Listen to the sermon from Easter Sunday, April 16, 2017 titled “Garden Variety Jesus” by Rev. Dr. Larry Bethune.
Easter begins in a cemetery. As David Garland suggests, “Graveyards remind us of the brevity of life.” Death is a process always at work among us. Not only do we wrestle with mortal bodies which age and decay, but we experience hard endings to so many things we hold dear.
In the first century wealthy Jews were often entombed in a cave dug from the soft limestone rock, a large circular stone set in a trough rolled across the entrance. The gospels agree the women heading for the tomb to finish embalming Jesus at dawn the day after the Sabbath worried about who would roll away the stone, and worried more when they saw it had already been rolled away.
But John is the only gospel to tell us Jesus was buried in a garden, one that belonged to Joseph of Arimathea, who was wealthy enough to have a garden with a family tomb as yet unused. And we remember Jesus’ gardening lesson in John 12: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24).
The Bible mentions several gardens, but the best known, of course, is the Garden of Eden, a paradise God created at the beginning of the world. John wants us to think of Christ’s resurrection as the Eden of a new creation.
In Paradise Lost John Milton suggests Adam and Eve worked in the Garden of Eden to bring order to wild nature and to extend Paradise by planting new life. All that was ruined, of course, by their disobedience, the supreme example of “you had one job to do.” And of course, Eve gets blamed for this, though the Bible makes it clear Adam was equally responsible.
Enter Mary Magdalene who arrives at the tomb before dawn to find the stone has already been rolled away. She rushes back to tell Peter and John, who race to the tomb to see for themselves. John gets there first. (An early church leader, Ishodad of Merv, says John was faster because he was unmarried. I don’t know what to do with that!)
They see the linen burial shroud tossed aside and the head cloth neatly folded, and what do they do? They go back home! I can’t think of anything more dull witted than someone who comes to the empty tomb of Christ’s resurrection and just turns around and goes home, unphased and unchanged. Morons!
But not Mary Magdalene. She persists. She returns to the tomb, weeping, and two angels ask her, “Why are you weeping?” “They have taken the body of my Lord,” she cries, “and I don’t know where to find him.” She won’t stop searching for the Lord.
Mary turns and sees Jesus, but does not know he is Jesus. Why doesn’t she recognize him? Many speculate about that. She doesn’t expect to see him, and you aren’t going to see Christ risen if you aren’t even looking, like Peter and John. He’s been through hell, and he doesn’t look like he did before the cross. Or maybe he’s received the spiritual body of the resurrection, which looks different.
Rembrandt imagines Jesus holding a trowel and wearing a European gardener’s hat, which would have confused Mary indeed! But maybe Rembrandt’s on to something. What if Mary mistakes him for the gardener because Jesus is actually gardening? What if the first thing Jesus does after his resurrection is dig in the dirt and plant new life? What if tending to the renewal of creation is the most important thing the risen Christ can do? That would tell us we’ve been looking for the risen Christ in all the wrong places.
What if instead of finding him in spectacular spiritual experiences or fantastic miracles, we should be looking at your garden variety worker, like the field hands Jesus describes in his parables? Joiachim Jeremias says there were only two classes in the Jerusalem of Jesus’ day – the haves and the have-nots. A gardener would have been a subsistence farmer eking out a meager living as a caretaker and guard for a wealthy master.
Even in his resurrection Jesus identifies with the poor, the laborer, the ordinary worker. So maybe we should look for the risen Christ in the faces of those who line up for work at the Austin Day Labor Center. Or search for him among the common people who work day by day to make this world a better place for all of us – teachers, nurses, construction workers, custodians, and other caretakers of the common good.
Christ rises in every person who is working to build and plant, to heal and renew, to extend God’s new creation to every life. Christ rises in you and me in every way we are about blessing life.
Jesus asks Mary the same question the angels asked her – “Woman, why are you weeping?” and she replies, “Sir, if you took him, tell me where he is so I can take him away.” An old rumor attacked the Easter faith by claiming the garden caretaker had stolen his body. John counters that the risen Christ is the gardener of the new Eden!
“Mary!” Jesus calls her by name as he calls us each by name, and of course that’s when she sees him. We remember what Jesus said back in John 10: “The shepherd] calls his own sheep by name … they know his voice” (John 10:3, 4).
She immediately reaches to embrace him, but he refuses. “Do not cling to me,” he says, “but go tell my brothers and sisters I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” Letting go is a spiritual practice. It’s hard. We want to cling to the Christ who has met us in the past. But that is not where he meets us. The risen Christ moves ahead of us, calls us to embrace what he is creating anew now. Letting go and looking forward – what does that say to us as I celebrate my last Easter as your Pastor and we look forward to the new life God is planting here in the days to come?
Easter begins at a tomb but also in a garden. We can stay focused on what we grieve, a good past that is nevertheless past. Or we can focus on the garden where Christ risen is planting something new.
Lucy Lind Hogan Hogan notes, “In the first creation story God drove Eve and Adam out of the garden. But in this new creation Jesus sends Mary out of the garden rejoicing.” Jesus sends her to her brothers and sisters. “I have seen the Lord!” she announces, beginning the new creation planted by the sharing of good news. That is why Thomas Aquinas called Mary Magdalene “the apostle to the apostles.”
So here we stand again on this Easter Sunday choosing between the tomb and the garden. As David Garland suggests, “Graveyards remind us of the brevity of life, but Easter reminds us of the brevity of death.” Just as Death is a power and a process always at work among us, resurrection is a power and a process always at work in Christ. Do we cling to the past? Or do we get to work planting the new?
Listen! Christ is risen and calling your name today. Will you see Christ risen in the people around you? Will you let Christ rise in you? May we pray?
Living Christ, rise in our midst today. Open our eyes to see signs of the new creation around us even in the midst of a violent warring world. In a culture too addicted to death, let us join you in planting the new creation and calling all people into the life you offer through the indefeatable love of God. And lead us to choose not the tomb, but the garden in your dear name. Amen.