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Garden Party: An Easter Sermon

April 21, 2014

A sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on Easter Sunday / Resurrection of Our Lord, April 20, 2014

John 20: 1-18

After the disciples had left, with no more understanding than when they arrived, Mary stood, weeping, in the garden.

She had come to give honor and to accord dignity to the rabbi who had taught her so much, to the prophet who had shown her a vision of God’s kingdom, to a friend who had known her more intimately than anyone had ever known her before. She remained to weep, in grief; and when her tears had run out, she waited, without hope; she walked, (or maybe paced) and is surprised to hear her name spoken again with a voice she would trust with her life; she weeps again, this time with tears of joy, beholding a love that not even death could still; and, as we just sang, she dances from the garden to find others and proclaim, “Christ is risen.”

Resurrection is more than words – it is the peace than comes upon an anxious soul who finds hope restored; it is the inexpressible joy that forces us to respond, the excitement that quickens the beat of our heart, the overwhelming conviction that there is nothing, nothing that can stop God’s love. It is a return to life, yes, but more than merely being alive, it is about how we live and the way we are in the world – courageous, convicted, committed to being God’s covenant people. Together.

There is a garden in the grounds surrounding Jesus’ tomb in the cave. The garden is a powerful symbol in Scripture. History begins in a garden. When our first parents, Adam and Eve, were expelled from that Garden of Eden, a creature of light and fire was set to guard the entrance so that no one could re-enter. The prophet Isaiah spoke of a garden that was well tended at first, but then ended up overgrown with weeds; a symbol of God’s people breaking Covenant. The Song of Songs uses the image of a garden to symbolize the sexual potential of the lovers who court each other, and also speaks of the need to protect the garden from unlawful entry.

But there is no guard on this garden near the tomb of Jesus. Mary is free to enter.  And we, by extension, are free to enter, free to explore, free to imagine life, anew. Free for an encounter with the risen Christ.

It is hard to find places free for genuine encounter these days. By genuine encounter I don’t mean the way we meet up to go to the movies, or have conversations at the coffee shop or pub, or the kinds of exchanges we have with other parents after school on the playground while the kids play. I don’t even mean the kind of insight that be found in the classroom or a good book. I mean shared spaces where we undertake common projects, carried out over time, together. This is the definition of practice – things done together over time with others. Where our effort is not only productive but instructive. Gardens are ideal places for such encounters.

I garden with my son – we have done so since he was little. We began with books about gardens and planting beans in paper cups, until we could dig and work our own backyard plot. Together we learned through trial and error how to grow food, and fight maggots, worms and beetles, and enjoy genuine pride in eating something we helped create. Last summer he and I took care of the student garden at George Washington Elemenatry School, harvesting the vegetables every Wednesday and delivering them every Thursday to the Ecumenical Food Pantry here in White Plains. Two years ago the children of our church worked together in the garden behind Sarah and Will’s house as a part of Sunday school, bringing us kale and collard greens at coffee hour, and last year that same garden became a place where neighbors on Rockledge Avenue came together not only to tend the garden, but to play and eat and share their lives.

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Community gardens, especially, provide a kind of “third place” that is neither ‘work’ nor ‘home’ but a meeting place that facilitates broader, more creative interactions and encounters. * This is why in the next couple of weeks we are going to be transforming some of our church grounds here into garden spaces where food can be grown in and for our neighborhood and people who may live near one another, but not know one another, can encounter one another through common purpose.

And that’s not the only garden on our campus.  Yesterday some church members spent the afternoon working in the prayer garden, planting flowers and raking leaves to create a beautiful place to pray. And they were having fun together. There’s something synchronous about digging up soil and praying, isn’t there – the soil of our lives turned over – aerated – to make room for the spirit, to make ourselves available to God’s seeding…

One of the things that I love about the way John tells us about this encounter between Mary and Jesus is that John remembers what Mary saw first. She looks at Jesus but does not recognize him. Believing him to be the gardener, she asks him if he knows where they may have moved Jesus’ body.

Some of our best artists have depicted this the moment when Mary first realizes that it is Jesus: the surprise and the joy on Mary’s face, her desire to reach out and touch Jesus – Fra Angelico, Titian, Rembrandt have all painted the moment of revelation.

But in the early fourteenth century one artist decided to put a shovel in Jesus hand, and with that simple device captured the moment, that fraction of an instant, before the revelation of the risen Christ. In doing so he invites us to see what Mary saw: Jesus as an ordinary gardener. And we wonder, would we have recognized the risen Christ as a common laborer?

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Those who first saw this image were living in a time of agricultural crisis – famine and a widespread labor shortage (as a result of plague). The question of whether one could recognize Christ in a gardener was a profound one.  It meant the ability to recognize the power of life in the midst of death.  The precarity and necessity of human labor to bring about human sustenance; we are not extraneous – we are co-workers with the Divine, God’s own appendages, cultivating – turning over life.  The image caught on quickly and it grew more elaborate with each new artist. Jesus was depicted more and more as a farmer, with appropriately dirty clothes, a hat to keep the sun out of his eyes, even from time to time seen working the land before Mary calls out to him. My favorite image comes from a Franciscan devotional book that depicts Jesus harvesting carrots – the root vegetable serving as a wonderful metaphor for things hidden, soon to be revealed. (The carrot image appears in the Meditationes vitae christi of pseudo-Bonaventure. Should I ever get another copy of it, I will post the picture. Until then, there is a representative painting by Oostzan)

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By recording Mary’s misperception, thinking Jesus is the gardener, both the Gospel of John and these artists help us to see not just her mistake but the reality that God in Christ has redeemed all of creation (not just humanity) and that Jesus, though we may not recognize him, knows us, calls out to us amidst our confusion. Think about it.  Jesus right now is already reaching out to us, whether we recognize it or not. The Good News of Easter is first God’s good news to share with us before it is our good news to share with others.  God’s first word to us, is to murmur our name and to extend to us arms of love.

Yesterday I was visiting with Mildred H—–, who celebrated her 86th birthday this week.   During my visit we fell to talking about gardens and the community garden we’re planning here.  “Never garden with gloves on,” she instructed me.“That’s what my father always said. Never garden with gloves on. Always put your hands in the soil.”

May we plunge our hands deep into the soil of resurrection, the soil of encounter, the soil where all creation in redeemed. May we hear Christ calling our name and look up and see our beloved savior, arms outstretched and smiling.

 

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