Cut to the Quick
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Cut to the Quick
By Dr. Jeffrey K. London
1) Jesus says, “I am the true vine, and God is like a mother who lovingly and carefully tends the vineyard garden.
2) She wants the vineyard to grow and be prosperous so she removes every branch from the vine that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit she prunes carefully, constructively, and surgically to make it bear more fruit.
3) You, all of you together, are my much loved faithful ones. You continue to be pruned and washed clean by the word that I speak to you.
4) Live forever in me as I have promised to live forever in you. You know that a branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it is intimately connected to the vine, so neither can you live wholly and completely unless you live forever in me.
5) I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who live forever in me and I in them will always, always bear an abundance of good fruit, because apart from me you can’t do a darn thing and all existence becomes nothing but weeds.
6) Why would you choose NOT to live forever in me and become like rubbish that is thrown away into the fire, and burned?
7) If you live forever in me, and my words live forever in you, ask for whatever is faithful, and it will be done for the church.
8) God is overjoyed by this, that you receive pruning in love, that and you grow and bear good fruit, and that you are my friends forever and ever.
I must say, as I look out in this chapel/sanctuary I see a lot of beautiful ladies wearing beautiful flowers. Happy Mother’s Day to all of you!
This is a day of special thanksgiving to God for the love and care of mothers. Mother’s Day may not be a high holy day, it may not even appear on the liturgical calendar, but I’m here to say that maybe it should. Because Mother’s Day not only affords us the opportunity to give thanks for our mothers, but it’s also a time to reflect on the “mothering” attributes of our God. And it’s when we think about the mothering attributes of God that we realize Mother’s Day is both a happy and a sad time. There is great joy that comes with being a mother, having a family, raising children. Those are all things God finds joy in as well. But what happens when a child becomes estranged to the mother, or worse yet when a child dies. God shares an intimate knowledge of the sadness that can come with motherhood too. —
And then, there are those among us for whom Mother’s Day is a difficult time because they’ve wanted to be a mother and for whatever reason have not been able to. Does God know what this is like also? Yes, I believe God is well acquainted with disappointment.
Mother’s Day can really help us to see another side of God
that we may not accentuate enough —
the feeling, emoting side of God
that laughs for joy and cries for sorrow.
But here, in this context of worship, I think Mother’s Day can really help us to see another side of God that we may not accentuate enough — the feeling, emoting side of God that laughs for joy and cries for sorrow. God our “mother” is an image of God that lends itself to thoughts of tenderness and self-sacrifice.
So with all of that in mind, what, pray tell, is our primary text for this Mother’s Day? The Gospel of John’s metaphor of God the vinegrower pruning branches on the vine.
Well, that’s interesting. I don’t know about you, but I don’t find a knife wielding mother particularly comforting. Maybe it’s just me, but I immediately started hearing the theme music from the movie Psycho. The whole concept of “pruning” is not necessarily one that we would connect with motherhood. At least not at first. But let’s think about this. Jesus says, “I am the true vine, and God is like a mother who lovingly and carefully tends the vineyard garden. She wants the vineyard to grow and be prosperous so she removes every branch from the vine that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit she prunes carefully, constructively, and surgically to make it bear more fruit.
The pruning metaphor works best if we think of God as a gardener who grieves while watching a violent storm rip through her beloved garden. Afterward, she tenderly prunes the injured plants in order to guarantee survival and to restore beauty and harmony. But we can’t confuse pruning with the crises that overtake us. No, pruning has more to do with clearing away the debris those crises leave behind.
And there’s one particular brand of crisis that continually calls for pruning. It’s the self-imposed crisis. It’s when we mess up. It’s when we sin that we need pruned the most (Walter Wink, “Abiding, Even Under the Knife,” Christian Century, April 20, 1994).
My mother would prune me.
Now I don’t know how your mother handled discipline, but my mother was pretty good at it. Let’s just say I gave her lots of practice. My mother was very good at staying calm and with a very non-anxious voice she would cut me down to size. But that wasn’t the good part. The good part was that the way my mother practiced the art of accountability. Her criticism was always to the point. The sin was clearly pointed out. But there was also affirmation of some good that I could build upon. In other words, my mother would prune me. She would acknowledge my inherent worth but help me clear away the debris in my life, the things that were unhealthy and only holding me back.
Needless to say, this was not always a painless procedure. But nothing that involves a pruning knife ever is. Yet there’s a big difference in the way a knife is handled. There’s also a big difference in the kind of knife used! My mother’s acts of pruning were more surgical scalpel than slashing machete. Which I am very grateful for.
And yet we all know what it’s like to have someone come at us with the slashing machete. Criticism is not something we deal well with to begin with. So when the criticism is not constructive, when it’s leveled with malice, when it is used to tear down instead of build up we are left bruised and bloodied. Intellectually we may know that this unconstructive criticism is without merit and should be dismissed, but that doesn’t stop it from hurting right in the gut.
If God’s tender upbuilding pruning is the model
then that is what we should expect from one another
and what we should extend to one another.
The other side of the coin is true as well here. When we are called upon to be critical, do we seek to prune in love, or do we go Psycho shower scene. If God’s tender upbuilding pruning is the model then that is what we should expect from one another and what we should extend to one another.
But it’s more than just an individual thing. When Jesus says, “you are the branches” that “you” is plural. Together we are a branch. So another way of hearing this is that God is pruning us, John Knox, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the church universal.
The good news is that God desires for this church
to continue to grow and be productive,
both spiritually and numerically.
The good news here at John Knox is that I think it’s working! The good news is that God desires for this church to continue to grow and be productive, both spiritually and numerically. God desires that our good fruit, our acts of ministry and mission, grow and become more effective, more productive, more prolific. And the good news is that we don’t do this alone. The presence of God is among us empowering us.
Jesus says, “Live forever in me as I have promised to live forever in you.” That’s how we work together with Christ to make good things happen. Our unity with Christ fosters an environment of trust in which we are open to God’s pruning, we are open to the constructive criticism that Christ works among us to grow this church and make us more faithfully productive.
“Cut to the quick” means, literally,
to cut through the skin to the living tissue.
Cut through to the living part, the quick part.
My Scottish grandmother always had a number of antiquated sayings that she’d pepper conversation with. She’d use the phrase “cut to the quick” in referring to what my mother would do when I got in trouble. My grandmother would say, “Jeffrey, my wee lamb, I see that your mother had to cut you to the quick again.” I never really understood what my grandmother meant by this, until one day when I looked it up. “Cut to the quick” means, literally, to cut through the skin to the living tissue. Cut through to the living part, the quick part.
To be cut to the quick can mean to be stung by someone’s harsh criticism, but that’s not what my grandmother meant. I was her “wee lamb” and she understood what my mother was doing to be the necessary pruning I needed in order to be the best and most faithful person I could be. And that’s exactly what God does with us. This worship service can and does function to cut us to the quick. It is an act of pruning in which, through prayer and confession, we are held accountable; through which we’re called upon to offer up the debris of our lives to be cut away — all the while knowing, believing, that the God we know most fully through Jesus Christ loves us and cares for us like a mother loves and cares for her children.
All of these things come together in love
to build us up,
not tear us down.
God’s Word read in the Scriptures and proclaimed in sermon and song also prune us, as do the Sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. All of these things come together in love to build us up, not tear us down. God’s pruning is an act of love that is meant to extol life not extinguish it, commend life not condemn it, protect life not punish it.
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So may we all come to receive God’s pruning not with fear and resistance, but with a new found sense of gratitude and appreciation. May we come to experience God’s pruning us as a congregation and may our faithful growing and blossoming give to God a mother’s joy.
Copyright 2006, Jeffrey K. London. Used by permission.