xmlns:og='http://ogp.me/ns#' The Mid-Week Message: February 2014

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Trust in the Midst of Exile

February 25, 2014

Dear St. Paul’s Family,

Thousands of years after Joseph, there would be another like him.  He too would be a young man with exceptional skills, able to speak a prophetic word to people with reluctant ears.  He became a threat to the powerful, and a target by those who feared the influence of his message.  Like Joseph in Egypt, he would serve his days in exile.  But that sentence would not silence him. 

John Chrysostom (pronounced kri-SOS-tum) was a fourth century Christian whose unparalleled preaching skills have earned him the title “the greatest preacher of the early church.”  (His second name, Chrysostom, was ascribed to him post-mortem, and means “golden mouthed.”)  He made a career advocating for the homeless and poor, often rankling the church’s wealthy and privileged.  And despite rising to the ranks of Archbishop of Constantinople, his passion for social justice eventually upset powerful Roman public officials, resulting in his exile in 404 A.D, where he died three years later. 

However, his impact lives on through the prolific volume of his writings, which give us a glimpse into his steady temperament, unwavering commitment to God, and passion for social and personal holiness.  It is no wonder that we regard him among “The Three Holy Hierarchs” of the early church, along with Basil the Great and Gregory of Nazianzus. 

Before his banishment, he wrote a homily plainly titled “Ante exsilium” or “Before Exile.”   Consider how these words describe the same kind of courage and faith that must have sustained Joseph throughout his exile in Egypt.  Despite living lives full of tragedy and trauma, both John and Joseph remind us that what matters most in the midst of our suffering is our trust in a God who will see us through the tough times: 

If Christ is with me, what should I fear?  The waves and the sea and the anger of powerful people might be rising against me, but they are no scarier than a spider’s web.  Had you not detained me here, I would have left today to face those things at home.  For I always say, “Lord, your will be done,” not what this or that person wants me to do, but what God wants me to do.  That is my strong tower, my immovable rock, my staff that never breaks.  If God wants something, let it be done!  If he wants me to stay here, I am grateful.  But wherever he wants me to be, I am no less grateful.

Then, he wrote these endearing words to his beloved church, whose support and prayers strengthened him during his trials:

Yet where I am, there you are too, and where you are, I am.  For we are a single body, and the body cannot be separated from the head nor the head from the body.  Distance separates us, but love unites us, and death itself cannot divide us.  For my body may die, but my soul will live on and be mindful of my people.
You are my fellow citizens, my fathers, my mothers, my brothers, my sisters, my sons, my daughters, my limbs, my body.  You are my light, sweeter to me than the visible light.  What the rays of the sun give me does not compare to what I get from your love. The sun’s light is useful in my earthly life, but your love is fashioning a crown for me in the life to come.  [1]

May these words remind us that no matter what we go through, we are not alone.  We are sustained by the power of the Holy Spirit, who illumines our path with just enough light to see the next step ahead of us.  And we are surrounded by a body of believers that will accompany us through every struggle, every exile, and every longing for home. 

These are good words to remember, indeed.

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

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Secret to Happiness (Just Might Surprise You)

February 18, 2014

Dear St. Paul’s Family,

What is the secret to happiness?

That was the question posed in a segment on National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition last Saturday, which featured Harvard researcher Matt Killingsworth.  To get real-time data from test subjects, Killingsworth has developed a smartphone app through which users can provide instant answers to questions that researchers text them up to three times a day.  Questions include, “How do you feel at the moment?”  “Do you have to do what you are doing right now?”  Do you want to do what you are doing?”

Killingsworth conclusion?  People are most happy when they are fully engaged in their present activity, when their immersion in the moment creates little room to stew, worry, or fret about external stressors.  Naturally, the most important question is,  “How can people achieve that state of being ‘present to the present?’” 

Killingsworth’s answer:  “That’s the million dollar question, and I don’t know the answer.” [1]

Well, shucks.  That is the big question, and it is one that seems to hound us all the time.  What is the secret to true, lasting happiness?  How can we learn to be fully mindful of the moment, without regard to pressing anxieties?

Of all the books in the Bible, the Psalms most fully covers the wide range of human experience and emotion.  And it is so interested in the question of human happiness that it leads with the answer right off the top, in Psalm 1, verse 1:  The truly happy person doesn’t follow wicked advice, doesn’t stand on the road of sinners, and doesn’t sit with the disrespectful.  It’s likely that this verse has not yet shown up in the Harvard researcher’s test results, but the psalmist is unequivocally clear:  

The secret to happiness is integrity.  

It is being able to go to sleep at night with a clean conscience.  It is knowing that, at the end of the day, despite all that you have suffered and all that has been done to you, you have chosen to take the high road.  Even when it would be easier and less costly to do otherwise, you have not responded to injustice with indecency.  That, according to the Psalms, will make you happy, every time.

Just ask Joseph.  The text for this Sunday is a pivotal moment in his story.  If anyone deserved to take a quick shortcut to Easy Street, and allow himself just a bit of pleasure in exchange for the pain from his past, it would have been him.  So when Potiphar’s wife threw a pass his way, he could have fudged his principles just enough to get away with it. 

But he didn’t. 

And therein lies the secret to how Joseph was able to endure so much suffering at the hands of so many people for such a long time.  He realized that, in the end, when everyone else might fail him, he only had himself and his God to answer to.  And if he could learn to live with his image in the mirror and God’s image in his soul, he could live through anything.

Psalm 1 doesn’t use the word integrity, although it goes along way to explain it.  Consider for a moment that the words integrity, integer, and integrate at first seem to be disparate words.  They are terms of ethics, mathematics, and methodology that appear to have little to do with each other.  But they all come from the same Latin root word, integritas, which means “intact.”  (in: “cannot” and tigre: “be touched”)  It means “untouchable,” “whole,” and “indivisible.”

To live with integrity means that you are neither conflicted in your principles or divided in your actions. It means you are completely solid and secure in your motives and behaviors.  It leads to a kind of strength that can withstand even the greatest turmoil.  You become like a tree, in the words of Psalm 1.  A tree that is stable and steady, despite being surrounded by torrents of water.

A life of integrity recognizes that while you can’t control the actions of others, you can certainly control both what you do and with whom you do it.  In fact, Psalm 1 offers a guiding word that Joseph never had:  seek wise counsel from godly, trusted companions. 

"Don’t follow wicked advice, or stand in the road with sinners, or sit with the disrespectful."  Instead, surround yourself with people who will do more than merely brighten your mood or stroke your ego.  Choose people who will tell you the truth, even when it hurts.  Who will push you toward integrity, even when every fiber of your being begs otherwise.  Who will give you sage guidance with such consistency that you can hear their voices, even when they are not speaking, even when you are alone.  Who will make you hear Killingsworth’s questions, even when it is toughest to answer:  “Do you have to do what you are doing right now?”  Do you want to do what you are doing?”

Joseph didn't have those kinds of companions.  But you can.

You see, integrity is not just about what you do when no one is looking.  It is also about whom you turn to when you don’t know what to do.  It is about who will challenge you when you are wrong, and who will love you even when you screw up.  It is in those moments that the Spirit gives you the greatest gift a solitary sojourner can have in this long, weary life:  the assurance that you are not alone.

I think you would agree: that sounds like a pretty happy life.  That is the life I wish for you, as you wish the same for me.

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

Psalm 1
The truly happy person
    doesn’t follow wicked advice,
    doesn’t stand on the road of sinners,
    and doesn’t sit with the disrespectful.
Instead of doing those things,
    these persons love the Lord’s Instruction,
    and they recite God’s Instruction day and night!
They are like a tree replanted by streams of water,
    which bears fruit at just the right time
    and whose leaves don’t fade.
        Whatever they do succeeds.
That’s not true for the wicked!
    They are like dust that the wind blows away.
And that’s why the wicked will have no standing in the court of justice—
    neither will sinners
    in the assembly of the righteous.
The Lord is intimately acquainted
    with the way ofthe righteous,
    but the way of the wicked is destroyed.

Genesis 29:6-20

Now Joseph was well-built and handsome.  Some time later, his master’s wife became attracted to Joseph and said, “Sleep with me.”  He refused and said to his master’s wife, “With me here, my master doesn’t pay attention to anything in his household; he’s put everything he has under my supervision. No one is greater than I am in this household, and hehasn’t denied me anything except you, since you are his wife. How could I do this terrible thing and sin against God?” Every single day she tried to convince him, but he wouldn’t agree to sleep with her or even to be with her.  One day when Joseph arrived at the house to do his work, none of the household’s men were there. She grabbed his garment, saying, “Lie down with me.” But he left his garment in her hands and ran outside. When she realized that he had left his garment in her hands and run outside, she summoned the men of her house and said to them, “Look, my husband brought us a Hebrew to ridicule us. He came to me to lie down with me, but I screamed. When he heard me raise my voice and scream, he left his garment with me and ran outside.” She kept his garment with her until Joseph’s master came home, and she told him the same thing: “The Hebrew slave whom you brought to us, to ridicule me, came to me; but when I raised my voice and screamed, he left his garment with me and ran outside.”  When Joseph’s master heard the thing that his wife told him, “This is what your servant did to me,” he was incensed. Joseph’s master took him and threw him in jail, the place where the king’s prisoners were held.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The First Sermon I Ever Preached

February 11, 2014

Dear St. Paul’s Family,

Love  is a word that is easy to use but difficult to master.  The word  love  is tossed around frequently in everyday conversation.  ‘I love my dog.’ ‘I love Florida.’ ‘I love New York.’  Even ‘I love you’ many times loses its sincerity, and is said as often as ‘How’s the weather’ is asked.  But the Bible has its own definition of what exactly Love Is.”

During my recent visit with my parents in St. Petersburg over Christmas break, my dad asked me to sort through a box of items full of keepsakes from my youth that they had been keeping in a closet for twenty-five years.  It was a veritable treasure trove of memories stretching throughout my teenage years, including photographs, old classroom notebooks, awards, and mementos.

The one piece that immediately caught my eye was a document - a stack of hand-written notebook pages - yellowed over time but still as clear as they day I wrote it. I recognized it instantly, astonished at how I’d forgotten that I’d even kept it over the years.  The first line leaped out at me:   

“Good morning.  My name is Magrey deVega.”

It was the first sermon I ever preached, delivered in 1989 when I was a high school senior as part of Youth Sunday at Pasadena Community Church in St. Petersburg, my home congregation.  The youth took over the whole service that day, but the youth director, Nancy Gilson, gave me the illustrious task of delivering the entire morning sermon to the congregation.  Little would this eventual pre-med major have known that it would be the first of hundreds of sermons I would preach in the twenty-five years to follow. 

There is something to be said about seeing this first sermon, written with my own hand, since I had not yet owned a computer.  To my recollection, it is still the only time I’ve ever preached with a handwritten manuscript.  Finding it at my parents’ house after all these years was like probing into the innermost growth ring of my call to ministry, or discovering a baseline strata upon which layers of ministry would eventually be built.  

“Now without stepping out of my parameters of being a normal high school teenager and certainly not a renown theologian, I offer to you four “Love is” statements that you won’t find in 1 Corinthians 13.”

It was a sermon titled "Love Is," based on 1 Corinthians 13, a text that I would eventually preach in dozens of weddings and worship services.  It would be seven years before I would crack open a seminary textbook, listen to a New Testament lecture, or attend a preaching class.  I look at this first sermon now and think my flow was a bit uneven, my syntax a little choppy, and my exegesis on the text really quite sub-par.  But seeing those four points again brought me back to an earlier version of myself, reminding me of how God was preveniently teaching me love’s truest and deepest meaning, so that I could eventually share it with others:

Love is … Your Parents:   You as parents have the potential to transform your child’s life and teach them more than they will ever learn in any textbook or homework assignment.  I encourage you to teach your children – more by example than by words – what it means to love.”

Love is … Yourself:   “When you’re a Christian, success is not measure by your honors, your clubs, your GPA, or your sports.  It is not measured by cars in your garage, the clothes that you wear, or the money in your pocket.  Success is measured by the giving of yourself to God so that He can use the abilities He has given you to touch the lives of those around you.”

Love is … a Gift:   Take a look at our world.  There is a world outside the walls of our sanctuary that needs our love.  Our church youth group has been active in reaching the world.  I say that not to toot our own horn, but merely to show that this world of ours can be reached.  We’ve collected cans of food for the needy.  We’ve done a work project at an elderly person’s house.  We’ve had letter exchanges with teens in South Africa suffering under apartheid.  We are sending a youth mission team to Tennessee to work with needy children.  World outreach is a major way we can demonstrate the love taught in the Bible, the love we learn from our parents, and to demonstrate a love that is both self-sacrificial and world-beneficial.  Love is a gift.”

Love is … the Cross:   Make no mistake.  It was not three nails that held Jesus to that cross.  It was love.  And in a world full of such torment, anguish, and fear, God gave the greatest demonstration of self-sacrificial and world-beneficial love:  the cross.  Not a cross of death, or shame, or anguish … but connect the points, and you get a heart:  It is a cross of love.”

I can’t tell you how timely it was for me to see these words again, as the flood of memories washed over me as if to remind me of my baptism.  And the question I posed in my very first sermon twenty-five years ago is still one worth asking, especially during this Valentine’s Day week: 

How do you need to experience and express what love is today? 

Maybe this Valentine’s Day, you can focus on embodying a kind of love for someone else that is more meaningful than candy hearts and cream-filled chocolates.  Maybe the love that you need to give is both “self-sacrificial and world-beneficial.”  And maybe it begins with your experiencing that very same love from God, revealed to us in Christ, that has been at work in you all your life, even since the days of your youth.   

Love, indeed,


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

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Remarkable, Relentless Life of Joseph

February 4, 2014

Dear St. Paul’s Family,

He is one of the most famous followers of God in the book of Genesis, but he never heard God’s voice.  That’s not so for his ancestors.  God wrestled with his father Jacob, told his grandpa Isaac to stay put, and called his great-grandfather Abraham to get up and go.  Yet even though the story of Joseph occupies nearly a third of Genesis’ fifty chapters, not once does God speak to Joseph directly.  No messengers from heaven, no dreams in the night, no burning bush or fiery pillar or still, small voice.  Nothing. 

Not while he was staring up from the bottom of a cold, dark pit, bound and gagged after his brothers had tossed him and left him for dead;

Not while he stood on an auction block as Egyptian slave owners bid for his services, and a master named Potiphar secured his rights;

Not while he fended off the sexual advances of a woman who would later falsely accuse him and have him arrested;

Not while he sat in a jail cell for two years, wrongly imprisoned, and later betrayed by a fellow inmate who promised his release but failed to deliver;

Not while he dreamt about home, longed for his father and his beloved younger brother, and struggled to come to grips with the torment of his past;

Not while he stood before his brothers and wrestled with his inner urges for revenge and vindication.

If anyone in the book of Genesis deserved even a post-it note from God, it would have been Joseph.  Even a pat on the shoulder, or a whisper in his ear.  Even one of those posters with that cat clinging to a rope that says, “Hang in there.”  Even a bouquet of flowers saying, “Thinking of you, from God” would have certainly brightened his day.  But there was nothing.

There was nothing, of course, except this:

The Lord was with Joseph, and he was a successful man.  (Genesis 39:2)

His master saw that the Lord was with him.  (v. 3)

The Lord blessed the Egyptians house for Joseph’s sake.  (v. 5)

The blessing of the Lord was on all that he had.  (v. 5)

Here’s the lesson from Joseph:  Don’t ever, ever – regardless of how hard your life gets – ever confuse God’s silence with God’s absence.  Even though you can’t hear God, it doesn’t mean you aren’t near God.  God’s proximity is always certain, even when God’s audibility is not.

It’s hard for me to believe that after all these years in the ministry, I have never preached a sermon series on the remarkable, relentless life of Joseph.  I’ve been familiar with his story since my childhood Sunday school days, but his story became even more real to me during my college years, when I felt like I was living in a foreign land, an Egypt far distant from the Christian love and support of my family, friends, and church.  But his tenacity through tough times, the steadfastness of his commitments, and his belief that God was always with him even through the silence, was a bedrock of security for me.

Now, twenty-five years since my freshman year in college, I’d like to invite you along on another journey through the life of Joseph.  One that will take us from the dreamy-eyed days of his multi-colored coat, to the powerful halls of Pharaoh’s throne room.  We will connect his story – full of one misery after another – with the tumult of our own.  And along the way, we will discover a simple, honest, and time-tested truth that rings more clearly in the life of Joseph than in almost any other story in the Bible:

No matter what you are going through, God will see you through.

God Will See You Through:

The Remarkable, Relentless Life of Joseph

February 9
When Life Hits Rock Bottom

February 16
Longing for Home

February 23
The Temptation Trap

March 2
When Injustice Prevails

March 9
Getting Out of Yourself

March 16
Learning to Wait

March 23
A Tough Faith During Good Times

March 30
The Choice to Forgive

April 6
God Used It for Good

Join us starting this Sunday for this eight-week journey.  And if you know someone who can use some inspiration from one of the Bible’s greatest heroes, bring them along.  It will be great to take this journey together.

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