NOTE FROM PASTOR J R FOR SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 19, 2017

Hyperbole is speaking in an exaggerated manner to make or emphasize a point. It is often used in the writing of scripture. Of the gospel writers, Matthew uses hyperbole the most often in the telling of Jesus’ parables. Failure to recognize the hyperbole being used, people often read into the parable things that were not intended.

In the Parable of the Talents assigned for this Sunday, Matthew has an extreme way of saying God has given each of us talents in service to the realm of God, so “Use It or Lose It.” Failure to recognize this use of hyperbole can make it a struggle to properly understand the point of the parable being made. This parable ends with these words in reference to the servant that did nothing with talent entrusted to him. “Now take the worthless servant and throw him outside into the darkness.’ “People, there will be weeping and grinding their teeth.” Seems awful harsh in light of what we know about our God of love and new beginnings, don’t you think?

I invite you to look past the hyperbole Matthew uses to see the message Jesus was conveying with the parable. It might help if you think of talents in a light of this parable. Talents are like the muscles in your arm. If you never use your arm so that it gets the exercise needed to maintain strength in the muscles, your arm atrophies. It declines in effectiveness or vigor due to underuse or neglect. The result is you’ll lose the use of that arm. So “Use It or Lose It!” This same principle applies to the talents and spiritual gifts God has given us. If we do not use them; we lose them.

Join us this Sunday at Covenant. We will consecrate 3 new deacons who have chosen to use their gifts in service to God at Covenant. My sermon will be “Talents: Use It or Lose It” based on Matthew 25:14-30.

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NOTE FROM PASTOR J R FOR SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 12, 2017

Years ago, I saw a rather corny bumper stick; but it stuck in my memory. It said, “Christians are not perfect, we are just forgiven.” I really liked the bumper sticker and it made a positive impact on me at the time. However, over the years since first seeing it, I’ve come to realize that like many clichés pressed into a few words, the message on the bumpers was only a partial truth on forgiveness. The total truth of forgiveness takes more than seven words to explain or to understand.

I think the first lesson we need to learn in understanding God’s forgiveness is to know what it does for our own dignity and self-esteem. The explanation of forgiveness by the late gay Secretary-General of the United Nations, Dag Hammarskjöld, won’t fit on a bumper sticker; but it does explain forgiveness in a way that is very understandable and easy to comprehend. He said, “Forgiveness is the answer to the child’s dream of a miracle by which what is broken is made whole again, what is soiled is made clean again.” We all have felt broken at times in our lives and this describes what God’s forgiveness and unconditional love does to make us whole again.

Understanding this forgiveness as making us whole again helps us to accept this reality the Apostle Paul shares in II Corinthians 5:17, “So then, if anyone is in Christ, that person is part of the new creation. The old things have gone away, and look, new things have arrived!” I can only imagine how incredibly different our lives might be if we believed in, acted on, and lived as if we are new creations and whole in Christ.

Join us in worship at Covenant this Sunday. Deacon Jeanette Horne will share her story and I’ll share some insights in my sermon, “We Are Not Perfect. We are Just Forgiven.” These insights are on how essential forgiveness is knowing God’s unconditional love as new creations in Christ, based on II Corinthians 5:17-21.

NOTE FROM PASTOR J R FOR ALL SAINTS SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 5, 2017

Wednesday, November 1st was All Saints Day, a Christian festival honoring all saints known and unknown. We will observe this festival on Sunday in what we at Covenant call “Our Great Cloud of Witnesses” service.

Death is an unpleasant reality of life. This past week we saw another senseless tragic act of hate in New York City that caused the death of 8 people. Over the past 3 weeks, I have attended the funerals of two friend’s fathers; while facing the death of a close first cousin and dear family friend. With so much death in such a short span, it’s easy to suffer from accumulated grief making the struggles of life seem overwhelming.

At times like these, I’m thankful for the comfort and hope I find in scripture.

Hebrews 12:1, “Therefore, we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.”

I Thessalonians 4:13, “Brothers and sisters, we want you to know about people who have died so that you won’t mourn like others who don’t have any hope.”

In these passages, I find “The Power of Hope” in being reminded that:

(1) The weight of the death of loved ones doesn’t diminish the impact of them on my life.

(2) Despite death as part of the challenges of life, I can live life to the fullest with hope.

(3) Those dear to me that have died, are cheering me on in life.

(4) I’m still here because God has a plan for my life. And your life too!

Join us at Covenant for a time of remembering and sharing with others those who are “our great cloud of witnesses.” Bring pictures of them and place them on the altar. I will be preaching a sermon on the “The Power of Hope” that we have because of them in Christ from I Thessalonians 4:13-18 and Hebrews 12:1-2a

NOTE FROM PASTOR J R FOR REFORMATION SUNDAY, OCTOBER 29, 2017

This Sunday, many churches around the world will observe the 500th Anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation. It will be done to commemorate the act leading to what is called the Reformation when on October 31, 1517, German Monk Martin Luther posted his 95 theses on the church door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg, Germany.

Luther took this action to protest the sale of indulgences by the Catholic Church. The act of selling indulgences was the church getting people to pay for forgiveness of their sins, sometimes even before one committed the sin. Seemed like a good deal; except God’s grace and forgiveness is free.

In 2017, the Christian Church has returned to the selling of indulgences. This time, the indulgences is not for forgiveness of sin to raise money to build a basilica as before. Instead, today, craving a thirst for power and favor with modern day pharaohs; the church is now selling the indulgences of cruelty by siding with the powerful and rich; turning a blind eye as politicians perpetrate disastrous and harmful polices that hurt the very ones Jesus, who they claim to follow, advocated the strongest for in His earthly ministry; “the least of these.”

In reading the assigned gospel from Matthew 22 for this week’s observance of Reformation Sunday, a familiar saying came to mind. It was the connotative definition of “insanity,” which is “doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result.” That’s what we see in yet another incident in which religious leaders try to match wits with Jesus. Just like last Sunday, the same group of religious leaders try twice, this time, to trap Jesus with questions! And Jesus ‘drops the mic’ on them again!

Join us for worship this Reformation Sunday. There will be no sale of indulgences; only a sermon about loving God and loving others; and where we will find, once again, that forgiveness is free. My sermon is “When Jesus ‘Dropped the Mic’ – Part 3,” based on “Matthew 22:24-46.”

NOTE FROM PASTOR J R FOR SUNDAY, OCTOBER 22, 2017

In the 1980s, rappers and comedians came up with something called “drop the mic.” A “mic drop” is the gesture of intentionally dropping one’s microphone at the end of a performance or speech to signal triumph. Figuratively, it was an expression of triumph for a successful event and indicates a boastful attitude toward one’s own performance.

The microphone was invented in 1876 by Emile Berline as a telephone voice transmitter. Two years later in 1878, David Hughes invented what is the forerunner of various carbon microphones in use today. The microphone and the ‘drop the mic’ gesture were invented 18 & 19 centuries after Jesus had lived on earth for 33 years.

So, ‘dropping the mic’ is NOT a gesture Jesus would have ever used. First, because the microphone hadn’t been invented. But second, because Jesus never displayed traits of boastfulness. His only boast was always in God.

However, in the Gospels, Jesus often had encounters with religious and political leaders who tried to entrap Him with their questions. Many of Jesus’ responses to such questions would be considered by us today as “drop the mic” moments. Such is the situation in the assigned gospel reading for this Sunday. In it, Jesus is asked “Is it right for God’s people to pay taxes to the state?” It was a trick question. It was asked because they thought that no matter how Jesus answered, His answer would get Him in trouble with either government officials or religious authorities. His answer was “Give to Caesar (the state) what belongs to Caesar and give to God what belongs to God.” That was a ‘drop the mic’ moment; because the next line in scripture is “When they heard this they were astonished, and they departed.”

For you and me, Jesus’ ‘drop the mic’ moments speak some words of hope. So, join us in worship this Sunday at Covenant as I share words of hope from this story in my sermon “When Jesus ‘Drop The Mic’!” based on Matthew 22:15-22.

NOTE FROM PASTOR J R FOR SUNDAY, OCTOBER 15, 2107

“Old habits die hard” is an old saying I grew up with. I’ve noticed it’s a very true saying when it comes to legalisms we learned in church. One such legalism many of us learned in church was to be properly dressed when going to church. Even when legalism grew lax over time, it still was very strong on what is proper attire when participating in the service. This week’s assigned gospel reading ends with a parable about being properly attired for a wedding. That and something that happened to me this week, reminded me of this old saying.

Tuesday, I was honored to be one of the speakers for a “Unity Service” at Highland United Methodist Church. The music was performed by an ensemble of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus and the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir. As enlightened as I think of myself, I nonetheless, found myself noticing the difference in the attire the two groups wore for the occasion. The Oakland Interfaith Choir was dressed in their beautiful robes reminiscent of those worn when I grew up in my black church experience. The SF Gay Men’s Chorus was dressed in rainbow color T-Shirts – some wearing jeans, others wearing shorts.

In this beautiful service, is that one of the things that caught my attention? Yes, it was, but only for a nanosecond. Having grown up with that old legalism about being properly dressed for church, it was an example that “Old habits die hard.” However, that experience also gave me a quick insight into the parable for this Sunday. Being dressed properly for the occasion is not about our outside attire, it’s all about properly dressing our spiritual and emotional selves.

Join us for worship this Sunday. Then join us for a potluck dinner immediately following worship. All members are asked to please attend for our Annual Congregational Meeting. I’ll be preaching a sermon on this parable called “Are You Dressed Properly for the Occasion?” based on Matthew 22:1-14.

SPECIAL NOTE FROM PASTOR J R UNITY SERVICE REMARKS HIGHLAND UMC CHURCH WITH SF GAY MEN’S CHORUS & OAKLAND INTERFAITH GOSPEL CHOIR

Rev’d J R Finney II, Tuesday, October 10, 2017, Noon

(NOTE: BY REQUEST, I’M SHARING MY PREPARED TEXT(AD-LIB IN PARENTTHESES) FOR THIS SERVICE. THE OAKLAND CHOIR PRECEEDED ME SINGING A SONG FROM THE AFRICAN AMERCIAN TRADITION – “SOMETHING GOT A HOLD OF ME!”)

Good afternoon, I am Rev’d J. R. Finney, the Pastor of Covenant Community Church, A United Church Congregation. It is a very diverse congregation but notable that I am a Black Man serving a predominantly white congregation of mostly LGBTQ people in Birmingham, AL. (The song just sang by the Choir could not be more appropriate for my remarks.)

Thanks to Rev’d Hudson & Highland UMC for hosting this Unity Service. It is an honor to take part in this event that includes portions of the SF Gay Men’s Chorus & the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir.

In any other career, I would be retired now with my heels kicked up, sitting on the porch of the house I own in Martinsville, VA. So, why I am still committed to the issues of inclusion for the LGBTQ community in Birmingham & AL. Well, it would helpful to know a little of my story and that of the congregation that I am blessed to serve as Pastor.

Years ago, (and I’m still 29), after 4 years in the Air Force and coming out to my parents, I attended the 3rd SECLGM in Atlanta, GA. There, I attended a workshop called “Gay & Christian.” It was a moment that changed my life.

The workshop presenter of course dealt with the six clobber scriptures people use to tell LGBTQ people that they are not loved and accepted by God. But the part that changed my life was when he quoted from Gal. 5:1, which in an older translation says, “Stand fast in the liberty in which Christ has set you free and be not again entangled with the yoke of bondage.” He then looked around the room and said, “Anything that keeps you from a healthy, wholesome relationship with God is bondage, including internalized homophobia.” He closed by quoting from the 13th verse of the same chapter which said, “For God has called you to freedom!”

At that very moment, (something got a hold of me!) I felt a freedom and peace within me that, as an openly Gay man, I had never experienced before in my life. Immediately, I remember feeling this stirring in my innermost being, that I was called to help other LGBTQ people feel this same freedom and peace.

For the past 17 years and the reason I’m not sitting on that porch in VA is that I have had the privilege and honor of pursuing that calling as the Pastor of Covenant Community Church, now a UCC Congregation.

Starting with 12 people, for nearly 38 years Covenant has existed with a vision of bringing the love and acceptance of God to our community. When Covenant began, there were no opening and affirming Christian congregations in Birmingham or anywhere in AL. And to this day, while our ministry has expanded to the wider community, we have never wavered or lost the focus for which we came into being.

These days, we partner with other churches and organizations in the community to achieve our vision and mission. For example, we joined efforts with other stakeholders in the community to fund and create a needs assessment for the LGBTQ community of Metro B’ham.

Covenant is a founding member congregation of FIAA whose mission is “To honor God by achieving systemic change through faith-based community organizing to create pathways of opportunity for all Alabamians.”

And I’m very honored to serve on the LGBTQ Grants committee of the Community Foundation who just this past month awarded such grants; one to AIDS AL to provide emergency hotel vouchers for homeless LGBTQ Youth; AL Safe School Coalition to train up to 250 additional educators; and one to TAKE (a transgender of color organization,) to create a Trans Crisis Fund to provide safety net purchases like groceries, utilities, and food for Trans Women of Color.

Standing in this beautiful sanctuary of Highland United Methodist Sanctuary, I proclaim that Covenant’s commitment and my continuing service of love and acceptance to the LGBTQ community are best summed up in the words of John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement: “Do all the good you can, in all the ways you can, to all the souls you can, in every place you can, at all the times you can, with all the zeal you can, as long as you can.” (And don’t let anyone among us ever feel like they are “Orphans of God.”)

Thank you and God bless you.