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Christ the Gardener: Sunday, March 31, 2024

Easter Day with Holy Baptism:
Isaiah 25:6-9
Acts of the Apostles 10:34-43
John 20:1-18

There’s a famous, kind of quirky, rough-around-the-edges preacher, Nadia Bolz-Weber, who’s remarked on today’s resurrection story: how Mary “came and saw the emptiness of the tomb and was afraid and then she saw Jesus standing there and… well, she thought it was a gardener.”* Many will be familiar with this resurrection story from the Fourth Gospel, and we’ve gotten kind of used to it. But it’s kind of funny, when you think of it. She was part of Jesus’s movement; she followed him; he cast seven demons out of her; and after everyone went home, she goes out to the tomb. How could SHE of all people, not recognize Jesus?

So this preacher, Nadia, says: “I have this theory that she never lived it down. If her friends were anything like mine, for the rest of her life — after they’d all had a beer or two in them, her friends would be like, Hey Mary, remember when you mistook Jesus [the resurrected, incarnate God] for the gardener? That was hilarious!”*

There’s actually a picture I randomly came across the other day; a woodcut by Albrecht Durer. One of the greatest artists of all time; lived about 500 years ago. The famous ‘praying hands’ image is his. But this woodcut I saw actually depicted the scene of Jesus and Mary, and Jesus is wearing a big floppy hat — the kind of thing to protect you from the sun when you’re working in the yard, and he’s got a shovel slung over his shoulder. This idea that it’s ridiculous to mistake Jesus for the gardener is starting to seem more and more normal.

I’m actually half serious when I wonder if Jesus was resurrected… he’s waiting for his friends and followers to show up and witness what’s happened… but they’re delayed… he’s checking his watch… and in the meantime he comes across the actual cemetery gardener’s floppy hat and tools, and just got to work. Because that’s what Jesus was like. Wherever he went he brought creativity, life, and thoughtfulness. And as he’s tending the grounds, Mary stumbles upon him.

But that’s not where our friend Nadia goes with this scene. For her, the point is that “Mary Magdalene mistook the resurrected Christ for a gardener because Jesus still had the dirt from his own tomb under his nails.”* Even with the transformation of the resurrection that would allow him to walk through walls and locked doors (as we read in other accounts), the resurrected Jesus still bore the wounds of the crucifixion, and here, the dirt from his own tomb. And this says something to us that being a person of Easter faith doesn’t mean that everything has to be neat and tidy and pretty. In fact, being a follower of Jesus means being sent into places that are dusty, and dirty, and muddy.

And in some sense Jesus really was and is a gardener, of a sort. The resurrection is a new beginning — not just for Jesus, but for all of us. It’s a new garden. The first Eden didn’t go as smoothly as it might have. But in Jesus the Gardener, we have a new opportunity to live in a way that honours God and honours others.

There’s a poem from Robert Lax, sort of from the beat, or just before the beat poet movement. He wrote little poems in narrow lines that went vertically rather than sideways. He wrote: “Turn jungle to garden without destroying a single flower.” That describes Jesus, I think. To bring order out of chaos; to sift and arrange; to water and tend… and bring about branches for shelter, and fruit for eating… but all of this in a way that is kind, loving, and respectful; not domineering, calculated, or intrusive.

“Turn jungle to garden without destroying a single flower.” That sounds like our task, too, as people who want to love and follow Jesus and his way. Especially on a day like today when we celebrate this new ‘Easter Eden,’ but also when the Church has often, through its history, welcomed people to the faith through baptism. Our baptismal ceremony talks about turning from the bad, turning toward the good; about following certain ways and practices that help to shape us and help us grow together; and it talks about living in a way that brings love and justice in the world around us. Turning the wild world into a garden where all people can thrive. And if you’ve ever done any gardening, you’ll know that — as pleasant as it is, and as beautiful as are its results — it involves hard work, sweat, maybe stings and bites from thorns and bugs, and exposure to mud and dirt. You’re going to get that dirt under your fingernails.

So resurrection — and the Christian faith that sees resurrection as our hope and, ultimately, God’s plan for remaking all things — it’s not about everything being all neat, and tidy, and perfect. Even the newly-resurrected Jesus was mistaken for a manual labourer. Our faith is about going out into the wild world, and embodying the intentionality, creativity, and love of life that we see in the work of our gardeners. “From jungle to garden…” It’s a work that we’re all called into. It’s a way of life that Quincy and Sarah have come to know and recognize. And this vision for the world is what they want to share with their daughter, Amiyah. So we give thanks that God has called them by name, and God is calling Amiyah by name today. Calling her into God’s long and ongoing project. So hold Amiyah in your prayers in the moments to come, as she journeys through Jesus’s death and resurrection, in baptism. And recognizing that we’re all called together to participate in this way of life and way of being in the world, listen anew to the vows and commitments, and renew your own covenant: to live in line with the greening, life-giving power of Jesus the gardener.

© 2024 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter