On Easter Sunday

Sermon for Easter, 2015
John 20:1-18

This morning’s sermon is going to take us to three places: present-day Cuba, interstate 90 between here and Rochester, New York, and Whitehall Chapel in 17th century London.   Let’s begin with present-day Cuba.

This past December, as I was packing for a trip to Rochester to visit my mother, who was dying of cancer, the news broke that the United States had restored diplomatic relations with Cuba.  My memories went back to better times, to the trip that Ashley and I made to Cuba about ten years ago.  We were able to get in on a religious visa through a church connection.   It was an amazing trip, and some of my favorite memories are of the music.  OMG, the music was fabulous!  It was like being on the set of “Buena Vista Social Club.”  Rhythms as only Cubans can do rhythm.  Driving bass riffs that beckoned – compelled! – people out of their seats.  Sultry – or, dare I say it in church on Easter, “sexy” – vocals that ravished the ears.  And wild improvisations by brass or winds that soared overhead like ecstatic geese.   I’d never heard anything like it.

It was this music that led me later in our trip to break the law (which is not hard to do in Cuba…)  Wandering about in Old Havana near the cathedral, street vendors approached us to ask if we wanted to buy CD’s of Cuban music.  They showed us their collection of disks, which looked all alike because they had no markings on them – I assumed they were pirated.  “There’s great music on here,” the vendors assured us.  We looked over our shoulders, bought the CD’s, and stuffed them deep into our backpacks.  On the trip home we stuffed them deep into our suitcases, where they managed to pass through multiple customs checks(!).  When we got to the house, we popped them into our CD player…  and there was some of the amazing music we had heard in Cuba.

As I was packing for my drive to Rochester, I grabbed the one CD I could find and threw it into my duffel. I hadn’t listened to this CD for years, and my Spanish was never good enough to pick up the lyrics.   But about three hours into my drive (here’s where we go to interstate 90) having listened all the way through the CD twice, I started to catch some words.  “Mi alma” and “mi Corazon” – “my soul” and “my heart.”   “Hermosa” and “flores” – “beautiful” and “flowers.”  “Ojos” and “labios” – “eyes,” “lips.”  And in some of the slower numbers, “el dolor” and “sufrimiento” – pain and suffering.

I was dumbfounded.  From the heart of an oppressive, communist regime that builds unbelievably ugly buildings, came songs that were not only extremely playful, but – from what I could tell – were primarily about love.

As I drove along interstate 90, the tune that stuck in my mind and that I played again and again was Jardinero de Amor “The Gardener of Love.”   The lyrics go like this:

Si yo fuera jardinero,
Cultivara por siempre una hermosa flor.
Cultivara una gardenia perfumada,
Perfumada con el ansia de mi amor.

“If I were a gardener, all I would do is grow beautiful flowers, gardenias perfumed with the longing of my love.”

And the refrain:
Jardinero soy, que gardenias cultivo para toda la vida entregar a mi Corazon.
“I am a gardener, and all I do is grow gardenias to give to my love.”

Christ and St Mary Magdalen at the Tomb, by Rembrandt

As I listened, I couldn’t help but think of Easter.  I couldn’t help but think of Easter not only because of my mother and Easter’s promise of resurrection, but also because of the Easter Gospel in which Mary mistakes Jesus for the gardener.

She turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus.  Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?  Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”

It’s a beautiful story, with emotion and drama and a case of mistaken identity all condensed into a few verses.  In a way, Mary’s first hunch about Jesus is true; Jesus is a gardener.  Listen to these words from a famous sermon preached by Bishop Lancelot Andrewes on Easter in 1620, a sermon for which I believe King James I was present.  (This is our visit to Whitehall Chapel in 17th century London):

Yet Mary did not mistake in taking [Jesus] for a gardener… For in a sense… Christ may well be said to be a gardener.

Andrewes points out that not only did Christ as God plant the Garden of Eden but…

He it is that gardens our souls too, and makes them, as the prophet Jeremiah saith,  “like a well-watered garden;” weeds out of them whatsoever is noisesome and unsavory, sows and plants them with true roots and seeds of righteousness, waters them with the dew of his grace, and makes them bring forth fruit to eternal life.

I love Lancelot Andrewes, but he is rather stuffy and “King James.”  Had Andrewes been to Cuba, he might have said not merely that Jesus is a gardener, but, that Jesus is “El Jardinero de amor.”  I think Andrewes would have preached about music.  Music with rhythm as only Cubans can do rhythm.  Music with a driving bass.  Music with sultry – dare he say it in church on Easter, with the King present? – “sexy” vocals that ravish the ear.  Perhaps Andrewes might have said:

Yet Mary did not mistake in taking [Jesus] for a gardener…  For in a sense… Jesus is “El Jardinero de amor,” the gardener of love.  All Jesus wants to do is to grow beautiful flowers, flowers perfumed with the longing of his love. For you. “That’s all I want because I love you,” saith the Lord.   “You are all I want all the time.  Will you let me till your soul, to weed out whatever is noisesome and unsavory, to plant flowers, gardenias perfumadas, and water them with the dew of my grace, that you may bloom and bring forth fruit unto eternal life?”

Had he visited Cuba, I think that’s what Andrewes might have preached.

I don’t know if you can smell them from where you are, but up here I can smell the lilies.  It’s the smell of Easter.  When you come forward to receive communion, maybe let the smell remind you that “whoever eats this bread will live forever,” and that Jesus will raise up on the last day all the faithful departed.  When you drink the cup, maybe let this smell remind you that you are taking in pure love; love for you just as you are, love that recognizes what you yet can be.  Maybe let the smell of these flowers remind you of the “gardener” who wants nothing more than to be let in and to till your soul, to there grow beautiful flowers perfumed with the longing of his love.  For you.


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