The Great Gardener

 Inspired by John 20:11-18

Gardening has always been an important part of my life, especially during my formative years, but certainly continuing to today. Gardening has been a vital connection point. My only grandfather that I knew lived in Colorado, and since I grew up in California, I didn’t get to see him very much. He’d visit for the holidays, and we’d visit him in the summers when we could, but that’s about it. So, if was going to have a good relationship with him it was going to take some work. And most of that work was my dad handing me the phone and telling me to talk to grandpa. For a kid this was asking a lot. For a very introverted kid, this was asking too much. In hindsight, I’m glad I was handed the phone. Though we talked often, our conversations usually took the same form every time.  

Partly due to his limited English, and partly due to my 10 year old conversational skills. He’d ask me about the weather. Easy enough. I’d ask him about his. He’d ask me about school. Always a sore subject for me, so I moved on from that as quickly as I could. And then, finally, he would ask, “How’s your jalapenos doing?” Now we were getting somewhere. This I could talk about. You see, my grandpa had a massive garden, both flowers and fruits and vegetables: corn, melons, tomatoes, grapes, prickly pears, carrots, and…jalapenos. I was so in awe of his garden when we would visit him, his ability to create food, his ability at such an old age, he was already 74 when I was born, to tend to so much land by himself, he was just one of those people who was one with the land, and I was in awe. 

So, back home in California, with what little backyard I had, and the clay filled soil that I had to work with, I did my best in my little garden. We started a grape vine from one of his. Never produced a single edible grape. Tried tomatoes, but the bugs ate them faster than we could. I had a nice cactus garden! However, it was the jalapenos that really shined. My grandpa would say, “Don’t water them too much! You gotta keep them angry! That’s how you get hot ones.” I don’t know if there is any truth to that but let me tell you, those jalapenos were hotter than the blazes of hell, and my mom’s salsa she made with them? Was lethal! Lethal! Anyway, all that is to say, gardening was how he and I connected. It’s how my dad and I connected. It’s how my daughters and I have connected. And it hasn’t just been fruits and vegetables that have grown over the years in all those different gardens. 

Here at Bethlehem, we’ve been reading through the Gospel of John since December, and back in September we started reading some of the great stories from the Hebrew scriptures that paired well with the upcoming Gospel of John. And the first story that we read was the creation story from Genesis 1. And in that story, God is doing some gardening. Only it’s not just fruits and vegetables that God is growing but everything, flowers, animals, bugs, light, water, you name it God was gardening it. And when God was done, did God hang up the divine shovel and rake for good? Not by a long shot. It was now time to do some other kinds of gardening.  

Gardening relationships with everything and everyone that God had created. And that kind of gardening, God continues to do to this very day. If you’re a visitor today and you’re thinking, where in the world is this guy going with this. Don’t worry, the regulars are thinking the same thing, they’re just used to it! Ok, so fast forward to the Gospel of John, and gardens have been coming up again and again. Hmmmm, wonder what that’s all about. Well, I’m about to tell ya! The Gospel of John opens with these words, “In the beginning…” Where have we heard that before? Genesis 1, which begins with, “In the beginning…”, immediately placing us in that original garden. Then, throughout his ministry, Jesus and his disciples return to a garden to rest and recharge and reconnect.  

Then at the end, Jesus is arrested. Where? In a garden. Then Jesus is crucified. Where? In a garden. Then Jesus is buried. Where? In a garden. And finally, Jesus rises from the dead. Where?... You’re so smart! Look at you! In a garden! Ok, even the biggest skeptics have got to admit, that can’t be a coincidence! What is going on here? Why is the author consistently bringing up the image of a garden? Well, I think it’s less about the garden itself, and more about the one who is doing the gardening. I laugh each time I read that Mary thought Jesus was the gardener. It’s easy to read that as a case of mistaken identity, but I’m not so sure the author did. I think the author wants you to go a little deeper and realize that Jesus wasn’t just the gardener, but Jesus was thee gardener.  

The Gardener by Joel Briggs
The great gardener, the one who has been gardening from day one, the one that gardened the world and the entire cosmos into existence, and has never stopped since the Earth took that first spin around the sun. The great gardener who wasn’t content to just throw some seeds and hope for the best but remains in our lives, tends to us, nourishes us, prunes us, loves us into more than we ever thought we could be. The great gardener who is always gardening no matter what we may be going through, no matter how angry us little jalapenos may be at times. That’s why all those moments in Jesus’ life took place in a garden, because no matter what we are going through God is always gardening! 

When life is challenging you the most, God is gardening new life into yours. When you feel all hope is lost, God is gardening new life into yours. When you are at your most spiteful, most rebellious of moods, God is gardening new life into yours. When you suffer the deepest losses, God is gardening new life into yours. When you are soaring through life’s highest highs, life’s greatest joys, God is gardening new life into yours. When anxiety takes hold, when depression takes hold, when despair takes hold, when fear takes hold, God is gardening new life into yours. And there is nothing, nothing, that you could ever do or say, that could make God ever stop wanting to garden new life into yours. Thanks be to God! Alleluia! Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Power Redefined: A Three-Part Sermon for The Three Days

Inspired by John 19:23-20:10 

Maundy Thursday

Over the course of these three nights, we will explore three distinct ways that Jesus defined power. Let’s get right to it. As I’ve mentioned before, these readings from the Gospel of John haven’t been matching up really well with the church calendar, or at least, not the way that we are used to. For instance, we’ve been reading the Maundy Thursday and Good Friday stories for weeks now, in what has become a very extended Holy Week. But as I’ve also mentioned, I hope you have appreciated the way that this has caused us to slow down and digest these readings in a deeper way.  

Tonight, we would typically be reading the account of Jesus washing his disciple's feet, but we read that a month ago. We would also be reading the new commandment that he gave us, the new mandate: to love one another as Jesus loved us. But instead, tonight we find ourselves at the foot of the cross already, which is pretty profound in and of itself.  

Meaning, even at this point of the story, Jesus never stops. Even from the cross, Jesus continues to work. Which is why I find this story to be just as relevant for Maundy Thursday as those that we would normally read. In fact, this story might even be more appropriate to read tonight. Let me explain. As Jesus is hanging on the cross, I imagine he looks over and sees some soldiers dividing his belongings among them. And I imagine him thinking to himself, “Well, isn’t that ironic. As I hang here multiplying my love for the entire world, they are busy dividing.” It reminds me of an old Family Circus comic strip where someone asked the mom as she stood there with her four kids, “How do you divide your love among four children?” And the mom says, “I don’t divide it. I multiply it.”  

That’s how I see Jesus in tonight’s reading. Hanging there on the cross, multiplying his love for all, while the world scrambles to divide what they can, of something they do not understand. How Maundy Thursday is that! It’s a power that they were unaccustomed to. And maybe us too. But his ability to multiply his power, while amazing, is not what redefines power here, it’s what he does with it, while hanging on that cross. After Jesus is done watching the soldiers make fools of themselves, he looks over and sees his mom, and his best friend standing nearby. I can only imagine the state she was in. Even if we believe that she understood what was transpiring, on a spiritual level, which I do, even still, that was her baby boy. And those of us who had good moms know, ain’t no one gets in the way of a mom and her baby! 

But this wasn’t Mary’s time to shine. She had done her job, and done it well. Even in the darkness of that night, Jesus still shines, Jesus still has work to do, Jesus never stops. And here is the first of three ways that Jesus redefines what power is supposed to look like. With blood running down his body, he looks at his mom, looks at his best friend, and gives them to each other, as mother and son, making sure that his mom is cared for in her old age, knowing full well the misogynistic society that they live in, and maybe also to make sure that someone will be there for his best friend, giving him the best mom anyone could ever ask for.  

That is how Jesus decided to spend his last remaining moments on earth, in the midst of horrific agony. And that is what power is supposed to look like. Selflessly caring for others, even during challenging times. Caring for the future of others, even when you won’t benefit from it. Caring for others is the first way that Jesus redefines power during these three days. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Good Friday

Jesus continues to redefine what power is supposed to look like as we make our way to the tomb. Last night, power looked like caring for others, even when the chips are down. Tonight, it looks like vulnerability. Now there’s a state of being that no one likes being in. And I don’t think many of us associate vulnerability with power very often, if ever. But I think we might be missing something when we don’t. If you were to ask random people to describe a power move, these new definitions that Jesus gave us would not make the list. Caring for others selflessly? How is that a power move? Being vulnerable, that sounds like the opposite of power, doesn’t it! Who likes to be vulnerable? Especially for us introverts, ugh, it’s one of the worst feelings in the world! Because you can’t be vulnerable alone. It requires another to see it. 
Come on Jesus, can’t I just be vulnerable all by myself? I promise I’ll get really good at it, if you just let me do it by myself! Jesus says, “I’m sorry but that’s not the way vulnerability works.” As Jesus hangs there for the world to watch, for the world to gawk, for the world to judge, for the world to misunderstand. No, being vulnerable takes more than one person. And that’s partly what makes it so powerful, but also because it’s unnecessary. You can go your whole life without being vulnerable. But think of it this way, what would your relationships be like without vulnerability? How deep, how rich, would your relationships be with both parties being vulnerable with each other? I’m guessing the answer is, not very.
So, what do I mean by being vulnerable? Well, it’s more than just admitting that you could succumb to disease, or die at any moment like the rest of us. No, those are just facts of nature. Those don’t take any work on anyone’s part. The kind of vulnerability I’m talking about is being open about your weaknesses, your faults, the things you don’t know, the things you don’t like that most people do, or just plain ol’ needing help, admitting you are at times, dependent on others. Jesus’ last words as he hung there from those ancient gallows were, “I am thirsty.” And, “It is completed.” Thirst is such a human condition. I imagine his enemies heard that and thought, “Pssshht, get a load of this guy. Mr. King of the Jews, Son of God! Can’t even get himself a drink now!” 
Do they help him out? No, they give him sour wine instead but that’s beside the point. Jesus redefines power by admitting a weakness, plain ol’ human thirst. When he had every right to yell at his accusers, scream from the top of his collapsing lungs just how evil they were, just how wrong they were. When, in any other story, he could have slung curses their way! I mean, this was his moment to say, “You’re all gonna regret this!” But instead, all we hear is a weak, “I am thirsty.” One of the things I’ve always appreciated about being in a Christian community is all the helping hands around you. There are always people willing to lend a helping hand when you need it the most. All my life I’ve had people around me saying, “If you ever need help, just let me know!” I love that.
But you know what will help people ask you for help even more than that? Asking for help yourself. Being vulnerable enough to ask for help yourself. For some reason, that’s just the way we humans work, isn’t it. It takes someone to start that vulnerable ball rolling. But once it does, others around you feel a little more empowered to ask for help when they need it. Think of it from a parenting perspective, if a parent wants to ensure their kids ask for help when they need it, then parents need to model that for them, parents need to show them what that looks like, and ask for help when they need it. 
It’s a role reversal, I know, especially when the parent is supposed to be the authority figure in power. But that’s exactly how I see Jesus’ last moments on the cross, exemplifying ultimate vulnerability, and the power that it can behold. So, the second way that Jesus redefines power this week is, vulnerability. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Vigil of Easter

Jesus continues to redefine what power looks like for us, in three distinct ways this week, as we now stand on the other side of the cross, at an empty tomb. On Maundy Thursday, power looked like caring for others selflessly, last night power looked like vulnerability, and tonight, power looks like humility. Our story opens early in the morning, so early it’s still dark, symbolizing that the truth of the resurrection is still hard to see for the characters in this story. I love how mysterious and quiet this story starts out. Mary Magdalene is the first one to show up at the tomb in those early morning hours. And what she finds horrifies her. The stone has been rolled away. She assumes the worst and she runs to tell Peter and another disciple, that Jesus’ body has been stolen. The two disciples take off to go see if what she’s saying is correct.
What they find is an opened tomb. Just like she said. They go in and find it empty except for the burial cloths. The author says that one of the disciples believed. But don’t be fooled into thinking this is some grand statement of faith. He simply believed that what Mary said was true. That the stone had been rolled away, and someone took his body. John makes clear that neither of them understood the resurrection at this point. And with that, the two disciples leave, while Mary stays behind to have an encounter like no other but that’s for tomorrow morning. In the meantime, here we are standing at an empty tomb. No one knows yet what really happened. All we have so far is an empty tomb and some bloodied linens. And this is what I find fascinating about that and why I associate this with humility.
In any other story of a God who dies and comes back to life, the part where they come back to life, would be loud. The whole world would hear it, everyone would know what was happening! There would be no confusion! There would be no mystery! There would be trumpets and angelic choirs and lightning and fireworks and thunderous applause! If this had been Zeus or Jupiter, oh, you better believe that everyone and their dog would have known they had risen! But, even now, after everything he’d just gone through, no one would argue that he had earned some fanfare here. Not to mention the fact that this could have been his great “I told you so!” moment! And yet, Christ rises so quietly, so unceremoniously, so humble. This is next-level humility. Christ remained just as humble as Christ was in life, even after death. This is not a savior whose resurrection went to his head!

This is a savior who continues to exemplify how we should live, how we should treat others, how we should practice our faith. This is a savior that continues to redefine what power should look like. Tell that to the politicians of our day. But it’s not just a lesson for them is it, but for all of us. We all exercise power of some kind, over others in our lives, and in these stories, I hear Christ reminding us to exercise it with humility; to exercise it with vulnerability; to exercise it by caring for others selflessly. I think this world has had enough of the usual kind of power. Amen? Thanks be to God through Christ, that we’ve been given a new example of power, and though it may not be very popular, it is what this world needs. Amen and Alleluia!


The Loneliest God

 Inspired by John 19:16-22

Welcome to Holy Week. These readings just seem to be getting heavier and heavier, don’t they. This year’s readings are making me reconsider whether Lent is my favorite season or not! Today is Palm Sunday, but in some churches, it’s known as Passion Sunday, coming from an old definition of the word passion meaning suffering. And in those churches, they read what we read on Good Friday, today. However, with the readings we have this year, today really is more like a Passion Sunday, rather than a Palm Sunday, but we’ll try to keep both in mind. God and I did a lot of arguing this week. Partly because I had a hard time figuring out what I wanted to do with this short story, and I didn’t really like the idea that kept coming to my mind. 

Not that it’s a bad idea, just so we’re clear, but it just seemed overly simplistic, too on the nose, too ordinary, not creative enough…ok, I was just waiting for some lightning. We must be good to go. I mean, we’re reading the most profound part of the Jesus story and I was trying to muster up something equally profound about it. But nothing was coming. So, I gave in, and decided to go with God’s idea. So here we go. I have something to play for you, it’s not a video this time though, it’s actually a sound. An extra star for anyone who can guess what this sound is...

Anyone have a guess? It’s the sound of a whale, but not just any whale. And not just any kind of whale. This is the sound of one very particular whale, that has come to be known as 52. I wish I had a picture of him but no one has ever seen him. The only way we know he exists is because of his unusual song. Why is it unusual? Because he sings at a frequency of 52 hertz, a frequency that no other whale sings at. Which means, his song can’t be heard by any other whale, but yet he continues to sing, waiting to connect with someone. 

He was discovered by the Navy toward the end of the cold war when they were searching for Soviet submarines, and scientists have been listening to him ever since. If you’re in the mood for a fantastic documentary, I highly recommend The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52 on Hulu. And if this is pulling at your heartstrings like it did me, there’s a bit of good news at the end but I don’t want to spoil anything. 

Can you imagine going through life with that level of loneliness? And whether or not that whale is actually lonely is up for debate but we humans surely would be. And I think most of us do have some experience with loneliness. Sometimes it’s very noticeable, like after a death or a breakup or a falling out with a friend. But then there are other kinds of loneliness. Like when you feel like you’re the only one that is experiencing what you are experiencing. Or the feeling that no one understands you. Or the feeling that people would judge you negatively if they knew the real you. All of those and more, even though you know they don’t make a whole lot of logical sense, can make you feel very lonely. 

One of the things that has helped me with those less noticeable kinds of loneliness is sharing. Either other people sharing their experiences, or myself sharing my own. Because what often happens, and I’m sure you’ve experienced this too, is as soon as one person opens up about something they’ve experienced, or something they think or believe about something, all of a sudden others speak up. Others no longer feel like they are the only ones who felt that way or who have experienced that. And it’s not that we really believe we’re the only ones who have gone through that or believe that. The aha moment, that brings you out of that kind of loneliness, is finding out just how many people believe the way you do, or have experienced what you have. 

Especially when talking about subjects that are still taboo in our society. For those of us who battle depression, of any kind, seasonal, conditional, occasional, or brought on by PTSD, we know that as soon as you mention it in conversation, the floodgates often open. Suicide is another one. For those of us who have had the unfortunate experience of suicide in our families, it can be an eye-opening experience to find out how many others have too. Sad yes, but the world feels a little less lonely after that first person is brave enough to share. It’s one of the things I love about how Bethlehem welcomes new members. It’s not about how much you know or learn, it’s about connecting with people, sharing our lives, walking with each other on the journey of faith. 

Ok, so why all this talk about loneliness and whales! Come on, you know me, you know I’m going somewhere with this! And some of you might have already started connecting the dots. One of the things I really like about Palm/Passion Sunday, is the stark contrast between Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and the events of Holy Week, both of which we got to read some of today. There are many contrasting elements to both events but the one that really sticks out is Jesus’ descent into being alone. We started outside by reading the Palm Sunday story, with all the fanfare and celebration, palms waving and red carpet dropping, singing, “Hosannah in the highest, blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” Jesus rides into Jerusalem for the last time in his life, like royalty, with crowds of supporters by his side. 

Fast-forward to our next reading, that I just read here inside, and Jesus is having a very different experience. The trial is now over, the sentence has been delivered: execution by crucifixion, and we open this scene with Jesus carrying his own cross. Now, John tells the story differently than the other three Gospel writers. Surprise, surprise. The other three all claim that a person by the name of Simon of Cyrene was ordered to help Jesus carry his cross. Now, there are a lot of scenes where it feels like John attempts to correct their mistakes, and this is one of them. Because the way John tells this story, Jesus carried the cross, by himself, as John says explicitly. And yes, that’s in the Greek, “by himself.” So, who was right? I mean, they can’t all be factual accounts. 

Either he had help carrying his cross or he didn’t. Either John has that fact correct or the other three did? Which is it? I’m sorry in advance if this is triggering for any of you but guess what? It doesn’t matter! Yes, one or more of them is wrong but that doesn’t mean that the Gospel or Gospels that got that factually wrong contain any less truth. Our Western minds just have a hard time differentiating facts from truth. Because all of our Gospel writers contain truth because all of them attempt present Jesus in the way that they believed would be most helpful, in the way that they believed would be the most life-giving. And sometimes, it’s helpful to have a Jesus that needed help as he carried his own torture device. John thought otherwise. 

Because sometimes we need Jesus to fall into the deepest depths of loneliness, without any helping hand, because so many of us have been there, and we need at least one person in our lives who has been there as well, who knows us, and sees us, and can empathize with us. I don’t know about you but I don’t need a God who feels sorry for me. I need a God who has been in my shoes, who can fit in my size elevens perfectly, and walks with me. So that at least with Christ, I don’t have to feel judged in my loneliness, shamed, misunderstood, or alone. 

However, I don’t think that work is up to Christ alone to accomplish. We too can provide that answer to loneliness for people, as we courageously share our lives with others, in the hopes of making their lives a little less lonely. As we continue to sing the song of our lives, just like 52, waiting for someone to finally respond with, me too. In the meantime, thanks be to Christ for walking in our shoes, all of our shoes, in all of our sizes, in all of our styles, so that Christ can always say to us, me too, you’re not alone. Thanks be to God. Amen.