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The Lives We Spend

The spring I turned 20 I went to work as an intern in our State Attorney’s Office in Florida. I had campaigned for him when I was in high school, and when I mentioned later that I was thinking about law school, he arranged for me to spend six months touring various divisions of his office, so that I could get a feel for what was done in each place. My first stop was Consumer Fraud. It was a small office, managed by a woman with a big heart and a big personality.  Her name was Franky Rossmoore. Many mornings began with Franky placing a fresh pastry on my desk. Each day my response was automatic—and awkward. Each day I thanked her—and then tried to reimburse her for the pastry. Eventually, she called me into her office to tell me that I had not yet mastered the art of receiving gifts.

Of course, Franky was right. My behavior suggested that our relationship was an account that I could somehow keep in balance, when the truth was that my very presence in the place was an act of generosity on the part of every other person involved. I hadn’t earned my way into that experience and I wasn’t going to balance the books and walk away untouched. I was being offered a gift much more substantial than pastries, and the appropriate response was deep and simple gratitude. I didn’t need to learn just about the legal profession, I needed to become a student of generosity.

I was a little like the third servant in today’s parable.

You will notice that this subversive little story begins with an act of extraordinary generosity. We get so fixated on how the story ends, that we forget how the parable begins. A master, about to go on a long journey, calls three servants and gives each of them an astounding sum of money—a single talent represented 15 years worth of wages—think a million dollars—so no one is being shorted here by receiving only a single talent. We overhear no instructions about what these servants are to do with these funds. The master simply hands over his wealth and leaves.

At this point, about the only thing we can infer about this master is that he is a strangely trusting person. After all, if he wanted simply to preserve his wealth, the normal thing to do would be to bury it on his property. That’s right: in Jesus’ day, if you had something that you wanted to keep safe, you hid it in the ground.  Many ancient sources attest to the practice, including the Talmud, where it is written: “money can only be guarded in the earth.”[1]

In other words, contemporaries of Jesus would have expected the master to do exactly what the third servant did. But nothing in this story goes as expected, so we are alerted from the beginning that this story is not about preserving the status quo.

Maybe finding our way into this parable depends on whose version of events we find persuasive. The first two servants respond in freedom to what seems to be an act of extraordinary grace. They exhibit no fear of their master. They express no surprise in being invited to share his joy.

The third servant, on the other hand, is convinced from the outset that the master is not to be trusted. Though nothing in the parable prepares us for his assessment; he is sure that his master is harsh and unyielding, taking unfair advantage at every turn.

It is a pretty stark contrast, these two perspectives.  Perhaps the context will help us sort it out.

As Matthew frames the parable, Jesus knows that his time with his disciples is drawing to a close. He knows that they will have to hard choices to make in the days ahead. Perhaps he is reminding them whose charge they bear.

Jesus has spent the better part of three years with his friends, helping them to understand God’s way in the world: God’s presence isn’t simply confined to the temple or contained in the Torah—God’s word lives and breathes—in him, in them. The physical temple may be destroyed, but in its stead, God’s children will be human temples, embodying God’s life in the world.

With this parable Jesus reminds his friends that they’ve been entrusted with a treasure that now needs to be set loose in the world. They may be tempted to hide it away, to keep safe until the air clears—but Jesus says that is not the life to which they, or we, are called. Precarious moments are precisely when God’s people are asked to step forward.

But what is this treasure so precious to the master these disciples serve? What is he leaving with them? It surely isn’t money—though Jesus has a great deal to say about money. I believe it’s this new life they’ve discovered in his presence—this good news, this gospel.

God’s servants don’t have to worry about guarding this treasure as if it were something capable of being destroyed or spent. They and we have only to live lives of courage and trust and generosity. The rest belongs to God.

But we must choose. Without recognizing the implications of our decisions, we can settle on a darkness in which our teeth stay clenched and our tears are shed in isolation. Or we can look past the God we fearfully project, and see the God made known in Jesus the Christ.

Jesus came so that we might see God’s face more truly—so that we might understand that we are held by a love that triumphs over fear, and we don’t have to wait until we die to know that. We can know it now. And that intimate knowing opens our hearts in the most unpredictable ways.

About ten years ago, I happened upon a book of essays written by Marjorie Williams called The Woman at the Washington Zoo. Williams was known for her political profiles in The Washington Post, Vanity Fair, and Slate—but that’s not what drew me to the book. Williams died of liver cancer in her late forties, and it is the essays she wrote about her personal life and mortality that have the most power for me. One of the essays that predates her diagnosis describes her decision to marry for the first time in her 30s. It’s called, “Reader, I Married”, and it begins this way:

“‘You, he said. You think of getting married like you start out with a certain amount of capital, and that’s all you’re ever going to get, and you start to spend it the day you get married.’ By which he meant emotional capital, of course, and he was right: It was exactly what I believed. My parents had divorced after thirty-five years together. I must not get married, I thought, until I found myself in a relationship so manifestly rich that thirty-five, forty years, a lifetime could not spend it. It was a new idea to me that marriage could be a source of capital, instead of the thief of my hard-won store. It was the concept that changed everything. …”[2]

Williams learned that living relationships don’t just use up the capital we’ve stored, the life we’ve accumulated. They call us deeper into life. They generate new understanding, new possibilities, greater love.

That came home to me this week in a letter I received at the office. It was addressed to me, and to Elizabeth Melchionna of Chapel of the Cross, and to Dale Osborne of Binkley Baptist Church. It was addressed to us, but it was meant for you. The letter was written by Libby Fosso, who teaches in our preschool. I share it now with her permission.

She writes:

“I am an official member of no church. I’m comfortable with that—preferring to be “unclaimed” and perhaps unchained in the same sense..

And then last Sunday…at 8:15 PM, I walked into our family room and saw my 21-year old daughter in a state of stupor. Eyes rolled back in her head, unresponsive, and on the verge of tonic-clonic seizure. This breakthrough seizure came out of the blue; Camille had her first and only two seizures at the age of 18. I’m never prepared to witness them. It is so easy to understand why people used to believe that a demon inhabits the seizured body with all that thrashing, involuntary jerking, and spasmodic clenching.”

Libby then describes the horror of the next three days as her autistic and intellectually disabled daughter had to be restrained and intubated and subjected to difficult tests, before finally returning home.

And then Libby goes on:

“But listen: Here’s the thing I want your churches to know: We were bombarded with love by you.

The anonymous flowers and food, the texts…kindness and prayers and well wishes, the cards in my mailbox, the hugs, the neighbor who, unbidden, cleared my yard of leaves….There is an oceanic swelling of concern from these three congregations that has buoyed me up beyond measure….

That’s the amazing thing to me. I am a member of no church. But I attend most services at Binkley and love its congregation. I take Camille to the third Monday services at Chapel of the Cross, and we are greeted with smiles and extravagant welcome, along with others in our “tribe.” I work at UPC in the preschool with colleagues and church staff who have my back and lift me up in innumerable ways….

I’m no expert on church membership. But I happen to be pretty well educated and experienced when it comes to the ways people show up for one another. This is what church looks like. This is what church feels like. It’s this unbounded love that comes pouring out and washes over us when we least expect it or don’t have the strength or courage to ask for it. How grateful and humbled I am to be in the Venn diagram of unfettered, un-membershipped love of your/my three churches.

Thank you for claiming Camille, me, and my family. It’s a risky business, this love thing. And it’s all that matters in the end.”

Beloved of God, it is a risky business, this love thing.

It has led you to build a beautiful new building.  That building will serve this congregation, and it has the capacity to serve so many others we may never meet.

As the paint weathers, and the floors become scratched from all the traffic they will bear, as the windows display the marks of preschool-sized hands, may we at every turn give thanks for the privilege it is to be bearers of this gospel,

this light, which must never be guarded or hidden away, because it is meant to give life to the world.

To God be all praise, now and forever.

 

 

[1] Bernard Scott, Hear Then the Parable. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989, p. 224-225.

[2] Marjorie Williams, The Woman at the Washington Zoo. New York: Public Affairs, 2005.

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Margaret LaMotte Torrence , Interim Pastor

Email: margaret@upcch.org

Phone: 919.929.2102 ext. 111

Bio:

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.