Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.
But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 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.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.‘” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.
Let us pray. Oh Lord, uphold me that I might uplift thee. Amen
I want to share with you a grim habit of mine. I start every morning here with a walk through the memorial garden in those trees above the parking lot. Regardless of my footwear or the sponginess of the ground, I begin there, reading the names on the stones. Sometimes it feels like a kind of pastoral care to the congregation whose chairs are empty now but whose love still shines from a banner or hums along with the base section. Sometimes I go there to tend my own grief, to let a tear fall off my eyelid, and receive the pastoral care of tree trunks, stones, and the cross draped by sunrise.
I certainly do not ever go up there looking for surprises. Surprises are never my plan, so when recently a shrub moved swiftly and a voice said good morning, I very nearly irrigated Miguel, the landscaper, with my coffee. He had already removed the old stairs going out of the garden so I proceeded to side step my way down the side of the muddy hill, waving off any help, as if this process was also normal for me, as if these 4 inch heels were from REI for this very purpose.
As I cleaned the mud off my shoes, I thought of Mary weeping in the garden that first Easter. I suspect she wanted closure and instead found a tomb gaping open. She wanted quiet mourning and found herself in a panicked footrace with the other disciples. She wanted dignity for the body of her beloved teacher and was startled by what she thought was another layer of cruelty, his body stolen.
Sometimes people tease Mary for haggling with angels there in the tomb, for mistaking Jesus for the gardener, but that whole sequence rings true to me.
“Why are you crying?” the angels ask. I suspect their voices barely cut through the buzz of her panic. It’s like a person walking beside a gurney who sees no faces at all. It’s like a person who just lost a loved one getting lost on their way to the grocery store they’ve been to a thousand times. Blood pounding, ears ringing, tunnel vision, voices muffled. Fear and grief make the entire world unrecognizable.
“They’ve taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they’ve laid him.” This is the anthem of heartbroken people. Everyone who is not suffering with you can easily become an antagonistic they. Bystanders, even angels, can look like culprits, complicit in your distress. They may have what you once had. Peace. Normal people questions. Clean clothes. I imagine Mary thinking: If you can’t give me back the life I had with this one, surging with hope, saturated with color, coursing with love, if you can’t give me back a world without the abuse and treachery and cowardice I have seen in the last few days, at least give me back the kind of loss I can tolerate, give me death that follows the ancient script we all know, at least give me the dignity of normal mourning over a body. I think of the thousands of families who could not have the funeral they needed for their loved one during Covid. I think of those who grieve a missing person. Mourning disrupted is another layer of grief entirely.
The Bible wants us to know that Easter does not begin with pastels and predictability, everyone wearing seersucker and singing the hallelujah chorus. Easter begins in the dark, in the tears and muddy confusion of a world distorted by death.
“Whom are you looking for?” Jesus asks this. He always asks this. And Mary supposes he is the gardener. He is in fact in a garden, to be fair. And no offense to gardeners, I wonder if his clothes were dirty. I wonder if he had dirt from the tomb under his nails. It was always curious to me why the Bible makes such a big deal about the linen wrappings in the tomb. “The wrappings were folded. The head cloth was freshly rolled in a place all by itself.” John hones in on those details like a laundry detergent ad. But what we hear loud and clear is that Jesus is not wearing glowing white robes like phantom Obi Wan Kenobi. He is not dressed in velvet like a King. And he is not shrouded like the dead. This is not the kind of Lord she was looking for.
Mary supposes Jesus is the gardener. What if – even if her friends tease her about this awkward Easter gaffe for the next 30 years like mine would – and you thought he was the gardener! what if she is not far off? What if she is not mistaken?
Let us think about the story this way. God designed a garden world. Fruits and flowers, birds and bugs, constellations and creatures named for the humus, the soil we play in and rely on, humans. At some point, an awareness slithered into our mind, a uniquely human fear, that we had no clothes. We were embarrassed by our bodies and our vulnerability. So we left the garden and traded a God of the garden for the gods of our projections… we robed all of them in insecurity and vengeance, score-keeping and bragging … pretty much how we might act if we had ultimate power.
And so, in a flash in time 2000 years ago, the ineffable love of God put on clothes, the squishy vulnerable flesh of a child swaddled in the arms of peasant woman in a nowhere town. His name was Jesus. Jesus taught people that God was this exuberant gardener, tossing seeds of good news everywhere, wardrobing lilies with a wild beauty that King Solomon could never afford, irrigating the world with justice and freedom, and pruning it all with the truth. Jesus spoke of faith the size of a mustard seed that could move a mountain. He said, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. Then, Jesus assembled these seedy disciples, these misfits with fishnets, and told them to bear fruit. To baptize and share bread. And he called himself the true vine. The Bible tells so many gardener stories that when we read it we might come away with dirt under our nails too.
Mary supposes Jesus to be the gardener and she was not far off. In 1638, inspired by this image, Rembrandt portrayed the risen Jesus wearing a floppy hat, holding a spade. And, many people have imagined this conversation in the garden between Mary and Jesus to be a new Eden, a fresh start for humanity and God and the earth herself.
Sometimes, when I get too in my head about Easter, when I try to manufacture its power through my own words or polish it with intellect, I remember that Mary supposed Jesus to be a gardener. Easter is always about muddy shoes and surprise. Easter is a wild hope that refuses to be captive to our expectations.
Then I think about Johnny. Johnny Fulton would show up from time to time at my former church. His full sleeve tattoo and bald head were hard to miss among the blue blazers of that receiving line. But then he would go missing. His mom [Jean] would weep during our Bible Study. Addiction had taken away her son, and for months at a time, she and her husband wouldn’t know where he was. She said, “You may not understand this but I have been praying for him to get arrested. Jail would be safer than wherever he is.” [Jean] is someone who would frequently quote herself, “It’s like I always say, we have to hold on to hope.” It might have sounded trite except that she lived it so fervently.
At one point, a police officer in Florida found [Johnny] in one of the known spots where addicts go and [Jean] and her husband drove down in the middle of the night to retrieve him. When I left Trinity Presbyterian in 2021, all I had heard was that he was back in Virginia and doing the work. Landscaping work, recovery work, and some odd jobs for another Bible Study member named [Peg.]
Fast forward to January of this year. Worship had just ended here at BPC and a crowd was adorning the Gathering Space for a book event with Pastor Mary Ann, who now serves over at Trinity. I was doing the handshake ritual, and here comes this rough hand, pushing forward to shake mine. His blue dress shirt was rolled up just a bit and revealed an inch of tattoo. When I saw his face my eyes widened, [“Johnny!”] He smiled proud, “8 months sober today.” Behind him was his mom, beaming. “It’s like I always say, hope is the gardener of the heart! Here’s your Easter sermon right here.” She pointed at him, a tear on the edge of her eye. We laugh/cried and said, “indeed! Indeed! indeed!”
I am not sure whom you are looking for this year. The old you. You with a better job. A resurrected marriage. Hope for the planet. Hope for the church. A child. The beloved person who should be in that chair now. Know this for sure: Resurrection is not the pastel tie you wear once a year in another attempt to look better and do better. It is not pretending everything is perfect in the pretty dress that other people want you to wear.
Resurrection has muddy shoes and dirt under its nails. It is a truth that defies explanations and calls you by name in your moment of specific pain. Resurrection is a love that drives all night to find you. It still feeds the multitudes from food pantries and wet gardens and tables of unexpected welcome. It gushes with justice and leaks out of the eyes during hymns and lodges in the throat at the words “I love you” or “I forgive you” or “Oh how I miss you.” Resurrection heaves in the lungs at the graveside and erupts as laughter and life from somewhere, someone, completely outside of you and also deeply within you, tugging you forward regardless of your footwear or foregone conclusions.
It is God, sure as the sunrise. It is the Spirit, blowing where it will, and Jesus, risen indeed! Indeed! Indeed! Amen.