Over in San Francisco, there is an Episcopal Church – St Gregory of Nyssa – that grounds its worship in the liturgy and worship practices of 4th Century Christianity. That’s very specific, isn’t it? They began in the 1970s as an experimental congregation – still thriving today – with the thought of taking ancient Christian practices – practices from the Byzantine, Jewish, and African world of the Mediterranean – and reviving those practices to create a fresh Word for today.
Their worship endeavors to engage all the senses, in movements and patterns embraced by saints of the church down through the ages. And so, if you worship there, you’ll experience things in worship like incense – invoking the sense of smell. They also have stunning visual art. They use icons as a part of their prayer – images that can help focus and inspire prayer.
In one part of their worship space, in the rotunda above the communion table, they have a mural of icons of the saints – dancing saints. All around and above the communion table the saints of the church... dance – and these are saints, broadly understood – St Francis, St Teresa of Avila, but also Martin Luther, and Martin Luther King, Jr.
In the flow of worship at St Gregory of Nyssa, when they gather for communion – for the Eucharist – the congregation gets up from their seats – and they dance to and around the communion table. It’s like a holy and festive conga line. And there they are, all above and around, the saints who have gone before dancing around the communion table, and the living saints dancing below them. The saints above, the saints here and now, dancing into communion – into life with God and each other – communion and life that reaches back into the past, comes to life in the present, and overflows into a future yet to come.
The Scriptures this morning have that same sense of exuberance and hope, as the Writer greets the saints in the house-church in Ephesus. There’s a good bit we don’t know about this letter to the Ephesians. It’s written in the name of the Apostle Paul, probably not by Paul himself. It doesn’t go into the specifics of their life in community, so we don’t know much about the background of this letter to the Ephesians.
What we do have in Ephesians is the vitalty and vibrancy of its language and imagery. Ephesians overflows – it cascades with exuberant expression of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ – how that love comes to life in God’s New Creation – in the saints – in us – in all of us together, the Body of Christ – cascading imagery of thanksgiving and praise. It is by grace you have been saved, by faith. God has made us alive in Christ, raised us with Christ into the heavenly realms, created us as God’s workmanship to do good in the world, a new creation, the body of Christ. Ephesians overflows with the length and height and breadth and depth of God’s love for us, more than we could ever ask or imagine.
Standing in the flow of that praise, the Scriptures this morning begin with a word of thanks. The Writer writes to the saints in Ephesus, and says, “I give thanks to God every time I think of you.” The Writer remembers the saints, and how he has experienced the fullness of God in them – “the fullness of the One who fills everything in every way.”
Remembering and giving thanks for the saints... we do that on All Saints Day. Celebrating the saints stretches back through the generations. In New Testament times, the word “saints” would have been broadly understood as all those who have gathered together around Christ. Over time, and continuing in Roman Catholic traditions, “saints” came to be understood, experienced, and celebrated as... remarkable human beings... specially gifted... filled with God and faithful to God in ways that were often experienced as miraculous. (We hear that in the broader culture. When someone says, “They are a saint!” – they usually mean that person is particularly good.)
And so, holy days developed to remember and celebrate individual saints... the Feast of St Francis, the Feast of St Clare, the Feast Day of St Anselm (San Anselmo) (which FYI is April 21) – until there were so many individual feast days that it seemed fitting to establish one All Saints Day – November 1 – often celebrated on the First Sunday in November.
Protestant traditions like ours embrace an even broader understanding of saints – in some ways returning to the New Testament understanding. We understand saints to be all those who have gathered in the community of Christ – the living Word of God alive in everyday people like you and like me – in everyone. And so, the Writer of Ephesians can write to “the saints in Ephesus,” and we can greet each other as “the saints of San Anselmo.” With that, we don’t claim to be holier than others. It’s more that we see in each other – and broadly in our humanity – folks who show up in their everyday lives – claim and trust the love of God we find in Jesus Christ – and try our best to live that out in the complexity of our world – to live our imperfect lives well, trusting that in and around and through those imperfect lives, God’s grace abounds.
And with that expansive understanding, we remember and celebrate the saints that we have known. We did that just yesterday when we gathered to celebrate the life of Carland Nicholson – we remembered her love for family – and for God’s creation – and how she taught and led her kids and others into a deeper experience and celebration of the natural world around us. We remembered a saint and gave thanks. Or last month, we remembered Ruth Sempell and all the children she taught over the years. One of her students came and shared how in his 3rd grade year – when the other adults in his life were absent – Ruth had been the one loving, steadying presence he had known. He remembered a saint and gave thanks. Or back at the beginning of this year – we remembered Asma Eschen, who inspired this community here in San Anselmo to partner with communities in Afghanistan to plant trees as signs of peace and love and life in a world torn apart by war. We remembered and gave thanks for her heart of justice and compassion.
In just a moment, during communion, we’ll remember and name the saints we have known and loved who have died this year – in this community and in the families and communities we inhabit. We give thanks for the saints who have blessed our lives, remembering, in the words of Ephesians, how we are rooted and grounded in love.
But neither Ephesians nor All Saints Day looks only back into the past. Both are also very much about the present life of the saints, pulsing in the world today. Rooted and grounded in love, the Writer of Ephesians prays for the life of the saints in the present moment: May you be strengthened with power in your inner spirit; may Christ dwell in your hearts through faith; may you come to know how wide and long and wide and deep is God’s love for us in Jesus Christ – in this moment – may you live the life of the saints for the blessing of the world, right here, right now.
On two very long plane rides last week, I had the chance to think back on the life lived in the communion of the saints here in this place over the past few months. We’ve celebrated the service of the deacons and how they lead us in loving care and tender mercy. We’ve surrounded those who are ill, and together experienced Christ’s miraculous healing. This community launched a community fridge two weeks ago, a place where folks can come and get food. (Sue Neil told me yesterday that most of the food placed there is now gone -and we’re ready for more.) And, there are saints in the church just beginning to talk about how we might become a place that can provide lodging and shelter, where a refugee family might live as they await their asylum hearing. That’s an idea just coming to life – an idea full of possibility. Now I notice all that not to make a claim that any one of us is particularly good – not saints like that – but rather to notice – and give thanks – for how God’s love can come to life in the everyday lives of everyday people, leaning into the love of Christ.
Rooted and grounded in the lives lived here and in the life we live together noq, we glimpse how long and high and wide and deep is the love of God for all creation in Christ Jesus.
But neither Ephesians nor All Saints Day stop there. There’s even more. Both Ephesians and All Saints Day give thanks for the saints who’ve gone before, they breathe in the life we live in Christ today, and... and... they look forward to the saints who are yet to come. The Writer of Ephesians blesses the saints with a prayer to the God who is able to do more than we could ever ask or imagine – a prayer of hope for a future brighter than we could ever ask or imagine – a prayer for the living saints and for the saints who are yet to come. This morning, in communion, we will name not only the saints that have gone before, but also the saints who have been born into our families and our communities this year. And, I think of our Children’s Time, and Cici, and June, and Paula and Hannah, and Anders and Ev, and Phoebe and Quentin – how they already bless us and lead us – as we pray for a future for them and for the whole world better than we could ever ask or imagine.
I think of communion over at St Gregory of Nyssa,
and all the saints who have come before, dancing above us,
the saints we have known, present with us now,
as this morning, there and here, we make our way to the table
in this dance of community, overflowing with love and life.
The invitation to that dance and to this table is broad and expansive –
for everyone, everywhere – for you and for me.
The saints are all those who come to the dance.
And in that dance of the saints, we get a glimpse – a vibrant, living, embodied glimpse, of how long and high and wide and deep is the love of God for us and all creation in Jesus Christ.
Rooted and grounded in the love of all who have gone before,
we stand in this moment, right here right now –
the Body of Christ, the communion of the saints,
and we travel together to the table
with its the bright hope for God’s future –
for our future together with God and with each other –
bigger and better than we could ever ask or imagine.
© 2022 Scott Clark
 For a description of worship and liturgy at St Gregory of Nyssa, see https://www.saintgregorys.org/uploads/2/4/2/6/24265184/worship_at_st._gregorys_1_.pdf  For general background on Ephesians see Pheme Perkins, “The Letter to the Ephesians,” New Interpreters’ Bible Commentary, vol. xi (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2000).  For background on All Saints Day, see PCUSA Book of Common Worship (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 2018), p.383; Joan Chittister, The Liturgical Year (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishing, 2009), pp.195-200.