Sermon Preached on July 21, 2019 – Pentecost +6
By The Rev. Anne C. Fowler
St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, Yarmouth, ME
“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.” Jesus said to her, “Mary! John 20:14
You noticed, I hope, that I read a different Gospel from the one in the insert. Tomorrow is the feast day of Mary Magdalene and I decided to celebrate her rather than Mary and Martha, the yin and yang sisters. I didn’t get to Meredith in time for the bulletin, so please bear with me.
We know Rudyard Kipling by the Just So stories but he wrote adult literature as well. One of his stories concerns Helen Turrell, a British maiden lady who takes over the upbringing of a nephew after his father dies in India by falling off a horse, and whose mother is incapable of raising the boy. He grows up to be an admirable and loveable young man. Instead of going off to Oxford, he enlists in the army in the Great War. He is killed after the Armistice, breaking his aunt’s heart. Kipling writes:
Then there came to her, as next of kin, an official intimation, backed by a page of a letter to her in indelible pencil, a silver identity-disc and a watch, to the effect that the body of Lieutenant Michael Turrell had been found, identified, and re-interred in Hagenzeele Third Military Cemetery – the letter of the row and the grave’s number in that row duly given.
So Helen decides to go to France and visit his grave.
Helen walked alone to Hagenzeele Third. The place was still in the making, and stood some five or six feet above the metalled road, which it flanked for hundreds of yards. Culverts across a deep ditch served for entrances through the unfinished boundary wall. She climbed a few woodenfaced earthen steps and then met the entire crowded level of the thing in one held breath. She did not know that Hagenzeele Third counted twenty-one thousand dead already. All she saw was a merciless sea of black crosses, bearing little strips of stamped tin at all angles across their faces. She could distinguish no order or arrangement in their mass; nothing but a waist-high wilderness as of weeds stricken dead, rushing at her. She went forward, moved to the left and the right hopelessly, wondering by what guidance she should ever come to her own. A great distance away there was a line of whiteness. It proved to be a block of some two or three hundred graves whose headstones had already been set, whose flowers were planted out, and whose new-sown grass showed green. Here she could see clear-cut letters at the ends of the rows, and, referring to her slip, realized that it was not here she must look.
A man knelt behind a line of headstones – evidently a gardener, for he was firming a young plant in the soft earth. She went towards him, her paper in her hand. He rose at her approach and without prelude or salutation asked: “Who are you looking for?”
“Lieutenant Michael Turrell – my nephew”, said Helen slowly and word for word, as she had many thousands of times in her life.
The man lifted his eyes and looked at her with infinite compassion before he turned from the fresh-sown grass toward the naked black crosses.
“Come with me”, he said, “and I will show you where your son lies.”
When Helen left the Cemetery she turned for a last look. In the distance she saw the man bending over his young plants; and she went away, supposing him to be the gardener.
Supposing him to be the gardener. This gospel appears in the post-Easter lectionary. It means to convey, as many of Jesus’ resurrection appearances do, that the Risen Christ is both the same and different from the earthly Jesus. His closest companions do not recognize him right away.
At my parish in Boston, one Eastertide after I had read and preached on this Gospel, Jeff, my subdeacon of the day, reached out a hand and touched me on the shoulder. “You are my gardener,” he whispered. One of the most profound and moving things anyone has ever said to me.
And who was I to him? Well, when he was looking for an Episcopal parish, he wrote to every church within a 30-minute drive from his house –and in Boston, there were plenty. He explained that he’d been a candidate for ordination in Rhode Island and been rejected, that he and his partner (eventually husband) were adopting a boy from Guatemala and needed a place to worship and to have their new son baptized. Only two wrote back, one to say that his family would probably “not be comfortable there.” The other was me, who according to Jeff, wrote, “10:30 work for you?”
When Jeff and Paul came for their initial visit, I asked Jeff, “So when are you getting back into the ordination process?” They both looked like scared rabbits.
And a year or so later when Jeff emailed and said “I’d like to talk about ordination, I wrote back, “I’ve been waiting for this for a long time.”
I never doubted for a moment that Jeff would be an extraordinary priest, and he is. All he needed was to be recognized, and in that sense he got the analogy wrong; I was the Magdalene who recognized him as a priest, a representative of the Risen Christ.
Only one time in our relationship do I think the balance flipped. Several years later, Jeff’s husband Paul fell ill with a raging leukemia. His life hung in the balance. Jeff called me one morning – I can remember exactly where I was sitting when I got his call – terrified and crying. “I can’t do it without Paul,” he kept saying. “I can’t raise Ardani by myself. I can’t do it.”
Afterwards I couldn’t remember what I had said. But the bishop called later that day and said, “I hear you dragged Jeff back from the edge of the cliff.” “Well good,” I said, “my usual M.O. is to push them over.”
Apparently what I said to Jeff, over and over, was “you can and you will if you have to. You can and you will if you have to.”
And that, although it was nowhere near my consciousness as I inelegantly encouraged Jeff, that is the message the Risen Christ gives to his disciples, and gives to us as disciples also, whenever our Christian calling seems too difficult, too overwhelming. “You can and you will if you have to.”
We can and we will and we have to. Alleluia! Amen.