“Redeeming Death” – Ryan Koch – March 27, 2016



Let us pray: O Lord, our God. We give you thanks that we may celebrate Easter together. We give you thanks because you are such an inconceivably great, holy, and merciful God. When we rejected, condemned, and killed your dear Son, you used this horror to bring about peace for us and for all the world. You have raised him from death and the tomb, as an eternal testimony that you are not against us but for us, no matter how fallen we are. We give thanks that we, the undeserving, today may preach and hear this word of Easter.

And now be here in our midst! Grant that your word be rightly preached and rightly heard. Lead us to you, and to one another, so that we may freely and openly love you as you love us. Amen.


This morning I’d like to begin by telling a contemporary Easter story – the Story of Anathoth community gardens – to help us see how God is still at work redeeming death and bringing forth life.

The story of Anathoth Community Garden begins like the story of Easter, with a story of a murder. On a June afternoon, Bill King was closing up his shop in the small town of Cedar Grove in rural North Carolina when someone walked through the door and shot him in the back of the head. A few years earlier, Bill and his wife, Emma, bought a little bait and tackle grocery store which, at the time, was a haven for crack dealers. The first thing Bill and Emma did was to clean up the store. They asked the dealers to leave. And it didn’t take long before parents were bringing their children there for ice cream; neighborhood kids rode their bikes down for soda. And when people couldn’t pay, Bill would let them take food on credit. However, whatever sense of safety this little farming community of Cedar Grove had enjoyed before that afternoon in June, that one trigger pull completely shattered it. The people of this small rural town were angry and afraid.

Valee Taylor, a black man and a friend of Bill’s was just plain angry. Several weeks after the murder, he visited Grace Hackney, the pastor of Cedar Grove United Methodist Church, to talk about what the community should do. At that time, it was extremely rare for a black man to set food in a white church in Cedar Grove, but Valee and Grace had become friends after meeting in the post office one afternoon. Valee knew he couldn’t just sit around and do nothing. So he visited Grace and asked if they could put out a reward, but Grace had another idea – a prayer vigil.

If you ever have a chance to visit Anathoth Gardens, you will quickly notice that the town of Cedar Grove is no bigger than a church, a post office, and a stoplight. However, on the day of the prayer vigil in the parking lot of Bill’s store, over one hundred people attended. To hear Valee tell it, that afternoon was a sort of mystical experience. “The sunlight was shining down on us, the air was crisp, there was a light breeze. Here were blacks and whites together praying for peace in the community.” One of those in attendance was Valee’s mother, Scenobia Taylor, a fifth-generation African-American descendant of sharecroppers and daughter of the man who was once the largest landowner in Orange County. Scenobia had experienced a lot of racial hatred during her life. Crosses had been burned in her front yard and gun shots fired at her and other children during school integration efforts. But at the vigil, she saw a new, racially reconciled community being born. After the murder, as she tells it, God told her in a dream to give five acres of her land to the community. She felt that somehow this land would help heal the community’s wounds. But to whom would she give it?

At the same time, Cedar Grove UMC was partaking in conversations about faith and the land, calling them “Food-Faith-Farm.” Much of the land surrounding Cedar Grove is former tobacco land that currently lies fallow. So the people began to wonder, couldn’t some of that land be used to grow food for people who need it? And if the church’s mission is to practice reconciliation, doesn’t that include mending the relationship with the land? When Scenobia heard the conversations that were happening at a local church, she knew her dream had been prophetic. She donated the five acres to Cedar Grove United Methodist Church. The Anathoth Community Garden was born.


My friend, Fred Bahnson, was overtaken by this woman’s courageous act of generosity. He and his wife live on a small sustenance farm near Cedar Grove, and Fred actually quit his job so that he could serve as the garden manager and help get this crazy vision off the ground. During the early days, there were not very many people supportive of starting this community garden. Perhaps the most vocal opposition came from Scenobia’s own extended family. They wanted to know why a black family would give five acres of prime road frontage to a white church. But those on the receiving end of the gift weren’t all that excited either. The land on which the garden sits is just a mere quarter mile down the road from where Bill King was murdered. People were afraid that the murderer might come around the garden. And within a few miles of the garden there are several known crack houses. Some folks worried that their vegetables and tools would be stolen. Others asked why the church would ever consider building a garden down there. They wanted to build a garden in a safer part of town where more of the whites lived. But Fred, Valee, Scenobia, and Grace knew that this was exactly where God wanted them to build the garden. For God was going to use the murder of Bill King as a way of bringing reconciliation and redemption to this small community.

The first season at the Gardens proved that they were right. That season turned out to be a smashing success. For whatever reason, the garden just wouldn’t stop producing. They harvested squash, beans, lettuce and peas, a whopping 750 pounds of potatoes, cucumbers, basil, and okra. The garden produced far more food than its members could use, so they just started delivering the food to needy families throughout the Cedar Grove community. This act only encouraged more low income families and minorities to join the Anathoth gardens. After that first year it wasn’t just black and whites working together in the garden. There were Chinese farmers, refugees from Iran, and native Americans who wanted to support the garden’s vision.

Within a few years those five acres of community gardening weren’t enough. There were so many helping hands of rich and poor, black and white from that small community who wanted to support the vision and redeem Bill’s death that they had to buy a second farm. They had to purchase a thirty three acre farm which is just down the road from the original garden site. Today they have a solar hoop house to extend the growing season. And a forest garden and a foreign plants garden. In everything they do, distances between people are being bridged. And this is only possible because a few people wanted to redeem the murder of Bill King. As Fred loves to say, on special days, the garden offers everyone a “taste of heaven.”


The remarkable story of Anathoth Community Gardens reminds us this morning of what Easter is all about. It is about God over-accepting death; God refusing to allow it to have the last word, and thus, allowing for new life to flourish instead.

I think we best see this purpose in the interesting interaction between Mary and the misrecognized stranger at the tomb site.

Our Gospel text opens with Mary Magdalene heading to Jesus’ tomb while it is still dark. While she left very early on Easter morning, darkness also describes the state of Mary’s soul. The dark night of Good Friday lingers in her mind and body – the trauma of extinguished hope; the loss of a best friend; the haunting images of torture. At the crucifixion of Jesus, the soldier’s spear also pierced her heart. So she heads to the tomb to weep. At least when she weeps, she feels alive. Those tears remind her that somewhere, deep inside, something still lives.

When she reaches the empty tomb, the unimaginable has occurred. The stone has been rolled away and the cave is empty. And now not only is Jesus dead, but there is also no body to visit, no place to go and mourn, no sacred site to aid her as she tries to work through her loss. No closure, just an empty tomb.

After the disciple’s confirm Mary’s report, they head back home. There is no use sticking around. However, Mary can’t leave. At this point, the darkness is binding. Weeping, she gazes into the tomb. She sees angels. But even their presence cannot convince her that the body of Jesus is anything but stolen. She says to the angels, “They have taken my Lord away.” Not even the appearance of the angels awakens the thought of something miraculous. The empty tomb is nothing but a sign of death, of hopelessness, of theft.


We know what happens next. The risen Christ appears to Mary, but the darkness is so binding that even when she sees Jesus, she doesn’t really see him. Maybe the tears were still streaming down her face, completely blurring her vision. Maybe her soul was so dark, that all hope had been extinguished and she couldn’t dare to imagine her friend’s return. But maybe there is more to this misrecognition of Jesus. This is John’s Gospel after all. And John loves to make every word matter.

Do you remember who Mary believes Jesus to be on that Easter morning? John tells us that Mary supposes Jesus to be the gardener. And I can’t help but think that Jesus’ mistaken identity was intentional. That Jesus purposefully disguised himself to look this way.

Here at the tomb, at the site of darkness, death, and destruction, Jesus shows up as a gardener. Of course, this image harkens us back to Genesis, back to a world before death, when the created order flowed freely, when humankind had not yet mucked up God’s creation. It brings us back to God walking in the garden in the cool of day. But more than this, God shows up as a gardener because gardeners are people who get their hands dirty in order to bring forth life and beauty into this world. Gardeners are people who see death not only as an end, but they also view it as an opportunity, as a new beginning, as a chance for redemption. Gardeners are people who redeem death.

And so, Jesus shows up to the space of death as a gardener, to help us see that tombs need not only be signs of darkness and decay, they can also be opportunities for new life and joy. On Easter morning, the tomb is also a garden. The tomb becomes a womb for new life. This space which once represented death now also becomes a space of beauty which reminds us that a new world is possible, that hope hasn’t been extinguished. That death doesn’t have the last word. And that darkness will never completely overcome us. For Jesus, the gardener, is at work in the world redeeming our spaces of death into spaces of life.


The glory of the resurrection takes place at a tomb. At a place where evil seems victorious. Where death appears to have the last word. The glory of the resurrection happens at a place without hope. At a place which only knows tears. The resurrection happens here so that in the daylight, the light of Christ’s redemption, we may learn to see how tombs are also gardens. The seed of resurrection is sown in a tomb. Mary finds God’s resurrected love when she weeps at the tomb. Or, perhaps, it is best to say, that it is at the tomb that Jesus finds her.

And this means that the Easter story asks us a question: “Will we go to the tombs? Will we cry with Mary so that we can also hear God call us by name?” The glory of the resurrection takes place at a tomb. Will we go there? Will we go to the spaces of death which exist all around us? To the places where it seems that evil has won and all hope has gone? Will we dare to venture to these places and let God show us, with Easter’s sunlight – how that place can also become God’s garden where resurrection blooms, where love calls us by name and turns us around to meet him in each other? Will we be gardeners like Jesus who tend to these spaces of death so that they might be transformed into spaces of life?

Fred, Valee, Grace, and Scenobia understood quite well that our God is a gardener who loves to create life and beauty out of nothing, out of spaces of death. They believed the murder of Bill King need not have the final word. That his tomb might also become a womb for new life and reconciliation in their broken and fragmented community. Even when all the forces of the world told them not to, they dared to venture to his tomb and let God show them how it might become a garden. And today it is a place where resurrection blooms.


All this preaching about the resurrected Jesus as a gardener, about the tomb becoming a womb for new life, and the Anathoth gardens in North Carolina has got me thinking this week about the compost piles in my yard. Now Stephanie and I aren’t great composters. We don’t have a garden, so we don’t really put our piles to good use. They are pretty much just glorified waste heaps for our leaves, our rotten fruits and vegetables, and our heaps of tea leaves.

A few months ago in that compost pile, we found a beautiful large plant growing out of the side. Stephanie likes to think that it was a Brussel Sprout. I have absolutely no idea what it was. But somehow a seed must have gotten into that decomposing trash heap of death and out of that pile of death something beautiful blossomed. Out of that tomb came a garden. And that flower reminded me that the secret to life is in the compost. In our decomposing trash. Resurrected life, unexpectedly and surprisingly, blossoms amid the manure, the waste pile, and the places where we have thrown our unwanted fruit and gifts. Our God is a gardener transforming tombs into wombs for new life.

But to see this resurrected life, we have to spend time in the compost around us. We have to become familiar with it. We have to dig into these smelly and mucky spaces of death to work with God in redeeming all that is unwanted and forgotten and dismissed. We have to travel to the places we’d rather not step into with our clean, white shoes, without spot or wrinkle. Left to ourselves, we’d rather not get our hands dirty. We’d rather live without our compost—make it go way, export it to far off places, out of sight, out of mind. But it is amid our compost, our discarded waste, that God’s resurrected life can be found.

Resurrection comes to to those who wait in the darkness of the tomb where there is no way out. That is where our hope can be found. God, the gardener, is still speaking out of tombs which are all around us. Will we dare to go and recognize him?


At the tomb, Jesus appears as a stranger. But the tomb is also a garden.