Sermon April 11, 2021 by David Hodgson

The Gardener

“Supposing him to be the gardener.,,”

John 20:15

I want to take you back to the garden tomb on Easter morning, if only in your minds, for two reasons:  1. because I’m not done with it yet! and 2. because The Prayer just sung by our choir holds special meaning for me there.

When I first heard Andrea Bocelli and Céline Dion singing The Prayer I imagined that it might have been the perfect song that Mary Magdalene and Jesus sang to each other outside the tomb on Easter morning.  This is not to disparage John’s rendition of the dialogue between them, but imagine her singing to him:

I pray you’ll be our eyes and watch us where we go

And help us to be wise in times when we don’t know

Let this be our prayer when we lose our way

Lead us to a place, Guide us with your grace

To a place where we’ll be safe.

And then they sing together in Italian ~ which is probably the language of heaven!  (I warned you last week that I wonder about the strangest things in my approach to the Bible, but I dare you to listen to them singing that as a duet and not find yourself momentarily back in the garden tomb on Easter morning!

My text is found in the Gospel of John, chapter 20, verse 15 and I hold up just an interesting phrase:  Supposing him to be the gardener….  The way John tells of Easter morning the first person to discover the life of Jesus alive and well beyond the grave was Mary Magdalene, who mistook him for the gardener.  I have another version of what happened on Easter morning.  I like mine better.  I’ll share it with you if you promise to hold it gently in your hearts, because it is, after all, a love story.

John’s story is based on the supposition that what happened there at the tomb was a case of mistaken identity, that Mary, with her broken heart and tear-filled eyes, thought that Jesus was the gardener ~ even though she talked to him and saw him.  It wasn’t until he said her name, “Mary”, as only he could say it in her hearing, that her eyes were opened and she recognized him.

That’s okay, but my version of what happened is based on a different supposition, that this was not a case of mistaken identity, but of intentional divine revelation ~ that Jesus intentionally revealed himself to her as the gardener.  I will share my story with you, trusting that you will indeed hold it dearly.

First, let me put that moment of revelation into some kind of biblical context.  The Bible begins and ends with garden settings.  In the Book of Genesis there is a garden in which human life is formed, and in that Garden God shares the experience of mortality with us by walking in the garden in the cool of the day and promising to abide with us across the years.

The Bible ends in Revelation with another garden, the garden of God in paradise, where the fruit of creation finds its greatest consummation.  In between those two garden settings the Bible is filled with examples of gardens.  The prophets talked about the garden of Israel, the place where God plowed the soil, planted seeds and encouraged growth, and that garden is an illustration of how God works in our own history.

Throughout the epistles we find the apostles using the ends of the earth as a garden of God, for they went forth cultivating and sowing the seeds of the Gospel, encouraging growth and a great harvest for the Lord.  And in the midst of this epoch biblical drama about the gardens of earth, there are two very special gardens:  the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus prayed for deliverance, and the garden of the resurrection where Jesus found it.

My version of the story requires me to provide a missing piece of the gospel.  I know it’s missing, so I’ll make it up.  (At lease you’ll know where you head it for the first time.)  I know it’s missing because the revelations of God are always uniquely tailored for those who receive them. 

For example, a former parishioner told me of her discovery of the Lord when she was hysterical and screaming.  Her husband was driving, she was on the passenger side, and their child was in car seat in the back when they were broadsided by a truck.  Stunned and in shock the she started screaming to her child to see if she was okay, when a paramedic opened her door and said that he was there to care for the child.  She felt strangely calmed down.  And when the paramedics arrived later she asked about the one who came for her child ~ but there had been no paramedics there and the child was dead in the car seat.  To this day she is absolutely convinced that the Lord appeared to her as a paramedic.  So I am not the least bit apologetic about surmising that Jesus appeared to Mary as the gardener.  So here is the missing piece I have found in the devotional garden of my mind. 

One day when Jesus and Mary were enjoying some time together away from the murmuring crowd and the other disciples she asked him:  “Rabbi, you are a carpenter by trade.  Why is it that you use so many gardening images in your teaching?”  I know a smile spread across his face, and while he enjoyed the smile she began to list some of the examples she recalled from his sermons.  “Lord, I remember the parable of the different soils; of the plowman who discovered buried treasure; of the thistles that grew among the wheat; the harvest, and the vineyard.  You’re always talking about paradigms of gardening.  Doesn’t that seem a little strange for a carpenter who became a Rabbi?

Here’s where Jesus provided the missing link.  He said, “Mary, I imagine myself as being a gardener for God.  In this lifetime for the years that are mine, I want to spend it cultivating the earth and sowing seeds for God in the furrows of life.  I will do whatever I can to help those seeds to grow, to fertilize them, to produce a bountiful harvest for God.  I want to involve as many people as I can in that gardening experience so that maybe after I’m gone people will continue to till and to keep this garden of God upon the earth.”  That’s the missing piece.

Like so many personal conversations that are private, she tucked it away in the private places of her heart.  She knew how he saw himself.  It was a special revelation shared between them, until Easter morning when he revealed himself to her as the gardener of all creation.

Please note that his timing was impeccable.  He was there in the garden when the women ran to the tomb and discovered it empty.  He could have revealed himself to them then, but he chose not to.  When the disciples came running to the tomb with breathless excitement and looked inside, what a perfect chance to say, “Hey!  I’m over here.”  But he chose not to.  He waited until Mary was alone, and there came to her as the Gardener!

I know there will be some who will say that my imagination takes entirely too many liberties with the sacred word, but I’ll take my chances because to approach the Bible without allowing God to awaken imagination is to stifle mystery with fear and hinder insight with ignorance.

Albert Schweitzer wrote a book titled The Quest of The Historical Jesus, and the concluding paragraph of that book describes in poetic terms how the Lord comes to us in the experiences of life ~ disguised yet known, if only in hindsight.  His words are these:

               He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside, He came to those    men who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same words: “Follow thou me!” and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.

So I know that He watches us where we go, and helps us to be wise when we don’t know.  And when we lose our way, this our solemn prayer:  Lead us to a place, guide us with your grace, to a place where we’ll be safe. Amen

David Hodgson, Peoria Presbyterian Church, April 11, 2021