Mistaken for the Gardener

There are a lot of ways that you could paint a picture the resurrection. Perhaps you have seen some of them. The sun rising over a perfectly round stone, rolled to reveal an open, empty, tomb. Light streaming through an open door, revealing a stone slab with burial cloths left strewn.

And the risen Christ. Glowing. Resplendent. A lily white robe, eyes up toward heaven. Flowing brown locks and a smartly trimmed beard. A confident stride, glorious, victorious.

But that’s not quite right is it?

Here’s what happened.

Mary was weeping beside the empty tomb. Weeping because she was certain that grave robbers had come and taken her Lord away. As if it had not been enough that the beat him down, and hung him high. Mocked him and sent his friends scattering. Now they wouldn’t even let him have a decent burial. They came at night and took his body away. She just wanted to know where they put him.

And just then, this stranger walked up and asked her a question with the most obvious answer in the world.

“Why are you crying?”

“They have taken my Lord away, and I do not know where they have put him.”

Then scripture gives us this wonderful detail. The stranger she was was talking to was Jesus. But she did not realize it. She didn’t recognize him.
She mistook him for the gardener.

How is that possible?

I can only think of one way. He must have looked the part.

His clothes were simple. His body looked weary and worn. And there was dirt underneath his fingernails.

I guess it shouldn’t come as to great a surprise. After all this is the same Jesus who told his friends:

“Come, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”

They didn’t understand then either. They asked, “when did we see you hungry or sick? Or in prison?”

And he told them. “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of my children you did it to me.”

All along the disciples had thought they were just dealing with ordinary people. The sick and the poor. Huddled, yearning masses. Lepers, sinners… Nothing more.

And Mary thought she was talking to the gardener.

Now, there are plenty of things about Christ that are glorious and resplendent. But even in this story of the resurrection, we are reminded, that his appearance is not one of them. No more often Christ appears in a form we would scarcely recognize as holy. A neighbor in need. A child from another land seeking safety and a home. A man begging. An addict who has exhausted our patience.

It could be more comfortable to imagine the resurrected Christ going to battle on our behalf against all the evils of the world, while we sit and cheer our our guy from the grandstand.

It could be more appealing to imagine the resurrected Christ, clothed in glory. Glowing bright. So different from anything we have ever seen. And high up. Far, far, away…

But thats not quite right, is it?

Mary thought he was the gardener.

So the challenge to us to imagine the resurrected Christ with his feet in the soil of our world, looking like one of us.It’s a challenge because it gives us occasion to wonder, did I see Christ hungry today? Did I see Christ as a stranger and fail to welcome him? Did I mistake him for someone as ordinary as the gardener?

When I was a college student I spent a summer living in Washington DC. One afternoon I was walking through DuPont circle when a homeless man asked me for some change. I ignored him and kept walking.

“Hey!” He yelled. And I turned around startled.

“I asked you a question.”

“Oh,” I stammered out, “Um. I don’t have any cash I am sorry.”

“It’s ok” he replied, taking pity on me. “But you know it’s rude to ignore people who are talking to you.”

I felt so ashamed. And I offered to buy him lunch, which he accepted. And we walked over to Chipotle together to get a couple burritos. We chatted a bit. He asked me about myself, I told him I was hoping to become a minister.

“That’s nice.” He said.

“I got baptized when I was a kid.”

“Stood up in front of the whole church.”

“They said they’d always take care of me…” his voice trailed off.

We didn’t say much to each other after that. What could I say?

There are so many extraordinary things that we learn about God through Christ. We learn that God loved the world so much, that God poured God’s own self out. God came to live among us, as us. We learn that the expansive power of God’s love is so unnerving that the powers of the world preferred to kill him, brutally, rather than reexamine their own lives and reshape their world.

And we learn that even still, the worst the world could do, torture, terror, and execution, was not enough to stop God’s love. Not even death could stop God from loving the world with God’s whole being. And so, having been hung high to die in humiliation, and buried in a borrowed grave.

God got up.

God rose.

God defeated even death, to give us courage in the face of injustice, in the face of war, and suffering. In the face of our failures, our additions, our disappointments, our bruises, wounds, and scars.

Nothing. God said. Nothing. Will stop my love.

Nothing. Not even death.

We also learn this:

Despite all the honor that the one who vanquished death could rightly claim. Despite all the glory we might expect.God comes back to life, the same way God came to the world the first time. In the guise of someone lowly. Someone as ordinary as you and I.

First, the infant of an unwed mother, born in a barn in Bethlehem.

Then, just outside Jerusalem, in the darkness before the dawn, the gardener.

So was that man I met on the DC sidewalk the risen Christ, come to pay me a visit? Perhaps not in the strictest sense. But I will tell you this. He played the part of Christ to me that day. A word of challenge, spoken with care. A brief encounter. And I was never the same.

My minister friends and I have this little thing we do. It started as a joke.

Whenever we are complaining about someone, perhaps, hypothetically, its a frustrating colleague. One person will air all the grievances. And list every complaint. “He never listens to anyone. He is arrogant. His ego is the size of the moon. And he just drives me nuts!” And whenever they stop. Without fail. Someone will say. “And…..”

The appropriate response, usually delivered reluctantly is: “ And he is a beloved child of God, made in God’s own image.”

Made in the image of God. An idea that frustrates every vindictive and spiteful discourse we are tempted to indulge. Made in the image of God. An idea that harkens back to very beginning. When God was making all that is.

That was when God formed the first people. And set them down. Where? In the middle of a garden. And God made those two, and every person since, in God’s own image. From those first gardeners, down to you and me. And the person sitting next to you. And that person you can’t stand. And every one of your enemies. And every single human being you have ever seen. Made to reflect the very image of God.

So maybe, just maybe, in those first moments after he had vanquished death and changed the world forever. Christ chose to wear the image of an ordinary gardener to teach us, to remind us, that we need to learn to see God’s face in the faces of others.

Not just the glorified. Or the well polished and the well-vetted. Not just the familiar. Not just the accomplished. Not just in the people who look like us, or sound like us, or pray like us. We are to see God’s face in Every. Single. Other. Person. On the planet.

Just imagine. Mary. She had known him for years. Spent every day by his side as he taught and healed.  And even so. She mistook him for the gardener.

Just imagine, just imagine, what you or I may have missed.

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