Word for Wednesday… Gardens
Jesus said to her, "Woman why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?" Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, "Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away".John 20:15
Easter feels different this year. Easter is different this year. Of course, Easter was different last year too. Last year was probably the first time in the 272 year history of Brick Church that people did not gather here on these grounds to celebrate Easter. Instead, we were gathered at home around our televisions, tablets, phones and computer screens, watching a video featuring yours truly. That meant we also didn’t have our Easter Sunrise Service, and the amazing breakfast that usually follows. This year is a little better. We are here, after all, holding an in-person Sunrise Service. And in four hours or so we will be in our main sanctuary, celebrating Easter together with even more of us in attendance. And you will have a lot of people to look at besides yours truly. But still… no breakfast.
Even so, some things about Easter have not changed, and they never will. It will always be about the resurrection of Jesus, and the hope and the joy it brings us. And we will always be reminded of this truth through the retelling of the same stories, stories like the one we read a few moments ago from John’s gospel, stories that communicate the meaning and significance of the resurrection with every little detail. One detail that John makes a big deal out of is the setting. John wants us to know that this story takes place in a garden, and he goes out of his way to tell us that. We should already know, from John’s account of Jesus’ passion, that Jesus’ tomb was in a garden, but in case we forgot, John reminds us by telling us that Mary suspected Jesus to be the gardener, when he attempted to comfort her.
When you and I hear the word garden our first thought is probably of a small area in someone’s yard set aside in which to grow vegetables. So we picture a few rows of tilled soil, with tiny green sprouts emerging, maybe a small sign at the end of each row indicating what’s been planted there, and a string tied up, running the length of the row, if it’s something like green beans, or some of those cage-looking things, if it’s tomatoes. If the owner of the garden does not have a dog, we fully expect to also see around the perimeter a six-foot tall barbed wire fence coursing with thousands of volts of electricity in order to keep the deer out.
That’s not what John meant by a garden. In Jesus’ day, a garden was meant to describe something more like what we would consider a park, a reclaimed natural space where people could enjoy God’s creation without the encroachment of all the things that tend to make natural spaces unenjoyable, things like briars, weeds, and poison ivy. As John tells the story of Jesus’ life, he explains that Jesus and his disciples would frequent gardens often, to pray and meditate, and find rest and renewal. In fact, you may remember from John’s account of Jesus’ passion, that Jesus was in a garden when he was arrested.
But it takes work to maintain a garden, hence the need for a gardener. It doesn’t take long for natural spaces that were once wild and uninhabitable to become wild and uninhabitable once more. Just imagine what your front yard would look like if you moved away for a year and didn’t hire someone to look after it. Now imagine what it would look like in five years, or ten years. Your whole house would probably be covered in vines. Your crawlspace would be teeming with all kinds of creatures. You would have small trees growing in your gutters. Yes, gardens take a lot of work to keep them as places of beauty, relaxation and tranquility. It hasn’t always been this way.
The story of God and his people begins in a garden, the Garden of Eden. It was a beautiful place, with rivers running through it, and all kinds of trees and vegetation that provided shade and nourishment. It did require some amount of work to maintain it, but the work was not burdensome, but fulfilling, the kind of work that brings joy, a sense of purpose, a sense of accomplishment. The Garden of Eden offered everything that human beings could ever want or need, but not all their sinful hearts could desire. They wanted to be gods themselves, so they disobeyed the one rule that God had established, and as a result they were banished from the garden.
Humanity’s relationship with the created world changed that day. They now had to fight to receive any benefit from it. Listen to these words from Genesis,
And to the man he said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return”.Genesis 3:17-19
Along with this changed relationship we see the introduction of mortality. A life of seemingly fruitless hard work would end with death, and a return to the dust from which we came. When we hear the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection, John wants us to remember the Garden of Eden and what this world and the human experience were like before we ruined it. He also wants us to understand that through his death and resurrection, Jesus is redeeming, restoring and recreating those things to what God has always intended. From one garden to another. The story of God and his people comes full circle. Just look at where we are standing. We are in a cemetery, a place that serves as a stark reminder of the most painful part of our existence, the sting of death. But because of what happened on the first Easter morning, we can stand here in this place and have hearts full of joy, hope and peace. Just as the sun is rising above this tree line and beginning to warm these cold, hard tombstones, the Son of God is rising in our hearts, bathing them in the warmth of his grace, awakening them to a new way of living in this world, and inviting us to experience eternity in the world that is to come, and in some respects is already here among us. Amen.