“Finding Joy In Difficult Days”: A Sermon by Gregory Torrence

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I confess that I am not altogether sure I’m supposed to be up here preaching. I told Jered I get uncomfortable talking about Jesus and myself in the same sentence. Truth be told, I have seen myself as an unlikely member from the start. In February 2016, I sent our rector an email introducing myself as someone that  “attended infrequently” and was interested in the Basics Class. Jered replied saying, “to call yourself an infrequent attendee seems hardly fair.” Clearly I’d been noticed!

I’ve attended St John’s, more frequently ever since. And what I have loved about it is having an opportunity to live out my faith. Church brought me Joy and centered me.

Lately though, and I’m sure I’m not alone in this, joy has been hard to come by, both in the world and even in the church. In anticipation of retirement in a few years, my husband Nate and I decided to sell our condo and downsize. So it was that we were moving into our new place at the end of May 2020. On May 25, 2020 George Floyd was killed – 8 minutes and 46 traumatic seconds forever seared into our minds and hearts.  Mr. Floyd’s death was very traumatic for me. I never met him, but when I saw his murder, I saw myself. 

So yes,- Trauma, pandemic, isolation, curfews as a result of civil unrest, and moving homes all at the same time …. Oh, and no church on top of all that, or at least not church as we’d come to know and love it. So, where could we go to find joy?

I, like many, have struggled through the pandemic. I have a job and I have been able to work remotely. I have a home, and food. Yet, I still struggled mentally and emotionally. I was stress eating, not exercising, and overall unhappy and not able to put my finger on why. My mother has always said, “If everything around you is messed up, take a hard look at yourself.” I did take a look, I made some adjustments. Thank you to everyone who checked in on me. As I reflected on the ways this community cared for me, prayed for me, and looked in on me and many others during the pandemic, I realized just how much “church” was still in my life – it just looked quite different.

For me online church was better than the alternative, no church at all. Like the 12 Apostles in today’s gospel, a lot of people put in a lot of work to bring the Word every week. It took thankless Zoom meetings, check in phone calls, and a lot of behind the scenes work to make online church possible. And there were moments of joy.

One of the things about online church that did bring me real joy was seeing youth readers. I admired the courage it took to present. Whether there were problems with the technology, or other obstacles, pronouncing strange biblical names or the simple reality of being leaders in front of dozens of other participants, the young people hung in there and they really shone. And in that shining there was joy. 

Anyone who knows me at St. John’s knows I love our youth. In fact, youth ministry was the first ministry I served after I joined the parish. When I was a volunteer with the youth program we had an African American police officer as a speaker join us for a conversation about race and policing. As we discussed racism, as the officer shared his perspective about being black in society and black in law enforcement, the conversation turned to the n-word (yes, that “n-word”, the racially charged derogatory slur used towards black people). A young member of our congregation (probably 10 or 11) sitting next to me asked me what the word meant. I answered the best I could. Part of me was sad that she even had to hear the word; another part of me was hopeful, because she had clearly never heard the term before this conversation. The fact that she had never heard it and wondered what it meant was a sign of how far we have come. But the fact that we are still having this national conversation about racism, police brutality, and making the case that black lives matter, is a fact that we still have a ways to go. James Baldwin once said- “Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.” We teach love or we teach hate.

Last weekend, I got an opportunity to introduce my 13 year old great nephew to the work of James Baldwin through an exhibit at the National Museum of African American Culture in Washington, DC. James Baldwin is one of my favorite writers.

Baldwin’s first novel, Go Tell it on the Mountain, put him on the literary map. Baldwin’s second novel, Giovanni’s Room, may have saved my life by letting me know at a young age that Queer people like me existed. I’m not quite sure my great nephew is ready to read that novel yet.

In 1958 Baldwin (like Jesus in today’s gospel) returned home to the United States, met with various political leaders, including Robert F. Kennedy, and then traveled widely, giving lectures and writing about civil rights. He was also not very warmly received. In his book, The Fire Next Time, which was first published in 1963 (which incidentally was the year I was born), Baldwin said, “If we—and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others—do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world.”

In today’s gospel, Jesus returns home to Nazareth to a not so warm reception. People challenged him- aren’t you Mary’s son? Aren’t you a carpenter? What I love about today’s gospel is that Jesus was not dissuaded. “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own home.” He essentially said, “I know you all are not trying to hear me, but here I am and I have something to say.”

We are charged as Christians to spread the good news of Christ. What I love about this place is there are so many opportunities to show forth our service to Christ in our service to others.

I am nobody’s prophet; and I’m not sure of how good a disciple I am, but I try each day to get up, show up, find some joy, and be better than I was the day before at spreading love. Because God is Love. I’ll be real honest, as I said at the outset, I’m not entirely sure I should be your preacher. Unlike Helen and Oliver and Jude who seemed comfortable leading and reading in front of the church during the pandemic, I’ve always been a bit of a reluctant leader. I was a shy kid growing up, and if you haven’t noticed, I stumble and stutter a bit when I’m reading or speaking in front of a group. But, sometimes being prophetic isn’t an individual task. We pray each week that WE, being built up in the knowledge and love of God, would proclaim the “Good News” – and sometimes that good news is a prophetic and challenging word to the world and to us. That’s our collect in a nutshell. So, sometimes I take solace in the fact that my community, this church that I share in, is taking a prophetic stand.

It did bring me some joy drive by our church and see a sign with part of our Baptismal Covenant, “Will you strive for Justice and Peace among all people and respect the dignity of Every Human Being #BLACK LIVES MATTER.  I took comfort in the fact that although the building was closed, the church, my church, was still here showing forth love, bringing a prophetic word to the world, and sustaining weary folks like me with joy in difficult days. Amen.

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