Easter Sunday, April 9, 2023
First Congregational Church of Cheshire
© the Rev. Dr. James Campbell
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.
But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.
I called my mom the other day and began the conversation as I always do: “What are you doing?” Now my mom is 86 years old, so you might imagine that she doesn’t DO much of anything anymore. But you’d be wrong. She is spry and feisty and always on the go. So, whenever I ask her: “What are you doing?” I never know what I am going to hear. On that particular day, she replied: “Honey, I just finished canning two dozen quarts of green beans!” Did I mention that she’s 86? And just where did all those green beans come from? My mom doesn’t live on a farm. And she doesn’t have a garden anymore.
But she used to – and some of them were big. As a child, I remember the forced labor in my mother’s garden, under the hot Indiana sun, and with the kind of humidity you could swim in. Mostly I pulled weeds. Mostly, I hated it.
That garden gene must skip a generation, because as soon as I could, I left for the big city. First Indianapolis and then Cleveland and finally to Manhattan, where I lived for more than two decades, and where the closest I ever got to a garden was the occasional farmer’s market.
But life has a way of coming full circle, doesn’t it? Five years ago, I left New York, the self-proclaimed Capital of the World and came here – to the Bedding Plant Capital of Connecticut! And my family and I sunk into our new identity. With each passing year, we got more flowers and tomatoes and peppers and herbs. There are bushes and trees and hedges to maintain. There are insects to conquer (naturally, of course) and fungus to fight and fertilizer to apply. And truth be told… I kind of like it. Just don’t tell my mom.
A garden is an excellent metaphor for life, because we all begin in the garden of our mother’s wombs – a seed planted in the hope of new life. And we all end in another kind of garden – planted in the good earth from which we came. And while we may spend many of the days in between in the company of others; in a garden of delights, our beginning and our ending is a solitary experience.
The state had just executed Jesus. And his friends laid his body in a garden tomb. John writes that on the first day of the week, while it was still dark and cold, Mary Magdalene went to that garden alone, to grieve. But once she arrived; once her eyes adjusted to the deep purple shadows, she saw something that disrupted the peace of that place. The stone that covered the opening of Jesus’s tomb had been rolled away. And since no one was expecting Resurrection, Mary experienced this as bad news. And so, she ran like the wind and told Peter and another unnamed disciple what she had seen.
And then they were all running back to the garden. When they arrived, it was just as Mary had said. The tomb was open, but more than that, the body was gone. All that remained were the linens it had been wrapped in. And since no one was expecting Resurrection, these men experienced this as bad news too. And so, they ran back into town to tell the others, leaving Mary all by herself… in the garden.
It was one of those awful moments when so many bad things happen all at once that you simply cannot take it in. You go into shock. Sometimes your legs give out. Sometimes your mind goes blank. And Mary began to weep, the great wracking sobs of the desolate. Her grief was so great that it doubled her over. And from that bent position, she had a bird’s eye view back into the tomb. And that’s when she saw them. There were two angels sitting on the place where the body of Jesus had been. And maybe because she was in shock, Mary was rather nonplussed by the presence of angels. They asked her why she was weeping, and so she told them all about it.
Just then, Mary felt a presence behind her. And so, she turned around and saw what she thought was a gardener. And she said: “Sir, if you’re the one who took his body away, please tell me where you put it and I will go get it myself.” And that line always breaks my heart.
I wonder how many seconds passed before Jesus spoke? “Mary,” he said. She heard her name like it was coming from far, far away. Then, the synapses began to fire in her brain and her heart began to pound. And suddenly, she saw the Truth right in front of her. “Rabbouni,” she gasped. And she clung to him as if her life depended upon it – because it did.
Mostly, we celebrate this Day of Days as a corporate event; a group experience. There are festive dinners with groaning tables and lots of guests, and family reunions, and Easter egg hunts. There are church services full of believers and skeptics and everyone in between. On Easter Sunsay, the more, the merrier!
But that first experience of the Risen Jesus was intensely personal. It was just two people in a garden – that place where we all begin and where we shall all end.
I met Walter at my church in Manhattan. He was this well-dressed, sophisticated, and worldly man, who was also intensely personable, utterly genuine, and full of faith. As I got to know him, I heard the stories of his remarkable life. As an African American raised in the south at a certain time, Walter had overcome significant obstacles, finally making it all the way to the Sorbonne in Paris. He lived in Europe for a while, and once he returned to the US, he enjoyed a multi-faceted career as an academic and diversity trainer for corporate America.
Walter was elected president of the congregation. And as we worked together and ate together and prayed together and dreamed together, I grew exceedingly fond of “Brother Walter” as I called him.
One day at a Board meeting, as we were sharing prayer requests, Walter informed us that earlier that day he’d been given a very serious diagnosis; a terminal diagnosis. Well, you could have heard a pin drop. We sat there, stunned. Finally, another Board member suggested that we should pray for Walter, right then. And so, we did. We gathered around him and laid our hands on him and prayed with all our might. And then, true to form, Walter conducted that meeting with vision and passion.
For a while, it seemed as if our prayers had been answered. Walter defied the doctors’ expectations. He continued to lead the congregation with enthusiasm. He continued to travel and work. Until he couldn’t.
Toward the end, Walter really wanted to be at home and so hospice care was arranged. But Walter saw this as an opportunity to socialize; to welcome friends and family into his home. There was always a lot of food around, and the apartment was constantly filled with the sounds of Aretha Franklin and Mahalia Jackson singing Gospel music.
Finally, Walter was confined to his bed. And mostly, he would just stare into space. I sometimes wondered if he even knew I was there. -- I’m not sure what possessed me during my last visit with him, but just before I got up to leave, I leaned down close to my friend and said: “Now Brother Walter, you trust Jesus to do for you what you cannot do for yourself.” And Walter, who had been non-responsive, looked right at me. And his eyes welled up. And so did mine. And he started making this sound from deep down inside. He was trying to speak, but it came out like a moan. It wasn’t pain. It wasn’t fear. It was praise – for that One who has promised to never leave us or forsake us.
We all begin in a garden. And that is where we will end. But in that final garden, and in every other solitary, frightening, threatening, lonely, misunderstood, painful place in our lives, there is One who walked this way before us. And he knows YOUR name!