"Remain A Channel For God’s Love"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - May 10, 2009

Psalm 22:25-31; John 15:1-8

Mother's Day

     Our scripture lesson this morning has a number of very useful thoughts that we can instantly apply to our daily lives.  In this passage Jesus had just made it clear to his disciples that he had taught them properly about their potential and the nature of God.  What is most intriguing about this lesson is the way Jesus characterized his personal relationship with God.   Jesus said, “God is my gardener.  He breaks off every branch in me that does not bear fruit, and he prunes every branch that does bear fruit, so that it will be clean and can bear even more fruit.”

     Think of how we could reorder our lives if we understood completely this issue of breaking off and pruning branches so that we might bear more fruit?  In essence, Jesus was teaching his disciples that when life becomes extremely difficult, never to feel sorry for themselves, never to cry out “Why me, Lord,” never to look to anyone to save them from some painful episode in their lives and never to speculate about what they may have done to cause such unfortunate events to occur.  He was teaching them that pruning happens to everyone!           

     All of us know how many times that thoughts and feelings of self-pity have crept into our minds.  As difficult as it sounds to master, Jesus was teaching how he understood life when his best efforts produced results that were disappointing and discouraging.  During his ministry, Jesus had a number of such circumstances.          

     For example, once Jesus tried very hard to impress his truth on the minds of his listeners and he failed.  After one of his sermons his listeners said that his message was too difficult to understand and they asked each other, “Who can listen to this any longer?”  They refused to follow him anymore.  Jesus turned to his own twelve and said, “And what are you going to do – would you also like to leave?”  (John 6:60f)

     There was another occasion in his home town when his words would not penetrate the barrier caused by familiarity.   In this case his listeners knew him and his family.  He said, “Prophets are respected everywhere except in their own hometown and by their relatives and family.”  The passage goes on to say, “Jesus was not able to perform any miracles there, except that he placed his hands on a few sick people and healed them.”  (Mark 6:4f) 

     Imagine what our lives would be like if we possessed the ability to forge ahead in life in spite of moments when no one understands us, no one accepts us, or when no one will allow us to forget painful memories in our past. 

     Jesus was teaching that when we learn this lesson, everything and everyone can become an instrument of refinement.  Think of it -- every persecution complex, every aspect of life that tries to compromise our self-esteem and every experience that tries to convince us that we are a victim is nothing more than our being pruned.   

     Using this metaphor does not lessen the severity of what we experience.  Those of us who have worked with Jessie Smith, St. Matthew’s Master Gardener, have watched her prune bushes and trees as though such a haircut would spell their doom.  She says, “They will grow back and become full and beautiful.”  All the shrubs she has pruned severely have always done that. 

     Before I had arrived to serve Capitol Hill United Methodist Church, one of the women in the congregation had suffered the loss of her husband.  He had gone to sleep at the wheel of his car, struck a tree and was killed instantly. 

     Mary had a period of mourning but she knew that she could not indulge herself by staying there.  She had three children to rear.  She forged ahead in spite of her loss.  Nothing could undue what happened.  She did a masterful job of doing what committed mothers do – she coached, prodded, set boundaries, limited the use of the television, encouraged her three in appreciating the arts, helped them to develop a love of reading and taught them the art of following through on their chores and responsibilities.  All three of them are now seed pods in their own right, ready to pass on what they had received. 

     Jesus said, “I am the vine and you are the branches.  God’s creativity is shown through your bearing much fruit.”   There is nothing creative about raising our fist to heaven and screaming at God for allowing a loved one to be swept from our lives.  There is nothing redemptive about a person who throws away what little faith they had so they could nurse their wounded spirit for years.  There is nothing that changes the outcome of anything we have experienced except the attitude we develop toward it. The process of being pruned is like experiencing the removal of a part of ourselves that we felt was absolutely essential.  In time we learn that it was not so vital. 

     The first major cinemascope movie that I saw as a young boy was The Robe.  There was a scene that has taken up residence in my mind ever since I saw it.  A woman named Miriam was playing a small hand held harp and she was singing to an adoring crowd of listeners. 

     Tribune Galeo was standing some distance away listening to her sing.  The Roman officer spoke to her after the crowd had disbursed.  He had never heard her play or sing before even though he had known her for years. She confided that Jesus had healed her.  He said, “That is not true.  You cannot get up and walk.”  She said, “I know.  He healed my spirit.  I am no longer bitter and angry because I am not like other people.  I have not played the harp or sung for years.  Now, I am able to give people hope for their problems by singing to them.” 

     When we think about ourselves as damaged goods we have forgotten the lesson of what happens when we have been pruned.  Life giving energy surges from a source we cannot see and it causes new growth unless we stop it by our strong emotions and attitudes.

       I am sure that we have all heard the story of the woman who recently had a face transplant.  Her husband shot her in a manner that obliterated her face.  Connie Culp had been an attractive woman, but she knew that what was inside had been untouched by the gun blast.   She decided to have the surgery.  After the twenty-two hour procedure, she emerged with a new face.   After the swelling subsides, there will be a series of facial surgeries that will gradually restore her face to a degree of normalcy.           

     The beauty of modern medicine is only part of the story.  The other part was the spirit of a woman who did not want to go into hiding from the public for the rest of her life.  She was determined to get back on life’s stage and carry on.  That desire is new growth.  Going into the public spotlight is new growth.  The determination to take back her life is new growth.

     Similar stories have been duplicated again and again as many of our wounded young men and women return from the war zone and take up residence in Walter Reed and other military facilities.  Many of them are outfitted with new artificial arms and legs.  What is so inspiring is the spirit many of them have of wanting to return to their units once they are able to do so. 

     We remember the heroics of Bob Woodruff, the ABC evening news anchor, whose vehicle was destroyed in Iraq with him on board.  Bob had such severe head and facial trauma that it made him unrecognizable.  Today, he is a walking miracle who is giving hope to countless members of our military families who face the same mountain to climb as he did. 

     The energy flows in one direction, always away from the seed into the stalk, through the branches, into the bloom and finally it enters the fruit. Jesus’ message, “I am the vine and you are the branches” is the perfect illustration for every life that experiences itself in the midst of challenging changes that no one wanted. 

     The problem for each of us is remembering Jesus’ lesson during those moments when life appears to sweep away forever our hopes and dreams.  Not all of us are capable of being like Thomas Edison who watched his entire laboratory, factory and warehouse complex burn to the ground.  His associate said, “We have lost everything!”  Edison did not miss a beat of his surging life-force.  He bent over and pick up a handful of ashes and said, “We have just witnessed the destruction of all of our mistakes and failures.  We will rebuild.”  The next day Edison started that process. 

     Edison’s forging ahead is an example of the conclusion reached by Rabbi Kusher’s book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People.  Jesus was coaching his disciples by using himself as an example.  He said, “God is my gardener.  He breaks off every branch in me that does not bear fruit, and he prunes every branch that does bear fruit, so that it will be clean and can bear even more fruit.”           

     Few of us can watch the palatial homes burning in Santa Barbara, California and not empathize with those people.  Regardless of how much money those home owners have, or how remarkable their insurance policies are, their losses are total.  Many of them were evacuated from their homes only with their computers and their family pictures. 

     One person interviewed said, “We are alive and that is the most important thing.  We can always replace the material possessions.”  Could we say that?  Have we had enough practice-time to have learned this skill so that we can use it even during the much smaller moments when life just will not go the way we had hoped?  Jesus was teaching that we have an infinite power coursing through our spiritual veins that will make all things new. 

     Yesterday, I performed a wedding in the chapel of the University of Maryland.  Both the bride and groom had suffered the death of their mothers.  Not wanting to continue mourning their losses during their wedding, they chose to celebrate what they have been given by their mothers.   Just prior to the lighting of their Unity Candle, I read these words: 

Although death has physically separated us from our mothers -- faith and love have bound us together eternally.  Though we cannot see you, we know you are here.  Though we cannot touch you, we feel the warmth of your smiles, as we begin a new chapter in our lives.


Today, we pause to reflect upon those who have shaped our character, molded our spirits and touched our hearts.  The two smaller lighted candles represent our two families that are being joined today, but they also remind us of the memories we have shared and the remembrance of the everlasting imprint our mothers have made on our lives. 

     We have to remember Jesus’ lesson on how life refines us.  We have to remember that every disappointment and every moment we fear that something unexpected will destroy our destinies, God created us so that new growth always sprouts.  We will be pruned.  We will be hurt and devastated by events that happen.  Jesus taught that pruning may be the most dynamic part of each of our lives.  Such pruning is never the end of anything. It signals the beginning of new growth, new adventures and new moments when we can make God’s creativity visible through us.  Living with that awareness is what makes us perfect vehicles for God’s healing, loving presence.


     Loving and always present God, we thank you for giving us countless forms in which love is made visible in our lives.  We were willed into existence by your love.  We have been nurtured by our parents’ love.  We were inspired to learn from the love of countless teachers.  You gave us the ability to grow even during moments of betrayal, deception and ridicule. You call us your daughters and sons and we are humbled.  Jesus taught us that every threatening life-issue can be framed to perfect our skills of spirit. Teach us to trust you for the outcome of all things. Help us to transform the mountains we must climb into vantage points of greater vision. Help us change barriers to love’s presence into becoming stepping-stones for its recognition.  Amen.


     We thank you loving God, for placing in our midst an opportunity to experience a day of rest. Not many of us honor that commandment.  In fact, our Sabbaths frequently become our catch-up day— the day where we try to finish a number of tasks we have procrastinated on completing.

     Today, the mothers we honor have laughed through the ages at the possibility that a day of rest exists.  As we look upon this woman who carried us, who changed our diapers, who fed us at 2:00 in the morning, who sat by our bed until our fevers broke, who helped us search for the favorite toy we lost, and who eventually watched tearfully as we left home for the final time, God, we thank you for her nurturing spirit. Because each of us came from our mother’s womb, there is a spiritual linkage similar to the scripture, “I am the vine and you are the branches.”  Thank you for the creative manner in which life gives birth to new life.     

     We thank you for everyone who taught us how to laugh at ourselves, to find joy in the simple things of life, to appreciate beauty in whatever form we find it, to love music and to value the friendship of caring people. We thank you for those who have shown us the value of stretching toward unreachable heights, confident that your will eventually will be done on earth as it is in Heaven. We pray these thoughts through the loving spirit of Jesus, the Christ, who taught us to say when we pray . . .