A sermon based on Gen 2:4b-9, 15 and John 20:1-18 preached on Easter Day, April 5th, 2015.
Who are you looking for?
That’s one of the questions posed to us at Easter just as it is posed to Mary, who seems beside herself in those first Easter moments—standing next to someone, she’s not yet sure who. And we have this strange insight into the mind of Mary. By all appearances it seemed to her that she was talking to the gardener.
When Mary sees the empty tomb, her first impression differs from ours. We know the Easter story. Mary doesn’t. Resurrection, Easter-style, is not even a concept in her mind. It’s not a possibility. Nobody dead comes alive again. It’s not a category, resurrection. It’s not in Mary’s spiritual vocabulary. It’s not in anyone’s spiritual vocabulary in the 1st century. So, we can forgive Mary for thinking that an empty tomb means something much more sinister has occurred. For most of this story, Mary and the others (accept for one unnamed disciple) see the empty tomb and think they’re staring at a crime scene.
The way John writes Easter is different. For most of his story, the main characters (the ones we know the names of, at least!) have frantic minds filled with images of grave robbers at-large.
Who are you looking for?
the gardener asks.
See Mary’s mind has already gone into frantic mode by the time he asks that question, the rest of the disciples’ minds are in freak out mode, too. So it doesn’t seem like Mary is even aware of the gardener’s question. It just doesn’t register in her head. And, Mary’s reply to the gardener’s question, have you ever noticed, has a tinge of blame in it:
Sir, if you have carried him away,
tell me where you have put him and I will get him.
Mary doesn’t answer the gardener’s question as much as she sticks him with the crime:
It’s the horticulturist, in the garden, with the spade! He did it!
It’s as if Mary says to the gardener:
Why would you do something as horrible as moving a dead body that had been so carefully buried?
Do you get a sense…that’s the question that Mary really wanted to ask.
Mary has a whole conversation with this gardener guy. A nice, healthy back and forth, and nothing. And no “Aha moment” until…when? Until Jesus the gardener says her name…
Then, bam. The light flows in, all the sudden, and Mary sees that this gardener she’s been talking to and point fingers at is Jesus. This is Mary’s moment of recognition. This is the moment that John emphasizes in his version of the Easter story. The moment when all of the disciples encounter the empty tomb? Not buying it. The moment when they see the nicely-folded linen clothes? Eh. That doesn’t cut it. Even when Mary looks at Jesus she doesn’t have her Easter moment.
Mary’s Easter moment comes when Jesus says her name. That’s the moment of recognition. That’s Mary’s Easter moment. One of my favorite ways to think about God is borrowed from a theologian named Paul Tillich. He suggests that God is not so much like a being hovering somewhere in the skies as much as God is like the Ground of Being—the foundation underneath our feet. And (unless you’re from California) quiet, solid, and reliable. God is the Ground of Being because God has a quality of Always-Thereness—God is the steady presence beneath our anxious and wandering feet.
Mary, why “gardener”? Why would Mary assume “gardener”? There did she get that from? This is one of the most well-known of sacred stories, so doesn’t this whole “gardener” bit seem strange? But, what if Mary thought Jesus was the gardener because he was gardening? That’s the simplest explanation, wouldn’t you say?
When Mary walks up from the empty tomb with her eyes full of tears, wondering what crime had just been committed, what she sees is a person gardening. So Mary makes what seems to be a pretty safe assumption:
You must be the gardener here? And, well, since you’re the gardener here, I suppose you’ve been around for a couple hours doing whatever gardeners do here—you must know something about the empty tomb I just saw.
What if Mary wasn’t mistaken? What if Mary was right? What if the risen Christ came upon Mary with a few gardening tools in his hand?
See, that’s Mary’s Easter moment. She encountered the risen and living and eternal Christ, and he had a spade in his hand, dirty knees, and can we imagine a few smudges of dirt of his face?
Jesus the Master Gardener.
Mary sees the Christ tilling the soil of the garden. Cultivating the ground. This Ground of Being in Christ-like form, turning the hard clay of death—the death of Good Friday and replacing it with the rich potting soil of Easter resurrection.
The famous theologian, Calvin was undressing right before a bath one summer evening after a long day outside with his pet tiger Hobbes. And Calvin says to Hobbes,
Wow, look at the grass stains on my skin! I say, if your knees aren’t green by the end of the day, you ought to seriously reexamine your life.
That line has become a mantra for gardeners everywhere. It’s also the invitation of Easter. To play in the dirt. The risen Christ’s other Great Commandment is
Take up your shovels and follow me. Dig deep. Uproot your fears. Excavate your all that useless clay beneath your feet and plant something new.
The appearance of Jesus, the Master Gardner, should take us back to the words of our Genesis text for the day, when God planted the very first garden on earth: the one in Eden.
God had green knees that day. It was on that day that God stimulated the roots of countless wild plants, and put them down in the soil. And it was in that same manner that the Ground of Being
formed the human from the topsoil of the fertile land and blew life’s breath into our nostrils.
And then the text says,
humans came to life.
Easter is when we celebrate that moment of resurrection—when God breathes new life in us through the new and resurrected life of His Son and our Savior, Jesus the Christ. Easter is that moment when we, like Mary, see that the living Jesus stands right in front of us—that we’ve been talking to Him all along. We just needed to hear our names called so that we could see Him with a new set of eyes. But, that’s also the challenge of Easter.
Easter isn’t for spectators. It’s for participants. Easter asks to do just what Calvin said: to thoroughly reexamine our lives. Easter wants us to have green knees—to dig deep, to till the soil of our hearts and lives, to uproot fear and judgment, and plant seeds of hope and compassion and love in their place. The resurrected Christ, the Master Gardener in our midst on this and every Easter day, asks us to till the soil of our hearts and lives so that new things can grow there. The Risen Jesus wants us to dig down deeper into our communities and in ourselves, to plant into the soil all around us the seeds of resurrection so we, right along with Mary on that very first Easter, can recognize the living Jesus in the people who stand right in front of us.
Friends, that’s the invitation of Easter! But, it’s not a once-a-year invite. It’s a 365 invite, because we are 365 Easter people, asked to get our knees dirty and our lives reexamined everyday by the Master Gardener who stands right in front of us and calls us by name.
That morning Mary set out while it was still dark to see a dead body, sealed up in a tomb with a rock heavier than she could manage to roll back on her own. But what she saw instead was an empty tomb, a situation gone horribly wrong she thought, and then a man standing right there alongside her, working the ground as if something new was about to come alive again. Jesus, the Master Gardener, had to dig a bit to reveal to Mary who he was.
Who are you looking for this resurrection day?
Jesus, the One with green knees, the living One whom we encounter on this Easter morning, and every Easter morning, 365—tilling our hearts and our lives over and over again, and calling each and every one of us by name until we recognize him standing right in front of us.
The great task of this Easter Sunday is to take up our shovels and follow the Master Gardener. The great invitation on this Resurrection Sunday is to get our knees green, tending to the soil of our lives, reexamining them—and then uprooting all that is dead, or fear-filled—excavating all that hard clay, and letting Jesus the Gardener replace it with the rich topsoil of resurrection.
Take up your shovels and follow Jesus! That’s the 365-Easter message for the 365-Easter people.
All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!