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Here in God’s Garden

The Reverend Matt Gaventa

April 1, 2018
John 20:1-18

A reading from the Gospel of John:

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 towards 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 round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ 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.


When is the appropriate time to sing the Hallelujah Chorus? Per longstanding tradition, we will sing it at the close of our worship today, and you will hear, if you do not know it already, you will hear that it is not a subtle piece of music. Presumably it should only come out at special occasions, Easter, Christmas, the World Series. But of course despite my inclinations the Hallelujah Chorus does have a habit of showing up in less formal settings. My personal favorite is this, a commercial from a few years back. A very proper-looking family is sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner and the turkey is carved and served to some very polite-looking children, and the soundtrack is nothing else but the Hallelujah Chorus itself. And then the camera cuts to what is presumably some days later and the family is back in a very messy kitchen and the kids are fighting and now there’s a baby screaming and the Hallelujah Chorus is nowhere to be found. But dad is making himself a sandwich out of Oscar Mayer turkey. “It doesn’t have to be Thanksgiving to have the perfect Thanksgiving sandwich,” the voiceover reminds us.

Now, there are a few potential objections to this commercial. You might reasonably object to this dad, who is seemingly lost in his sandwich while the kitchen around him descends into anarchy, and I think you’d have a fair point to make. But in at least one remote corner of the internet there are specific objections to the use of the Hallelujah Chorus to underscore something as mundane as the kids behaving well at the table. Somewhere in the recesses of commercialsihate.com you will find one user lamenting this particular theological crisis. “As a Christian,” says user Coastwizard, “I am offended by this commercial for its use of the “Hallelujah” chorus from Handel’s Messiah for something as repugnant as advertising a lunchmeat… ” This person then proceeds for ten additional paragraphs of history and interpretation of the Messiah by the conclusion of which any of us could have roasted our own bird from start to finish.

But I am sympathetic. After all, this is supposed to be the soundtrack of Jesus rising from the dead, this singular moment in our theological story; Easter morning should come with spectacle and fireworks and laser-lights and jazz hands and tympani and now and only now the Hallelujah Chorus. The problem, of course, is that you can’t find any of this showmanship in the original Easter stories. The problem is that in the stories we have, Jesus comes back from the dead in very mundane ways. One could easily imagine the alternative: Mary approaches the tomb, and the ground begins to tremble. A distant drumroll. Fog begins to crawl around her ankles. A spotlight. Suddenly, trumpets, maybe something not unlike the theme music from 2001, the stone rolls away, or, better yet, cracks in two, with light bursting forth from within, and then, in blinding white, Jesus kind of floats out of the grave. That would be convincing. That would be a show. That would be an appropriate time to sing the Hallelujah Chorus, with tympani and trumpet, for he shall reign forever and ever, Hallelujah.

Instead. We have a comedy of errors. Details vary between the Gospel-writers, but the themes remain the same: the grave is empty, but nobody knows why. We meet a bunch of throwaway characters, guards, groundskeepers, kids, strangers hanging around the tomb, any one of which may or may not be an angel. The whole thing runs through with cases of mistaken identity, because Jesus doesn’t announce himself, and, as a consequence, nobody entirely recognizes him when they see him. Even Mary, in our story today, even when Jesus addresses her directly, even when she gets a good look at him, she supposes him to be the gardener, which just underscores the point. The first Easter morning is failure of marketing and public relations, and it comes right from the top, because this risen Christ doesn’t seem interested in making headlines. He seems interested in ordinary things, breaking bread with his disciples, going fishing with his friends, or, here in John’s Gospel, just lingering in the garden and keeping an eye on the plants.

But still, there is something sacred about the garden. In John’s Gospel, the story of Holy Weekend begins in a garden and ends in a garden, from Gethsemane to this unnamed garden that grows around the tombstones. It is for John like for every gardener the place that holds the totality of life and death entirely within its confines, the very ordinary life and death that makes the flowers grow and fade and makes the vegetables grow and fade and makes the tombstones grow and fade. There is, perhaps, a reason that John does not announce the resurrection with earthquakes and fog machines and laser lights. Perhaps the garden says everything that needs be said, a garden where the cemetery plots are covered over with cabbages and cucumber and the gravestones are circled with ivy. And in the midst of it, Jesus, mistaken for the gardener — Mary’s not quite right, but she’s not wrong — after all, how else to describe this resurrection but a story of life where there ought to have been death, and how else to describe this garden built up around the graves? John doesn’t need trumpets to sound Easter morning. He can do it, it seems, with a lily.

For most of my life my father has been the gardener and I have been where plants go to die. Once in college I decided I wanted an indoor plant and so I went to the store and asked the woman which of those plants would be the hardest to kill and I bought it and took it home and then, very slowly — challenge accepted — I killed it. Whatever the opposite of a green thumb is, I have one firmly attached to my hand. And then a few years ago my family and I found ourselves living in this country farmhouse in rural Virginia, with this sprawling backyard, surrounded by forest on three sides, and there, in the middle, carved out of the hillside, was a place where obviously there should be a garden. And the first year we were there I did what any plant-killing kid from the suburbs does when presented with this opportunity: namely, I ignored it entirely. I mean, the worst possible outcome was that the forest would gradually take this land back which would mean that I wouldn’t have to do any work and that sounded like a compromise that I was more than willing to make.

And then come early spring of our second year in that home a woman in my church asked me if I was growing anything and I explained no, you see, one of my spiritual gifts is killing plants and she said, well, you should at least plant some basil. Here in this part of the world. That basil will grow no matter what, she said, no matter the rain, no matter the deer. The basil just grows. Any idiot can grow basil. And I thought, well that describes me pretty well. And, more to the point, I have a child whose diet at that time was about 45% pesto, so having a bumper crop of basil wouldn’t hurt. So I tried it. I got a few plants. I dug a few holes in the dirt. I stuck them in. And lo and behold, we had basil. In fact, we had armfuls of basil, a freezer-full of basil (in pesto form). I was so excited that I planted a bunch of other stuff and none of that worked at all but the basil was amazing. I mean, if ever there was a time for the Hallelujah Chorus. A kitchen table overloaded with the bounty of the garden. A piece of land I was ready to let die, and here we are, full of life, and I, much to my own surprise, and through nothing resembling my own merit, had become, of all of God’s unlikely creations, a gardener.

But here is where the trouble starts. Because the next year, the basil didn’t do anything. Some of it just withered in the ground. Some of it grew for a while and then decayed in front of our eyes. To this day I don’t know exactly what happened. I thought I did the same thing as I’d done the year before. More or less I planted it in the same spot. More or less the soil was rich and full of nutrients. More or less the sun shone and the rain fell in due measure. Maybe some critters found us that hadn’t found us before. Maybe the sun shone just a little hot during the dog days of July. I don’t know why the basil died. I’m not a good enough of a gardener to know why. But I still, much to my surprise, I still had become a gardener. I could feel in my heart that I had become a gardener, because I had this longing in my heart for the garden that should have been there. I could see it now, I could picture it, this garden flourishing with basil (and tomatoes, and peppers, and strawberries, and all the other things I would have figured out somewhere down the line). It would have been easier to go back to my old resignation, to just let the forest win, but I was a gardener now, or, at least, for one passing season, whether I liked it or not. I could feel myself holding that soil to a new standard. I could feel the soil holding me to a new standard. At least for a moment, I could see what a gardener sees, which is all the life that should be.

No wonder that Mary mistakes him for a gardener, this Jesus who sees all the life that should be. No wonder this whole story happens in a garden, this Easter story, God’s ultimate declaration of the life that should be. For some of John’s readers, the garden echoes of Adam and Eve and the remembrance of what could have been but here on this morning in this garden, God declares the life that should be. For others, the garden simply echoes of that Thursday just hours ago, in a garden not so far away, when Jesus was betrayed and arrested and taken away to die. But here on this morning God declares the life that should be. What else could this Easter morning be but the declaration of all the life that should be, that the whole world is God’s garden, that God sees this world with gardener eyes, that God sees life even in dead places, that God promises a world where the tombstones are covered with cabbages and cucumbers and tomatoes and peppers and strawberries, that all the ends of the earth would echo with the strains of that Hallelujah Chorus, not just this day but every day, that God will hold this world to a new standard. That God will hold this world to a resurrection standard. That God would have us see with gardener eyes all the life that should be.

I want to tell you about Mrs. Cullen, who is the main character in Age of Iron, a novel by the South African writer John Coetzee, set in the violent closing years of South African Apartheid. Mrs. Cullen is a retired classics professor, a comfortably well-off woman living in a comfortably well-off neighborhood in Cape Town, quite removed from the daily terror of those living in the townships. Mrs. Cullen has cancer — just as the story begins, she learns that has been terminally diagnosed, and is consigned to live out her days in the relative isolation of this comfortable home. But Age of Iron is not a book about her death. It is, in its own way, a book about her resurrection. Not because she passes into the ground and then comes back to life, no, but rather because she learns to see with new eyes. She has a house cleaner who comes from the townships, and the house cleaner has a son, and one day the son goes missing, and Mrs. Cullen has a car, and she drives her housekeeper into the night to find this missing child, only instead to find his body sprawling in the middle of a war zone, one more victim of the Apartheid police. And then something in Mrs. Cullen changes. Something opens. She has seen death where life should be. She has seen with gardener eyes. And she knows it, as if it for the first time.

This is the wondrous and terrible Gospel of Easter Sunday, that God holds the world to the standards of resurrection, that God has promised life into this garden so full of death, and that God’s promise will not let us alone. It will not leave her alone. Not any longer. Not this time. “You think I am upset but will get over it,” she says. “Cheap tears, you think, tears of sentiment, here today, gone tomorrow. Well, it is true, I have been upset in the past, I have imagined there could be no worse, and then the worse has arrived, as it does without fail, and I have got over it, or seemed to.” And I am sympathetic, it is so much easier just to let the forest come. “But that is the trouble!” Mrs. Cullen says.  “In order not to be paralyzed with shame I have had to live a life of getting over the worse. What I cannot get over any more is that getting over. If I get over it this time, I will never have another chance not to get over it. For this sake of my own resurrection,” — for the sake of my own resurrection! For the sake of my resurrection! — “I cannot get over it this time.”

Christ is risen, for the sake of our resurrection. Christ is risen, and we shall arise! Christ is risen, and calls us to see the world with new eyes. With gardening eyes. With resurrection eyes. With eyes that long for life even in the shadow of death. With eyes that dream of peace even in the shadow of violence. With eyes that envision justice even in the shadow of wrath, With eyes that see the richness of God’s own garden that could be, that should be, that will be by the promises made this day by this empty tomb in this garden in defiance of this death in the presence of this chorus of Hallelujahs for the sake of this resurrection. For the sake of our resurrection. For the sake of our resurrection, God has claimed all of it, every rock, every flower, every child, every township, every grave, every body, everybody. For the sake of our resurrection God has decreed this day that there is nowhere and nobody and no body beyond this garden now planted with seeds of Hallelujahs. For the sake of our resurrection. For the sake of our resurrection, let us water them with the baptismal river that makes glad the city of God. For the sake of our resurrection, let us nourish them with the abundant feast that nourishes all God’s people. For the sake of our resurrection, let us harvest them with expectant joy, the joy of all God’s promises, for indeed Christ is risen, risen indeed, and he shall reign forever and ever. Hallelujah. Hallelujah. Amen.