Sermon for Easter, 2009, John 20:1-18

Isaiah 25:6-9
John 20:1-18

Why a Garden?

Bosch: Garden
Bosch: Garden

Darkness as default on Day One

In the biblical telling of the story, the earth starts out on day one in darkness.

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth,  the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep. Gen. 1:1-2

I get that: that is the first thing that needs to be said about the world: it can be a dark place.  The default setting of the world is not like a bright day at the beach, but an inky-black day without sun, moon, or stars; just darkness.  How many people have made it from cradle to grave without being near the brink of utter darkness at some time in their lives – pushed to the edge by hunger or disease?  How many women have made it through their all of their days unharmed?  How many men have never known war in their lifetimes?  Who has escaped depression?  Loneliness?  The first thing that needs to be said about the world is that it can be, and quite often is a very dark place.

In the biblical telling of the resurrection story, in the Gospel of John, the scene opens with strong echoes of Genesis 1, day 1:

Early, on the first day of the week, while it was still dark...

Mary’s dark assessment

Mary Magdalene did not live in a world of suicide truck bombs or drug-cartel killing fields, but neither was she naive about the darkness of the human heart.  She goes to the tomb of a friend, a victim of an out-of-control judicial system, completely open to malicious manipulation and riddled with corruption, in which human rights are not abused; they simply do not exist; torture is just how business is done – and justice has nothing to do with outcomes.  She arrives at the tomb, finds the door open, and has an automatic explanation that she can believe.  “They” – whomever “they” are – the ones with the power to paint their little corner of the world black-and-blue – “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”

Layers of misunderstanding

Thus begins Johns layering of misunderstanding upon misunderstanding that is at the heart of his resurrection story.  It’s like watching characters in a crime story: there are clues all around that everyone can see, but they don’t get it.  Peter and that unnamed other disciple race to the tomb – as if speed is necessary at a graveyard – they see grave clothes, note the details about which piece is lying where – and John’s gospel tells us, their reaction is to simply go home.  We do not know what they thought, but it’s early in the morning, on the first day of the week, and the world is a very dark place.  Why should they expect anything different?

There is that odd line about the unnamed disciple seeing and believing – but it’s completely unclear about what he believes because the next line says specifically:

for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.

In fact, because of this, we who read this story are now drawn into this circle of misunderstanding too: he believes but doesn’t understand?  What?  Now we are off-balance too; our grasp on this story is weakening; we don’t get it.  It’s going to get worse.

Mary’s Layer: Angels

Then Mary adds another layer of misunderstanding, and we are drawn into it with her.  She is outside the tomb weeping, she stoops to look into the tomb, and sees two angels in white, even notices where they are seated.

The role of angels is always the same: angels are God’s messengers.  So what is the big message these two angels announce?  They have no message.  Instead, they ask a question.  In fact they ask the oddest question because you don’t have to be a messenger from God to figure out the answer:

They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?”

At this point, we would forgive Mary if her answer was bitterly sarcastic – “Why do you think I’m crying here at this tomb that you are sitting in?” But no, she answers them sincerely,

She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”

It is odd that they ask a question, and even more odd that she does not treat them like angels at all: no fear, no bowing, shielding the eyes, nothing: just a plain answer to an unnecessary question.  We are now wondering if we are understanding this story.  Neither the angels nor her response is going the way one would expect.

Mary and the Gardener

The next layer of misunderstanding is the final and thickest layer: Mary turns around (never mind the angels anymore – they simply disappear from the page after their one little question) and she sees Jesus.  Only she does not recognize Jesus.  How this is possible is never explained – although we are willing to read into the story the plausible explanation that it’s hard to see through tears – probably its still dark anyway.

Now it’s Jesus’ turn to speak.  The whole Gospel of John has been building up to this point.  The whole story is going to turn here; the Risen Christ, who has just broken the grip of death that has held every human being in its icy hands since the sixth day of creation speaks; and what are his words, his great opening statement?

It is completely strange: he asks a question – the same one Mary has just answered – and then follows with another question that he, of all people in heaven and on earth knows the answer to; he says:

Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?

There is something wrong with this story for us; we are trying to read it to make sense, filling in the gaps, smoothing over its rough places – but it’s getting more difficult.  But certainly now it will all be put right.  Mary will certainly recognize the voice of her beloved “Rabbouni” – her teacher – everyone recognizes unique voices.  I bet I could name a good number of you if you called me and simply said, “Good morning Steven.”

But no: she still does not understand who is in front of her.  She is still living in the world she understands: a dark world where grave robbers add their own insult to the injury of state-sponsored executions of the innocent.  In characteristic sincerity she answers again that obvious question:

...Supposing him to be the gardener, she said “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”

Why does John bother to tell us who she mistakenly thought Jesus was?  We did not need that detail at all.  She could have thought he was just another question-asking angel, or she cold have thought another disciple had shown up – or a Roman soldier – the possibilities are endless.  But John wants us to know what she was thinking:

…Supposing him to be the gardener,

Although it lies outside this morning’s reading, this story has another odd part that this “gardener” business brings up that must be mentioned.  John tells us that Jesus was crucified at a place people called Golgotha, in Hebrew, because it means “place of the skull.”  He also tells us that this place was part of a garden.  We must not picture flowers, maybe not even vegetables – this place could have merely been an enclosed area where plants grew – but in any case, John says,

Now in the place where He was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb… (John 19:41)

In this garden, it is important to John’s gospel that we know that Mary mistook Jesus for the gardener.  Why?

Back on the first day of creation week, when it was dark, according to the biblical telling of the story, God started to do something.  He started blowing his wind, his breath, his spirit over the dark waters of that void, and when he did, Creation began.  The darkness lost its footing and was pushed back: light appeared that first day – it was like sunrise after a night of storms.  And God kept creating and creating all week, until by the end of the week, what did he have where the darkness had been?  Eden; a garden.  Not a dark garden, but a beautifully lit garden with sun, moon, and stars.  A garden of peace and plenty, a garden of delight and harmony, a garden in which he walked personally.

We all know that story: it is our story.  There we are in Eden; but: we would rather choose to be our own boss, set our own rules, and decide for ourselves what is right and wrong, than live in a garden, if living there required us to play second fiddle.  We all do it: we all go for the apple, take the bite, blame the snake, and choose to live in a dark world outside of Eden.

We don’t like it, but we understand it.  It is awful to live with this darkness, but it is at least predictable.  If you see a good person, don’t expect a long life for him. If you see an open grave, don’t expect to find the ring on the corpse’s finger.

The Prophet’s gardens

Could it be different?  Is there any reason to think it could be?  Well, there are those lofty visions of the prophets that tantalize us.  They could imagine a future that frankly we cannot see.  Their visions are beautiful, even if the are rather unlikely, right?

Like Isaiah – the one we read about wiping away tears and swallowing up death forever.    Isaiah also said:

the LORD will comfort Zion;
he will comfort all her waste places,
and will make her wilderness like Eden
her desert like the garden of the LORD;
(Isa. 51:3)

It’s a nice vision – kind of completes the circle that started at creation: in the future, God will be every bit as much the Gardener as the original God was.

John’s Gardener & Garden

Wait: could John be playing with us?  After putting us off balance and making us unsure about how to read this odd story, are we now to understand that Mary’s misunderstanding might possibly be a kind of ironic understanding: The Gardener at the end of time has come back to the Garden after all?  Isaiah was on target?

In fact Jesus never says, “I beg your pardon; I am not a gardener.”  Perhaps only after hearing that Mary understands him to be a gardener, Jesus is in a position to identify himself to her.   Which is exactly what he does.  He does it by saying one word: her name; Mary.

Did the sun burst over the horizon in that moment to fill that garden with the light of a brand new day?  That would be about right;  John doesn’t say.

Listen: understanding God has never been easy, and probably never will be.  We were conceived in darkness and live our lives expecting the worst.   Or at least, that is the default position.  But it does not have to be that way anymore!

Our story is a resurrection story!  This world may indeed be dark, left to its own devices, but this world has not been left to its own devices!  In the beginning, God started with utter darkness and intervened, making a garden.   He has done it again!  He has opened a tomb of death, shed the clothes of morbidity, and has come back to be the gardener of a brand new creation!

How will he ever break through our expectation that life will always be dark, that the only explanation is that grave robbers have stolen our only hope and left us crying, utterly alone, where even angelic visitation does nothing but to add to the questions?

My name

This is Easter Sunday; the answer is in one word; our name.  The gardener at the end of time has one tool with which to cultivate new life; it is that he has come to us, in our day of darkness, and calls us by name.

I’m going to ask you do participate in a short guided meditation.  If you would, please bow your head; trust me to guide you into this story.

Picture this: It is early morning.  It feels damp and cool.  It is quiet.  You are alone.  You are standing in the cool morning air.   An open grave is behind you.  You hear a voice – you look up.  It is Jesus; he is looking at you; he is calling your name.  He is calling your name.

Now you respond; how?  Can you see yourself saying back to him “My teacher!”  Teach me your way; teach me your will; teach me the way to live as a child of light, not of darkness.  Teach me to hope again; teach me to believe; teach me to follow”.

This is our story: Christ has risen!  The Gardener has returned!  He is calling you by name.  Alleluia!


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