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  • The Rev. Matt Welsch

Spiritual Pruning

A couple of years ago, I read a book about gardening. Joel and I had just moved into a townhouse with a small back yard. The landlord said we were free to plant a garden. So I did my research. This was a big book. Maybe about 600 pages or so. I read the whole thing, cover to cover.

What I’m trying to say is that I’m basically an expert.

While I was researching what to plant, I came upon a technique I’d never heard of before: espalier. This is a technique A technique where fruit trees (apple, pear, peach, etc) are trained to grow on a flat plane. Walls, fences. That sort of thing.

Espalier was developed in cooler climates. Fruit needs warmth to ripen. So some brilliant person discovered that, if you trained a fruit tree to grow flat along a stone or brick wall, the radiant heat from the stone would be enough to warm the fruit and encourage it to ripen.

Espalier has since become something of an art form. Trees can be trained in straight rows, candelabra, elaborate lattices - even trained to grow together into a living arbor.

Clearly, this was far beyond the scope of my project. But I remained fascinated. The author of my gardening book, by the way, and seemingly every youtube video on the subject, insists that espalier is really, completely straightforward. It all comes down to two skills familiar to any gardener: pruning and training.

Pruning is done in the late winter/early spring. So, nowish. Pruning is the process of cutting back old growth. And pruning accomplishes two important things: first, it stops the plant from growing in the wrong direction. Second - and this is the miraculous part - it encourages the plant to develop new growth elsewhere. By cutting off the old growth, the plant is able to stop sending nutrients where you don’t want them to go. And so: new growth emerges.

Training requires careful attention. You have to keep an eye out for that new growth. Once it appears, you slowly encourage the plant to grow in the direction you want. You bend the shoots this way or that, tying them to wires or supports.

Pruning and training are important skills for any gardener, whether they’re growing espalier fruit trees or not. Roses, ivy, herbs, beans. All benefit from careful pruning and training.

And so, it turns out, do people.

Lent is a season of spiritual pruning and training.

Will we give in to the temptation to fall back on old growth patterns? The ones that draw us away from loving God and loving our neighbor? The ones that are no longer helpful? The onese that maybe weren’t good for us in the first place?

Or will we stop? Will we take stock of where we’ve come from and then prune away those patterns and practices from our lives. Will we allow God to breathe the new life of Grace and Resurrection into us?

We find that invitation extended to us in numerous ways throughout our liturgy this morning. In the Great Litany. The Collect. The readings. Even the purple vestments, which provoke the question: Whom do you serve: God or Caesar?

Will you continue to fall into the old, familiar patterns, or will you allow God to draw you into new patterns of Grace and Resurrection?

Deuteronomy hinges on this question.

Moses has led the People of God out of slavery in Egypt, through the wilderness, and to the land of Promise. Now, after 40 years of wandering in the desert, they find themselves standing on the plains of Moab, on the banks of the Jordan River. They can see the promised land on the other side.

But first, Moses tells them to stop. To hear again the story of their liberation: How, with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, God rescued them from slavery in Egypt. How God gave them the law at Sinai. How God led them through the wilderness, sustaining them with manna How God is here, now, giving them this land - a land of God’s own possession - flowing with milk and honey. And before they enter that land, there is an invitation:

Will you fall back into the old patterns? The patterns of oppression you experienced in Egypt? The patterns that caused you to go astray? Or will you agree to keep the commandments? To pattern your lives, your households, your community after the pattern of God’s grace and liberation? Will you choose blessing or curse? Life or death?

Jesus, by the way, loved to quote Deuteronomy. He did it all the time. The particularly astute among you might have noticed that he actually quotes Deuteronomy three times in this morning’s Gospel.

Jesus found himself deep in the wilderness, a wilderness so many of us know so well. Jesus knows what it’s like to be tempted. To cling to the comfort of the old growth. The cleave to the patterns of the world.

In his confrontation with the Tempter, Jesus shows us the way forward. It’s like a training manual - a stake or wire we can hold on to. Because, like Jesus, we are called to resist those patterns of sin and oppression. The patterns of pride, self-interest, and greed. To let go of the old growth that causes us to turn our attention away from God and our neighbor.

When Jesus does this, he’s released to carry out the ministry for which he was born. Free to love and heal and feed and liberate. And Jesus invites us to do the same.

To prune away the old growth of sin. To let go of the things that keep us from seeing ourselves as beloved children of a loving God. To let go of the pride that prevents us from loving God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and loving our neighbor as our selves. To let go of the shame that says we are not enough.

And when we do that, we make way for God to bring about new life, new growth in our communities. To cultivate love. To cultivate liberation. And grace, forgiveness, wonder. Resurrection.

God is hard at work, cultivating God’s Kingdom here and now. And the question is: what do you need to let go of, what do you need to cultivate to allow God to bring about the new growth of grace and resurrection in you?

Normally, when we ask questions like that in a sermon, they’re rhetorical. But not this time. This time, it’s an invitation for us to reflect together as a community. The Lent Tree will be with us in the foyer throughout the season of Lent. All of us are invited to participate in this community art project.

All you have to do is take a sheet and complete the prompts - “I hope to let go of…” and “I hope to cultivate…” and drop them in the basket. Throughout this season, members of the community will pray with these intentions and fold the sheets into origami shapes that will appear on and around the tree. Be sure to check back regularly to say a prayer, add a petition, fold a crane, or reflect on the movement of God among us.

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