May 18, 2003
Today’s gospel is not about plants. It’s about people. It is not about vines. It’s about life. The image of the vine and the branches which Jesus uses in this gospel is a way of saying that we as branches will share in Christ’s very life, the life of the vine. If we abide in him, we will have life to the fullest. Now this is a very positive and exciting image, and yet there is one line in today’s gospel that can stop us short and perhaps even frighten us. The line is this: “The branches that bear fruit my father will prune so that they bear more fruit.” That line tells us that we who are disciples of Christ must expect to be pruned by God, that something which belongs to us might indeed be cut off or taken away. This can frighten us, because as much as we want life, as much as we desire to abide in Christ, we do not want to lose anything that belongs to us. We do not want something which is ours to be cut off. Yet, it is central to the teaching of Jesus that this kind of pruning is at times necessary.
This is one of the earliest lessons that I learned in ministry. One day while I was a deacon in Akron, a man came in to talk to me in great distress. He said, “My wife is divorcing me.” I expressed my regrets and then asked him, “Did you see this coming?” “Oh yes,” he said, “We’ve been living in a loveless marriage for at least ten years. We argue all the time and hardly ever talk about anything of substance. I can’t remember the last time that we made love. A while back I wanted to go to a counselor but my wife refused. In time, I too lost the will even to try.” “Why did you stay together?” I asked. “It was for the kids, of course. We wanted to keep our family together. But now they are off to college, and my wife says that there is not anything left in our relationship.” “Do you disagree with her?” I asked. “Not really,” he responded. “But”—and here is the line that I will always remember—“All my life,” he said, “ I dreamed of a perfect marriage. I dreamed of someone who would share their life with me for as long as I lived. I wanted a relationship around which we could build a family. It is so difficult to let that dream die.”
This man’s words rang true the first time that I heard them and they still ring true today. We hope for the best in our lives. We make big plans. But when those plans fail and there is nothing that we can do to prevent it, it is still difficult to let those dreams die. This man had been living without love for over a decade. He argued constantly. His wife left him and now divorced him. His marriage was over. And yet it was still difficult for him to let go of the dream of the good marriage he desired. Yet if his life was going to continue, if his life was to have a future, he would need to face the truth and let God prune that dream away.
This is one of many examples which tell us that at times we need to face the hard truth and let something in our life end. As difficult as it might be, at times we need to face what is real and move forward. Are there areas in your life that are dead and need to be removed? Do you find yourself in a manipulative or abusive relationship, and yet want to hold onto the dream that this relationship is good and gives you joy? Do you find yourself addicted to alcohol, or drugs, or pornography, and yet say to yourself, “My life is healthy, there is nothing that needs to change”? Do you find yourself in a dead-end job or circumstance, and yet continue to hold onto the belief that your life is just as it should be? Do you find yourself surrounded with self-pity over someone or something that you have lost, and refuse to let go of the dream that you want things to be as they once were—that you don’t want things to change?
Dreams not only inspire us, they can at times hurt us. Dead branches in our life not only hinder us, they can at times kill us. That is why, when there is nothing else we can do, we need to let go and let God remove what is dead from our lives. To do anything less would be living a lie. But the good news is this. Letting go, as difficult as it is, is not meant to cause pain, but to foster life. Cutting off what is dead is not cruelty, but an act of a loving God who removes barren branches so that other parts of our life can thrive. Jesus promises us life and joy in its fullness, and he is serious about what he says. We must believe him. If we want joy, we need to trust him. If we want life, we need to let him take what is dead in our lives and prune it away.