”  At that moment, he experienced a peace with God and a confidence that his sins were forgiven.  He would later go on to spark a reformation of the Christian church that would lead to the Protestant denominations of today.

John Wesley.  It was Martin Luther’s commentary on the book of Romans that caused the young John Wesley to experience a heart “strangely warmed” in his pivotal Aldersgate experience in London.  Hearing Luther’s reflections on Paul’s words dispelled his doubts and gave him the assurance of God’s free gift of grace.  Wesley would later write about that moment:  “My heart was strangely warmed.  I felt that I did not trust Christ and Christ alone for my salvation and I, even I, was born again and forgiven of my sins.” 

Magrey deVega.  Whoops.  I’m not suggesting that I belong on the same list as these other spiritual giants.  But Romans was also quite formative in my own life, as a senior in my private Christian high school.  After spending the entire year studying the book, chapter by chapter, verse by verse, we had only one question on our final exam:  Explain Romans.  Needless to say, the book became pretty formative in my own understanding of the Christian faith at an early age.

It was impossible for me to fully “explain Romans” writing in an exam booklet for forty-two minutes, just as it will be a challenge for me to do it justice preaching for twenty minutes this Sunday.  But no journey through the life and ministry of Paul would be complete without exploring this book that has been so important to the development of Christianity. 

You will definitely want to take some time this week reading through the book prior to worship on Sunday.  You’ll gain an appreciation for the comprehensive case that Paul builds for the human need for grace, the salvation given through Jesus Christ as the second Adam, and the faithful life expected of those who are redeemed.  As is the case for each of these Sundays, you’ll want to follow along in our daily scripture readings, which is as follows over the next several days:

Monday:  Romans 1-2
Tuesday:  Romans 3-4
Wednesday:  Romans 5-6
Thursday:  Romans 7-8
Friday:  Romans 9-10
Saturday:  Romans 11-12
Monday:  Romans 13-14
Tuesday:  Romans 15-16

Join us this Sunday for a sermon titled “Romans:  Sin and Grace.”  Let’s experience together the brilliance of Paul’s writing and the extravagance of God’s grace.  For indeed, I’m convinced that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord: not death or life, not angels or rulers, not present things or future things, not powers 39 or height or depth, or any other thing that is created.  (Romans 8:28)

Grace and Peace,


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

To view past editions of the Mid-Week Message, visit http://mdevega.blogspot.com.
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Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Beautiful Words?

August 13, 2013

Dear St. Paul’s Family,

This year our Church, by vote of the Congregation, added a surname and is now “St. Paul’s Methodist Church.  The question “What’s in a name?” will be answered in the coming years thru the measure of Christlike liberality in life, service, and substance with which we emulate the heroic stature of the Apostle Paul.

Rev. J.E. Feller wrote these words in his Pastor’s Report for the Charge Conference following the congregation’s vote in 1947 to change the name of the 89-year old First Methodist Episcopal Church in Cherokee to the St. Paul’s Methodist Church we know today.

I have re-read his statement several times since discovering it in our church archives last week.  It has not only inspired my preparations for this sermon series on Paul, it has kindled my appreciation for beautiful words.  Rev. Feller was among that great generation of preachers who cared for our language, balancing artistry with economy in the way they wrote and preached.  Twentieth century giants like Harry Emerson Fosdick, William Sloane Coffin, Martin Luther King, George Buttrick, and John Baillie, communicated with flourish and precision, far beyond what is commonplace in today’s Twitterized, televangelized pop-Christianity.  Would that most preachers – and public figures in general - speak and write with this kind of beauty today.


Tom Long, preaching professor at Candler School of Theology, cites the following comparison of two public speakers, from two different eras. 

On December 8, 1941, the day after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, a House representative from New Jersey named Charles Eaten made this speech to the House: “Mr. Speaker, yesterday against the roar of Japanese cannons in Hawaii, our American people heard a trumpet call:  a call to unity, a call to courage, a call to determination, once and for all to wipe off the earth this accursed monster of tyranny and slavery, which is casting its black shadow over the hearts and homes of every land.” 

Say what you will, that’s beautiful, Long says.  But then he continues:

A few years ago, another politician, Senator Sam Brownback, made the case for the war in Iraq this way: “Uh, if we don’t go at Iraq, our effort in the war on terrorism dwindles down to an intelligence operation, and we go at Iraq, and it says to countries that support terrorists, there are six in the world, as our definition states, that are sponsors of terrorists, and you say to those countries, ‘We’re serious about terrorism, we’re serious about your not supporting terrorism on your own soil.’”

What happened? Long asks. [1]


It’s no wonder that when John the gospel writer captured the mystery and beauty of God’s ultimate interaction with the world, he described it as the Word made flesh.  The artistry of God’s incarnation in Jesus was made visible in the vocabulary of human experience.  The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is an ode of the eternal, celebrating the one who is the “author and finisher of the faith.”

It is our job, then, to take our experience of the Word made flesh and convey it through our words.  As a full, circular response to the glory of God given to us in ordinary terms, we must be careful to use our words in ways that glorify God.  Preachers like me, when we write and speak, should choose language that incarnates the love of God with precision and beauty.  While it is true that the act of preaching should never wander too far from the vernacular, we should also resist cultural temptations to conceal our capacity for awe, wonder, mystery, and praise. 

This is a task shared by all followers of the Word.  Regardless of your calling and lot in life, take care of the words that you use.  Use words that enhance beauty in the world and in your relationships, rather than promote ugliness.  Resist the temptation to cheapen your witness in public discourse with words that are snarky and cynical.  Embrace the power of written words, choosing them deliberately and carefully, rather than relying solely on the fast-food medium of social media.  In short, love words. 

It is not just preachers that rely on words for their work.  All of us, as bearers of the Word, must live with “Christlike liberality in life, service, and substance.”  So let’s tend to our words.

Grace and Peace,


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

[1]  Tom Long, Lecture, Festival of Homiletics, May 2005.

We continue our journey this Sunday with a look at 1 and 2 Corinthians, the longest epistles that Paul wrote, to a community torn by conflict and division.  We learn how Paul promotes the power of the cross to heal discord and reconcile us to God andeach other.  If you are not already doing so, pick up a daily scripture reading bookmark and follow along in our preparations for each Sunday. 

For this week, the readings are:
Monday:  1 Cor. 1-3
Tuesday:  1 Cor. 11-13
Wednesday:  1 Cor. 14-16
Thursday:  2 Cor.  5-7
Friday:  2 Cor. 8-10

Saturday:  2 Cor.11-13

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

What's in a Name?

August 6, 2013

Dear St. Paul’s Family,

When it comes to naming children, no one is more creative than Filipinos.

That is the assessment of journalist Nury Vittachi, in a column for The Jakarta Post a few years ago.  In an effort to eschew both Spanish and American occupational influence over the last three hundred years and carve out a new cultural identity, parents started inventing new names for their babies.  “Whenever I visit Manila,” Vittachi writes, “I love asking people what their kids are called, and hearing, ‘Oh, meet Tingting, Popo, Testament, Peachy, Boris, and Dugong.’”  A favorite method for creating names is splicing words together, such as “Mari-Con” (Maria and Concepcion) and “Jejomat,” (Jesus, Joseph, and Mary).  [1]

I look to my own name as an example.  It is neither a common Filipino name nor a word with any native meaning.  It is, in fact, an invention by my parents, who took the first three letters of my father’s first name (Maghirang, also an invented name) and the first three letters of my father’s middle name (Reyes, my paternal grandmother’s maiden name.)  Squish them together, and Voila! (which may as well be a Filipino name, too.) 

My name is therefore unique to Filipinos, although once I did a search on Facebook to see if anyone else shared my name.  There were thirteen other Magreys.  All of them Hispanic women.  But none of them, at least as far as I could tell by their profile photo, could preach a sermon in rhyme. 

At any rate, I’m proud of my name, despite the fact that it gets butchered and mispronounced so often (Like the time someone spelled it Niagara.  For real.)  My name is not only distinctive, it is a reminder of my family heritage, connecting me both to my father and my grandmother’s lineage, linking me to two generations of Filipino ancestry.  No matter what I become, my name reminds me of where I have come from.

(In case your wondering, we practiced a little bit of presto-Filipino magic when it came to naming Madelyn.  Take the first two letters of my first name, the first two letters of my last name, and Jessica’s middle name (Lyn), and fuse them together.  She should be glad we didn’t name her Tingting or Dugong.)


I thought about the origins of my name in preparation for this new sermon series. Generations ago, members of this congregation decided to practice some inventive renaming of this church.  In 1947, during the first full year of what would be Rev. J.E. Feller’s long pastoral tenure, the congregation considered renaming a church which had already been in existence for 89 years.  After a formal vote, the First Methodist Church of Cherokee, Iowa became the St. Paul’s Methodist Church.  And so it is today. 

So here’s the question:  What does it mean for us to be named after Paul?

None of us choose the names we are given.  The best we can do is remember the ones who gave them to us and honor the ones after whom we are named.  So consider what it would mean to live up to the name of the greatest apostle, the one whom biblical scholar James D. Tabor calls “the most influential person in human history,” even more impactful on the form and doctrine of the Christian faith than Jesus Christ himself:

Visit any church service, Roman Catholic, Protestant or Greek Orthodox, and it is the apostle Paul and his ideas that are central -- in the hymns, the creeds, the sermons, the invocation and benediction, and of course, the rituals of baptism and the Holy Communion or Mass. Whether birth, baptism, confirmation, marriage or death, it is predominantly Paul who is evoked to express meaning and significance.  [2]

So, over the next eight weeks, we will study our namesake, in a sermon series that will be the most comprehensive survey of his works that I have ever preached.  We’ll begin with Thessalonians, the first book written in the New Testament, and each week, we will connect Paul’s words to his overall life, ministry, and conviction.

Paul:  The Life and Ministry of the Greatest Apostle

August 4
Paul:  The Greatest Apostle*
Acts 9:1-19

August 11
Thessalonians:  Holiness and Hope
1 Thessalonians 4:1-12

August 18
Corinthians:  The Power of the Cross
1 Corinthians 1:18-31

August 25
Romans:  Sin and Grace
Romans 5:1-11

September 1
Philippians:  Living Like Jesus
Philippians 2:1-11

September 8
Galatians:  Freedom and Love
Galatians 5:16-26

September 15
Ephesians and Colossians:  The Life of Faith
Colossians 3:1-11

September 22
The Pastoral Epistles:  The Witness of the Church
2 Timothy 1:1-18

September 29
Paul for Today
2 Timothy 4:1-16

By the end of our time together, you will have a better appreciation for each of his epistles, and a deeper sense of how to live “in Christ,” Paul’s favorite theological phrase.  Along the way, you’ll want to join others in following the daily scripture readings that will prepare you for each upcoming sermon.  Bookmarks were given out last Sunday and are available in the narthex or the church office.  Scriptures for this week are also listed at the end of this message.

It will be a joy to take this journey with you, as we remember who we are and the one after whom we are named.

In Christ, Indeed,


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

[1]  http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2010/05/16/boris-dugong-and-200yearold-baby.html
[2]  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/james-d-tabor/christianity-before-paul_b_2200409.html
* manuscript and audio copies of last Sunday’s introductory sermon are available by request.


Tuesday, August 6:  1 Thess. 2
Wednesday, August 7: 1 Thess. 3
Thursday, August 8:  1 Thess. 4-5
Friday, August 9:  2 Thess. 1-2
Saturday, August 10:  2 Thess. 3
Sunday, August 11:  Sermon:  Thessalonians:  Holiness and Hope
Monday, August 12:  1 Cor. 1-3
Tuesday, August 13: 1 Cor. 11-13