Friday, June 17, 2011

I received an invitation this week to a new exhibit opening at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The exhibit is called, “Rembrandt and the face of Jesus”. What caught my attention was one of the pieces on display: Christ as a Gardener Appearing to Mary Magdalene. In the painting, Jesus is shown as a gardener, with a big gardener’s hat and a spade. Rembrandt based his painting from an account in the Gospel of John.
You remember the story: Mary finds the stone rolled away from the tomb, and as she turns from it, weeping, Jesus is standing there waiting for her. Jesus asks Mary, “Woman, why are you weeping?” and as the story goes, Mary begins to tell him that someone has stolen Jesus. Mary says this to Jesus himself, because she has mistaken him for the gardener. That passage got me thinking about a few things. About faith. About expectations. About gardeners. It occurs to me that most encounters people have with their faith—at least the encounters that are worthwhile—are those that happen in a way that are different from what we expect and often different from what we are able to understand. I would argue that, as a general rule, the encounters we have with faith that are different from what we expect, the ones that make us stop and think, the ones that are difficult to understand—these are the experiences that are actually the most helpful to us. These are the encounters that help us to grow. This shouldn’t be too foreign an idea. Psychologists suggest that it is in encountering something new and uncomfortable that we are most likely to grow.
There is a lot we don’t understand in these resurrection stories. Clearly there is a lot that the disciples don’t understand either. Mostly they’re just caught by surprise; Mary is a representative for them all, mistaking Jesus to be the gardener. In the midst of all of these unanswered questions, it occurs to me that if this is supposed to be a story about how Jesus is raised from the dead, it’s a strange kind of story. So I started thinking about something else. I started thinking, about gardening.
Alex Trebek, the host of Jeopardy, is a gardener. I know this only because, A.J. Jacobs, an author I love to read, interviewed Trebek and wrote an account of it in one of his books. A.J. is a very smart guy, and he loves trivia, so he tells a great story about how excited he was when Esquire magazine sent him out to California to interview Alex Trebek. A.J. figured that interviewing the host of Jeopardy would be one of the best possible opportunities to go head-to-head with someone who really knows a lot of trivia and see if he could keep up—or prove that he knew even more. A.J. writes that he was sure Trebek would be arrogant and hyper intellectual, quick to prove how smart he was; A.J. was all geared up for a know-it-all showdown with Trebek. And so he was taken by surprise when the stone-faced host of Jeopardy turned out to be a kind, easygoing, regular guy, a pleasure to interview, and even highly emotional in his thoughts on life. I could tell you a lot of stories about people who turn out to be different than we expect. But the reason I chose this one is because of the way A.J.’s story begins. When he arrived at Alex Trebek’s house, he was told that he would find Alex outside. It’s a big backyard, and A.J. finds a number of men, stooped down, working. He walks around, asking them, “Have you seen Alex Trebek; I’m looking for Alex Trebek. Donde esta Alex Trebek?” Suddenly one of those gardeners stands up and turns around and says, “You’ve found him.” The whole story of A.J. being taken by surprise begins when A.J. mistakes Alex Trebek for the gardener (The Know-It-All, pp. 99–101).
I read this story a few weeks ago, and I thought of it again on Easter because of that one line in the Gospel of John that caught my attention: Mary Magdalene mistakes Jesus for the gardener. Now the story about Jesus and the one about Alex Trebek have little in common, but for some reason it just caught my attention that in both cases, a well-told story about surprise and growth and understanding begins with a gardener.
I come from a long line of gardeners. I know that a garden is a place where we have a general idea of what to do, but we still wrestle with unknowns. How much will it rain this year? Will the bugs or the birds or the rabbits or the deer find their way in? How long will this patch of dirt be fertile? How long until that tree gets too tall and blocks out the sun. It’s in the midst of those unknowns, those moments of not quite knowing where things are headed, that a gardener labors, and most of the time, by the grace of God, something grows, even though we never quite wrestle nature to the ground. Most avid gardeners will tell you that the real joy of gardening is in that struggle with nature that you never completely figure out. Thomas Jefferson, in his later years, used to say, “Though an old man, I am but a young gardener.”
There’s something poetic about mistaking Jesus for the gardener. We don’t understand, we’re not yet fully grown, but Jesus is cultivating something within us. He’s raising up within us the ability to be and do something different, to see and take part in something even though we don’t fully understand. It’s my hunch that the point of all of this is that there are a lot of things about how the resurrection took place that we’re not supposed to figure out. It’s contrary to the way the Bible tells the story of the resurrection to expect to understand it. The people who were there don’t understand it; why should we? But look at what happens to the people who encounter the risen Jesus.
The end of the story fascinates me because there John seems to come right out and say that we don’t need to understand everything about the resurrection. John admits that he could tell us much, much more, but he chooses not to because he has told us enough. Enough to surprise us, enough to disturb us, enough to cause us to grow. Enough to give us peace. And so I close with John’s conclusion: Now, Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing, you may have life in his name.

No comments:


TWELFTH NIGHT/EPIPHANY      I read this line in a interview with Christian Wiman in Christianity Today:   "Jurgen Mol...