Sunday, April 04, 2010

In the Garden: Sermon on John 20:1-18

This is the day… this is the day on which it all hinges, really. This is the day on which our entire faith rises or falls, the day on which it matters or is irrelevant, no more significant than any other competing philosophy in the great marketplace of ideas. As the apostle Paul says, “…if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain.” If Christ has not been raised, “we are of all people most to be pitied” [1 Cor. 15:14,19]. Either we proclaim with all our hearts, “Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!” or we may as well just close our hymnals and go home to the Sunday paper and our Easter brunches right now.

This is the day that begins in the garden. Have you noticed that a number of crucial moments in the story of our relationship with God occur in a garden? God plants a garden in Eden—God is a gardener!—and then places the newly created man and woman there, walking with them in the cool of the day. And all that disastrous business with the serpent and the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil…the willful disobedience, the agonizing confrontation, confession and banishment…it all takes place in a garden.

A garden figures prominently in the stories we have been hearing throughout this Holy Week, the gospel accounts of Jesus’ passion and death. After Jesus’ final meal with his friends, the little band heads out across a valley to a garden at the foot of the Mount of Olives. John’s gospel proceeds immediately to the arrest of Jesus. But the other gospel writers tell of Jesus’ agonized prayer in the garden called Gethsemane, a prayer raised while his friends sleep peacefully beneath the rustling leaves, inhaling the fragrance of juniper and hyacinth.

And then there is the crucifixion. John mentions, almost as an afterthought, “there was a garden in the place where Jesus was crucified, and in that garden there was a new tomb…”[John 19:41]. I confess: I had completed my second Master’s degree in theology before I noticed this detail. Jesus was crucified in a place with a garden. And there he was buried. This is the day that begins in the garden. There is a well-known Victorian poem, a fragment of which has become famous:

The kiss of the sun for pardon
The song of the birds for mirth
One is nearer to God's heart in the garden
Than anywhere else on earth.

I suspect that poet spent some time pondering gardens and our salvation history. From the creation and great expulsion from Eden, to the suffering and death of Jesus, to this morning’s encounter between Jesus and Mary Magdalene, God’s heart does seem to be beating in a garden. It seems to be beating there for us.

It is the morning of the first day of the week, and coming to the garden tomb while it is still dark, Mary finds the stone rolled away and the tomb empty. She rushes to tell two disciples, Simon Peter and the one Jesus loved, and they in turn rush to the garden to investigate the scene. The beloved disciple believes, though it isn’t clear yet just what it is that he believes.

And then we come to Mary, weeping in the garden. Morning is breaking. Perhaps it is getting a bit lighter. The birds are awakening and beginning to call to one another. The dew is still on the roses. As she weeps, she bends over into the tomb. She sees two white-robed angels who ask her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” Her answer shows that Mary is focused on what she believes has happened. She clearly believes that the horror and cruelty of these three days has been compounded by a further cruel act: she believes Jesus’ body has been stolen. Resurrection is not a thought Mary is prepared to entertain. She expects to see a dead body, and finding it gone, she accounts for it logically. Resurrection is not logical. It’s not an option.

Alas, the angels are no more helpful than the disciples. Mary turns away only to encounter Jesus himself, standing there, though she does not recognize him, and he too asks her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” He also asks, “Whom are you looking for?” Mary supposes he is the gardener. Mary supposes he’s the gardener! Is it possible—could Jesus actually be—gardening?

Mary tells her sad tale again, hoping for a better outcome than the two angels were able to provide her. Jesus speaks, but he does not say, “Don’t you recognize me? It’s Jesus! I’m alive! Isn’t it the darnedest thing?” Neither does Jesus launch into a theological discourse on the resurrection of the body, or a scriptural explanation of how his presence here is the fulfillment of prophesies that extend back to Isaiah and beyond. Thank God, he doesn’t do any of those things. What he does takes our breath away. He says, simply, “Mary.”

Jesus calls Mary Magdalene by name. “Mary.” And it is only in hearing her name called that Mary is able to consciously admit into her wounded soul the possibility of something new, something completely unexpected and illogical. It is only in hearing her name called that Mary is able to conceive of the possibility of resurrection. It is only in hearing her name called that Mary is able to understand that in the garden, she is indeed near to God’s heart, that it is still beating, and that it is beating for her.

Maybe there is something to this idea of Jesus as the gardener. He did love to talk about seeds… seeds sown in all kinds of places…rocky soil, footpaths, the good, brown earth. He loved to talk about tiny seeds that yielded amazing bounties. Jesus loved to talk about God’s love for us in all kinds of ways that might occur to a gardener … he said, “I am the vine, you are the branches,” hinting that we are already one with him in the most organic way imaginable, that it is almost impossible to know where he ends and we begin. Jesus said that God cares for every flower, every lily of the field, despite the fact that flowers do not earn their keep, and that as beautiful as lilies are, we are even more precious in God’s eyes. Maybe Jesus was gardening that morning, as the light grew stronger and the woman in front of him wept for her lost Lord. Maybe it felt right to him, after all he had said about green, growing things, to put his hands into the good earth and work to bring something out of that darkness, as he himself had emerged from the darkness of the tomb.

This is the day on which it all hinges. This is the place where our faith hits the road or ends crumpled up in a ditch. Mary saw, and heard her name called, and believed. She encountered the risen Lord. So what did Mary have that morning that we don’t have? What do we need so that we too can experience the resurrection joy this Easter morning?

Mary came to the garden heartbroken, grieving the loss of her rabbi, her teacher, her Lord, the most important person in her life. Mary came with a profound, heartbreaking loss. Mary came, though she didn’t even know it, with a deep and burning need for resurrection. Do you come with a loss? Do you come in need of resurrection? Have you lost mother, father, husband, wife, the love of your life? Have you lost a child? Grandparent? The best friend in the world? The best teacher, boss, aunt, uncle, kin by blood or by love? Let’s face it: almost every one of us is longing for resurrection, and almost none of us would ever admit it in polite company. It’s too primal a wish; it’s too illogical. For a long time—nearly a year—I kept a pair of shoes in a bag in my closet that I had worn to my mother’s burial. It was right after a big snowstorm, and the cemetery was muddy. For a long time the dirt from my mother’s grave clung to my shoes, and I was not willing to brush it off. It’s not reasonable. It’s not logical. It’s what Joan Didion calls the “magical thinking” that occurs when you are grieving. On some level I was holding out for another outcome, for a mother who was still vibrant and full of life and not riddled with cancer. How about you? Are you still hoping for another outcome, no matter how irrational that might seem? Are you heartbroken, full of grief and loss? Thank God. You have come to the right place. This is the day the Lord has made, and you have come to the garden.

Mary asked questions. “Where is my Lord? Where have you taken him?” When a matched set of angels—angels, mind you—did not give a satisfactory answer, she went looking for someone more knowledgeable—like a gardener. Do you have questions? Are you willing to keep asking them? Are you willing to ask everyone you meet until your questions are answered, even if they are not answered in the way you expect? Thank God. This is the day the Lord has made. Welcome to the garden.

Mary opened her mind and her heart to hear the voice of her Lord calling her by name. Even though she did not know it, the voice of Jesus was the only voice she wanted to hear. And her own name—that intimate knowing of who she was, in all her grieving humanity—was the only word, whether she knew it or not. She wanted to hear it so desperately she finally admitted the possibility, despite the illogic of it all. Do you have a desire—a deep, burning, restless desire—for an encounter with the risen Christ? Do you have a longing to hear God call you by name, for God to know you intimately, a desire so great you are willing to open your heart and your mind to what cannot be proven or measured? Thank God, for this is indeed the day the Lord has made. You have come to the garden.

Friend, why are you weeping? Woman, man, child of God, what sorrow burdens your soul? Whom are you looking for? Whose heart are you seeking? There is One who has been looking for you, who has been calling you by name. There is a gardener who wants to plant the seed of resurrection faith in your heart. There is One whose heart is beating—his is risen indeed—and it’s beating for you. This is the day. This is the day that the Lord has made. Alleluia. Amen.


God_Guurrlll said...

I am an avid gardener and your sermon touched me profoundly. Bless you!

MaineCelt said...


Echoing your sermon, you may enjoy a piece written by Hamish Henderson, the great Scottish Ethnographer and poet. He crafted an imaginary bardic contest--a "flyting" in the Scots language--between Life and Death. Here are the last two stanzas:

"Quo Daith, the warld is mine.
I hae dug a grave and dug it deep
For war and the pest will gar ye sleep,
Quo Daith, the warld is mine.

Quo Life, the warld is mine.
An open grave is a furrow syne,
Ye'll no keep my seed frae faain in,
Quo Life, the warld is mine."

--The Flyting o Life an Daith

(A grave is transformed into a furrow, and new life springs up once again.)