Sunday, 16 April 2017

Easter Sunday: The Gardener God

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

“Supposing him to be the gardener…”
It just seems like a throwaway line in the Gospel reading today. Mary’s first thought when she encounters the risen Christ is that he’s the gardener. It’s an odd little detail, and it’s easy to think it’s really not important.

But John’s a careful and meditative writer. He always chooses his words very deliberately, so if he tells us that Mary thought Jesus was the gardener – not just a passing stranger or a general labourer - it probably means something beyond the obvious statement of fact.

Israhel van Meckenem (German, ca. 1445–1503),
Noli me tangere, 1460–1500.
Engraving. British Museum, London.
Of course, it’s quite understandable that Mary might expect to see a gardener in a garden, and she certainly didn’t expect to see Jesus, but it’s such a specific description that commentators have been convinced from the earliest times that it was significant, and I’m inclined to agree with them. Artists have often picked up on this detail too. They’ve often painted Jesus with a spade – as the picture in the service sheet shows -  or even in full gardening gear, floppy hat and all. It can look a bit daft, frankly. Why would the risen Christ need a spade? Was he planning on getting a few cabbages in the ground before he went to see the disciples? No, surely not.

John puts in this detail because he wants us to have the image of a gardener in our minds as we listen to what unfolds. He wants to trigger a whole set of associations which, if we know what they are, will bring deeper resonances to this story.

Gardening and gardens are a recurrent and very significant theme in the Bible. It all starts in a garden, after all. Genesis chapter 2 tells us that “The Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed.”  God planted it. It was a deliberate act. He was the very first and best gardener, and his was the first and best garden.

In the ancient Middle East gardens were highly prized. The ancient Persian word for a garden gives us our word “paradise”, and it’s no accident that heaven was described as a paradise too. The word literally meant an enclosed space, somewhere that could be cultivated and protected, unlike the wilderness outside its walls. It was a place to produce food, but also to relax and to socialise, just as our gardens are now. To plant a garden you needed to learn how to control your environment, how to irrigate, how to sow seeds and nurture what you’d planted. It was a mark of civilisation and status to have a garden, and the skills of the gardener were highly prized too.

The story from Genesis tells us that God, the master gardener, came walking in that first garden, the garden of Eden, in the cool of the evening breeze, just like any earthly gardener might have done. He wanted to enjoy what he’d made, with the people he had made it for. But he couldn’t find them. They were hiding from him, ashamed. It had all gone wrong, and they were driven out of the garden as a result.

You don’t have to believe in a literal Eden in order to understand the sorrow in that story. The people who wrote it weren’t writing science or history. They were writing the story of their own hearts and lives, which were shot through, as all our lives are, with regrets and failures and with an awareness that things weren’t as they ought to be. 

But God, like all good gardeners, wasn’t about to give up on them. Gardening, it seems to me, is an activity that demands hopefulness from us. Every year those of us who like to “grow our own”, sow thousands of seeds. Some never germinate. Those that do are decimated by disease, slugs, rabbits, greenfly, whitefly and a thousand other threats.  If we’re lucky a few make it through to the harvest but there are always a lot of disappointments. Yet each spring we start again, hoping to do better this year.

But our patience and hopefulness is nothing compared to God’s, according to the Bible. He sticks with his people through thick and thin. he rescues them from slavery in Egypt. He goes with them into exile in Babylon. The prophet Isaiah described Israel as a vine, one which God has carefully planted and tended, but which only bears wild grapes, small and sour.  (Isaiah 5) Yet God doesn’t give up on them. Isaiah goes on to say that God “will comfort all her waste places, and will make her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden of the Lord;” (Isaiah 51.3).

In the New Testament too, there’s a lot of gardening going on. Jesus often uses gardening imagery to talk about the kingdom of God. It’s like a sower sowing his seed indiscriminately on both good and bad ground, trusting that some of it, at least, will grow. It is like a tiny seed which grows into a tree big enough to shelter all the birds of the air. Jesus describes himself as a vine. His Father is the vine-dresser who grafts us onto him, so that we can share his life. He says too, just before his crucifixion, that he’s like a grain of wheat that has to fall into the ground and die, so that it can produce an abundant harvest.
And later on, the first Christians describe the Holy Spirit as something that produced fruit in them of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness and self-control.  Gardens and gardening is everywhere in the Bible when you start to look for it.

So when John wrote that Mary mistook Jesus for a gardener, I am sure he expected his readers to pick up on some of these associations. Mistaking Jesus for the gardener wasn’t an incidental detail, and, in a sense, it wasn’t really a mistake either. Jesus really is a gardener. He might not grow turnips or tomatoes, but he does grow souls. In his life and death and resurrection, the kingdom of God sprouts up into the world. That’s what this detail in the story is there to remind us of.

Hope pushes its way up through the cold clay of despair. Love finds a crack in the concrete of our hearts.  Joy lodges itself in a cranny in a high wall and breaks it apart by the power of its roots. One Galilean carpenter, dying on a cross because he wouldn’t go back on the message of love and welcome he had preached, started it, but we are given the privilege of continuing it. It only takes a seed or two to get this kingdom started, a small decision on our part, a single act of kindness, a word of welcome, and everything changes. And from those small beginnings, those single seeds, God can change the world.

Resurrection, when it comes on that first Easter morning, isn’t a grand event. The heavens aren’t torn open. There are no trumpets, no golden letters written on the sky. Resurrection is a green shoot of hope for a grief-struck woman who hears a voice call her name, and realises that her dead heart has unfurled into life again. It is a germinating seed of joy for two tired disciples on the road to Emmaus, who discover that the stranger who has walked beside them all the way is the Lord they thought they’d lost. Resurrection becomes real in the lives of those who encounter the risen Christ because their own lives burst into growth again through meeting him. And one by one, seedling by fragile seedling, they in their turn bring new life to the world, and the garden of God’s kingdom grows.

That’s why, today, I wanted to give you a seed to take home. It’s a runner bean seed. You can do what you like with it – just don’t eat it raw, because runner bean seeds are mildly toxic till they are cooked! You can keep it, hold it as you think or pray, or even sow it if you like and see what happens – there are no guarantees that you’ll be eating a crop come the summer, but you’ll never know if you don’t try.  Whatever you do, use it to help you think about your own life.  

Perhaps it will remind you of the seeds you need to sow – the new beginnings you need to make, the dreams you’ve never dared express, the things you always meant to do, but somehow haven’t got round to.

Perhaps it will remind you of the things that are already growing in you, that need feeding and watering, pruning and training, the relationships that need caring for, the bridges that need repairing.

Perhaps it will remind you of the fruits God wants you to share with the world, the gifts you have to give which could nourish and enrich others, but which you have never felt confident enough to offer.

I don’t know what God needs to do in the garden of your life. But what I do know - and I am utterly confident of this - is that we can trust his gardening skills. This Easter morning, the gardener of souls calls our name, as he called Mary’s.  He calls us to life. He calls us to growth. He calls us to abundant fruitfulness.  And nothing can make him give up on us.


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