February 24, 2019 – The Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany
Rev. Dr. Susan Kraus
I have spoken to you about the church calendar and how the date of Easter is determined every year. This year Easter is almost as late in the year as it can be, April 21st. The date of Easter determines the dates of other important days in the church year, including Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the season of Lent. Ash Wednesday is March 6th, and we will gather here at 2 p.m. for the Ash Wednesday liturgy and Holy Communion. I hope that you will be able to attend our service or a service held at a later time at another church, if that is convenient for you. The Ash Wednesday liturgy in The Book of Common Prayer (pages 264-269) is a powerful service and a good beginning to keeping a holy Lent.
For us the season of Lent coincides with spring – or at least the anticipation of spring in Maine! A secular custom of the season of spring, which some of us observe, is spring cleaning. I don’t know how far I will get at my house, but I made a start with my home office. As you can imagine, my office is filled with papers. Going through them sometimes feels like an archaeological dig of my life story. Since I wanted to reduce clutter and get more organized, I wanted to discard what was no longer necessary or meaningful for me. I tried to follow the guideline I once read for decision making about keeping or discarding possessions: the question you should ask yourself isn’t “will I ever need this?” but “what is the worst thing that can happen if I don’t have this?” This is great advice and not always easy to follow.
One paper item I came across was several years old, a booklet in a series called “Monastic Wisdom for Everyday Living” published by the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, an Episcopal monastery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The title of this pamphlet is “Conversion: Pruning, Time, and Help” written by Brother Curtis Almquist. I would like to quote his words about pruning at some length, hoping that they will help us think and prepare for how we will use this season of Lent to grow spiritually.
In John’s Gospel Jesus speaks of “pruning” as a metaphor for conversion of life: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit” (John 15:1-2). Brother Curtis then speaks of pruning from the point of view of the plants being pruned, in these words: “I cannot imagine that anything is more confusing to a living plant than to be pruned. For a plant, whose sole reason for being is to be alive and to grow, to be cut back must feel like death to a plant! And yet, every gardener will know that unless the plant is pruned back, the plant may grow, but it will likely grow wild and it will spend itself prematurely, missing its great potential to flower with form and beauty, season after season. Gardens need to be cultivated, and plants need to be pruned back to bring forth the best of what they’ve been created to be.”
In Jesus’ metaphor we are the branches of the vine which is Christ. Those of us who are gathered here may hope that we are the kinds of branches that are bearing fruit as Christ would have us do – through acts of mercy, with loving hearts, in lives lived – however imperfectly – as followers of Jesus. Jesus is calling all of us to bear more fruit, however much or little we bear now. And that involves pruning.
In Lent we are mindful of God’s call to repentance, our need for self-pruning, if you will. I invite us to begin to think seriously about this call. Is there something in our lives that is a block in our loving relationship with God that we can choose to prune? It may be a hardness of heart and an unwillingness to forgive someone. It may be a preference for our own comfort that keeps us from serving the church or other people as we feel God is calling us to serve. It may be grasping material possessions or money so tightly that we do not share with others or trust God fully. It may be pride and self-will or harsh judgment of others. It may be overwork or over-indulgence in food or drink, habits that destroy our health and the peace God desires for us. Let us all take time to prayerfully examine our own lives and hearts and ask God for guidance about how and what we might prune this Lent, for the love of God, ourselves, and our neighbors.
Brother Curtis also reminds us that “life prunes us, whether or not we consent to it. Some of this comes in the form of disappointments: what we could have had or feel we should have had, but don’t…. Changes in our health, the experience of growing older and seeing our energies diminish, the experience of losing the loves of our life, the experience of simply not being able to have it all, and ultimately the anticipating of our own death and of dying: these experiences are some of the ‘pruning’ that mortal life simply brings to us all, whether or not we choose it.”
This Lent it might be instructive for us each, individually, to examine the ways in which life has pruned us and is pruning us now. This pruning isn’t something we usually like to think about. Of course, we would rather not concentrate on our history of being pruned because pruning hurts! But here we all are, pruning survivors, and I believe that sometimes if we look back, we can see not only the pain but also the hand and love of God that brought us through the pain. And that is good to remember because if we see how God has helped us before, we may strengthen the foundation of our trust in God and look with hope to the future, knowing that whatever life sends our way, our loving God will be with us, to hold us, to suffer with us, to love us, and to save us.
Jesus came to share human life. He, too, was pruned by life – by hunger and fatigue and pain, by other people who rejected and betrayed and mocked him, by people who took advantage of his gifts and his mercy, by people who misunderstood him, and finally by people who tortured and killed him. He was pruned by life, but he remained tied to God by love.
Jesus invites us to choose love, to walk in the way of love. Not long before his death Jesus told his disciples, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete” (John 15:9-10, 12, 11).
To abide in the love of Christ is our call. The season of Lent begins soon, six weeks of potential spiritual growth to prepare us for Holy Week and Easter. It isn’t too early to pray and think about how we might use this time to take steps to prune something that keeps us separate from the love of Christ, so that we might flourish and become more nearly the beloved creatures of God we are meant to be, so that we may more fully know the joy Christ has promised his followers. In Jesus’ name. Amen.