She supposed he was the gardener?
Audio version of the sermon: DVT_B003_170415_2248.MP3
My mother loved tomatoes. Actually, to put it more accurately, she was obsessed with tomatoes. According to my parents, when mom was pregnant with me and my twin, her insatiable craving was for tomatoes. At all hours of the night she would have my father out on the road looking for the tomatoes she was craving. Mike and I must have developed a lycopene dependency in utero, because we both share my mother’s love for tomatoes in all forms.
My father hated tomatoes. I never saw him eat a tomato. He didn’t like the flavor, the texture, or even the smell of tomatoes. No tomato could be disguised quite enough to fool dad into eating it.
Ironically, my father was known for growing the best tomatoes in our neighborhood. Every summer, gorgeous red fruit of innumerable varieties. Beefsteak, Big Boy, Brandywine and Boxcar Willie, just to name the letter “B” varieties. He grew them all with pride and tender care. You see, he disliked tomatoes immensely, but he loved my mother with unwavering devotion. All of the tomato growing was about Mom. He would pluck that first beefsteak tomato from the vine, and would sit in anxious almost puppy-like anticipation as mom sliced it and took her first bite. And so, for us kids, that tomato garden was a constant symbol of what love means.
In reading John’s resurrection account for today, I was struck by Mary’s Magdalene’s momentary case of mistaken identity. A gardener. She mistakes Jesus for a gardener. But then again, one has to wonder if anything written in John’s gospel could be that random. I doubt it. John’s gospel is constructed of such deep poetic symbolism, that even this seeming lack of recognition on the part of Mary has meaning in the larger context of who Jesus is and what he is about.
It is, after all the garden of Eden where this whole thing got started. A peaceful and fruitful garden that was synonymous with the harmony between God and humans is rendered off-limits by human pride and sinfulness. In the agrarian culture of the bible, gardens are places of beauty, eroticism, power, hope, and despair. Gardens are dried up places of death, and they are lush vegetation fed by flowing streams of water.
Jesus enters human history as a new offshoot of a stump that was seemingly dead. His ministry is full of stories of farming and gardening, sowing and reaping. He preaches about seeds thrown on rocky ground, and about limitless faith the size of a mustard seed. “I am the vine”, he says, “and you are the branches. And so, you must bear fruit, and you cannot do that apart from me.”
And in short order, we see Jesus agonizing in a garden just hours before his crucifixion, when even his closest followers cannot stay awake, and when Peter, the “rock” turns tail and denies that he even knows Jesus. And from agony to death, and then burial: At the place where Jesus was crucified, John narrates, there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb, in which no one had ever been laid.
And now, in resurrection, Mary, one of Jesus’ closest disciples, cannot differentiate him from a gardener. How fitting that the one who restores our Eden momentarily blends in as the caretaker of vines and branches. Mary supposes Jesus to be the gardener. And why not?
As a follower of Jesus, I have a new goal. I want someone to mistake me for a gardener. Me, Bill Barter, who could kill silk flowers, quite frankly. To be mistaken for a gardener – not as easy as it sounds. As the presence of Christ in the world today, we would do well, you and I, to be regularly mistaken for gardeners. And it takes more than a costume and a rake. As people of the resurrection, standing with the risen Christ in that garden, we must embrace the life of Jesus as we sow seeds of peace and hope, as we water the dry places of human despair and suffering, as we weep in the garden with those who weep, and as we tell the story of tiny mustard seeds that become a mighty testament to all that is of God. And then quite frankly, we needn’t be mistaken for gardeners, because we are indeed, gardeners.
Like Pete Barter, who despite his personal aversion, lovingly cultivated the most amazing tomatoes for the love of his life, our gardening, like that of Jesus, is a labor of love, a reflection of the labor of God’s love manifest in the risen Christ, the Christ who at first glance is seen as a gardener, not mistakenly, but rather quite truthfully.
Liberty Hyde Bailey, a famed botanist and founder of the 4-H, once said, “A garden requires patient labor and attention. Plants do not grow merely to satisfy ambitions or to fulfill good intentions. They thrive because someone expended effort on them.”
It’s Easter, and I want someone to suppose I am a gardener.