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.

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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.

NOTE FROM PASTOR J R FOR SUNDAY, OCTOBER 8, 2017

Sunday evening, America, once again, experienced the horror of an “unprecedented” mass murder, this time in Las Vegas. What seems to stand out this time is that as of this writing, there’s no known why to this killer’s heinous act. None of the usual markers – mental illness, radicalized terrorism, impending financial doom or relational strife seems to be the motive. One “expert” on TV theorized that the motive was probably some kind of rejection this person has experienced. Yet, so far, it seems that this was a person of privilege who had amassed all the creature comforts of life. So, with no explanation to offer a reason “why” behind this person’s actions, what rationale does one use to comfort the grieving, the injured and those traumatized?

All of this was fresh in my mind as I pondered a line from the assigned gospel text for this week. It says, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. The Lord has done this, and it’s amazing in our eyes!” (Matthew 21:42) Watching the story of one American of Asian descendent, I thought of how her story could easily be your story or mine, but for the grace of God. Any of us can seemingly be sailing through life when we lose everything, suddenly & unexpectedly, including our lives.

As people of faith, we must offer those living with the effects of a tragedy like this one, the hope of Christ. As the Stone that the builders rejected, Jesus has become the cornerstone of our hope to heal from such tragedies. God made Jesus the cornerstone, so that we may get past the rejections life throws at us and live in God’s love, grace, mercy and acceptance. And as the writer of Matthew says, “it’s amazing in our eyes.”

Join us for worship at Covenant this Sunday. I’ll try to help us continue to live in God’s love, grace, and mercy in a sermon called “Rejection and Acceptance” based on Matthew 21:33-46

 

NOTE FROM PASTOR J R FOR BACK-TO-CHURCH SUNDAY, 9-10-2017

I grew up learning to trust promises from God like “a peace that passes understanding” and “peace in the midst of a storm.” Over the years they have comforted me during difficult and troubled times.

Recently my heart has been troubled with the thought: “Is there no end in sight?” Houston and its surrounding areas of that part of Texas are trying to recover from the devastating effects of Hurricane Harvey that left a trail of death, destruction and disrupted lives. While much of our attention as a nation has been properly focused on helping those whose lives were affected by Harvey’s record rainfall and flooding to our nation’s 4th largest city; Hurricane Irma is already causing death and destruction in the Caribbean. As I write this; the best projections have Irma headed for Florida and going up the east coast. Also, there are 2 more named storms, Jose and Katia, gathering strength out in the Atlantic. So, “is there no end in sight?”

Storms like these can’t distinguish between good or bad people. They ravage, damage and destroy anything and anyone in their path. The storms we face emotionally, spiritually and sometimes physically are like that as well. They don’t care if you are a good or bad person; they come to ravage, damage and destroy you. The assigned scriptures for this Sunday offer “Incredible Promises Despite the Storms.” From Romans 13:9, “The commandments … are summed up in this one word. ‘Love Your neighbor as yourself.” And from Matthew 18:20, “For where two or three are gathered in My name, I am there among them.” The affirmation of knowing that if we love one another and gather together in His name then God is present with us are “incredible promises despite the storms” we will have to face.

This Sunday is Back-To-Church Sunday across America. Join us at Covenant for worship. I’m back also; and I will be preaching on “Incredible Promises Despite the Storms” based “Romans 13:8-10” and “Matthew 18:18-20.”