Before I began to follow after Jesus, I was like a branch hoping for nothing higher than that I should be good firewood. My aspirations for my life were to burn long, burn well, and burn bright. I wanted to contribute some small light of insight to humanity to help hold at bay the void blank expanse of all that we cannot know. I wanted to provide some small warmth in a cold world, like an open fire on a winter’s night. I wanted at least those closest to me to find comfort in how I lived.
I felt the most I could ever do was burn myself up, burn myself out, turn from ashes backs to ashes, consumed and gone but having made some small difference for having lived, held back the cold and indifferent night as long as my life should endure until, consumed and dry and ashen I would blow away with the wind and return to the dust so that the next generation could make of themselves the fuel for the fire. It was the human project as I could see it, to keep the fire burning no matter what. Before I began to follow Jesus, I was like a branch whose highest aspiration was to be good firewood, never knowing that I was made for something more, never knowing that I was drawn from a vineyard and made to bear fruit.
Jesus says that we are made to bear fruit. Now, understand that fruit is not something at which it is beautiful to look. Fruit is not something sweet and delightful to consume, nor is fruit the result of work, the proof of productivity. Fruit has seeds in it. Fruit bears the possibility of life within it. It has the capacity to grow far beyond itself, to grow into something new that has a life of its own. That is what fruit is. We are like branches. A branch can bear fruit, that fruit can grow into a new branch, it can itself bears fruit, and on and on, one branch multiplying a hundredfold, growing to be something far greater than any one branch could ever be on its own. A branch can live and grow and die, but a seed can become a vineyard.
The Christian life aims to be more than firewood burning ourselves up to hold back the night. We are made to bear the fruit of new life. To be a Christian is to know that Heaven on earth is to come from our hands, the work we do is to be shot through with new life, with the possibility of eternity, as small as a grape seed today, but a vineyard covering the whole world tomorrow. We are made to bear the fruit of a new world into being, a world that God dreams of, of plenty for all, and dignity for all.
Understand, please, that this is not delusion nor is it self-congratulation. Bearing the fruit of new creation into being will not come from my own personal efforts. I am just a single branch. A single branch on its own can work itself down to ashes, but fruit will not come because the branch has nothing deeper than itself upon which to draw. To bear fruit, to bring into being something of new life, the branch must live as a part of a great vine. To change the world into the way God dreams it could be, we as Christians must be a part of God. We must live in God and draw our strength from God like a branch growing from a vine. If the branch lives in the vine, if we live in God, then flowing through us can come the water drawn up by the vine’s great broad roots reaching into the deeps of mystery, more than we could ever need or even fathom. A branch can bear fruit, we can bring God’s dream to fruition, because something flows through us, something higher and more elemental than us takes what we can do and turns it into new life, as small as a grape seed today, a vineyard stretching to eternity tomorrow.
It is actually easy to tell when God is at work in something. It is easy to tell when the God of life takes what we ourselves can do and multiplies it a hundredfold, gives it a life of its own far beyond what we could accomplish. Since I have become a follower of Jesus, I have personally witnessed what it is like when God flows through the faithful and makes their work fruitful, gives it a life all its own. A church in Chicago that brought a city together in mourning the deaths of young people of color, with a Franciscan monk teaching Latin chant and finding Latin blended beautifully when sung in Englewood accents. A church in Minneapolis that sought to build supportive housing for people transitioning from living on the street and found in the residents, not passive recipients of charity, but good neighbors and strong partners in mission. This church taking blue and yellow yarn and finding ourselves not just making scarves, but stitching the spirit of the marathon back together. And then again at this church, we opened a daytime warming center for our unhoused neighbors not knowing what to expect, not knowing if anyone would show up. What came was the life giving community we call #BostonWarm, a flowering, fruitful ministry in the midst of a killing cold.
The ministry of #BostonWarm has born much fruit in four months. It has taken on a life of its own, born fruit far beyond what we could have expected. That is how you know God was in it. It started small, like a grape seed, a roughhewn stone walled room with a heavy fire door, checkered cloths on folding tables, a curtain hung around a half dozen green cots, the ready smile of David Albaugh, the kind heart of Rebecca Bowler, conversations over cribbage and countless PB&J sandwiches and the smell of coffee. As weeks turned to months, the fruit began to grow. We saw it in the honesty of Tom Monohan, and in free haircuts, and close calls with deadly addiction, and in stillness of a plastic bin that no one would ever come claim again. Almost before it made sense to check for any progress on the small seed, the ripe fruit was already on the vine. Something had come into being, something new. What came into being was a community of unhoused persons partnered with volunteers together creating a place of dignity and respect for children of God. It is a foretaste of the realm of God. We have seen it: The fruit of new creation.
Remember, fruit is not something delightful to behold, or sustaining of the body, or nourishing to the spirit. Fruit has seeds in it. That is what makes it fruit. Fruit has the possibility of new life within it. That is what makes fruit so precious. The possibility of something new.
#BostonWarm is a fruit born of God, and I wonder, what will this grow into? What will be next? I do not know. Tomorrow, the #BostonWarm day center will change from being open five days a week to two days a week. The killing cold is gone. The need for this church to shield our brothers and sisters from winter within the strong arms of this house of God has come to an end. But our ministry with these sisters and brothers, that is just at its beginning. A grape seed today and tomorrow? God knows what it will be.
Branches and vines and vineyards, fruit and fire, God and humanity, work and life and meaning and what does it all amount to in the end? This life we lead, this work we do, these years that are given to us, the good we seek, the lives we touch, the love we share, this Jesus we follow calling us to live in Him as he lives in us, what does it all amount to? I do not know. But I believe that new life and new ministries will grow and ripen, new leaders from among the congregation will step forward, lives that have turned a corner will be forever changed and something will come to fruition that is greater and harder and higher and holier than what we could do by ourselves. I also believe that on the other side of the veil of tears, when God wakes you from death and welcomes you into the realms of light, it will not be very different at all from the way Rebecca Bowler wakes our guests from their sleep, with a gentle touch, and calling them each by name.