THE LATE FLOWERING MAGNOLIA

EASTER SUNDAY
APRIL 23, 2000
R.M. FEWKES

In the Johannine account of the resurrection the story is related that Jesus first appeared to Mary Magdalene outside the tomb and that she mistook him for the gardener. When she recognizes him Jesus tells her not to touch him because he had not yet ascended to the Father. Whether you take this story to be fact or fiction, myth or history, or both, it still has a message for us living today. That Jesus is mistook for the gardener has interesting symbolic significance because gardeners help to make things grow and blossom and come to life.

One of my favorite Easter stories is one related to me by Elizabeth Tarbox some seven or so years ago. She got it from her former husband Charles who found it in a London newspaper. It is a true account. It was not intended to be an Easter story, but when I heard it from Elizabeth’s lips I immediately felt the symbolic connection to the Easter/Spring tradition of death, rebirth and resurrection. It is all about a gardener and how he helped a flower bloom. Here’s the story.

In April 1993, at Yamaguchi University, in Japan, a flower bloomed. A magnolia. What made this one so special was that it grew from a seed 2,300 years old. The seed was found 11 years before in an ancient tomb near Hiroshima. It had been harvested and buried in the tomb three centuries before the birth of Jesus, during the lifetime of Aristotle. Professor Hiroshi Utsonomiya soaked it in water, sowed it with loving care, and nature took its course. The seed sprouted and grew, and became a tree 7 feet tall. A year and a half later, in the fall, it grew several buds, and the following April one of them flowered, a delicate white bloom with eight petals, each two and a half inches long and one inch wide. Through centuries of waiting in the tomb this small brown seed held on to its secret of life, keeping its genetic code intact against the uncertainty of the ages. No seed had ever survived intact for so long and then yielded its astonishing and mysterious gift of life.

Think of it, that seed survived the millennia, in spite of the passage of time and the arrival and departure of civilizations. The building up and tearing down actions of human beings and the effects of wind and water and sunlight upon the earth all those hundreds of years had not disturbed the seed lying quietly, sleeping and waiting in the darkened tomb. It is a story of life in the midst of death. The seed was buried and lay forgotten by humankind, but not forgotten by creation itself. It still carried the potential to become a late flowering magnolia. With all our science we do not really understand what causes life. That little seed is full of mystery for us because we don't know everything there is to know. It is a miracle because we do not understand it, it amazes us in its complexity, but it does not defy nature's laws. Mystery that it is, the resurrection of the seed was in keeping with the order of things.

Perhaps that seed held on in the tomb because it still had a mission to fulfill. Author, Richard Bach, says, "Here's a way to find out if your work on earth is finished - if you are alive it isn't." The seed hung on because it had not yet fulfilled its mission: the code, the recipe not only for its blossoming, but for its reproduction, the means of its survival as a species remained packed into that small seed, unfinished, ready, waiting.

One cannot resist looking at this story of the 2,300 year old seed as a metaphor for Easter and for our own longing and waiting for resurrection and renewal of the life that is in us. How many of us can recognize ourselves in the story of the seed waiting, waiting for the gardener who will hold us in skilled and caring hands and bring us to life again. Mary mistook Jesus for the gardener, a natural mistake. He had not yet ascended. But 2,000 years later, though they buried his body in a tomb, his life and spirit and teachings have ascended and survived the millennia. In truth, Jesus was the gardener, the gardener of his own soul. He had a mission to fulfill as a prophet of a new kingdom of love and justice, mercy and forgiveness, on earth as it is in heaven. His death became a myth of a dying and rising god, but greater than his death and the myth is the spirit of his life and teachings which have continued to flower, and have planted their seeds in our culture and consciousness.

The continuing message for us in these latter days is that like Jesus we too must become the gardeners of our own souls. If you are alive that is a clear message that your work on earth is not yet finished. There is a seed waiting in the tomb of your buried consciousness, waiting to become a late flowering magnolia. Our resurrection is both a journey inward and outward, inward to the ancient longing for love hemmed in by fear and disappointment, hurt and anger, and outward to the claim of love and mercy which others have upon us. Somewhere we learn that love isn't love until you give it away. We learn this in relation to others. We learn it when we choose to become part of a spiritual community that asks us to risk faith and hope and love in relation to one another and in covenanted mission to those in need. We must be both seed and gardener to ourselves and for others. That is the continuing mission of Jesus on earth and our mission as well whether we choose to call ourselves Christian or not.

There are no guarantees in this business of living and learning and loving. There will be more hurts and disappointments along the way, but there is no end to the human longing for love, and so long as we draw the breath of life we have a mission to fulfill. Indeed, there is a late flowering magnolia waiting to blossom forth in your life and consciousness. If you look in the mirror you might mistake yourself for the gardener. Make no mistake about it. You are.

In closing I would like to suggest to you that in Easters yet to come you as a congregation must become the gardeners of the collective soul of this gathered community. First Parish Norwell has endured for 358 years and been a source of spiritual resurrection and renewal for many congregations past and present. I have had the honor and pleasure of being the minister here for 31 of those 358 years. My ministry began on Holy Week 1969 and my first Sunday service was on Easter. Whatever accomplishements I may have achieved in those three plus decades they will live on in you the people of the First Parish Unitarian Church in Norwell. Three hundred fifty-eight years is not too old for this congregation to become a late flowering magnolia. You have done it for 27 ministries over three and a half centuries and you can do it again, and you will.

Blessed Spirit of Creation, give us the courage to enter the tomb of our own souls, to bring to life within us the buried hopes and dreams for love and mercy, meaning and joy, that only a congregation committed to the journey of the Spirit can bring to life. Help us to find the seed buried in the darkness of our fears and failures, to water and nurture its growth and unfolding, and to wait patiently for the flowering of delicate white blossoms seeking the sun. So be it. Amen.