It’s Spring, and many of you are outside working in your gardens, gathering up the few piles of dried leaves, pulling weeds, and planting new flowers and bushes. The process of planting and nurturing and growing can be challenging and incredibly rewarding.
When we grow and nurture something, like a plant or even a child, the times come when we must prune. We pluck the dead flowers from the bush. We cut away those branches from the plant that are dead, or those branches not yet dead but diseased that suck the nutrients from the rest of the healthy plant. The flower and branch need to be pruned in order for the complete plant to thrive. A child may begin to develop habits or behaviors that are hurtful or destructive. If we want the negative behavior to continue, leave the child alone, and the “disease” will take over. But, if we accept our role as parent or teacher or carer, we address the behavior so that the child grows emotionally and mentally healthy.
It hurts us to “prune” the child. It hurts even more when we are the ones being pruned, when our behaviors that stem from our hearts, are grasped, cut, and discarded from God our Father.
Corrie Ten Boom recalled a series of pruning events from her life. “It was in a church in Munich that I saw him, a balding heavyset man in a gray overcoat. People were filing out of the basement room where I had just spoken. It was 1947, and I had come from Holland to defeated Germany with the message that God forgives. It was the truth they needed most to hear in that bitter, bombed-out land.
“The solemn faces stared back at me, not quite daring to believe. And that’s when I saw him, working his way forward against the others. One moment I saw the overcoat; the next, a blue uniform and a visored cap with its skull and crossbones. It came back with a rush: the huge room with its harsh overhead lights, the pathetic pile of dresses and shoes in the center of the floor, the shame of walking naked past this man. I could see my sister’s frail form ahead of me, ribs sharp beneath the parchment skin. Betsie, how thin you were! This man had been a guard at Ravensbrück concentration camp where we were sent.
“It was the first time since my release that I had been face to face with one of my captors and my blood froze. ‘You mentioned Ravensbrück in your talk,’ he said. ‘I was a guard in there. Since that time I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but Fräulein, will you forgive me?’ And I stood there and could not. Betsie had died in that place–could he erase her slow terrible death simply for the asking? It could not have been many seconds that he stood there, hand held out, but to me it seemed hours as I wrestled with the most difficult thing I had ever had to do.”
Corrie continues in saying, “I had to do it–I knew that. The message that God forgives has a prior condition: that we forgive those who have injured us. ‘If you do not forgive men their trespasses,’ Jesus says, ‘neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses.’ And still I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart. But forgiveness is not an emotion–I knew that too. Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart. ‘Jesus, help me!’ I prayed silently. And so woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes. ‘I forgive you, brother!’ I cried. ‘With all my heart!’ ”
She continues to say that forgiveness is not something that we learn once and that lesson is completed. Quite the contrary. Will a jolt of electricity coarse through us when we forgive? Maybe. Maybe not. But the fact is that we are commanded to forgive. We will speak of that forgiveness when we move into our prayer during the Eucharist: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who have trespassed against us.” But, when we pray that in a few minutes, will our mouths move, sound come out, but the intention behind it be black as coal?
But where does this forgiveness come from? Forgiveness comes from God. Forgiveness comes to us because we love Jesus. We love Him and want to be filled with Him and want to do His work. And the work that He desires us to do is to love. We are commanded to love. And it is only through the love of Jesus that we even can forgive. And it is through forgiveness that Jesus restores us to love the other.
The pruning of our own disease is beginning… Our Epistle from this morning could not be more clear: beloved, let us love one another. But here’s where God grasps the diseased branch. Listen to our writer: Whoever does not love does not know God. Listen again, whoever does not love does not know God.
We could tell of all the injuries we have born, all the slanders we have endured, all the wounds we’ve tended in the darkness of our souls. And our souls are a desolate battlefield, pockmarked and littered with bullet casings and shrapnel. C.S. Lewis tells us about love, “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”
The pruning continues: the shears that God holds to us are wrapped around the behavior or habit, that part of us that is ugly, crippled (or crippling), diseased. Our Epistle writer continues by stating, “as he is, so are we in this world.” In other words, Jesus is love. “There is no greater love than this, than he who would lay down his life for his friends.” John 15:13. “By this we know what love is: Jesus laid down His life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers.” 1 John 3:16. The shears touch the sickened part of our minds, our hearts needs to excise the disease from our souls.
Elie Wiesel said, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.” Even the indifference we feel is sin. God spits out what is lukewarm.
The pruning of our hearts, mind, and actions is at hand as the Father snaps the shears closed when our Epistle writer proclaims: “Those who say, ‘I love God’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister who they have seen, cannot love God who they have not seen.” Sit with this for a moment. If we claim we love God but state we hate or dislike (or any other word you want to use to make your conscience feel better) former President Donald Trump or President Joe Biden or Mayor John Brown or that Black man who deserved to get shot or that Mexican who ran across the Rio Grande River or that gay man who deserved to get AIDS, my friends then we are liars. We are liars! And, even more, according to our writer, there is no way that we can claim we love an unseen God. Our faith, then, is baseless.
So, the pruning hurts. The pruning causes a wound, and that wound hurts worse that the original injury we bore. Remember Corrie Ten Boom. She saw the man who slaughtered her friends, who reveled in the death of her sister. How did Corrie find forgiveness? Only through Jesus. And for us, it is only through the balm that Jesus offers because He laid down His own life for us that we can find the courage to forgive and to love. Is it easy? No. Is it immediate? Probably not. Is it possible? Oh, yes it is!