From the Pastor’s Desk . . .

As we move into Holy Week, there is a temptation to rush from Palm Sunday to Easter, from hosannas to alleluias, without having to endure the harsh reality of the cross and Jesus’ cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me!” As a friend once said to me, “The whole crucifixion thing is so depressing!” The cross IS depressing – and violent and frightening as the Romans intended it to be; it was an instrument of torture! But we cannot call ourselves Jesus’ disciples without stopping there on our way to the empty tomb. We cannot appreciate the joy of his resurrection without also appreciating his suffering on Calvary. We cannot understand his call to follow him without following him to the cross, for there he showed us what sacrificial love is.

“If you would be my disciple, then deny yourself, take up your cross daily, and follow me,” Jesus says. Jesus insists that we too bear the cross as his disciples, that we follow him even when it is hard! Most of us want to be disciples without suffering in any way; we want to share the good news of Easter without recalling Jesus’ agonizing death on Good Friday. We wear shiny smooth crosses as a symbol of our faith without remembering that the cross was a brutal instrument of death that has been repurposed as a sign of the trust, hope, and peace we find in the crucified and risen Jesus.

Dietrick Bonhoeffer, who as a prisoner ministered to guards and other prisoners in a Nazi prison camp, spoke of “the cost of discipleship”, which is to say that often it is not easy to follow where Jesus leads us. The crosses we bear are sometimes painful – figuratively if not literally – but we are called to follow anyway. Those who embrace a prosperity gospel suggest that discipleship is all rosy blessings. That is not the path Jesus walked, nor is it the path we are called to walk as his disciples! That is why the events of this Holy Week – the joyous and the painful – are important for us to recall.

This week, take some time on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday to remember Jesus’ sacrifice for us before we gather again on Easter morning to celebrate the joyful, hopeful promises we hold in his resurrection. For it is all part of the story of salvation – the cross and the empty tomb – for us and for the world! Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again. — March 25, 2024 (John Peterson)

As one of my Lenten disciplines this year I have been fasting on Wednesdays until our TOW dinner of soup and bread together in the evening. It is remarkable how that simple act brings to mind the Lenten season and compassion for our neighbors and needs throughout the day. We are used to eating when we want to eat without concern about whether we will have enough or anything at all to eat. Most of us do not have to battle hunger each day, if ever. This act of fasting on Wednesdays has offered me a glimpse,nothing more, of what so much of the world experiences day to day and hour by hour.

In Gaza right now the United Nations is concerned about mass starvation as people displaced from their homes by the war have access to little or no food. In many other parts of the world, climate change has destroyed crops through drought, floods, or storms that have left whole populations food insecure. Within some of our cities, there are food deserts where no healthy food is available. Significant numbers of children in our community receive free lunches that are their best, or perhaps only, meal of the day. All of which is to say that we take for granted our daily bread while so many other folks go hungry. Fasting one day a week has brought that reality to my consciousness in a very visceral way!

Here at Covenant, we try to meet the needs of hungry folks in our community in various ways. Teams cook and serve meals at Trinity Soup Kitchen each month. We deliver food from the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank to Hispanic families. Each month we collect a Four Cents Per Meal offering and food for the Verona Food Pantry. In our annual budget, we support Meals on Wheels, Valley Mission, SCS Nutrition Program, Jones Garden, Verona Food Pantry, Project Grows, SACRA, and our Hispanic food distribution. We are trying to make a difference where we are with what we have, and while it may seem like just a drop in an ocean of hunger, to those we help it makes a huge difference!

As you sit down to your next meal or grab a snack on the run, pause to consider two things: gratitude to God for what you have and a commitment to do what you can to feed someone else down the street, across the county, or around the world. For as Jesus reminds us: it is in serving them that we serve him! — March 11, 2024 (John Peterson)
 At the Session meeting last week, we had an unprecedented opportunity: to decide how to allocate $106,000 in surplus funds from 2023. The surplus arose as a result of two principal factors: giving in 2023 exceeded our budget and expenses came in below budget (largely because of the vacant associate pastor position until Rachel’s arrival in November). All the teams had an  opportunity to weigh in on needs and offer suggestions for what the funds could be used for. In the end, Session approved the following expenditures:

¨ $3,000 for new coffeemakers as our existing  machines have outlived their useful life

¨ $2,000 to support youth attending Montreat and Massanetta Springs conferences

¨ $14,000 to support the capital campaign at Massanetta Springs

¨ $10,000 for staff bonuses, continuing education, and other personnel expenses

¨ $30,000 to complete the signage project to replace signs inside and outside the church; this project has been underway for several years now, and by funding it from the surplus, it will save monies in the Building Fund 

¨ $26,500 for a Matthew 25 project – 25% of the surplus; combined with funds previously set aside,  this will give us resources to tackle a significant project in our community; Session is exploring possibilities and talking with local agencies to identify needs and assess where we can have the biggest impact which will involve not only funds but also our active participation

¨ $20,500 to the Building Fund (subject to approval of Memorial Funds for a choir room project) to defray the cost of replacing the leaky flat roof that covers the choir room and part of the Breezeway

The allocation approved by Session enables us to meet some needs of our own here while also reaching out to the community. We are grateful for your generosity and for the good stewardship of the Session teams. In my 28 years here, we have never had a surplus close to this size; with all our programs now up and running and being fully staffed again, our budget will be much tighter this year. But for now, we will rejoice in the blessings God has given us, in order that we might be a blessing to others! — February 26, 2024 (John Peterson)

This year Ash Wednesday falls on Valentine’s Day. On one hand it seems an odd mix – ashes and valentines, repentance and love, ash gray and rose red (Ohio State fans find that a perfect match) – but there is perhaps something fitting in celebrating these two remembrances on the same day. For, Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday are both rooted in love – love for one another, our love for God, and God’s love for us.

Valentine’s Day was originally a religious holiday, a feast day honoring the lives of various St. Valentines. Today, it is for us a secular holiday marked by expressions of love (sponsored by the Association of Florists, Hallmark, and the Chocolate Coalition of America). On Valentine’s Day we express our love for others through cards and flowers, chocolates and those little candy hearts of my youth (Be Mine! I luv U!) which may have been the precursors to text messaging.

Ash Wednesday begins our 40-day journey through Lent to Holy Week. It is a day marked by repentance, prayer, and self-reflection, a day to set out on a Lenten journey that will end at the cross and the empty tomb where God’s great love for us is expressed in profoundly tangible ways. As ashes are imposed on our foreheads, we commit to that journey; that commitment is itself an act of love for God. As ashes mark our foreheads, we are reminded that we are dust and to dust we shall return, but even as we recall that sobering truth, we are reminded of Paul’s words that nothing, not even death, can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Celebrating Ash Wednesday is an act of humble contrition, reminding us of our mortality, and it is an act of faith, bearing witness to our commitment to the God who loves us without end.

This year, I encourage you to observe both days on February 14. Observe Valentine’s Day for the sake of those you love, and observe Ash Wednesday for the sake of the God who loves you. For in doing so, we live into the Great Commandment: Love God with all that you are, and love your neighbor as yourself! — February 12, 2024 (John Peterson)

On Saturday, January 20, Session held its annual retreat here at the church. A significant focus for us was implementation of the Matthew 25 initiative here at Covenant. I shared some data around health equities in our community and beyond, and Adam Campbell provided for us some information with regard to the work of the DEI commission in the city in order to help us understand some of the challenges that have been identified for us locally. Following review of our Long-Range Plan and our annual goals for 2023, Session adopted the following priorities for 2024:

¨ Identify a Matthew 25 project and resource it appropriately.

¨ Understand and implement Christian Formation across the life of the church.

¨ Develop a plan for lay leadership & enabling identification of spiritual gifts.

¨ Share the good news in tangible ways beyond our walls and welcome community participation in the life of the church.

These priorities are in addition to our ongoing commitments to ministry and work in the life of the church (e.g. worship, outreach, etc.). In coming weeks and months there will be more information shared about these priorities, but as a way of beginning the conversation, you might think of these priorities as addressing the following questions:

¨ What does it mean for us to be a Matthew 25 congregation,    and how do we live in to that challenge?

¨ How is Christian Formation different from Christian Education, and what difference might it make for us to focus on “formation” instead of “education” in the life of the church?

¨ How do we help folks identify their spiritual gifts and provide opportunities for them to use those gifts in ministry?

¨ How might we be better evangelists for the good news we believe – as a church and as individuals – within the life of the church and reaching out to the community?

We hope that you will reflect on these questions and on these goals and join us in the conversation as we seek to discern where God is leading us, and then dare to follow that path! — January 29, 2024 (John Peterson)

In his Letter from Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King, Jr., writes of his own disappointment in the white churches of the South in 1963:

I must honestly reiterate that I have been disappointed with the church. I do not say that as one of the negative critics who can always find something wrong with the church. I say it as a minister of the gospel, who loves the church; who was nurtured in its bosom; who has been sustained by its spiritual blessings and who will remain true to it as long as the cord of life shall lengthen…. I felt that the white ministers, priests, and rabbis of the South would be some of our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautions than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of the stained-glass windows.

Those words of Dr. King continue to challenge us 60 years later as we look to the challenges we face as the church in 2024. Are we more courageous than cautious? Are we listening to the voices of those who are suffering or in need? Do we seek to understand the problems and concerns of our community and world, or do we ignore them? We have no stained-glass windows (except in the chapel), but do we regard the church as a shelter from all that is chaotic and painful in the world, or do we see the church as a staging area from which to go and meet the real needs of our community and world?

In choosing to be a Matthew 25 congregation, we have committed to working to make a difference on some of the toughest challenges that we face: congregational vitality, systemic poverty, and structural racism. But those are not the only challenges we are called to address. In a time of political polarization and demonization of others, can we offer a better way to address issues about which we disagree? At a time when wars rage in Ukraine and Gaza and a political candidate in our own nation refuses to repudiate violence around our elections, can we pursue a non-violent path to peace that embraces Jesus’ call to love all our neighbors? At a time when Christian Nationalism proclaims a Gospel corrupted by nationalistic fervor, can we speak a word of truth? At a time when people are suffering from hunger, homelessness, and the devastating effects of climate change, can we offer hope and healing in tangible ways that make a difference? As our southern border is flooded with desperate people seeking to make their home here, can we find a way to address their needs compassionately while preserving our national integrity and supporting border communities that have been overwhelmed?

Those are just some of the challenges we face in this new year. May we be faithful in our response, rising to the occasion in proclaiming in word and in deed God’s love and justice – as God’s faithfully courageous church in this place! — January 15, 2024 (John Peterson)


One day, in the summer before I went to seminary, I excitedly texted my spouse to tell him that I had found Jesus. He quickly texted back, saying he was glad for me and supposed it was a good thing since we were packing up and moving to Austin just so I could go to seminary. I texted back a picture of the wooden nativity block with Jesus in the manger that had been lost for the better part of a year. I’d fished him out from between the seats in the minivan. It had apparently slipped out of its tray when I was bringing the set home after Christmas-themed Vacation Bible School a year before and I hadn’t noticed until we’d tried to set up the nativity at Christmas. Now that little baby sits on my desk at home, reminding me of the grace of the incarnation that is a gift for us every day of our lives, not just at Christmas time. That baby reminds me that Jesus is with us even when we don’t notice and that we find him at unexpected times in the midst of the busy-ness of our lives. He reminds me to keep a lookout for Jesus embodied in my neighbors. And he reminds me of family, the Holy Family, my human family, and the family of God. This Christmas, as our church family came together, young and old, to tell the grand story of Christmas in the instant pageant, I can’t put into words the peace that settled on me in the middle of the busy-ness of the moment, summing up a multitude of moments in these last few months. I knew that I was home with you, one family knit together by that tiny baby’s gift. What amazing grace! As we look into the new year, I can’t wait to see what we will do as we learn and grow together as a church family! I can’t wait to grow with our older adults, wondering together about what discipleship looks like as we grow older. I’m looking forward to journeying with the youth as they question the meaning of faith and church. I’m anticipating more chances to learn with and from our youngest disciples as they explore faith with joyful imagination. And I’m excited about new ways of encountering Christ in worship with you, both in the sanctuary and out in the world. Alright, family, let’s do this! — January 1, 2024 (Rachel Watson)