By Stan Friedman
ESTES PARK, CO (June 30, 2011) – Eight thousand feet up in the Rocky Mountains, where the air is thin and the unaccustomed find their footsteps slowed, hundreds of worshipers tonight were left a different kind of breathless, jumping to their feet with their hands waving and shouting “Amen, Amen” to their God when Efrem Smith was done preaching.
The crowd had come for the ordination and commissioning service that concluded the 126th Annual Meeting of the Evangelical Covenant Church. Hundreds more around the world joined the live broadcast on the Covenant website. A number of churches brought Internet feeds into sanctuaries and fellowship halls where members unable to attend in person could watch their pastors ordained.
Smith, who serves as superintendent of the Pacific Southwest Conference, came not only to preach, but also to honor. “I want this sermon to be a song to Jim Hawkinson and Willie Jemison,” he began, referring to two of the denomination’s most influential leaders, one Swedish, the other African American.
The men were passionate in their commitment to growing a beloved family and community. Both recently died within weeks of each other. The story of Pentecost in Acts 2 was the text, but the lives of the two men were the subtext.
“Now I know the Covenant historically was known as ‘mission friends’, but since we are becoming multiethnic more and more, I think we might want to consider ‘mission family,’ ” Smith said.
“If I’m walking down the street as an African American male and I see another African American male, I don’t look at him – I don’t even know who he is – but I don’t look at him and say, ‘What’s up friend?’ I don’t look up at him and say, ‘hey, stranger.’ What I say is, ‘hey, brother.’
“I’m going to let you in on a multiethnic secret,” he continued. “If’s he’s a good brother, he’s going to say, ‘hey, brother’ back,” Smith said.
That attitude was borne of years in slavery and suffering under Jim Crow laws. “We couldn’t afford to be just friends. We had to be family to survive,” Smith explained.
“Where God is about to take the Evangelical Covenant Church, we can’t afford church to be an acquaintance, I don’t even know if we can afford to be good friends. If the Covenant is going to go where the Covenant needs to go, we need to be family. This isn’t about a resolution that was passed – we are a kingdom family.”
When the Holy Spirit roared through the upper room on Pentecost, not only was a new family formed, but also a new community, Smith said. He cautioned, however, that being community requires more understanding and respect than being family.
Smith recalled the beginning of his connections with Hawkinson as an example of this new kind of community. Though they came from far different backgrounds and experienced the world differently, they learned from each other, they broke bread together.
“He took me under his wing and he schooled me in the ways of the Swedish Covenant,” Smith recalled. “That’s why I know who (E. August) Skogsbergh is,” Smith said to laughter. “We must continue to engage and share our stories, schooling one another.”
The Swedish stories and those of other ethnic groups and nationalities share the common history of struggling with trials and tribulations. Those struggles are not only history, but also the present for many.
“But I still hold on to the testimony – wherever there’s tribulation, if there’s a Covenant church, I believe there’s hope,” Smith declared, his song picking up tempo. “If it’s in the rural area, if it’s in the suburbs, if it’s in the inner city, if it’s in the Congo – wherever there’s trials and tribulations, there’s still an opportunity for a kingdom move of God.”
Smith shared how he had been running with others to lose weight, but the course ended with a giant hill. He could only walk part of it at first. Then he could walk all of it. Then he could run part of it before having to walk. But then came the day he believed he could get the second wind that would empower him to reach the top.
“As I ran up this hill, my knees got sore . . . I was sweating like crazy . . . my feet were starting to hurt. But then at the middle of the hill, I felt my breakthrough! I felt it! I got my second wind! And I kept running until I got back home!
“I want to tell you something, Covenant Church,” he continued. “One hundred twenty-six years ago, God breathed his first wind into the Evangelical Covenant Church, and that wind started churches in Iowa, in Minnesota, and Wisconsin, and even 90 years ago started some churches out in California, where I live.
“That first wind started North Park University, North Park Theological Seminary!
“That first wind led to Oakdale Covenant Church coming under the leadership of Pastor Willie Jemison.
“But I believe, sisters and brothers, what God wants to do is give our church its second wind!”
By then, the crowd got their second wind . . . and it was breathless.
The gathering then celebrated how the Spirit was moving through the church as men and women representing the ethnic, class, and geographical diversity of the denomination were ordained and commissioned to further the beloved kingdom. Archived video of Efrem Smith’s message as well as the entire ordination and commissioning service are available on CovChurch.tv.
Editor’s note: The center photo was provided by Bethany Covenant Church in North Miami, where members gathered to watch the live broadcast on a large screen in the sanctuary and see their pastor, Nathaniel Sutton, ordained to Word and Sacrament.