Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
Does anyone else think it’s interesting that Mary Magdalene, when she first sees the risen Jesus outside his tomb, doesn’t recognize him? She’s not alone in this, to be fair. In other stories in the gospels – walking along the road to Emmaus, in Luke’s gospel, fishing early in the morning, later in John, other disciples have difficulty recognizing Jesus after his resurrection too. Maybe it’s something about his physical features in his new, risen state? And whatever else is going on, no doubt they’re caught completely off guard by the fact that he’s there at all; after all, they’d just seen him put to death a few days earlier.
But what has intrigued me most this Easter about Mary’s encounter with Jesus here is this line: “supposing him to be the gardener…” Mary had been first on the scene at the tomb early that morning, according to John. It was up to her to run back and tell the other disciples that Jesus’ body was no longer there. Two of them run back with her – there’s that marvelous foot race between Peter and his pal – but then they leave again, when they find the tomb empty, and head home. And Mary is left on her own. At least she thinks she’s on her own. Because she’s the one, in John’s telling, who then sees the two angels in white, when she peeks her head back into the tomb. They ask her why she is weeping, and she tells them she’s worried that someone has stolen the body of her dear friend. Then she turns around and sees someone else standing there, and he, too, asks her why she is weeping. And just as we’re about to read her reply, John throws in this fascinating subordinate clause, “supposing him to be the gardener…” As in, “supposing him to be the gardener,” she says listen, if you’ve had to move Jesus’ body somewhere, just tell me, and I’ll take it from here. It’s not until the supposed gardener says her name, “Mary,” that she realizes he is Jesus, and he’s alive.
Why a gardener? Perhaps it simply didn’t occur to Mary that anyone else would be there early in the morning? Or might there have been something about the way Jesus was dressed that led her to that assumption? Maybe not overalls and a big floppy sun hat, but was there a 1st century equivalent? Or was it instead about what Jesus was doing? Had he just stood up and brushed the dirt off his knees after communing with the flowers and earthworms or doing a bit of spontaneous weeding outside the tomb?
I realize we’ll never really know, but it’s an interesting image to play around with, because, after all, God had been in the gardening business for quite a long time, by this point in the story. The big story, I mean. The story that runs through all of the other biblical stories. The story that began back in Genesis.
There was a garden there too. God had created absolutely every plant in it – every living thing on the whole earth in fact – and God had even formed the first human from the dust of the ground, and planted that garden in Eden for him. One of my seminary friends used to refer to this part of the creation story as the “dirt under God’s fingernails” chapter, with all that divine playing around in the clay and the soil. We even learn, in Genesis 3, that God enjoyed “walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze.” (Genesis 3:8) The Creator, enjoying the work of his creation, admiring the plants in his garden.
Later, biblical poets would talk about God’s care for his people in language reminiscent of gardening. The book of Psalms, for instance, begins by describing those who follow God’s law as “trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither.” (Psalm 1:1) That’s God, of course, doing the planting and watering there; we who try to live as he commands are the trees he’s tending. There’s also a beautiful passage in Isaiah promising that “if you offer your food to the hungry, and satisfy the needs of the afflicted… the Lord will …satisfy your needs in parched places… and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.” (Isaiah 58:10-11) And returning to John’s gospel, back in chapter 15 Jesus had used the analogy of a vine and its branches, explaining that God is the vine grower, busily pruning the branches on the vine to ensure steady growth. So God’s caregiving for his people as tree planting, garden tending, plant watering, vine pruning. Again, God’s been in this gardening business for a long time.
Of course, it’s also in a garden that the story of Jesus’ passion began, (passion here simply meaning the final events of his suffering and death). For the Garden of Gethsemane is where Judas betrayed Jesus with a kiss, and turned him over to the authorities. Jesus had sought out Gethsemane as a quiet place to pray, following his Last Supper with his disciples. It would be an agonizing night for him, once he was arrested, but I love that it begins with Jesus walking in a garden at the time of the evening breeze, just as God did back in Genesis.
And then back to Mary, and what must have been some sort of garden around Jesus’ tomb, for her to suppose it was a gardener standing there, speaking to her.
Of course it would have been impossible for her to believe it was Jesus. After all, she’d just seen him put to death a few days earlier.
No wonder she thought he was the gardener.
But to a certain extent, she was right.
“Supposing him to be the gardener…” Maybe not a guy in a floppy sun hat with a bucket full of gardening tools, but surely the Gardener who’d promised to refresh his beloved creatures when they found themselves in parched places, and to make them like a watered garden. Here that Gardener meets the frightened, exhausted Mary and restores in her gifts of life and hope and great joy. Her parched spirit refreshed, she runs back to the other disciples - the very first witness to the resurrection - to tell them “I have seen the Lord!”
“Supposing him to be the gardener…” Maybe not a guy in overalls with dirt on his knees, but surely the Gardener who’d created Eden, humanity, every tree and every plant, all of it, out of absolutely nothing, and who so loved walking around in his beautiful creation. For it turns out that the very same God who enjoyed ambling around Eden also chose to walk the dusty streets of Bethlehem, and Nazareth, and Galilee, as one of us. And most importantly of all – and the reason for all of our Alleluias today - it turns out that the very same Gardener who created life in the first place, back in Genesis, also had no trouble at all bringing life from death.
The Gardener of Eden became the Gardener of Israel. And ultimately this same Gardener gave himself away in Gethsemane on a Thursday night, leading to death on the cross on a Friday. But three days later, here we find him, standing with Mary, beside his own empty grave.
“Supposing [Jesus] to be the Gardener …” Granted, this wasn’t just any gardener. But in a sense, it turned out not to be a bad supposition after all.