The Rev. Dr. William J. Danaher Jr.
May 3, 2015
(This sermon has been transcribed from live video. Please click here to watch the video version.)
I’ve never been much of a gardener, and so there’s a sense in which I always have a hard time getting into this gospel passage. Part of it is because of my own prior history. When I was about three or four years old, I was drafted to work with my grandmother in her garden. She was an Olympic gardener, and she had this incredible garden that stretched entirely around her yard. The whole thing was full of beautiful flowers. She believed that the mark of a gentleman was knowing the names of flowers. And so she tried to teach me the names of the flowers in her garden in spite of the fact that I was, at best, a reluctant student.
She also tried to teach me how to prune. At the time, I was about four years old. She gave me these incredibly large and sharp and dangerous shears. My little hands could barely close them. Then, she tried to describe to me what part of a flower that she wanted me to trim.
All I could see was green, and so I tried to follow what she was telling me to do by just picking a little bit of the leaf. When she came back, she said, “No, no, no, you have to cut the bud. The bud has to be cut.” And she showed me quickly, and kind of furiously, what to do before heading off somewhere else in her garden. Then I tried again, but I couldn’t bring myself to cut as much as she did. Then she came back and saw that I had made no progress. She had tears in her eyes, and I think she thought to herself that I needed to see a specialist on account of my inability to follow her directions.
Fortunately, today’s Gospel teaches us a straightforward lesson: it hurts to grow, but grow we must. The most basic claim of Christianity is that we have been bound to Christ in an organic relationship that is deep. Growing into that relationship transforms us and changes us. As we are transformed and changed, parts of ourselves have to give way so that good growth can occur. All of that is possible because we have been made alive by God’s love.
Indeed, each of our readings for today speaks of God’s love as an organic, overflowing relationship. In our reading from Acts, we read about a eunuch who suddenly experiences the blessing of the Spirit and believes. Philip seeing that the Spirit is already active, that the love of God is already active, baptizes him.
Eunuchs were never allowed in the temple. They had wounded their bodies and they were considered unholy in the Judaism of Jesus’ day. That the Spirit of God rests on the eunuch bears testimony to the fact that, through Christ, love has become powerful enough to overflow the boundaries we construct, and the boundaries that we thought kept people from joining our sacred community.
In our reading from 1 John, we’re told that we must love on another because we are joined with Christ. We love because he has first loved us.
Finally, we have this incredible, powerful metaphor in today’s gospel of being connected to Christ in such a way that we grow and are pruned and are changed and are transformed. That is the heart of Christianity.
Have you ever been transformed? How has Christ’s love been present to you? Have you ever experienced the pain of pruning? I am not a cradle Episcopalian. I had a conversion experience when I was 16 years old. I went off to a boarding school and I was lonely. My parents were sacrificing everything to send me there, so I couldn’t tell them that I was miserable. I found myself praying out of desperation one night, and suddenly I became aware of God’s presence. That love meant for me that I would never be alone again.
In the days that followed, I decided to dedicate myself to perfecting my mind and body. So I became a better student. I had been a couch potato, but I decided I would take up a sport and I chose rowing because, more than any other sport, it rewarded hard work. So I began training.
Within two months, the coach of the crew team invited me to the spring training, and this signaled an incredible transformation. I had lost 50 pounds. After the first day, I thought I was going to die. My legs felt like cement. My back was killing me. My arms were tired and my hands looked like they had been put in a meat grinder. And I didn’t think I could do it. I’d worked really hard, but I didn’t think I could do it.
Then an upper classman in the team come up to me. He said, “How are you feeling?” I said, “Well, my legs are killing me. I’m cramping up. My hands feel like they’re going to fall off. My back is really sore. I’m not doing really well at all. I’m really kind of afraid that I’m not going to make it.”
He said to me, “Do your toes hurt?” I said, “No, actually, my toes are just fine.” He smiled and whispered, “They will.”
In that moment, I suddenly knew that I was part of the team. I knew that there was going to be nothing that was going to be too much for me to bear, because I knew if somebody else was hurting that much that I would make it through that pain as well.
What is God’s love for you today? How are you being pruned by the Spirit? In what way can you whisper a word of encouragement to someone else?