A Celebration of Life

Scripture can be found here

For everything, there is a season.  

How many of you remember “Jill and Kevin’s Big Day”? This was the name of a video that appeared on Youtube in the summer of 2009, and quickly went viral. It depicted a large wedding party dancing down the aisle of a church to provide an incredibly festive opening to Jill and Kevin’s marriage ceremony. There is something so joyous about it, something, even though it’s choreographed, so spontaneous and beautiful. And since then there have been countless other videos that have appeared—a dance at the reception by the bride and groom, or by the bride and her dad, or by the two grooms, or the two brides; another dance number that takes place trailing behind an open hatchback, as a prelude to a big, public proposal of marriage.

We dance when we’re happy. We dance when we’re celebrating. We dance when we want to be reminded that we are alive. Dancing is a celebration of life. For everything there is a season, and that includes a time to dance.

Not far from the westernmost stretch of I-80, in the Potrero Hill district of San Francisco, you will find Saint Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church. St. Gregory’s has a number of vibrant ministries to the neighborhood, including vital and faithful worship and study, and a large food distribution network to feed the hungry.  

St. Gregory’s is also known for its beautiful and enormous mural of the saints. It fills the walls on every side of the sanctuary’s large rotunda. According to the church website, the huge mural is an icon, traditionally understood to be art that provides a window to the holy. The people of St. Gregory see this icon as:

… a monumental, surprising and powerful statement of faith for the ages, created by artist Mark Dukes with the people of St. Gregory’s. Completed in 2009, it wraps around the entire church rotunda, showing ninety larger-than life saints, four animals, stars, moons, suns and a twelve-foot tall dancing Christ.[i]

Did I mention that the saints are dancing? They are all holding hands, and seem to be caught in the middle of a wonderful dance all around the church. Martin Luther King. Mother Teresa. Charles Wesley. Bishop Desmond Tutu. Notice not all the saints are Episcopalians. In fact, not all the saints are Christian. Rabbi and scholar Abraham Joshua Heschel is there, and school-girl-writer-martyr, Anne Frank, who died in Bergen Belsen Concentration Camp while still a teenager. 

One of the co-founders of St. Gregory’s, Richard Fabian, explains:

The identities of the saints portrayed may surprise some, but for years St. Gregory’s church has fostered a broad idea of sainthood. Our idea of sainthood comes from both the Bible and Gregory’s [writing]. The Hebrew concept of holiness originally had no moral content, but simply meant having God’s stamp on you; being marked and set apart as God’s own.

As the Bible sees it, saints and sinners are the same people. We celebrate those whose lives show God at work, building a deep character to match the godlike image which stamps them as God’s own from the start. Of course God works with more than Christians, and more than Christians are saints.[ii]

And all the saints are dancing, every one.

This morning’s passage from the Hebrew Scriptures reminds us that there is, in fact, a time for dancing.

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.

a time to weep, and a time to laugh;

a time to mourn, and a time to dance…

It may be a little surprising that we’re talking about dancing during our celebration of All Saints. Every year when this day comes around, I notice that the pervasive idea that the word “saint” is a synonym for “a verifiably very-good Christian” is hard to shake—even though the bible makes it clear that even Christian “sainthood” is more about community than perfection. So, here’s my annual reminder that you are a saint of the church, and I am too, and that’s not because of anything great we've done, but just because God drew us, one way or another, into this fellowship of followers of Jesus.

But I find myself drawn to Gregory of Nyssa’s compelling understanding of “saint.” Gregory, who lived in the fourth century, believed that everyone, no matter their faith upbringing, has the capacity to move closer to God, because everyone is made by God, in God’s own image and likeness. We can see little glimpses of that in every human life. We Christians believe that Jesus showed it fully, beautifully, and intensely. By Gregory’s reckoning, we need to be very careful who we exclude from our notion of “the saints.” God’s work of renewing and restoring everything—a new heaven, a new earth, no more tears, a new us—that work is God’s to do, and God gets to decide when and where and who and how.

What if we included among the saints every person, of all religions and of no religion? What if we allowed for the possibility that God is working God’s will in ways we can’t even begin to imagine? What if, in the soul-work of painting, an artist might draw closer to God? What if, in figuring out how to make something work more efficiently or powerfully, an engineer were to actually approach the heart of our Creator God? What if, in laughing, or singing, or dancing, we were able to understand just a tiny bubble of the joy and purpose God has wanted for us from the beginning of creation?

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.

A time to mourn, and a time to dance.

The dancing saints of St. Gregory’s make me wonder whether sainthood isn’t simply about being the most authentically who we already are, living into who God made us to be. This seems, to me, to be the pathway to joy, to satisfaction, and even, to holiness. And hopefully, when we come face to face with God… whether that is a great surprise or exactly what we expected all along… God can say, “Well done, good and faithful servant,” not because we win “best Christian of all time,” but because we spent our lives becoming truly and authentically ourselves, unique and amazing creations of our amazing God.

For everything there is a season. All Saints marks a celebration and remembrance of the saints of our lives—the parenting saints, the working saints, the singing saints, the loving saints; the spouse saints, the coaching saints, the cooking saints, the serving saints; the child saints, the healing saints, the studying saints, the protecting saints. And yes, even the dancing saints. It is a day to celebrate their lives with gratitude, and with prayers that we will continue to grow, no matter our age or stage in life, into the exactly the saints God created us to be.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] St. Gregory of Nyssa Website, https://www.saintgregorys.org/the-dancing-saints.html.

[ii] Op. cit., Richard Fabian, “Who Are These Like Stars Appearing?”