The Rev. Suzi Holding
Love is come again like wheat that springeth green.
In a staff meeting a few weeks ago, our deacon Sue looked out on the lawn (the actual lawn, not our astro turf courtyard) and remarked…”grass is the miracle plant….you look at in winter and it looks like it won’t ever come back…and then it does…and it seems greener than ever before!”
This is such a lovely and energizing time of year as we see the green shoots burst forth from the ground, bearing buds of different varieties and colors, watch assorted foliage beginning to unfurl, notice the greening of the trees as new leaves begin to sprout.
This time of year Creation conspires to remind us that new life abounds. This is the reassurance that spring brings.
Creation is resplendent with signs of resurrection…such is the cycle of nature, that death is transformed into new life…signs of new life spring up all around.
Having these images of new growth seem apropos when we think Easter…not just these signs of spring and cute little bunnies, but the good news of the resurrection of Jesus.
In John’s account we hear that it is early on the first day of the week, still dark. Mary Magdalene came to the tomb where Jesus had been laid. She had been with Jesus through it all and I imagine was in shock after the events of those past few days. If you have ever lost someone very dear, you know that those early days of grief are surreal.
So she tends to the familiar rituals of grieving, intending to anoint his body with spices and oil.
She saw the stone removed from in front of it and she ran back to the men to tell them and they in turn ran to see for themselves….they saw the same thing but did not understand the significance and went back to their homes.
Mary on the other hand stayed…as she had done at the cross…as she had done from the first moment she met Jesus and her life was forever changed… and now she stood weeping, just outside the tomb…she peaked her head inside… and saw two white angels who asked her….why are you weeping? And she answers that her Lord is gone.
She notices a man just outside the tomb who also asks her that same question…but also another one, Whom are you looking for?
This man, she supposed him to be the gardener… (Jesus inexplicably bound with creation, all living things).
Sometimes we see what we expect to see…a gardener in a garden…rather than see the unexpected, the risen Christ in our midst.
I have read this passage many times, preached on it several times, looked at countless depictions of art work of this particular encounter between Jesus and Mary, many of these works of art showing him with gardening hat and hoe or shovel. And I admit that I have found it a bit amusing that Mary did not recognize Jesus and mistook him for the gardener.
And yet for some reason, this season it has struck me in a profound way. Perhaps it is because gardening is on my mind. My daughter has become quite environmentally conscious and is telling me what pollinators I should plant. Perhaps it is because earth day is tomorrow and earth care is more critical now than ever.
When asked “Whom are you looking for?” Mary sees the gardener. John, the writer of this Gospel chooses his words and images carefully and what he says often has layers of meaning attached to it. They are complex and profound and nothing accidental.
So it occurs to me that this image of Gardner is not random or trivial. This is not a case of mistaken identity.
John places Jesus’ tomb in a garden, and we are reminded of that first garden of creation, the Garden of Eden - On the 3rd day dry land, seas, plants and trees were created.
This garden of the tomb, a place of death, brought forth the first fruits of the resurrection, new life on the third day.
Mary Magdalene thought she met the gardener. She was right. Was it a mistake, or perhaps not a mistake at all. Maybe she saw what she needed to see. Jesus had certainly played a gardener role in her life. Not only was he her teacher, but he was so much more. This gardener knows her, warts and all. This gardener showed her what it meant to be loved, truly deeply loved, without condition, without judgement….and showed her how to love in return.
St. Gregory the Great, the Pope who helped spur the expansive spread of Christianity in the late sixth century, in his sermon on this passage said “Perhaps this woman was not as mistaken as she appeared to be when she believed that Jesus was a gardener. Was he not spiritually a gardener for her when he planted fruitful seeds of virtue on her heart by the force of his love?”
The man asked Mary “Whom are you looking for?” and she saw a gardener.
A gardener’s work is earthy and intimate. Gardeners have their hands in the humus, in the dirt. Gardeners handle things with living hands… Tending, nurturing, caring, tilling, being attentive to good soil, sufficiently watering, planting seeds.
And isn’t Jesus always planting seeds, even when we don’t recognize them, even when they begin to sprout. He himself said a few days before “unless a seed falls into the ground and dies it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12: 24). Even many of the parables, teaching stories he told were about planting, growing, pruning and watering…even fertilizing with manure (Luke 13: 6-9).
Jesus is the Gardener of our souls….by watering the seeds of faith within us.
His hands get dirty in the soil of our hearts.
We see Jesus as cultivating new life…cultivating resurrection life, resurrection hope, resurrection promise. Cultivating us with care so we grow and flourish…
Nurturing, encouraging, fostering, enriching us.
I am guessing that Jesus has the most amazing green thumb and can make anything grow. He will nurture you to a fruitful state, he will fertilize to heal and strengthen you, and prune to thrive.
Jesus as gardener connects us with the created order…where we see God’s promise of renewal and also our call to be stewards of all God’s creation, all God’s living things.
Martin Luther, sixteenth century reformer, has said… “Our Lord has written the promise of Resurrection, not in books alone but in every green leaf in spring-time.”
A few years ago I took a class on the Church and Sustainability. A Korean student was in the class and as part of his final project he shared with us a video of the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea, an area created nearly sixty years ago, the land was ravaged by the war, nothing left. The video began with images of the devastation and barrenness of this once fertile land… an approximately two-mile wide swath of land bound on both sides by barbed wire, stretching across the 155-mile width of the Korean peninsula. Because the zone is off-limits to human development, it has become a vibrant ecosystem, a haven for protected and endangered animal and plant species, a habitat restored, renewed, regrown.
The images of this renewal were astounding…the message even more profound…from the many who had sacrificed their lives in war, a garden had blossomed, …a remnant of violent conflict became the symbol of a greener, more peaceful future.
In the unique event of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, our faith stands on the promise of Jesus’ triumphant victory over death…in all of its forms. The hymn, “Now the Green Blade Riseth” which we will sing in just a bit, says it all. The tune is perhaps better known as a Christmas carol but the words are all about Easter…
In the grave they laid him, Love whom hate had slain…(verse 2)
Forth he came at Easter, like the risen grain
He that for three days in the grave had lain,
Quick from the dead my risen Lord is seen:
Love is come again like wheat that springeth green (verse 3)
That is the good news of Easter….new life, new hope,
That is the invitation of Jesus…our gardener….
Jesus as gardener is not Easter fluff, but is something real, the answer to the question “Whom are you looking for?” Consider…where you are meeting the risen Lord in your life? where you are seeing God's newness in your life? How you might continue to nurture that new growth?
As we hear news reports coming in about the violent attacks in Sri Lanka, including three churches where people were worshiping on Easter morning, we must proclaim that the resurrection is real…so many have witnessed it in their lives, God proclaims it in creation. Life inexplicably follows death; that is the Christian hope and promise.
May Christ the gardener nurture our faith and strengthen our hope, especially in times of new life, so we may see and live the Easter promise.
Acts 10: 34-43; Psalm 118: 14-17, 22-23; 1 Corinthians 15: 19-26; John 20: 1-18