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The People’s Choice

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Those of you who were here last week may remember that we heard the story of the child Samuel, who heard God’s voice in the night, as he served in the temple with the priest Eli. As we pick up today’s passage, many years have passed. Samuel has been a trustworthy prophet of the Lord, but he has grown old, and—as was the case with Eli—Samuel’s sons do not follow in his way.

I Samuel 8:1-20 When Samuel became old, he made his sons judges over Israel. The name of his firstborn son was Joel, and the name of his second, Abijah; they were judges in Beer-sheba. Yet his sons did not follow in his ways, but turned aside after gain; they took bribes and perverted justice. 4Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, 5and said to him, “You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.”6But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to govern us.” Samuel prayed to the Lord, 7and the Lord said to Samuel, “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them.8Just as they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so also they are doing to you. 9Now then, listen to their voice; only—you shall solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.” 10So Samuel reported all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. 1

1He said, “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; 12and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. 1

3He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers.

14He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. 15He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. 16He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. 17He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. 18And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”19But the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; they said, “No! but we are determined to have a king over us, 20so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.”


Before turning to our gospel reading I would like to set the stage a bit.

The early chapters of Mark’s gospel move at disorienting speed, and include very sudden transitions. I’m going to read just selected verses of this dense material.


We will enter chapter three in the thirteenth verse and find Jesus on a mountaintop, but chapter three opens with Jesus in the synagogue on the Sabbath. The religious leaders already are bent on his destruction and Jesus is reported to be furious with them as he heals a man with a withered hand. As he leaves that setting, so many people follow him, that he is in danger of being crushed. Diseased persons press on him from every side, and the air is full of the shouts of those whose spirits are disturbed. Our text immediately follows this account

Listen for God’s word to you this day:

Mark 3: 13-15, 19-21, 31-35
Jesus went up the mountain and called to him those whom he wanted, and they came to him. 14And he appointed twelve, whom he also named apostles, to be with him, and to be sent out to proclaim the message,
15and to have authority to cast out demons.

Then he went home; 20and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. 21When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.”

31Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. 32A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” 33And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” 34And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 35Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”



Sermon “The People’s Choice”

This week marks a milestone in the interim season. Yesterday morning the Mission Study Team sent a draft of its long, thoughtful report to the session. Once that report is approved by the session and by the presbytery’s Commission on Ministry, you will be ready to elect the  search committee for your next pastor. If everything goes as expected, that committee will be formed on July 22. We owe a deep debt of gratitude to that Mission Study team.

Observing the work of the Team has prompted me to think about what it means to be a faithful church, and about the immeasurable difference a church like UPC can make. Some of that impact can be captured in a written report; other dimensions are harder to perceive without knowing the stories of each person who calls this church home.

I don’t know if the Mission Study process has stirred something in this community, but in the last few weeks several of you have shared remarkable testimony about how you have been changed—or are being changed—by your encounters in this place. And every once in a while I have a pen ready when one of you begins to talk—though I promise never to share a story without permission.

The week before Elizabeth left,  Brian Curran and I took her out to lunch, on behalf of the Personnel Committee, for an exit interview. In the course of that conversation, both she and Brian reflected on their gratitude for this church.

Many of you know that Brian was Chapel Hill’s Chief of Police before he retired. During some of his years with the force, Brian was on patrol, but he also served stints as an investigator, working on crimes against children and on cases involving the distribution of drugs. It was demanding, disorienting work. Because such investigations often involve role-play, Brian says it can be easy to lose yourself in the process. He maintains that being part of this church during those years helped him to stay morally centered. “When Bob was on his A game,” Brian said, I left feeling convicted, but never condemned.”

Brian’s story reminds me that when we are at our best in the church, we challenge each other to do the hard work of keeping God first in our lives. That has never been an easy assignment for God’s people.

The Book of 1 Samuel paints a stark picture of just such a struggle.
God’s people are in the midst of a leadership crisis. Samuel has been trustworthy, but he is growing old. The next generation of leaders, Samuel’s sons, have lost their bearing. They are accepting bribes, perverting justice. Unpredictable military powers threaten on the horizon. The people don’t want to wait for God to act. They want to be like their neighbors. They want manageable gods and a king to fight their battles. They don’t want to depend on a God who asks them to live in daily reliance and covenant love.

It’s important to notice that God allows them to make that choice, even though God warns against it. Then and now, God will not coerce the people into a rightly-ordered relationship. God permits the people to have their way, and to experience the consequences of their decision. God instructs Samuel to give them their king.

But first God instructs Samuel to warn the community about what it will be like to have such a king. Every description of the king’s actions begins with the words “he will take”: sons, daughters, fields, vineyards, orchards, grain, cattle, slaves, donkeys, flocks—the best of these will be taken by the king, they are told, and in the end “you will be slaves.”

But the warning does not deter the people. In a rejection of both Samuel and God, the people are willing to exchange the God who liberates, for the king who will enslave.

That is as much of that ancient story as we are offered this morning—though of course there is more to come—but already we can see that it fits the pattern of the story we read again and again in the scriptures. We the people cease to be faithful to the covenant God offers,
God allows us our choice, and then God seeks us out again, after bearing the cost of the choices that we have made.

Eventually, after the people refuse, time and again, to choose God as king, God chooses to bring the kingdom of heaven to them. In the fullness of time, God’s kingdom finds flesh in Jesus.

According to Mark, three things are required of would-be followers of this king:

  • The first is that we be with him—we are to seek his presence, attend to his words, receive his love.
  • The second requirement is that we live in such a way that we embody the good news he shares with us.
  • Finally, we are commissioned to cast out demons: to confront the evil we encounter, not to let it spread unchecked.

Participating in this kingdom requires a constant choosing, and regular resistance to the ways of the world.  It’s not something that we do very well on our own. And so God gives us to each other—as we pray and sing, as we struggle with the scriptures and share our stories, we experience courage and joy and generosity we did not know we could possess. We discover the capacity to speak the truth in love. In Flannery O’Connor’s famous words, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd.”

Mark tells us clearly that people thought Jesus had gone out of his mind. I’m not sure why we think it will be different for us—why we imagine that we will be able both to follow Jesus and to earn the world’s applause.

Entering the kingdom of God means letting the other priorities of our lives be reordered by that singular love, that singular commitment.

There are implications here for the ways we think about everything, including citizenship and our families. I had a brief glimpse of the latter yesterday.

In the morning, we held a memorial service in the garden for a member of this congregation who was 97 when she died. Crystal Johnston lived alone in her own home until she was 94. She continued to drive until she was 96, refusing to give up her fabulous pantsuits and high heels, even after falling and breaking her neck. She was a singular woman.

A friend of the family from New York, an Episcopal priest, came down for the service.  Because there were only seven of us in the garden, we gathered in a circle of seats under the arbor. There was an opportunity for memories to be shared, and each person spoke in turn. The priest’s comments came toward the end.

He said, “I’m about to tell a story I’ve never told anyone.” His own mother and Crystal were old friends. They died within a few years of each other. They shared many personality traits. He adored them both.

But Michael said his own mother could never accept that he was gay. Though he and his partner had been together more than 20 years by the time his mother died, she never could bring herself even to acknowledge his partner’s presence. Somehow Michael found a way to love both his partner and his mother, but it had to tear him in two. What Michael recalled for us, specifically, was an evening, many years ago, on which he had arranged a special dinner for his mother and Crystal. When he arrived at Crystal’s door to collect her, she asked him to come in and sit down. She closed the door. While Michael’s mother waited in the car, Crystal asked the young priest point-blank if he were gay. When he did not deny it, she offered her unequivocal blessing and encouragement.  In that moment, Crystal was the mother Michael needed. He carries that gift to this day.

Jesus said, “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

Friends, we have the capacity to be Jesus’ blood, his family, for each other and for the world.  In a world that is aching for acceptance, forgiveness, reconciliation, there is so much work to be done. We will honor our call as together we discern God’s will, and together respond in trust.

That is not easy or obvious work, but you have wrestled together in the past and you can wrestle again, as each need arises. You are called to do so as one body—bound by the love of God, bound by your shared desire to follow the Christ wherever he leads. Reading your mission study has assured me that your history and your gifts and your trust in God’s leading can equip you for each challenge.

And so may the desire to know and honor God’s will be the defining mark of this community now and always.

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.