God has done some amazing things in the lives of the people at First Covenant Church Take some time to read through some of the amazing testimonies of women and men throughout First Covenant's history.
Wow-- the Storytelling Sunday school class has been great! Several folks have requested the outline from the first Story session to listen "catch up" or revisit the first stories, so we have uploaded the notes.
In case you missed it, here are a few of the documents used in the Storytelling Sunday School Class.
Good Friday Witness Mary the Mother of Jesus by Sara Sosa, pastor at Plymouth Covenant Church in Plymouth, MN
When I said yes, I was just a child. Eager to please. Easily connected to my faith in God. As a young girl, very little stood in the way of my seeing you, sensing your presence in my life, hearing your voice. You called me to an important task...one I would never have imagined would be mine. Looking back, I can’t believe the time has gone so quickly. You threw me into controversy and I knew with you at my side, I could endure. I pray I have done well the task you asked of me.
But it is not over yet. Of all the trials this heart has had to survive, this is most certainly the hardest. I know he has asked you to let the cup pass from him. But that has not been your will. So I do not ask for this cup to pass from me, either. Even so, he is my son, too. You have watched him from afar for thirty three years. I have held him close. I know how his skin feels. I know what his laughter sounds like. I remember the smell of fresh air and sweat and little boy. I can almost recall it if I close my eyes.
But I will not close them. As long as he breathes, I will stand watch, though it is tearing me apart. At lightning speed, the memories come fast and furious: a newborn in a stall prepared for animals, an unexpected visit from far away kings, a frantic flight to Egypt, a young boy lost on our trip to Jerusalem...this mother holding him close through all of that. My arms ache to hold him.
Never have I questioned you and I struggle not to do so now. I am beyond thankful that your messenger did not reveal this plan when he arrived in my home all those years ago. His visit was disturbing and reassuring all at the same time. I remember feeling peaceful and wondering why I wasn’t terrified. I find that I feel that same peace now even though my heart is breaking to watch him. I know I am not alone. My agony pales in comparison to yours.
His words from the cross have been so very hard to hear. He wonders why you have forsaken him. He entrusts me to the care of one of his closest earthly friends. He has blessed and welcomed a thief into his kingdom. His love is outrageous. His strength and singular focus so totally overwhelming. I see in him characteristics that must be yours alone. I have always seen that.
More memories press in...coming to the aid of the host of a wedding, patiently training and leading his group of twelve, restoring health and wholeness, walking on water, welcoming children, restoring the dignity of a woman who had none...she kneels in the dirt beside me now. And then there is Lazarus. Who cannot but follow him after such a display of kingdom authority?
Kingdom authority. That is what is happening now, isn’t it? Your kingdom...your authority...meeting my broken and needy earth. The cries from a week ago echo through my mind. Hosanna...Save us.
You have darkened the sky and the earth has begun to tremble. I know you are here, though I cannot see you. I wish I could see you though I know it would destroy me to do so. I know your messengers are here, too, though I cannot see them either. Though my eyes cannot perceive the heavenly realm, I know it is here. I can see it on the face of my son. He knows you are near.
God in heaven, I have done what you asked of me. With all that I am, I have loved him with a mother’s love...all the while knowing he was never really mine. In this moment, I am glad he is yours because you can redeem him from the agony of this crucifixion. From his words, I know he understands you must look the other way. But that is a place in which I can stand. I can continue to look, to watch, to love while you must suspend your love for the briefest of moments. I will keep watch for both of us until the moment when he passes from this world and from my embrace into yours. Father, into your hands I commend his spirit.
Good Friday Witness Mary Magdalen by Sara Sosa, pastor at Plymouth Covenant Church in Plymouth, MN
The smell of the earth fills me as I kneel on the hillside. I had long ago stopped looking at him on the cross. The weight of it, my grief, my sorrow, the exhaustion living in my bones made it impossible to stand any longer. I sank to my knees and fell forward, face to the ground, hands grabbing fists full of dirt. With every ragged breath, I can smell earth.
My tears won’t stop falling. I glance at his mother, so faithful in her prayers...she never takes her eyes from him. I’m not that strong. I have never been that strong...except for a brief moment when he restored my hope, when he gave me value, when his eyes and words showed me that I could be loved. I had hope then, but only agony now. He is dying...leaving. It hurts more than I would have imagined. It crushes my heart within my chest.
I try to raise my face to his. Just one last time to see him, to know him. But I am weak. I can’t bear to look at him on that cross. All can do is stare at the mud my tears create as they mingle with the earth. Then I hear his voice...quiet, strong...like him.
“It is finished.”
The thought echoes through my head with lightning speed...
His words rattle my soul. My despair increases. I force myself to look up and see him just as his eyes see me. Without a word, I know there is more. His eyes remind me: I have value. I am loved. His words linger in my mind, travel to my heart. As his eyes close and his head slumps forward, I hear “It is finished” but I feel “It has begun...”
Good Friday Witness Joseph of Arimathea by Sara Sosa, pastor at Plymouth Covenant Church in Plymouth, MN
My life is at risk. All that I have worked for, trained for, since a child is in the balance. Yet I cannot hide in the shadows any longer. I have been witness to the most heinous crime. No, not witness...participant. As a young Jewish scholar, never would I have imagined the word of the Lord to be so misused, so totally ignored. As I stand on this hill and watch the man I have come to believe is the Son of God struggle for his last breaths, I find my feet carefully stepping away from my colleagues. What was once a prestigious title for me...the culmination of all that my father wanted for me...tastes sour to me. I wish I could spit it out.
My eyes stay focused on the cross though I know that the rest of the leaders from the synagogue are preparing to leave. Their smugness rankles. I hear their pride, remember the insults they spat at him just hours earlier. My voice did not join theirs, but I am guilty by association. I want to rip this robe from my body. I am miserable. The man who was to be the savior of the world is close, oh so close, to death. He can save no one now. And I don’t feel worthy of being saved.
There was a time, not too long ago, when I felt free. I felt on top of the world. I was respected. Important. People listened to my wise words and acted on them. I interpreted scripture for use in disputes...I interpreted the law. I enjoyed the benefits of my upbringing and studies. My knowledge of God’s word was complete...nearly every word committed to memory. I was someone to be emulated. I looked good to the public eye. But I know now that it was a farce. I was nothing more than an empty shell, going through the motions that I had been taught, but not really engaging my faith.
Then my path crossed with Jesus. That encounter wrecked me for the job that I had come to love. Suddenly, the law that I had worked so hard to uphold didn’t seem as important as mercy. Jesus taught me the power of love, of forgiveness, of walking in his footsteps. Still, I couldn’t walk away from my life. I still haven’t walked away. I am so at war with myself as I stare at the cross. The rest of the members of the Sanhedrin are leaving. They are unnerved by the increasing darkness in the middle of the day. I can feel that it means something, too. I should go. But my feet stay.
I see Jesus raise his head and speak to his mother. Selfishly, I wish he would speak to me. I need him to speak to me. I have failed in the worst way. I wish I were on that cross. I won’t look away. It is so hard to watch, but it is the only way I can punish myself. I didn’t speak for him when I could have. I didn’t stop the injustice that nailed him where he is. I am a coward. My feet keep me rooted where I am.
Then he looks at me and I am astonished to receive what he has to give. He does not see me as he should. He does not see me the way I do. Instead he offers compassion. Mercy. Grace. Forgiveness. One by one, they roll over me, washing me from head to toe. His love makes me better than I really am. My knees buckle under the comprehension that Jesus sees me as I want to be...his follower.
I stumble forward and catch myself in time to see him look to the sky and say “It is finished.” The truth of those words press into me. It really is finished. I thought I knew what freedom was, but what I experience now is so much more. It is finished. My betrayal of him is over. My guilt lifted. My shame silenced. My emptiness filled. My identity recreated. I am his follower. I do not need to live the lie that has been my life.
Tears are streaming down my face. I realize that Jesus has died and in his death I have been given life. I know now what I will do to thank him. I will go to Pilate. I will ask for the privilege of removing Jesus’ body from the cross and preparing it for burial. New life is coursing through my veins. I look across the crowd gathered and find there is one other who stands as I do...in awe of this collision of heaven and earth...Nicodemus. He looks at me and nods. I know I am not alone. He will join me as we honor the body of the one we took too long to serve.
But I serve him now. I am Joseph of Arimathea. I am a follower of Jesus.
Good Friday Witness The Centurion by Sara Sosa, pastor at Plymouth Covenant Church in Plymouth, MN
I didn’t want this tour of duty. I was happier with my battalion back home. Close to my wife...my kids. Near to my friends. But when Rome calls, obedience is the only choice. I arrived in Jerusalem just last week. Crowds were already streaming into the city. Cheaters and thieves among them, plotting to overcharge, steal, bribe and kill anyone who got in the way. Perfect cover for them in these large crowds. I was bitter. I was angry. Who wants to be in Jerusalem during the Passover celebration of those Jews and their crazy zealots? Not me. No, not me.
Barely received by the other soldiers on duty, I could feel their cold stares and recognition of me as a temporary recruit from some outlying location. They didn’t try to hide their contempt. I pretended I didn’t care. I soon found I didn’t like their way of soldiering. Keep the peace? That, I can do. Arrest those in violation of Roman law? I can do that, too. Abuse my power to take advantage of others? That’s a place I can’t go.
Yet I am standing on this lonely, forsaken hill they call Calvary. We are waiting for death to arrive and claim the three condemned souls up on those crosses. What a way to die. Surely there is another way to punish? I hate this job. Today, I don’t even really like me. I stood by and watched, kept the crowd at bay, as these men were beaten, shoved, degraded, brutalized and nailed to wooden beams. Nails? Until today, I thought they used rope. I guess I am a simple country soldier. I’ve seen plenty of death, but this? This is different than taking the life of your enemy in combat. I may not have driven those spikes, but I certainly am part of this crucifixion. It makes my stomach turn. I try to think of my wife, but I have to stop. I don’t want to bring her to this hill with me.
From where I stand, I can see these men as they struggle to breathe on their crosses. I can see the other soldiers gambling at their feet. I survey the crowd and see curiosity in some faces, satisfaction in others and extreme anguish in a few. There is a woman crumpled to the ground who seems to be unable to look up. Her grief emanates from her body. Close by, there is another woman in black. Silent tears are on her face as she makes herself look to the one in the middle. A man stands next to her with his arm around her, the pain of the moment clearly etched on his face. This must be family. Only family could stand and witness what they must witness.
My gaze shifts to the religious leaders gathered off to the side. A small group of men who clearly feel superior. I shake my head. These Jewish people are so fanatical about their faith. It doesn’t appeal to me. Rules, rules and more rules. My world as a soldier has plenty of that. No, if I were going to be part of a religious movement, it would be compassion that would draw me, not more rules.
The Jewish leaders seem satisfied with what is taking place and they look like they are planning to leave the hill. I know they are concerned about the one in the middle...the one I have heard others call Jesus. I saw the sign they put above him in mockery...King of the Jews. I allow myself to think on that. What does it mean? Clearly he is not really a king. As a soldier of Rome, I would know if we had captured a king and were putting him to death. The crowd gathered here would be ten times bigger and much more unruly. This is no king. I look at him and find he is looking at me. I stop breathing for a moment. Such compassion in that look! I feel as if he really sees me. Then he looks away.
What just happened? My heart is racing as my mind grapples with those fleeting seconds in time. Who is he? How can he look at me, a stranger, for just moments in time and leave me feeling as if I have known him my whole life? I suddenly feel exposed standing on that hill. For all my gear as a soldier, I feel as if I am laid bare. It shakes me to the core and forces me to look at the man they have called king. With great effort, he is talking to one of the thieves hanging next to him. What is he saying? Are they words of compassion that match the gift he has just given me? Who is this man?
I want to draw closer. I find I want to hear him speak. I want to talk to those gathered at the foot of his cross. But I dare not move. I have a job to do. I have been assigned a post. Out of obedience, I stay where I am. But I long to be obedient to another and cannot even say from whence this desire comes. I have never questioned my call before. I am a soldier. I am a soldier. But today, the one with eyes of compassion has seen me as a man. He has seen me. Somehow, in the midst of his death, he has seen all of me.
I notice the sky is darkening in an eerie way. I look around, but there is no explanation. Only fear and anxiety. The religious leaders are hurrying away. I step toward the crosses. I know I am not supposed to leave my post, but I am drawn anyway. The darkness is deepening, the cries of the women intensify. But I stare at the man in the middle...the one who has seen me. Unbelievably, he raises his head and says to the sky “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” With that, his head falls forward and I know he is gone. The sadness overwhelms me and I find that I wish I could have gone with him. I say out loud what I am thinking, “Surely, this was a righteous man.”
I stare at him on the cross and think...this man of compassion, the one who has seen me...I can follow this man.
Good Friday Witness A Boy and His Lunch by Sara Sosa, pastor at Plymouth Covenant Church in Plymouth, MN
Being young is hard. There is so much that I want to do and see, but I have to wait for permission first. Permission from grown-ups. Permission from my dad. I am waiting for that permission now. He is thinking.
I suppose he is thinking that a boy like me has no place on a hill like Calvary. On most days, I guess I would think he is right. But today is not most days. Today is the day that they have taken Jesus from Nazareth to Calvary to die. I still do not understand why.
The past week has been a blur. Many people are talking about him. About Jesus. I have heard many things said about him...everything from king to blasphemer. This is where being young has had an advantage. My ears have been open...listening to talk, to argument, to rumor. No one has noticed the young boy on the edge of a crowd, of a gathering, of a room filled with adults who have been trying to discern what to believe about Jesus. In this way, I have enjoyed being overlooked. But in their wondering, grappling and fear about Jesus and the claims surrounding him, I wish I had a voice. I could tell them who he is. I know.
My mind goes back to another hill. My father and I had walked a long way to hear Jesus teach. It was dry and dusty...hot. Thousands had gathered with curious minds wanting to decide for themselves if Jesus was the promised Messiah...or just a really good teacher. There were so many people gathered on the hillside...mostly men. But some of them had brought their families, too. Children and women were present in a way they could not have been if Jesus had been teaching in the temple. I noticed many people who were not Jewish. It occurs to me now that perhaps Jesus meant that to happen. Maybe he taught outside on purpose so that everyone could hear. So unlike the Jewish leaders of our synagogue.
I could hear his voice clear and strong...though we were far from him. I noticed some men gathered around him, trying to keep the crowds from pressing in too close, holding back mothers who were bold to draw near with their children. I asked my father about this group of men who seemed to be in service to Jesus. He told me they were his followers...his disciples.
As I listened to Jesus teach, I found I wanted to be his follower. His teaching was simple...a message a boy like me could understand. I listened, mesmerized by this teacher until my thoughts were interrupted by the grumbling of my stomach. I looked at the sun in the sky and realized it was well past the mid-day meal. I reached for the food my mother had given me when we left home that morning. A simple lunch of bread and fish.
As I opened the sack, one of the followers of Jesus came through the crowd looking for food. I stood up and offered my lunch. He walked over to me and looked in the bag, shrugged his shoulders and accepted my offering. “It’s not much,” I said quietly. He smiled and said, “It’s more than nothing.” I watched him walk away, wondering what he would do with my food. Then it occurred to me that he might be bringing it to Jesus. The thought pulled me from my place beside my father and without realizing it, I ran after the man who had claimed my lunch for Jesus.
But it wasn’t a lunch for Jesus. My bread and fish became so much more. In the hands of Jesus, it became lunch for EVERYONE. I watched my lunch multiplied over and over again until everyone on the hillside had fish and bread...thousands of us had fish and bread...and there was still some left over. He fed us physically that day...he fed me spiritually. I know who Jesus is. He revealed himself to me on that hillside.
So I wait for permission to join him on another hillside. Some might say a boy has no place there today. But Jesus doesn’t see me as a boy. He sees me as a follower...one who has seen, recognized and chosen to believe. If anyone asks me, I will tell them who Jesus is. He is the one who gathers all people – young, old, male, female, Jewish, non-Jewish – all people to himself. He is the Messiah.
28 February 2018
I believe it was this week nine years ago when Helen and I came to candidate at First Covenant Church. We were unsure about a move to Alaska and we came with concerns. But the welcome we received from this congregation melted our hesitations and won our hearts. We have enjoyed this church family, Anchorage, and the great state of Alaska, tremendously.
During these years we have journeyed and grown together. Some loved ones have passed on and yet God has also brought many new and wonderful people to join with our church family. And this year we are seeing a good number of our people advance to plant a new church in Mountain View. Such is the way in healthy families; we add and we send off. God has blessed. Quyana.
The author of Lamentations reminds us that there are seasons for beginnings and seasons for endings. For me this is the season to depart. I am announcing my retirement effective in three months. This is not easy. I love this church
Some of you will no doubt reason that I am retiring to be closer to family and you would be right. Our plans are to retire down to the Bay Area in Northern California where we will be close to our son Chris, his wife Laryssa and our grandson Isaiah. Being in the lower 48 will mean we will be closer to our other children and grandchildren in Chicago. Those of you with grandchildren will appreciate the longing to be near these precious ones and not miss the early years. It is time for me to step aside.
Some of you will no doubt reason that I am retiring because I am getting to the age where that makes sense, and you would be right. I am 68 this year and there are days I feel all those years. Although my major health issues surrounding cancer and my heart seem to be quiet, my chronic cough has been a concern and other lesser problems seen to come up with regularity. And besides my body, I experience greater difficulty remembering things that should be easy to remember. It is embarrassing to be “up front” and struggle with names that are clearly somewhere in my memory but not on my tongue. It is time for me to step aside.
And perhaps some of you will no doubt reason that I am retiring because I find it increasingly difficult to deal with the larger church in America. In preaching and in conversation, I struggle with the institutions to which our church is connected. I am discouraged by the leadership of the Evangelical Covenant Church with its "feel good" talk of justice in the abstract but avoidance of the big justice issues of the Bible and of the world around us. On the issues where I believe the Holy Spirit wants to lead the church towards a Kingdom witness, the Covenant, along with the larger evangelical church, is either silent or marching in the wrong direction. It is time for me to step aside.
I will not be leaving right away. In the coming months I look for us to have opportunity to process the different emotions we all may feel over the coming separation. But even more importantly I want to see First Covenant Church maintain the momentum that has brought us to this point. It is my hope that over the next months I will have the opportunity to meet with many of you individually to thank you for your support for this church and the ministry we have shared together.
The leadership of this church is strong and committed. First Covenant’s mission is unchanged and the dedication of the many people who are First Covenant give every reason to believe that even better days are ahead for this church. Our church board is a wonderful team of wisdom and experience. Their leadership along with that of pastors Criss Mitchell and Hugh Forbes will carry us to the new day that God has before this church. To God be the Glory! Quyana Agayun!
with love, hope, and faith,
These past months, the news has dealt with the way men in power have abused women. Politicians, entertainment celebrities, business leaders; have all been implicated. In many ways it is a depressing realization and even more unfortunately it is not new. The Bible acknowledges these realities and we will dare not ignore any part of the Bible in its instruction to us. But we do wish to handle this subject with grace as well as truth.
January 21, the Sunday message will deal with the text of 2 Samuel 13:1-22. The subject line in my Bible says "The Rape of Tamar."
Many of us know the story of David's rape of Bathsheba, but the story of his son Amnon’s actions years later is spelled out in even more clear and graphic ways. I do not intend to be sensational, but I also will not shy away from the clear horror of the story. The words that are used to describe sexual aggression will be a part of my talk: "sexual violence," "rape," and "sexual assault" will be spoken. We are not used to this language in church and yet when these realities are found in our Scripture and discussed widely in our schools and in the media we would be foolish to keep silence.
While preaching this text, I will try to take special care to be sensitive to the wounds of listeners who have experienced the pain and shame of sexual abuse. There will be counselors and prayer partners available to speak with during and after the service. We will have an opportunity in Second Look following the service to share our feelings and stories if we choose. I will lead that time.
Let us all be in prayer; that the Word of God will not return void, but accomplish healing, conviction, compassion and justice. If you have specific questions before the service of January 21 feel free to email or call me: firstname.lastname@example.org, 907.277.3322. God bless you.
How to discuss issues of rape, violence, and consent is an important topic every family will at some point decide, especially families of faith. As Pastor Max noted above this is part of our Scripture. Part of our discipleship, our path of spiritual growth, is learning how to deal with the uncomfortable and painful realities of sin in our material world. As parents, we have to decide when and how to begin this conversation and teaching, so that it would actually be fruitful and not harmful. If these aren’t topics that you have already begun to address within the home, then a church service might not be best to first hear about it.
When the younger children, preschool to 2nd grade, are dismissed for Kid’s time, older children will be invited to join them, at their parents’ discretion.
If you choose to keep your child in the service, I would encourage you to let the sermon be the start of a larger conversation about sex, power, and abuse, rather than the end of it.
We hope we'll have many contributors from our congregation. I imagine we will have regular and occasional contributors. If you'd like to contribute a poem, a photo, a devotion or anything that you believe enhances our life together, please contact Pastor Criss to learn about posting.