The Rev. George Detweiler
It’s the time of year for pruning. Most plants have budded already, so we can see where the new growth is taking place and there are dead branches that are not producing any new growth.
The hard winter and it took its toll on the plants. My daughter’s rhododendron are in bad shape–more dead branches than live ones. All that will have to be pruned away. The hydrangeas and the clematis have all needed a lot of pruning.
Pruning is essential for most plants to stay healthy. Without it, disease can enter the plant through its dead branches. Regularly pruned plants are stronger, grow more robustly, and have larger flowers or fruit.
Pruning is an expression of caring on the part of the plant owner, but I doubt the plants see it that way. If the owner didn’t care about the plants, he or she wouldn’t bother with pruning because pruning is painful for the plant. In fact, the “plants’ rights” people tell us that plants cry out in pain when they are cut. But pruning is still in the best interests of the plant: it makes it healthier, stronger, more resilient.
As a lover of plants, it is the verse about pruning that always attracts my attention in today’s gospel. “He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.”
The branches that are dead are cut off and burned, we are told, but those that produce growth and fruit are pruned to focus them on their purpose: producing fruit. Jesus is using grape vines as his metaphor. I have never grown them, but I do know that if grape vines are not pruned severely at the beginning of the growing season, they will produce lots of vines and very few puny grapes.
People who grow tomatoes know the importance of pruning them. The suckers that grow between the main stem and the first branches have to be removed regularly; otherwise one ends up with lots of plant and greenery but little fruit.
It is easy to distort this image of pruning. We can do that by assuming that every bad thing that happens to us is really God’s pruning. There are people who believe that and who will tell us that. The problem with that way of thinking is that it does not take evil as a power opposed to God and God’s will very seriously.
I do not believe that God is responsible for people being murdered or dying at an early age. I do not believe that it was God’s will for my sister to die at age thirteen or for my mother to develop Alzheimer’s Disease. If God’s will was always accomplished in the present the world, would be perfect now. We would not need to wait for the end of the world and the resurrection of the dead for the revelation of what is perfect.
Some years ago a friend traveled to Delaware after one of our snow storms. Down there, it had been an incredible ice storm instead. My friend was shocked by what she saw: all the trees chopped off about twenty feet above the ground, as if some enormous lawn mower had gone through the area, indiscriminately cutting off everything at the same level.
This is an extreme form of Nature’s pruning, but it is not what Jesus means when he uses the imagery of pruning for one of the ways God deals with us.
Pruning, as Jesus describes it, is what happens after the storm. It is the clearing away of the debris, removing the broken branches, making the breaks clean so that the plant can be renewed and thrive.
The biblical scholar Walter Wink says:”Pruning is not to be confused with the tragedies that overtake us; it has more to do with clearing away the debris they leave behind.” (Christian Century, April 20, 1994, p. 413)
He continues: “Patrons of modern supermarket spiritualities will not cotton to this talk of pruning. There’s probably no one forcing his way into line to be pruned. How has the intrepid Vinedresser pruned you lately? I can look back in retrospect and see the value of the pruning I have received, but at the time I felt zero gratitude.”
The time of transition between pastors is typically a time of pruning in a congregation. We look at our ministry, what is working well and prospering and what is not. We take a look at what we have accomplished and what has frustrated us. It is a time when some people decide to reduce their involvement and others are excited by the possibilities of the future and become more invested in congregational life.
The dialogue circles we are hosting today and in two weeks are an opportunity to find out where growth is occurring and where pruning might be needed to produce new growth and life in our ministry in the name of the Risen Christ. It is as we are pruned and produce new growth that we abide in Christ the Vine. Only the branches that are pruned are strong enough to abide in Jesus.
“Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:4-8) (NRSV)
In the context of abiding–
staying close to the Lord, by praying,
seeking to know and to do God’s will,
loving the One who loves us–
pruning is experienced as the action of a loving parent or friend.
In the context of abiding, what we wish to ask for will be what matters most: grace and strength to abide and be fruit-producing branches of the vine who is Jesus. (MEM, Invitation to Discipleship, Augsburg, 1986, p. 82-83)
The Eucharist is about abiding in Christ. We say that as we eat the bread and drink the cup we are taking within us the very presence–the body and blood–of the Risen Christ.
The imagery we use here is that of “abiding”:
Christ abides in us through this meal as we abide in him by sharing this meal with other followers of Christ.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!