John 15:1-17 Is anyone else feeling pruned lately? Not to be overly dramatic, but I’m finding some of the impacts of the coronavirus are cumulative. The challenges of physical isolation combined with hard news hit me hard this week when I learned that scientists are saying that singing and public speaking propel droplets of potentially contagious liquid up to 25 feet away. Face masks don’t help… and the implications for the church are significant. I’m afraid this means that even when we are able to worship together in person again, it is highly unlikely that we will be able to proceed as we have been accustomed to doing. Until such time as a vaccine is available, we will probably need to forego singing together as a choir or congregation. Even speaking out loud together for responsive readings and prayers might be too big a risk for spreading this awful contagion. I am devastated. I’ve been a singer my whole life… I literally cannot remember a time when this wasn’t a core part of my identity. To come to church and not be able to sing the Lord’s song?! The very idea fills me with grief. I want to weep and wail and shake my fists. I know this isn’t as big a loss as all the beloved ones who have died and will die from this mess. But it feels like an important part of my world is dying, nonetheless. To sing, for me, is to feel completely connected to the Divine presence, from the soles of my feet through the top of my skull, spinning out with joy. There’s nothing else like it. To not have that experience in worship feels like losing a limb. It hurts. A lot. But here’s the thing. Even when we’re not in the middle of a global pandemic, at any given moment, the hard realities of life deliver many things that are difficult for us to contend with. I know all too well that I’m far from the only one who has experienced pain that feels equivalent to losing a body part. The feeling of being pruned is a familiar one to many of us. Or maybe it isn’t. Maybe, when the tough stuff happens, it just feels like being cut, cut down by life’s tragedies, big and small. Cut down by disappointment, despair, and all manner of circumstances beyond our control. Cut down, cut off, and left to wither and die. That’s what it can feel like, anyway. Our scripture passage from the Gospel of John is an easy one to read as a message of judgment and threat. It can be interpreted as the ultimate gift-with-strings. “If this, then you get that.” But that isn’t grace. That is NOT Good News. And beloved, you have my assurance that I am pledged to share GOOD News with you. This is one of those scriptures where context is everything. The time in which this story took place in Jesus’ life was on the eve of his crucifixion. He knew what was going to happen, both to himself, and to his followers. He tried to prepare them for his loss and their grief… he tried to give them assurance ahead of time that the pain they would all experience was not due to senseless cutting for no reason. He tried to help them trust and believe that they would survive and even flourish, despite all the signs to the contrary. The second piece of context we need to hang onto is what was happening for the community of faith that John wrote to. By the time they heard these words, they had already been scattered, likely thrown out of their synagogue, and had every reason to feel like they’d been abandoned. But John wrote to assure them that while they had indeed been cut, what they had experienced was pruning that would result in more abundant fruit and life. Dr. David Lose’s commentary on this passage rather wryly states that it was undoubtedly difficult for those who received this message of hope to hear it as such. After all, there was precious little evidence available to the disciples or to John’s community that they had not been abandoned. These words are hard to believe on our end of history as well, as so much of life cuts us to the quick with no evidence that a more fruitful future will come about as a result. But amidst all our uncertainty and distress, Jesus still invites us, actually, he PROMISES us, that he will not abandon us, and will hold tightly to us so that we endure, persevere and even flourish no matter what our present difficulties may be. If Jesus had said, “Abide in me or else…” that would be one thing. But that’s not what he said. “Abide in me,” Jesus said, “as I abide in you.” This isn’t good advice that comes with a to-do list of activities to complete in order to earn a merit badge. This is a promise. That no matter what happens, Jesus will be with us. That no matter what happens, Jesus will hold onto us. And that no matter what happens, God in Jesus Christ will bring ALL things to a good end. This is not to say, just in case your “yeah but’s” are already revving, that everything happens for a reason. What a bunch of hooey. To be crystal clear, this is a promise that God is at work for good in ALL circumstances. Always. Jesus gave his word and his life to affirm that. Remember our context again. These words were said right before Jesus went to the cross. Unlike what you may have heard in other times and places, I believe the cross of Jesus is the chief example of God’s commitment to wrestle life and hope from the places that seem most devoid of them. God is at work for good. Always. This isn’t an opinion shared by every pastor or religious educator or theologian. We’ve been discussing and debating various theories about the meaning of the cross for centuries in Christianity. Frankly, some of the theologies about the cross are downright nauseating to me. But we can dig deep into this another time… perhaps as a discussion group next Lent. In the meantime, I want to offer you this idea that has been enormously healing to me which is that the totality of Jesus’ incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection are inextricably connected. They are all of a piece, woven together with one ultimate message. That God’s love for creation was too great to allow God to sit back just observing the pain and difficulty of our mortal lives in this often challenging world. God loved us SO much, that God chose to come to us in Christ, to be joined to us, to abide with us, so that God experienced the ups and downs, the joys and despairs, the hopes and disappointments, the faults and triumphs of our human existence… and God did all of this to demonstrate to us God’s unending commitment to us. The cross didn’t make it possible for God to love us. The cross demonstrated the extravagance of God’s love for us such that God is with us through ANYTHING, including God’s own death in Jesus… and anything like it we encounter. No matter how much tragedy we endure, no matter how many hardships or disappointments, the last word is never the cuts we feel. For we can count on the abiding love of Jesus to heal those cuts and transform them from experiences of suffering into means of growth. Grape vines are pruned so that the vines use their energy not to produce more leaves, but more fruit, and to yield fruit that is flavorful, juicy and delicious. Going back to context one more time, remember what grapes were used for in scripture? There were no California raisins in Jesus’ time! All those vines and the fruit from them were intended for one thing… making wine… and enjoyment of that gift. Ultimately, our connection to our Source, the Author of Life, the God of the Universe, is so that abiding in Christ, we might produce fruit that in turn, gives joy, and with that delight comes the abundance of LIFE of Jesus’ promise. And so, beloved, although I must confess to not understanding yet how pruning singing from worship for a season might produce new fruit, I am trusting that this will somehow come to be. After all, if we cannot proclaim praise with our own voices, the very rocks will cry out on our behalf and all the trees of the field will clap their hands with joy. I don’t know what the abundant future of fruitfulness for us will look like. But I trust that it shall come to be. For through the abiding love of God in Jesus Christ, I am convinced that the cuts we feel at this time will ultimately prove to be the pruning of One who loves us and works for good for us. Always. Amen.