Sermon for Easter Sunday, Sunday, April 21 2019, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Isaiah 65:17-25; Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24; 1 Corinthians 15:19-26; John 20:1-18
It starts before dawn – confused reports, unbelievable rumours. As the sun rises, people are running, are finding an absence, scattered cloth, hopes and wishes, uncertainty. And then, as the full morning comes, all the action stills, all the others withdraw, and she is there alone in a garden. There is a pause, a great stillness. Then a voice in the garden, and all the world begins again.
It is completely intended, I think. The tomb in the garden in which Jesus was so unexpectedly lain; the woman in the garden, hearing the creating voice. It is meant to recall to us that old fairy tale of the garden in which the human creature lived in harmony with the general dance. Death in the garden, the breaking of that harmony, the breaking we see all around us, in catastrophic climate change, in the mountains of plastic we ship overseas and feel good about recycling, in all our inabilities to love each other and our planet well.
“We think that Paradise and Calvary, Christ’s cross and Adam’s tree, stood in one place,” wrote the poet John Donne. But even more than the cross, it is this garden, these two people in the morning, and the chance that the old story can be made new, that even in the time of deepest loss, there is the chance of turning. It is the garden of all the world, and she is all of humanity, Mary Magdalene at the grave. All of us in our frailty, who have seen this world’s slow crushing of hope. All of us who stand, beyond hope now, beyond expectation, but never beyond the pain of longing. She knows about failure and betrayal, she is every broken heart. She is all the parents and siblings and partners and friends who have held the bodies, or not even had the bodies to hold. And she will not go away.
The desire for God, the mystics say, is the presence of God. Our only doom is to give up that desire, to let the world convince us that there is nothing more to want that what there is, a wasteland of power games and empty prizes, of rivalry and death. That the empty space will always be empty, and we can only cling to tawdry consolations to distract us. But she will not, she will stand, she will fill that empty space with her grief and her love.
It is not easy to believe in resurrection, when we see that wasteland, when we see the old bad stories cycle round and round as if they were eternal. Mary Magdalene did not, at that moment beside the grave, believe that anything new could happen, and mostly we don’t either – after all, there is very little convincing evidence of resurrection in the world today. But still she behaved as if something might happen, as if something could change, and even if she wanted the wrong thing, still she went on wanting. So we too must hold that space, we must stand for as long as it takes.
And when Mary hears the voice behind her, though she mistakes at first who it is, she is not quite wrong – he does come to us as a gardener in a graveyard, the one who works in the dirt where the bodies decay. A gardener who comes into the place of death, and begins make it live. She turns towards that love, and her love is answered. She is given her name, her self. For this is where resurrection, in this world, must start. If there is ever to be hope, it must start with us. With you. Right here. Right now. If there is ever to be resurrection, a world made new, it must start from us.
We enter into that love and into our own being, we come back to the garden, that mythical garden of creation and innocence, the legend of humanity’s childhood. But, like Mary, we come back changed. We come back knowing good and evil, and more of evil than we wish. And still we come back trying to choose good, in the face of it all; we come back turning to hope, turning to sunrise, that the garden may yet be made green again. And for one moment the whole long story which brought us here makes sense after all, and we can believe it all redeemed, each wound and each tear, embraced in the great morning of God’s story.
It is a moment which is necessarily fragile, fleeting, the movement of a breeze. She cannot hold onto the beloved one who has returned to her. A garden is not a stable place; it is constantly moving life, it is growth and change and flux and decay, those self-seeding shoots springing up in rubbish, those perennials stretching beyond any walls we build, the twining life of vines and underground networks of roots, the dead leaves turning back to soil. And in this work we are all guerrilla gardeners, throwing seed into the gaps between the concrete. We have no lasting home in this world; but we all have our gardens, somewhere, even if they are sometimes very dry, and bringing the green life back a long task.
I do not say we can complete the task, or even know its shape – she did not, and had mostly the experience of telling her truth to a group of men who immediately dismissed everything she was saying, and mostly, later, deliberately or on purpose, forgot she ever said it. But she has her name. And she has her work. She is given this, that she will be the first to cast into the world this seed, this news. To be the witness, the one who, in this moment, is the whole of the church that will ever come to be. To say the one thing she can never prove, but knows with perfect truth – I have seen the Lord.
And it is our task, too, built into the cells of our bodies, laid upon us at baptism, renewed each time we take in our hands the presence of God as bread and wine, the things we take into our perishable bodies and by which we are made and changed. We are sent into this world to be the gardeners in the wasteland. Tell the impossible story—that love is stronger than death, and many waters cannot quench it, and floods cannot drown it. That we are not lost among the graves. Tell it in the face of all the evidence. Tell it even if no one believes you, tell it even if you can hardly believe it yourself. Because without this story, the world is lost. Keep saying this, that our hearts and souls can rise out of the rubble, that life will rise up in the abandoned places, that another world is possible, that we can begin to build that world in the wreckage of this our garden.
We are the witnesses now, whether or not we feel adequate to the task, whether or not we even want it. We have been made and loved and named. Go into the world, live out the story that the hungry will be fed, and the prisoners will be released, and all the designs of power will fail, and the garden will come back to the city, and the green things rise again. Be, your own selves, the truth of that story in this time and in this place. Walk back into the place of murder, and tell them that they will not prevail. It is foolish, and sometimes dangerous, and it doesn’t make sense.
Power and greed and fear will try to stop you, time and grief will wear you down. But life stands with you, speaks your name in the morning.