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Our Part

John 20:1-18

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the

tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to

Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They

have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid

him.” Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were

running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first.

He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go

in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen

wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen

wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the

tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the

scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the

tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying,

one at the head and the other at the feet.

They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them,

“They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When

she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know

that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you

looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried

him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her,

“Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means

Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the

Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your

Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the

disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

Our Part

Not long after I arrived at the first church I served, I learned of an elderly member who

was homebound and interested in conversation. Her strength was waning but she was not

in pain. She remained curious about the world and open to new relationships. We had a

handful of lovely visits, and then one evening her family called to let me know that she

had died peacefully, surrounded by three generations of those she loved.

They asked if I would come, and then told me this story when I arrived: A few minutes

after Frances died, her young great-grandson climbed up on the bed, leaned down to look

Margaret LaMotte Torrence, UPC, Easter 2019 2

closely into her face, and then turned to the rest of the family and said matter-of-factly,

“She’s not in there any more.”

“She’s not in there any more.” It is as good a way to make sense of death as any I know.

The little boy described a void. Gathered around a loved one’s cooling body, what we

feel is absence.

Mary Magdalene must have carried such an absence in her heart as she approached Jesus’

tomb in the darkness of Easter morning. According to John’s account, she had been one

of four women to witness his crucifixion. And when she saw in the half-light that the

stone had been moved from in front of his tomb, what made her turn and run was not

some intimation of resurrection but the fear that grave robbers had desecrated his tomb

and carried his body away.

According to the gospel writers, Easter begins in fear and confusion—which sometimes

makes me wonder why we welcome Easter so boldly: with trumpets and lilies, all the

colors of the rainbow—and such confident assertions about the nature of life and death.

The gospel accounts are not nearly so simple. It will take time for the church to find its

way to such practices, such formulations.

For his part, John goes to great lengths to show that each of the three figures arriving at

the empty grave in the half-light notices something different, and each comes to a distinct

conclusion about what it must mean. In the end, two of them turn and just go home. The

only one who is there to encounter Jesus as the day dawns is the one who is willing to

stay in that place of confusion, to keep asking her question even when it blinds her, to

continue searching for her Lord through her tears.

There’s no reason to expect that it would be different for any of us. Christian Educator

Debie Thomas puts it this way: “We come to the empty tomb as ourselves, for good or for

ill. We don’t shed our baggage ahead of time; it barges in with us and shapes our

perceptions and conclusions. What matters, then, is encountering the risen Jesus in the

particulars of our own messy lives. What matters is finding in the empty tomb the hope

we need for our own struggles, losses, traumas, and disappointments. Whatever

universal claims we make as Christians must begin in the rich, fertile ground of our own

hearts, our own stories. Whatever acclamations we cry out on Easter Sunday must begin

with a willingness to linger in the garden, desolate and alone, listening for the sounds of

our own names, spoken in love. For our testimonies to ring true, they must originate in

radical, intimate encounter.”i

This passage turns, of course, when Mary hears her name in the particular cadence of

Jesus’ voice. The sound breaches her despair, allowing her to respond with her own cry

Margaret LaMotte Torrence, UPC, Easter 2019 3

of recognition: not Rabbi, but Rabbouni. It’s a first-person, possessive form, “My

teacher,” laying joyful claim to the relationship they have shared. But Jesus does not let

her linger in the moment. He insists that she cannot keep holding on to the way things

used to be. Mary must let go of who he has been to her in order to experience the new life

he now wants to share.

Friends, it takes great trust not to cling to the shape of the love we have known in the

past. Those of you living through this interim season have skin in that game. It takes

courage to imagine resurrection.

Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams puts it this way:

“There is a clinging to Jesus that shows itself in that longing to be utterly sure of our

rightness. We want him where we can see him and manage him, so that we know exactly

where to turn to be told that everything is all right and that he is on our side. We do it in

religious conflicts, we do it in moral debates, and we do it in politics. We want to stand

still and be reassured, rather than moving faithfully with Jesus along a path into new life

whose turnings we don’t know in advance….Perhaps when Jesus tells us not to cling to

him one of the many things he says is, “Do not use me…. Don’t cling; follow. Take the

next step, putting your feet in the gap I have cleared, conscious of how you may make

mistakes, but trusting that I can restore you and lead you further.”ii [emphasis mine]

One of the central claims of this passage is that Jesus’ resurrection makes possible a new

form of intimacy with our creator. That’s why the message that Mary carries to the

disciples is so profound. This is the first time in John’s gospel—here in the second-to-last

chapter—that Jesus refers to God not only as “my God and my Father” but as “your God

and your father.” Going forward, Jesus will be present with his friends in community, as

they love and serve the world for which he died. In speaking to Mary, Jesus says to all of

us hearing her story that it will be incumbent upon each of us to breathe in the courage he

offers, and then say where it is that we have sensed God moving in the shadows.

When talking about the resurrection, we often fixate on the question of what really

happened to Jesus—but none of the gospel writers attempts to describe his resurrection—

the Bible seems much more interested in what really happened to his followers.

As the reality of Easter unfolded in their lives, the disciples’ fear and confusion gave way

to courage and initiative—something set them free. Liberation from fear—and the

discovery of joy in the midst of heart-breaking loss—those continue to be the most

powerful signs of resurrection I know.

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To follow Jesus is to open our hearts to a life we will not control. We will see it all

around us, on the most ordinary days. And so I want to tell you an ordinary story.

It must have been in 1996 or 97 that I met Eric, shortly before I came to work as a student

intern at the church he served as an elder. Lee and I were fond of him from the start, but

we did not know to hope that in a few years’ time, he would be family in every sense of

the word. He would marry my older sister. They would meet a few years later at my


Their wedding, when it came, was a fabulous homespun affair that lasted more than a

week: a Sunday morning service at that little New Jersey church, then a 2nd gathering

days later at Kathy’s Quaker meeting in North Carolina. At both of those celebrations

there was a small table set aside on which there was a single photograph of a beautiful

young woman in her early 20s—Eric’s only sibling, his sister Emily. Emily had died

years earlier in a mountain climbing accident. I never knew Emily, but I am still haunted

by a story Eric once told about her.

When Emily was in college she worked at a camp for people with profound disabilities.

Part of her job was to bathe the campers. She was so moved by the vulnerability that this

required of them that she thought it only right that she be equally exposed. In recognition

of their common humanity, when it came time to bathe her companions, she would shed

her own clothes, too.

I’m aware that this story that does not fit our categories of propriety, good boundaries,

critical distance. But it reminds me of one who took off his robe in order to wash the feet

of his friends, saying to them in the process. “Unless I wash you, you have no share with

me.” It reminds me of one who left behind his grave-clothes for our sake.

As Eric prepared to marry my sister, Kathy, he said to me, “I thought I’d never have a

sister again. But here you are.” Friends, God keeps giving us to each other in the most

surprising ways, opening our hearts to new life we could not have imagined even as we

wait for the redeeming of all things.

When Jesus entrusted his message to Mary Magdalene, he asked her to share it with his

brothers. He dared to claim those scattered, confused, fearful followers as his family. He

does the same for us.

Beloved of God, Christ is risen. He is risen indeed.

And we need to tell that story with our very lives.

Margaret LaMotte Torrence, UPC, Easter 2019 5

i Debie Thomas,

ii as quoted by Frances Taylor Gench, Encounters with Jesus, studies in the Gospel of

John, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007, 132.

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.