A few years ago, Lori and I went on a pilgrimage here in California, traveling the length of the state to all 21 California missions founded by 18th century Spanish Franciscans.
As any California fourth grader can tell you, the first mission was founded in San Diego by Father Junipero Serra, and the last mission was founded right over the hill from here in Sonoma.
The missions are strung together along El Camino Real, or what is now Highway 101. Each of the missions is about one day’s horseback ride from the next.
We did not do our pilgrimage by horseback, however. We rented an RV so we could take the dog, and we stayed in campgrounds along the way.
We began in San Diego and visited two missions the first day. It took us two weeks to visit all of the missions, and we lingered in a few places for a few days.
There was something extraordindary about seeing California 30 miles at a time rather than just zipping up and down I-5 at 80 miles an hour.
Some missions, like San Juan Capistrano, were very crowded.
Another, Mission San Antonio, is so isolated on the Central Coast that we had it entirely to ourselves. I had to turn off the lights when we left.
Along the way, we encountered something I was only dimly aware of: the Latin American tradition of la ofrenda.
Each mission had set up tables on All Saints Sunday – and that would be today.
On the tables, people had left photographs and other mementoes of loved ones who had died.
Some Ofrendas were colorfully, even whimsically, decorated, and for a reason. The tables are a way of proclaiming we will not live in fear; we will not be so afraid of death that we forget to live. This is, in fact, the origin of Halloween.
The tables remained in place throughout November, until the first Sunday of Advent, and hence we got to see all of ofrendas at every mission on our pilgrimage.
As we went from mission to mission, I became more entranced by the ofrendas. At mission San Juan Batista there was a table set up with photographs of soldiers from the Salinas Valley who had died in the Iraq war, which was then in full force.
The tables brought home to me the great pain of the missions themselves. There were mass graves for Indians who had died as enslaved laborers.
And yet, there was something about the ofrendas that was cathartic and healing, reminding me that even in great pain, resurrection will come.
Today is one of the great celebrations of resurrection on our calendar: All Saints Sunday, when we remember those saints – and sinners – who have gone before us, and who have made it possible for us to be here, to share this good earth, to enjoy the days we are given.
As we remember the saints today, we also remember the cycle of life and how we are part of that cycle.
We, too, have ofrenda tables, and we’ve put one in the chapel right over here.
I would invite you to bring mementoes of those you want to remember to decorate our ofrenda during the month of November, and we will leave these items here until the first Sunday of Advent.
On All Saints Sunday we stand in a place where the living of this world meet the living of the next. The Celtic mystics call it a “thin place.”
We are surrounded today by the love of so many who have gone before us, and today’s celebration is a way to remind us of they are somehow present still.
For modern, educated, overscheduled people, it is hard to see, hard to touch. We are too skeptical, too rushed to notice. But for those who live close to the earth, it is not so hard to feel the thin places.
I once met a Karuk Indian holy woman, in the Klamath River valley, who told me the souls of her ancestors were alive in the rocks around us. She was talking about the very earth as a thin place.
In Mexico, today is the Day of the Dead, and the cemeteries are filled with food and gifts for the dead.
The biblical authors give us images and metaphors hoping we will catch a glimpse of the thin places.
The prophet Isaiah sees the thin place as a mountain with a feast for both the living and the dead:
“On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines.”
The writer of Revelation could only tell us about this with fantastical images, like this:
“I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more…
“Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”
And we have this gospel story today: Lazarus who is raised from the dead. Jesus goes to Lazarus’s sisters, and as the Gospel of John tells us, he is “greatly disturbed in spirit” when he hears of Lazarus’s death.
In this moment, Jesus shares with them – and us – in our own grief. He binds himself to the pain of our losses.
Then, Jesus goes to the tomb where Lazarus lies, and shouts “Unbind him and let him go.”
In this one grace-filled act for one human being, the Kingdom of God bursts through the thin place into the open, showing that God’s values are grace, mercy and life for all people, one at time.
Life may be cheap in our world, but for Jesus one life is worth the whole world. One act of mercy, one person at a time, is the way of Christ Jesus.
It all adds up.
Each act of grace and mercy leads to another and another, and another.
Jesus will go into every tomb and unbind every one of us and let us go. That is the central meaning of the life of Christ.
In the end, death won’t win.
Love is more powerful, new life and resurrection will come to Lazarus and his sisters, and to all of us.
Yes, we have wounds and tragedies in this life. Bad things do happen to good people.
Even Lazarus and his sisters will eventually pass beyond our horizon and into the next world.
But that is not the end of the story, not for Lazarus, and not for us.
Jesus comes to Lazarus, and comes to us, unbinds us, and shows us a new way to live with hope. New life gets the last word.
This is not just about the next world. It is also about this one. These stories raise for us a challenge about how we live our life in this world.
What if you know to the core of your being that the promise of eternal life is not a reward for the few, but another way of living for the many?
How will you live your life if you know that you are unbound and will live? You get eternity to answer. AMEN