Easter un-sermon on Mary & the Gardener (John 20:1-18)

This is just a short Easter reflection … I actually kind of wish it were a real sermon, as it is pretty difficult to compact Easter in 650 words. It results in a lot of oversimplification and cutting corners, theologically. But I thought I would share it anyway. There could be a sermon in there, somewhere. I also kind of compressed multiple Gospel accounts and pretend that Mary had also brought burial supplies to care for the body, which doesn’t actually appear in the Gospel of John. But we can be imaginative, right? Right.

In the gospel stories, it is the women who go first to the tomb where they have laid the body of Jesus. They come while it is still dark, bringing with them burial spices and linen strips to care for Jesus’ body. They have come to act as morticians, as undertakers. In Jesus’ time, bodies were washed, wrapped, and scented for their initial entombment after death; the women have come to do this work. As they proceed to the tomb, they form a funeral procession: a line of weeping women, carrying the things they need to anoint and honor their dead.

They are surely burdened with other things, as well: heavy hearts, disappointments, broken dreams. They came with no great expectations; they were just acting according to custom and tradition, to perform the rituals due to the honored dead.

The gospel of John says that when Mary arrives, she stands outside the tomb and bends down to look inside. Perhaps she is bending down, too, under the sheer weight of her sorrow and the trauma of her experience of death at the foot of the cross on Friday. She is pressed down with heartache, and her arms are full of things that symbolize mourning: the spices and the burial cloths. She has come to the graveyard in the dark expecting only more pain and death. These are her reality. What else is there to hope for?

Then, Mary has an encounter: first with the angels, and then with Jesus himself, whom she initially mistakes for the gardener. In the moment of encounter, an opening appears: another option. Suddenly, Mary is a woman with choices. She can rise up, turn around to face to the risen one, put down her burial ointments, and believe that new life is possible. Or, she can remain bent over, with her face and body to the tomb, clutching the experience of death close to her heart, and refusing to believe in the risen Christ.

This Easter morning, we have had an encounter with the risen Son of God. And like Mary, we have a choice.

We can remain bent over with grief, looking backwards at a broken past, full of sorrow over our broken dreams and our own failings, clutching on to the things of death with both hands.  We can go on preparing the funeral of our own lives as if nothing had interrupted us. We can refuse to believe that Easter has any meaning for us, or any power over us. We can dismiss it all as nonsense, or a fairy tale, or a myth. We can refuse the encounter with the Son of God. We can insist that he is just the gardener, after all.

Or, we can recognize the power in the voice that speaks our names. We can turn around, away from the burial we had been preparing for ourselves and towards a future with God. We can stand up, straighten up, lift our gaze to Jesus, and embrace the call to follow the resurrected one all the way to eternal life. We can put down all of the things that we are carrying, all of the things that have died, and go forth from here with open hands, upright spirits, and rejoicing hearts, “one Alleluia from head to foot,” as St. Augustine has called us.

A poem by Keith Walls closes with the following wonderful lines:

We can leave in disappointment or in awe.
Saying, “Good morning,” to the gardener
or, “Good God,” to the Lord.[1]

Let us go from this place not in disappointment, but in awe, knowing our Lord for who he is. Let us go forth full of Alleluias and Amens to live lives of praise. Amen!

[1] Keith Walls, “A Journey through Easter: Easter Sunday”



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