I grew up surrounded by a magical garden on what was once an avocado orchard in eastern San Diego. My dad collected and traded plants from around the world, everything from Monkey Hand and bamboo trees to kumquats, loquats, and different varieties of cacti. There was something for everyone: bottle brush for the humming birds, honeysuckle for the children to suck on, and avocados for the dogs to eat. Our dogs were plump, but they also had the most beautiful, shiny fur coats in town. Personally, I loved the scent of the camellias outside my bedroom window, and the gardenias that grew on the other side of the house. The back yard was full of fruit trees: apples, pears, plums, pomegranates, lemons, limes, tangerines, tangelos, and every kind of orange you can imagine. But the best part of the yard was probably the trees. Avocado trees are great for climbing, and my father draped a large fisherman’s net over one of them for my sister, me, the neighborhood children, and our raccoon Pandora to climb. My dad built a fort in another avocado tree, and from it, my sister and I fired mud bombs, loquats, and kumquats at the Banack boys next door.
We spent so many hours in that yard playing this or that, coming up with elaborate games, scenes, and role plays. At one point my sister and I decided that we wanted a pool, so we dug a huge hole out of dirt, filled it with water, and went swimming. Fortunately I don’t remember my mother’s reaction when we came to the door, soaked in mud.
In the Hebrew and Christian scriptures there are multiple gardens. There is the original garden, the Garden of Eden, in which the first man and woman lived, loved, and played. It was the place Adam and Eve learned more about God, themselves, and the limits of their knowledge. There are also the gardens we journeyed through this past week, the garden of Gethsemane in which Jesus prayed and was betrayed, and the garden in which he was buried. While my childhood garden was a happy place, gardens can also be places of pain. In a garden Jesus not only prayed about the dangers and death that awaited him, he was also betrayed by a former student and friend. Around the world, many children can’t even imagine what a robust garden looks like. Some of them play and look for their daily bread in garbage dumps. In inner city America too many children are surrounded by concrete, not flowers, grass, or trees. Syrian children don’t play outside, for fear of being killed. In scripture, the garden that was intended for joy and abundant living became a garden of conflict, power struggles, and death.
In today’s Gospel from John, Mary of Magdala sets out to visit Jesus’ tomb while it is still dark, on the first day of the week. Her teacher and friend has just been killed in the most brutal way possible. The one who cherished her and helped her see her worth is dead. She is in the depths of mourning, as reflected by the darkness in which she walks. Mary’s only hope is to mourn by Jesus’ tomb, to be near anything that reminds her of him. She returns to the garden in which he is buried, a garden in a place of death and sadness. She does not expect that her bleak future can or will change. And yet, it is the first day of the week and the light begins to emerge, evoking the first day of creation.
When Mary arrives at Jesus’ tomb she sees, to her great surprise and horror that the stone blocking the entrance has been removed. Confused, she runs to Simon Peter and another disciple often referred to as the Beloved Disciple and says, “they have taken him from the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Mary, like all those who have lost a loved one, needs to have something physical and tangible to mourn. There is something in us that cannot rest when we do not have our loved one’s body. Just think of the relatives of soldiers missing in action, 9/11 victims, or those on Malaysian Airlines flight 370.
After Peter and the Beloved Disciple go into the tomb and see that Jesus’ body is gone, they return home. Mary, however, remains weeping outside Jesus’ tomb. His missing body increases her grief. She is confused and overwhelmed. Two angels ask Mary why she is weeping and she says “they have taken away my Lord and I do not know where they have laid him.” She turns around and Jesus is standing by her but she does not recognize him. He says to her, “woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Thinking that Jesus is the gardener she says to him “sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him and I will take him away.” Jesus then calls her by name “Mary.” Mary then goes to the disciples and says, “I have seen the Lord.”
It is no accident that Mary mistakes Jesus for the gardener, for he is the one who, through death and resurrection, transforms a garden of mourning and hopelessness into a garden of new life and hope. Jesus is the one who enters our lives when we wonder if God has abandoned us, if there is any reason why we should go on living, and invites us to participate in God’s very life. This risen life gives us purpose and a vision that re-orients us away from our failings and sorrow toward the world God so loves. When we are overwhelmed by our own suffering and the suffering of the world, the risen Jesus reminds us that God is up to a new thing even in the places and people others consider godforsaken. God calls us, like Mary, by name, and sends us to share this hope with others.
The resurrection of Jesus is about so many things. It is about God enabling us to be reborn, with new eyes and a new heart. It is about God offering forgiveness and new life, and healing our broken hearts and the broken creation. The resurrection is about the fact that our mistakes, the harmful things we’ve done, and the ways others have treated us, don’t ultimately define us. And the resurrection is ultimately about the new creation, the fact that God has not given up on us, but continues to seek our well being, even when we have given up on ourselves, and the problems and challenges that can overwhelm us.
Whoever you are and wherever you find yourself this morning, new life and new possibility are available through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus led the way, showing us that nothing can separate us from God, nothing that life can throw at us, nothing that we do, and not even death. In the midst of whatever we face, God re-creates a garden, and invites us to return to it, or to enter it for the first time. God creates us to tend the garden of this world. May the resurrection empower us not only to flourish, but to seek the flourishing of all. Amen