Texts: Revelation 7:9-17; 1 John 3:1-3; Matthew 5:1-12
Years ago…oh, it was a long time ago. Back in my tour bus driving days in Alaska. The tour company dispatcher used to assign me quite regularly to a tour of the Colony farms of the Matanuska Valley some forty minutes outside of Anchorage.
The Colony was established in 1935 when over two hundred farmers, affected by the Great Depression were relocated with their families. As I recall, they were given 35 acres of cleared land, tools, seeds, a cabin, and a barn. The barns were distinctive, with logs for the lower walls, and finished lumber for the upper story. You can still see a few in the valley today.
Despite all the provisions, the farmers arrived late in the short Alaska growing season. The winter was hard. Many gave up and left to find other work in the lower 48. But some made it.
The tour took in the scenic landscape, the broad river full of glacial silt, and the towering mountains. There were several stops along the way. One of which was at a Colony farm, still under original ownership. The farmer was up in years, but still growing vegetables, including the improbably outsized cabbages and pumpkins resulting from the midnight sun and the fertile soil.
As we pulled up, Bill, the farmer would come out. He’d climb on the bus and use the microphone to tell his story of arriving as a young man to begin a new life in the valley. He’d answer a few questions and then invite people to come see the enormous cabbages that grew right to the side of the farm lane.
One day after the people exited the bus, and wandered toward the fields. Bill and I remained standing there. He turned to me and his eyes, I could see, were filled with tears. He began to sob and to mumble something, but for the life of me I could not understand what he was saying.
The only sense I got was that he was grieving. For what or whom I did not know. But his sadness seemed very deep.
I remember how awkwardly I waited for him to compose himself. The only thing I could think to do was give him a gentle hug. I could feel through his bib overalls his thin, worn body. He was well into his eighties at the time. Eventually Bill got himself back together. The people returned and we resumed the tour. I had no time to think about what had happened until later.
After I returned that evening to the living quarters I shared with several other tour drivers I asked them if any of them knew what was going on with Bill. No one did. Someone wondered if Bill had gotten into the whiskey bottle that day. The next time I saw Bill he was fine and we never discussed what had happened.
Perhaps this seems like a strange story to tell on All Saints Sunday. And perhaps you are wondering if I experienced something of holiness with Bill that day. I wish I had.
Instead, I’m thinking about how little prepared I was to tenderly receive and hold the man’s wordless grief and burden that day. To care about his struggles. It takes more life experience than I had, more compassion and more wisdom.
I’ve shared this story because it makes me think of what it takes to bear the name “saint”; to be one of God’s holy ones. If we define a saint, or “holy one” as the New Testament does, it’s not something we achieve. Holiness is the effect of God’s gradually clothing people with more and more layers of grace to grow in compassion and wisdom. Holiness happens as we practice putting on Christ, and the ways of being as Jesus was, ever more each day.
When we are baptized into Christ, we make a covenant with God to embrace holiness. Some people get on it sooner than others. But we’ve all got to begin somewhere, somehow.
God’s holy ones are being formed everywhere. For as John’s Revelation says, God’s holy ones are people of every nation tribe, people, and language. There is a hiddenness to holiness too. The letter of 1 John says that God’s children are not known outwardly.
God’s faithful ones also watch and wait to see God as God is. Holy ones practice hoping purely for what is pure and holy. In Matthew 5, Jesus teaches that as people live faithfully before God whatever the cost may be, God more than restores whatever is spent in that pursuit.
The insistent lines of Matthew’s beatitudes bring us the voice of Jesus saying O the blessedness of, O the blessedness of, O the blessedness of… Over and over Jesus names the blessedness of being God’s people. This word blessed does not mean holy. The word means fortunate, happy.
The beatitudes are a litany of circumstances and practices that bring people close to God. Poverty of spirit, the experience of inconsolable loss, vulnerability, starving for what is right by God, exercising mercy, purifying the heart, being peaceable, being tormented for standing up for all that is good. By these things people are laid bare.
These are not requirements to be blessed or to bless. But to those experiences God’s answer is always to promise a reign in which these things no longer prevail. That is, God’s reign.
And that’s not all. It seems to me there is even more to what Jesus is teaching through the beatitudes. That blessing - happiness and good fortune in God - is already ours. Because of Jesus Christ. It is not a future state of being. We know it as we give blessing to others.
It’s also that the reign of God is already here. We do not have to wait for it. Because of Jesus Christ. We actually even become the reign of God as we are more and more Christ’s living presence to others. And God knows our world needs more of Jesus.
Now, all these years later I think that what happened that day in the Matanuska Valley beside the giant cabbages wasn’t so much a tour of a farm. It was a part of the journey of discipleship in Jesus Christ. However insensible I was to it at the time, it was just one of God’s many invitations to a young tour bus driver to become more clothed in the splendid and holy garments of faith. To become a source of blessing to others, and thereby to be blessed. Amen.
The Rev. Beth Purdum Eden is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church. She has served in more than 6 parishes in the Western United States for 30 years.