Guerrilla Gardening and the Gospel (John 20:11-18)

noli-me-tangere-ca-1500I’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.

Reclaiming Easter 4: Easter Sunday

(This is one post in four parts… Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.)

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Christ is risen!

He is risen indeed!

It’s a joyful bit of liturgy that’s been proclaimed this morning, that will be proclaimed this morning, all across the timezones as we move from shadow into light.

This is the day that, as the church, we need to grasp onto as if our lives depended on it. Not just our eternal lives – we do Christ as disservice if we treat him as nothing more than a business transaction, an insurance policy for our soul – but every day in the everyday.

That means living in hope, which sounds trite sometimes, especially when a pessimistic blogger types it. But this whole series has been about proclaiming Easter, reclaiming it from our power struggles and our greed, our selfishness and our prejudice. And that hope is rooted in resurrection – a one time event 2,000 years ago, sure, but also all the other resurrections that branch out of it. We’ve made ‘born again’ a label, an identifier, a tribal password, and in doing so we’ve gutted its power.

Across the world there are thousands of community gardens and youth clubs and food banks and baby groups and homeless shelters and refuges, places and spaces where the transformative power of a phrase like ‘born again’ is life, not a label.

These are corporate things, of course, but they grow out of millions of changed lives. That’s the only place it can start; Jesus and us, standing outside an empty tomb. And there’s a danger of getting too comfortable with this story, a danger of it turning into something political and legalistic rather than letting it get into our hearts and our bones, rather than seeing it as being about redemption and resuscitation and rebuilding, creativity and community and creation.

Maybe we need to spend more time trying to be more like Jesus than in trying to make other people look like the messed up Jesus of our stunted imaginations.

And that starts early in the morning, in front of a tomb that should be full but is mysteriously, miraculously empty. And that quiet voice whispers behind us; the garden bursts into bloom; life begins anew.

And we, not just Easter, are reclaimed.

The Stranger on the Road (Luke 24:13-35)

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They were walking to Emmaus, about 7 miles from Jerusalem. About 130 years earlier, this had been the site of a great battle, Jewish rebels triumphing over Greek forces. After Herod the Great died thirty years earlier, the village was burned to the ground after the inhabitants attacked a Roman garrison. Now it had been rebuilt and become home to a disciple called Cleopas, who was now trudging his way back from Jerusalem, the aftermath of the crucifixion bearing down on him.

We celebrate Easter Sunday as a glorious explosion of new life, but as he walks the road to Emmaus, Cleopas is still living in Saturday. He’s leaving Jerusalem, where within the space of a week Jesus has gone from being popular hero to an abandoned victim of conspiracy and crucifixion, all the hopes and expectations of the last three years nailed to a blood-soaked plank of wood. On the horizon is the site of a Jewish victory, yes, but that had been a long time ago and Herod had showed what happens to anyone hoping to change the world.

So when Cleopas encounters a stranger on the road, he explains the situation with a sense of loss: “We’d hoped he would be the one to redeem Israel.” With the benefit of hindsight we can smile at how Cleopas is missing the point – we know the big reveal, after all, that the stranger on the road is the resurrected Jesus. But maybe Cleopas needs this moment of unrecognition for his preconceptions and prejudices to be reconfigured.

And so, despite a long theological conversation, it’s only when the stranger breaks bread and gives thanks – a eucharistic moment that echoes the last supper – that the stranger’s identity is revealed. The Last Supper forms the basis of our communion services, speaking of Christ’s death, but this second meal is its bookend, the revelation of his resurrection.

Maybe we need to hold the revelation of Emmaus in our hearts every time we eat the bread and drink the wine, remembering not just the crucifixion but the fresh vision of Jesus granted us by his emergence from the tomb, the miracle we encounter when the Stranger on the Road turns out to be the risen Saviour.

That’s not a once-a-year moment of sacredness in the Spring. It’s every Lord’s Supper – no, it’s every day. Heaven knows I need to make resurrection a daily remembrance. As we walk with Cleopas into another week, may we meet Jesus once again, and find the Saviour in the Stranger on the Road.

Easter Monday 2014: Forgetting

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So the Easter celebrations have finished; the eggs are half eaten, the midnight vigils are over, Sunday has come and gone. It’s the most dangerous part of the Easter season – the time of forgetting.

We don’t mean to, of course, but the everyday starts to intrude – we return to work, or race to beat the bank holiday traffic to make the most of our holidays. Kids have to be fed, dishwashers need to be empty, commuting and shopping and grabbing some sleep become our realities. Easter fades from view for another year.

Okay, maybe that’s just me. I’m the first to admit I’m better at thinking about the Bible than applying it, and it’s easy to lose sight of the implications of Jesus rising from the dead 2,000 years after the fact.

Still, it’s too easy to consolidate Easter into a one-off transaction that secures one of those heavenly mansions but that doesn’t place any more demands on us, other than maybe an hour or so every Sunday. But while we don’t earn grace, following Jesus remains a 24-7 call. And that’s a challenge.

But the forgetting can take other forms. An encounter with the risen Jesus can lead to us running away – Peter meets Jesus in the upper room, but he still ends up returning to his life as a fisherman for a time. He needs at least one more conversation with Jesus to get to grips with his mission.

Because Easter is all about new life, but sometimes we experience slow-burn resurrections. We head towards life in all its fullness but we get sidetracked, we stumble, we slowly work through a lifetime of baggage and biography with the Holy Spirit graciously nudging us in the right direction.

This is why Easter is every day: resurrection isn’t a one time deal. It’s about dying to things that hold us back and the birth of something better, and it’s about the establishment of a kingdom that embodies life rather than death. Listen out for it, for the emptiness of the tomb echoes down the ages. Forgetting cannot be an option.

Easter Sunday 2014: Gardens

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Really it’s all about gardens.

The Bible, after all starts with a garden; the great cosmic scope of the creation story zooms in on a single location, a garden planted by God to home those created in his image. But the image is marred, the garden is lost, and the rest of the Bible is about a journey to restore that primal intimacy with God.

Jump forward to the end of the Bible and Revelation’s climactic description of the new Jerusalem. Here we read of a beautiful city, but one with trees and fruit and a flowing river. It’s an image of Eden restored; the journey of the Scriptures is a return to the garden.

So it’s no surprise that the Easter story is full of gardens; they’re present even at the darkest moments. Gethsemane is the place where a choice has to be made – the place where Jesus wrestles with his mission. Both Gethsemane and Eden present a choice between human desires and God’s; Gethsemane is where the right choice is made and Eden’s curse starts to be undone: “Not my will but yours” is a powerful enough prayer on its own, but praying it in a garden is a hint of where this story is heading.

And we head there almost immediately. On the agony and blood of Calvary, a dying man asks Jesus to remember him; Jesus tells him that they’ll go into Paradise together. The word ‘Paradise’ has very specific connotations; it means ‘garden’.

So the drama of that first Easter morning is played out in another garden. Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb at the break of dawn, finding it empty. Wracked with grief and thinking that Jesus has been subjected to yet another unthinkable humiliation, she doesn’t recognise the hidden Christ.

She mistakes him for a gardener.

It’s the most profound mistake in the Bible, because God has always been a gardener. Eden and the prophesied City of God are evidence of that and through the death and resurrection of Jesus, access to those sacred gardens is restored. And so is hope and life and forgiveness.

It’s impossible to discuss Easter without talking about new life. Sometimes that’s the sudden, miraculous revival of what once was dead, but often it’s a slower resurrection, a cultivation carried out by a loving and patient Gardener. Sometimes resurrection takes longer than three days – the death of hope or love isn’t always reversed overnight. But new life is coming.

Mary didn’t get it wrong. Jesus is a gardener. He’s the Adam who got it right; the one who reopened the gates of Eden and shows us the way inside.

Happy Resurrection Day!