I’ll be honest with you. I’m not a gardener. I don’t have the patience or the aptitude and my favourite plants are dead and waiting for me on a plate.
But I’m fascinated by guerrilla gardening, a branch of street craft in which public spaces are turned into ‘gardens’. This isn’t the formal nurturing of city parks or green spaces, it’s a radical attempt to reclaim public spaces for everyone, a mission to bring beauty to places where a lack of care or investment has turned them into blighted concrete wastelands. And I see the reports of this happening and something nags at the back of my brain, and while I wouldn’t see turning a roundabout into a sea of sunflowers necessarily as prophetic, I do wonder if there’s a spiritual dimension to all this, a theology of radical urban gardening.
There’s a moment towards the end of John’s gospel – just a moment – when Mary Magdalene looks at Jesus and doesn’t see her friend, she sees a gardener. And while we tend to see this as her being blinded by grief and loss, there’s more to it than that. It’s a case of spiritual face blindness. Prophetic mistaken identity.
Pastor Brian Zahnd tells the story in a sermon of being in an Italian art gallery and trying to guess which passages from the Bible inspired the various paintings. One picture depicted a man and a woman, the man dressed in a sun hat and carrying a hoe, and Zahnd struggled to figure out which story this represented – until he realised it was John 20. Because while the agricultural uniform looked a little out of place, in reality it’s no more bizarre than all those pictures of Jesus carrying a lamb and acting as a shepherd. Jesus is, in fact, a gardener.
Guerrilla gardening is all about reclaiming the world around us – abandoned spaces, neglected places. It’s about cultivating beauty where previously there was nothing but garbage, growing life where the ground was barren. And in doing so, those spaces blossom and flourish, they bring new life. And what makes this so powerful and inspirational is that it’s not happening in carefully tended gardens, it’s not even the expansive random beauty of a wilderness, it’s in parking lots and waste land and at the bases of lamp posts. Dead spaces are resurrected, and when you witness this in action, if you have the eyes to see, you can see something of the gospel in all this.
Mary mistaking Jesus for a gardener ties the whole Easter story back to the book of Genesis, when the original gardeners failed in that role and ended up in exile. Now a greater Gardener rises up in the springtime and starts tending those in his care. It’s the reclamation of Eden, the end of the exile, the return to the Garden. The explosive blossoming of new life and new creation we see on Easter Sunday is also seen wherever the Kingdom breaks through into the world around us. The Gardener is still at work, but he doesn’t just work in the places we reserve for him, he doesn’t just work within the limits of a walled garden. He goes to work in the dark places, the broken places, the abandoned places, the barren places. And in doing so he brings new life to the dead places, just as he’s been doing ever since he broke out of his borrowed tomb and bumped into Mary.
Jesus is a gardener. His garden is our lives. Let’s remember that every time we see a corner of a parking lot turned into an oasis, every time we see wild flowers bursting through the cracks in the pavement.