Sunday, April 17, 2022
In one way or another, says our friend Harriet Ward, we all come from Africa, and we all come from the same garden. From Africa. From the same garden. Harriet’s one of the remarkable quilters, whose artistry, whose witness you’ll see in the chapel downstairs this morning. In the George Floyd quilts. And she’s talking historically, of course, and she’s talking biologically, genetically, of course. That we are in truth, in spirit, in flesh one body, and only one body.
But Harriet’s also talking theologically—she’s speaking to the people of God, to all of us descendants of the Abrahamic and monotheistic tradition. She’s reminding us of our own story, our own precious, holy and (in this day and age) revolutionary story. We all come from the same garden. Humans gathered into being from the humus. Earthlings fashioned in love from the earth. And the breath of God given in grace, given for glory, to each and every one of us. To all of us. We all come from the same garden; and, in a sense, we are created to garden together.
In the seminal creation story, in Hebrew scripture, God creates ‘ha adam’—a human being—and breathes life into ‘ha adam’ and gives this human being to the garden. To love it and tend it and pray for it. But ‘ha adam’ is alone, and isolated, and God recognizes the longing for partnership, the yearning for community, the hunger for communion. In a sense, in that story, in Genesis, God’s figuring out how to be God. It’s not good for ‘ha adam’ to be alone—so God reaches into ‘ha adam’s’ body, retrieves a rib, and creates another being, another human. And in that generous moment, community is born. The first holy communion is celebrated. And Adam and Eve set out to love the garden together, to tend the garden together, and to pray for it together.
That first creation story, that Hebrew story, you see, has nothing to do with gender, really, or binary categories, or fundamentalist mandates. But everything to do with communion and community, with humanity and vulnerability, and with our responsibility (together, always together) for the garden. The beauty, the abundance, the fertility of the garden. We all come from the same garden; and, in a sense, we are created to garden together.
So what Easter means to Harriet Ward—who was with us here on Friday night—is something like that ancient promise renewed, reawakened, reborn in us. We are one body—siblings of many hues and many cultures, siblings called to collaboration and resistance. The violence that divides us, the violence that destroyed George Floyd’s life—cannot and will not erase our birthright. The suspicion that embitters us, the suspicion and contempt that drive racism in so many ways, and in so many places—cannot and will not revoke God’s purpose, God’s promise, God’s passion. Today that passion is reawakened in us. We are one people, from one garden, in one spirit. Humans gathered into being from the humus. Earthlings fashioned in love from the earth. And we are created to garden, to plant and water together, to harvest and feast and sing together. Anything else—everything else—is Golgotha. Anything else—everything else—is Good Friday. Anything else—everything else—is violence and sin. Another reason why those quilts downstairs are so powerfully, so painfully moving this weekend. Take a look.
|Mary Magdalene Sings the World|
Notice in John’s story, that Mary Magdalene comes to Jesus’ tomb, which is in a garden; and notice that she’s grieving there. These details are not insignificant. They resonate within traditions, and between traditions, and in our own 21st century contexts too. Mary is grieving by a tomb in a garden.
And I imagine her grief is not just a sniffle, but a wailing of her spirit, a breaking of her heart. Does that seem right to you? She’s lost the best friend she ever had. The one who honored her strength, and defended her dignity, and insisted that her gifts were God’s gifts and that her power was God’s power. She’s watched soldiers mock him, and then kill him, and then run his body through with a spear. Mary’s the widow in Ukraine whose partner will never come home. She’s the child at the Arizona border separated from his parents. And she’s every one of us who’s lost a parent, a child, a friend, a colleague. Grief is like a surging tide, on the occasion of a full moon; and grief cannot be controlled, managed or denied. Waves of salty tears. Love like a surging tide, in our throats, in our muscles, in our souls.
And when Mary Magdalene turns around, weeping, in that garden, she sees someone who looks very much like a gardener. It’s so powerful to me how she keeps faith with her grief, how she doesn’t abandon her tears, how she honors and trusts the wisdom in her body. What an example for you and me: that we too might honor and trust the wisdom in our bodies. The grief. The longing. The joy in our bodies. The aging of our bodies. The sacred knowing. And then, through those same tears, Mary sees someone who looks very much like a gardener. And how does that work? Is it the mud on his cheek, or the scattered leaves in his hair, or maybe the humus in his hands, lodged under his fingernails? Mary’s making a connection—a connection we all make together this bright Easter Sunday.
This is the only resurrection story set in a garden, by the way. John’s story wants to remind us, wants to awaken within us a memory as old as time, a conviction deeper than despair. That birthright. That inheritance we share. All of us. And Jesus says to her, “Mary!” And she turns toward him, steps toward him, and says to him, “Rabbouni!” Yes, the violence around us is terrible, catastrophic and heartbreaking. But we can and we shall overcome. Yes, the bitterness between us—in America today, and in so many cultures today—yes, the bitterness between us is toxic and deadly. But we can and we shall overcome. Jesus says, “Mary!” And she says to him, “Rabbouni!” Game on!
You see, John’s story remembers that older story, that Hebrew story of ‘ha adam’—and loneliness aching for partnership, the two who celebrate communion, and the two gardening together. Eden’s promise and human vocation. So, of course, of course, he looks like a gardener. That’s the whole point. It’s his garden. It's their garden. It’s our garden together. We are created to garden together. All genders. All orientations. All ethnicities and backgrounds and religious traditions. And she sees all of that, Mary sees all of that, through her tears. Yes, there are too many prophets on too many crosses. Yes, the planet itself is groaning under the weight of so much violence. But God shows up in that garden. We can and we shall overcome.
There’s another message here that’s so important for us, I think, and so important for the five young friends we welcome into our circle this morning. Pain is a part of every one of our lives. Every one of us—from 9 to 99—knows what pain is. Every one of us experiences pain, buckles with the pain, and is (from time to time) shocked by its suddenness and its density in us. When Mary’s friends run off that day, when she’s left, abandoned even at the tomb, to weep alone, to grieve alone, I imagine she is stunned first by the loneliness, then by the fierceness, then by the desperation of the pain in her heart. It’s almost more than she can bear.
But it’s not.
And that’s the message. Mary remains present to the pain in her heart. Mary trusts the weight in her gut, and the tears rolling down her cheeks. And Mary bears all that sadness, all that pain, all that grief in her body. There’s wisdom in her body. And there’s holiness in her pain. And it turns out that she’s not alone, that she’s never been alone. And that she never will be.
So it is with every one of us—and with you, Gavin and Mia and Eliza, and with you, Roque and Henry. When pain arrives at your door, when you face that piercing loneliness or that cruel disappointment, know that you are forever held in the hands of God. Even and especially when it seems that God is far, far, far away. Those hands are always there, always there to hold you and create space for your grief or your anger or your disappointment. And then for your healing. There’s wisdom in your body. And there’s holiness in your pain. And if you open to that wisdom, if you trust it and honor it, God will transform your pain into compassion, and your grief into faith. And you’ll find yourself in a garden of possibilities, a garden to be tended, a garden to be shared, a garden we like to call the Kingdom of God.
We’re not talking about an idyllic life. And we’re not talking about a perfect world. Easter doesn’t make everything better, and it certainly doesn’t make everything easy. But there’s a wholeness in you, a blessing in you, a light in your life the world cannot take away! So look around a bit this morning. Go ahead, you can even stand up for a moment. We’re getting ready to sing, so you can stand up if you like. Right now.
This is that garden, my friends. You can smell the lilies and the tulips. In a quiet moment, you’ll hear all those birds that have flown in from their winter habitats, to sing with us and rejoice with us and praise God with us. And everywhere you look we are gardeners in the Kingdom. Over there, we’ve got George and Sandra Estes who are still growing fresh flowers and sweet vegetables, after all these years, to the delight of neighbors seen and unseen. Over there, in the far back, we’ve got Ernie Nsai who spends hours and hours in this sanctuary, on his knees, praying for folks like Mary and Bob James and his own dear children in Cameroon. He’s a gardener too. And down here, we’ve got Melissa Lloyd and Kim Kleckner who are getting married right here this August, and planting seeds of hope and joy among their friends as they build a life of tenderness and service together. You see, they’re gardeners too. Right? This is that garden, my friends. Look around. It’s Gavin and Mia and Eliza and Roque and Henry too. We are created to garden together. Called to this garden together.
The great African American poet, James Weldon Johnson, wrote “Lift Every Voice and Sing” as a celebration of Blackness in America and the collective journey we all must make together—to protect the fragile fabric of democracy for our children and our children’s children. You know how it goes:
“We have come over a way that with tears has been watered, /
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered, /
Out from the gloomy past, till now we stand at last /
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.”
It’s a resurrection hymn in so many ways. And as we sing it now, I’ll be thinking of our friend Harriet Ward, and all the violence, all the racism, all the injustice she’s seen up close in her life. A black woman in America. A black woman in New Hampshire. A black woman in the church. But she knows her God is good—her God and our God—she knows our God is good and gracious; and she knows God’s intention in her life is blessing and courage and joy. What days she has left are days devoted to honest conversation, and hopeful resistance, and beautiful art. And she knows her God will provide. So she opens to all that pain, so she honors the wisdom in her own body. And her heart opens, and her spirit deepens, and she finds a love inside that can overcome every bit of that bigotry, and every wave of that violence. It’s just like Mary in the garden. She finds a love that knows no end.
Friends, let’s sing this hymn for Harriet Ward, and let’s sing it for Ernie Nsai and his family in Cameroon, and let’s sing it for George and Sandra Estes in Lee, and Kim Kleckner and Melissa Lloyd in Dover. And those five fabulous confirmands too. And let’s sing it for the church that knows that Black Lives Matter, that God’s love knows no end, and that we are all called, all called, all called to the garden together.
Amen and Ashe.