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 Discerning the Body

 If I understand the plan correctly, next week Vicki and Bart Phillips will bring their infant son, Hank, to be baptized. Always, I am moved when parents decide to bring their children to the font. It takes courage to acknowledge that your child does not, in fact, belong to you. It takes hope to ask a vast community of strangers to help raise that child. And it takes a deep measure of trust to bring the one who is most precious to your heart and yield that one to God—saying “have your way with him.” Such an offering is not for the faint of heart; for in baptism, our living and dying are joined to Christ’s.

There are times, friends, when we so water down what we do here, that we imagine that the church is a voluntary organization, from which we can come or go, to which we can choose to belong or not, much like any other club or civic group. Paul says it is not so—not if we are the church God intends. Paul says once we have bathed in that water, we are knit together as inseparably as the organs in our body.

In baptism we witness and proclaim that our deepest identity comes not from our biological relationships, or our abilities, or our achievements—but from the promise that we belong, body and soul, to God—and to each other—in a way that cannot be undone.

Elsewhere Paul uses the metaphor of adoption to talk about what it means to be baptized. And it is true that after adoption, after baptism, a child can turn her back and walk away; but that does not change the fact that the child is claimed and loved, and that the family will keep the lamp lit for her return.

One of the central gifts of baptism is belonging—and one of the central costs of baptism is…well, belonging.

You and I don’t belong to each other because we like the same music, or root for the same ball teams, or vote for the same politicians —we belong to each other because at some point we discovered the love of God in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus—and knew that we wanted more of that life, that love, to flow through us.

Sharing that conviction, however, doesn’t make life together always obvious or easy. Paul knows all about that. He writes to a community that includes Jews and Greeks, rich folks and poor folks, some who are slaves, and some who are free. These various groups approach issues with different hopes, different needs, different blind-spots. In fact, the only thing these groups seem to have in common is the radical claim that “Jesus is Lord.”

But Paul says that’s all they need to have in common. God doesn’t intend for us to be all the same. God celebrates the diversity of gifts and perspectives within the church and wants them all to be welcomed and put to use.

So, if the Corinthians’ unity is found in their desire to follow Jesus, and their diversity is something to celebrate, what are they to do with their disagreements?

Paul says more important than having the right opinion, is how we treat one other. In fact, he says in the next chapter, you could understand everything, but if you do not seek each other’s good—if you do not have love for each other—then your rarefied knowledge matters not at all.

I think the UPC community knows something about that priority, because you knit it into your mission statement. There you proclaim, in part, that you intend to “be Christ’s community of faith and moral discourse in Chapel Hill.”

Heaven knows that there is an urgent need for moral discourse in our day; we must not shrink from vital questions. But to have those conversations as Christ’s community of faith—as Christ’s body—means we cannot use the world’s tools. At a time when cultural divisions are being amplified by fear and stoked by rhetoric, the church is called to embody a different way of life. If we believe that the Holy Spirit is at work in our neighbor, then we cannot write that neighbor off, even when we disagree. If we are given to each other by God’s design, then we must practice forbearance; the love we discover in Christ endures.

On World Communion Sunday we see that affirmation writ large. While this celebration has its roots in the 1930’s, commemoration of this day increased dramatically as a result of the horrors of World War II. For at this table the church remembers that there is no devastation from which God cannot bring new life; and at this table the church is charged with the ministry of reconciliation, even at the cost of the church’s life.

The font and the table. The bath and the meal. How like God to use the most ordinary human gestures as signs of extraordinary love. At the beginning of life and at its close, when we bring a baby home and when we keep the dying vigil, we wash and we feed. It is what we know to do. It’s how we care. God takes those simple acts and declares them holy—visible signs of invisible grace.

This life we share, friends, it makes a difference. How we live together matters a great deal. If you don’t believe that this morning, I want you to listen closely to Madi when she gets up to speak.

To God be all glory in the church and in the world.



Moment for Stewardship by Madi Marvin:

“When Mrs. Wilson said that Kim had suggested me as someone who could stand up here and share with you what the church means to me, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. As some of you know, being up here isn’t exactly in my comfort zone. But I said yes, because it’s hard to say no to Mrs. Wilson or Kim for that matter!

As I thought about what I wanted to say, it dawned on me that my initial response to being asked to do this is related to what I love about this place. Whether it was during confirmation classes, on retreats in Montreat, during Sunday School, at PYC, or going on mission trips to Washington D.C., this place has always challenged me to move outside my comfort zone.  I’ve come to learn that my place in the community of faith and the world outside won’t always be easy to find and that my faith will constantly be challenged. I’ve even been told that, once my parents aren’t around to drag me to church each Sunday, I may even turn my back on the church for a while.

I think this church, by being honest and open and challenging me all along the way, has prepared me for the way ahead. As I get ready to leave for college – don’t cry mom – this place has made me comfortable with being uncomfortable.

That said, this place is also about being comfortable, being welcome in a loving community that cares for each other. I never forget when I got bitten by a snake. Word spread and, while I didn’t like being in the spotlight, it was comforting to know I was in people’s prayers and  that I’m a part of a community where Mrs. Anderson will make me a prayer blanket that’s still on my bed today.

At my confirmation, my dad talked about a Masai proverb that says, “A zebra takes its stripes wherever it goes”. To this day he’s still proud that Bob used the quote in his sermon the next day! Wherever I go though, I know that part of my stripes will include this church – the lessons I’ve learned in it, the love I’ve felt in it, and comfort and discomfort I take with me every day from it.

While I don’t always realize how great this church has been to me, I know that I will carry the lessons I have learned and my experiences here throughout the rest of my life. Over the past 10 years, this church has encouraged me in my journey of faith and challenged me to step outside of my comfort zone and achieve more than I could ever imagine.”

Margaret LaMotte Torrence , Interim Pastor


Phone: 919.929.2102 ext. 111


Margaret came to serve as UPC’s interim pastor in September, 2017. She expects to remain in Chapel Hill until a new pastor is called, likely in 2019.
She grew up in Sarasota, Florida, living across the street from the church her father served.
Margaret met her husband, Lee, when they were first-year students at Davidson College. She did not sense a call to the Ministry of Word and Sacrament until she was in her 30s. By that point their family also included a son, Nate, and a daughter, Hanna. They all moved from California to Princeton—to begin seminary, kindergarten and preschool respectively—while Lee worked to make it all possible.
In the intervening years, Margaret has served churches in New Jersey, North Carolina and Florida. She and Lee live near Asheville, in a home they share with Margaret’s parents.
Margaret considers it a great privilege to serve in community with others who are seeking to hear God’s voice and to follow that leading. She is grateful for the many sisters and brothers who have shared their lives and stories along the way.
When she is at home in the mountains, she finds particular joy in hiking, gardening, stacking stones, and volunteering with a remarkable ministry known as the Haywood Street congregation.
Margaret frequently leads conference worship in Montreat.