Of Saints and Blessing

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All Saints Sunday
November 6, 2011
Revelation 7:9-17
Matthew 5:1-12
Peder Stenslie

There’s a beautiful symmetry in our Old Testament and Gospel lessons today. In Matthew we hear the famous “Sermon on the Mount.” Jesus declares as blessed those who seem to be anything but blessed.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit….”
“Blessed are those who mourn.…”
“Blessed are the meek….”
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness….”
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake….”

These blessed ones are people who live in this world and whose lives here are hard and heavy… their lives, in fact, look rather cursed.

The passage from Revelation, on the other hand, looks forward into the future and describes a vision of life not of this world. It is life beyond death… with God. It is heaven.

In this passage, the seer of the vision is asked to explain, “Who are these robed in white? Who is this uncountable multitude of people standing before the throne of God?” The seer doesn’t know. And so he is told:

“These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb…. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more … and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

Do you see the symmetry? The suffering ones who Jesus saw on earth, whom he pronounced as blessed… these same ones appear again in the vision of heaven described in Revelation with their blessing now embraced in its fullness. It’s beautiful.

However, we often make the mistake of thinking that the blessing declared on these people in Matthew is something they must wait for. They suffer now… in this life… in this world; but in the next life, they will know blessing.

But that isn’t right. The text from Matthew is clear. The blessing is expressed – repeatedly – in the present tense: “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” It is true that each of the blessings leans into the future… leans toward the vision described in today’s Revelation passage. But the blessing begins in the present. The grammar of the original Greek makes that clear; so does the whole body of scripture, and so do the lives of saints that have gone before us.

We can learn a lot from the lives of those who lived before us; and so, on All Saints Sunday, we often pause to consider who they were and what they knew in life.

I never met my great grandfather Johan Wennerstrom; but his life has helped me understand the full breadth of what it means to be blessed by God.

Johan was born in Sweden to an unmarried servant girl. He and his mother were very poor. (And let me tell you, poor in Sweden in the mid-1800s was really poor). As a young child he stayed with his mother while she worked. He once wrote of his memory of her: “Strong as a bear out in the woods, you toiled the whole day through.”

Like other poor children of Sweden, he presumably went to 4 years of school, where he learned the basics of reading and writing, and then started working himself.

At age 14, we know he was on his own. He left his mother – he had no home – and moved from farm to farm working for landowners. The work was hard, food was scarce and life was bitter. He had no money, no property, no status, no home… no future. He later wrote about his memory of this time… that it “stung the heart and the hands” and that he “had to work like a slave.”

As a young man, he married a woman with an infant daughter. In search of a better life, they left the land of their birth… they left everything they ever knew… forever… and moved to America. But here life was still very hard. Johan worked in the copper mines of Michigan for a few years, but that didn’t hold much promise. So he and two friends set out for Minnesota and spent a winter living in a cave there. He went there to clear some forest acres for a farm, and there his family settled down and scratched out a life.

Johan’s childhood was very bitter. As a young adult, he faced terrible trials and hardships. As a grown man, a husband, a father and a farmer, life continued to be very hard. One of the worst moments was losing a daughter in a tragic accident on the farm. After such experiences, one might expect a man to become bitter and angry. One might expect him to give back what he got; but that didn’t happen.

Somehow my great grandfather’s heart was gripped by the love of God. Somehow, in the midst of his sorrows and hardships God’s blessing was given, just as the Gospel of Matthew promises. And here’s an important thing to remember… he didn’t have to wait for death to know this blessing. Blessing unfolded in his life as he lived his life.

He understood this himself and mentioned it frequently in poems he wrote. In many of these poems, he writes about the pain and struggle of his life. He describes sorrow and hardship and failure in earthly life. But then he interweaves these laments with mention of the gifts of God that give him strength, hope and joy.

He mentions reading God’s word “to find strength for my hope, my faith.” He mentions prayer, the hope of heaven… hearing the voice and promise of Jesus. He mentions the gift of love, family, friends, music and the presence of Christ.

He was very aware of the blessings of God that made his life wonderful in spite of the hard circumstances that he always faced.

And like ripples on water spreading out when a stone hits the surface, these blessings of God were passed from him on to the lives of others.

I never met him, but from the stories of his children I know he was a warm and loving father, a devoted husband. He became a leader of his church and community. Johan made sure his daughters got college educations – which was very unusual in the early 1900s. He marched in a women’s suffrage parade in Detroit Lakes.

He died in 1936 at the age of 75, as the result of an attack by a bull on his farm. With that, his life in this world was over. What lay ahead of him was the final fulfillment of blessing described in today’s text from Revelation.

But here on earth, even after his death, the ripples of his blessed life continued to move through the lives of others. All of his children were deeply marked by the love of God that had claimed him. I never met my great grandfather; but I did know his son, my grandfather, and he was a wonderful man. I know that my mother’s gentle and kind nature and her faith in God were nurtured by him, and she in turn nurtured the same in her own children. And there sit my children… and I know that a piece of the blessing God gave to Johan Wennerstrom… a man I never met… lives in them.

I don’t know when or how the love of God first came into my great grandfather’s life; but I do know what a difference that love made! It brought blessing in the form of love, strength and joy that enriched his own very hard life. But the blessing didn’t end there. After his life on this earth was over, the light of that blessing continued to shine as it continued through generations that followed him. That is the nature of God’s blessing.

The life of Johan Wennerstrom has impressed on me how we need to see our lives in a larger context. See that our immediate life circumstances — whatever they may be — aren’t the only powers that shape us. God promises us that beyond all powers of this world, more powerful than any circumstances of our life, his power can and will bless us and make our lives a blessing.

A major theme of All Saints Sunday is God’s blessing. One of the things we do is give thanks for the blessing God has worked in his people who have gone before us… who are no longer with us. We give thanks because we are happy that they
knew God’s love in their lives and that now they are free to receive the fullness of God’s goodness and presence.

And we give thanks for them because we recognize that the blessing God gave to them has been a gift to us as well. We are better, healthier, happier people because they lived in our world. They knew God’s love and shared it with us and others.

And finally, All Saints Sunday is a time for us to look and give thanks for the blessing of God that we know will continue in and through us, passing in time from us to others, even to people we will never know.


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