The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Easter Sunday      12th April 2020
Gardens of the Heart
Jim Walters

I have felt immensely grateful and privileged over the last few weeks to have a small garden in which I can spend some of this lockdown time during the nice weather. I can’t imagine what it’s like for families living in cramped conditions through all this with no outdoor space to play or enjoy a bit of sunshine. Being in the garden is somehow restorative and hopeful, as we watch the spring shoots and blossoms come out, even when it feels like everything else in our world is on hold. 

That’s made me think of the children’s story The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. It’s about a boy who is sort quarantined because of his health. But with the help of his friends he gets outside and they discover a magical secret garden that becomes the source of his healing and transformation. 

The resurrection takes place in a garden. That is no doubt intended to remind us that the Bible itself begins in a garden – the Garden of Eden. Indeed, St John’s account of the resurrection of Jesus is shot through with parallels with the Genesis story. Mary goes to the tomb on the first day of the week, as if to recall the first day of creation. She encounters two angels, perhaps alluding to the angels that God placed at the gates of paradise after the Fall. And then she encounters a man she believes to be the gardener. In Genesis we read that Adam and Eve, “heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day.” Mary also hears the voice of the gardener, “Woman, why are you weeping?” He’s not being rude, he calls her “woman” because she is now Eve. In the Genesis story, the conversation between the Gardener God and his creatures is one of estrangement and exile. Here, in the garden of resurrection, it is a conversation of recognition and reunion. While Eve is judged and punished, Mary Magdalene is commissioned to be the bearer of the good news to the male disciples.  

So what are we to make of these allusions to the book of Genesis? What is John telling us about the meaning of the resurrection? Some might see it as a kind of a reboot of creation. As if God was having a second go at getting it right. A reboot of creation perhaps in the same sense as the flood which Noah and his family survived. 

But it seems to me that the Good News of Easter is not that God has finally made a success of his creation, or that he has changed his mind about humanity. The Good News of Easter is summed up for me in the words we would normally hear as the Paschal Candle is lit at the new fire: Christ yesterday and todaythe Beginning and the Endthe Alpha and the Omega. 

The Good News of Easter is not that God has changed but that God is changeless. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the culmination of the consistent purposes of God since the dawn of creation. God has always loved humanity. God has always been working to redeem humanity. And in the death and resurrection of Jesus we are given the ultimate sign of that redeeming love. It is made clear that God will never allow death to have ultimate power in our world and in the world to come. 

We have been reflecting together this week on our prayer lives, the time we spend alone with God. We can think of prayer as the secret garden to which we can retreat at any time to find healing and transformation. It’s an interior place that can be very important to us at this time when the exterior world has shrunk so dramatically in most of our daily lives. 

But prayer is always a walk with the gardener in the Easter garden where we can tap into the energy of the resurrection in creation, the constant recreation that God is enacting in this world through the Holy Spirit. And that includes this time where the power of death is very present in our world. Some might ask, “What is there to celebrate at Easter 2020?” “Where can we find Easter joy and the new life when thousands are dying of this virus around the world every day?” But where death is present, the Easter Gospel is all the more powerful. That’s why Easter has been celebrated before in plagues, in wars, even in Auschwitz. Easter is the promise that darkness will pass, that death will not overcome us. And that even those who we lose in times such as these will not be released from God’s eternal embrace.  

That was the message that transformed Mary Magdalene in the garden from a broken sorrowful woman into an emboldened witness to history’s greatest event. She is not to cling to Jesus because there is work to be done. God’s purposes of bringing life out death is passed on to his disciples. His first followers preached and healed and gathered people together in ways that transformed the world. 

And today he calls us to carry on that work. Hogdson Burnett, wrote “If you look the right way, you can see that the whole world is a garden.” That is true in the sense that, even in these dark times, it is the Easter Garden where all around us God’s power of recreation is present and powerful. And it is true in the sense that our troubled, broken world needs gardeners to tend it; there are jobs to be done. That is very true today as we all have things we should be doing to support one another through this crisis, to bring a little resurrection hope to those who are sick or ground down. Pick up the phone, or take round someone’s shopping. There is something each of us can do. And it will certainly be true as we look to the future and the scale of this pandemic’s impact on our economy, on our mental health, on society’s most vulnerable becomes clear. 

So there is much work to be done in tending the garden of our world as we emerge from this pandemic. But the best of that action will be conceived in the garden of the heart that is prayer. As Kipling wrote in his poem The Glory of the Garden: 

Oh, Adam was a gardener, and God who made him sees 
That half a proper gardener's work is done upon his knees, 
So when your work is finished, you can wash your hands and pray  
For the Glory of the Garden that it may not pass away! 
Thanks be to God for the glory of the Easter garden that will never pass away, for the gift of the garden of the heart that is prayer, and for the sure faith we have this and every Easter that the power of death has been overcome in Christ’s risen life. 

Amen. 

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