The gospel of full cemeteries and empty churches.
A sermon of faithfulness preached from six-feet-under.
This article was originally written for Mockingbird.
Have you ever slept next to a cemetery? My wife and I did for nearly twelve months. And there were times when it was as unnerving as it sounds. Regardless what your beliefs are concerning ghosts or zombies, cemeteries represent eerie plots of ground. Especially at night, when it’s foggy, and there’s the howl coyotes in the distance. (That really happened.) I’m not trying to be hyperbolic or anything, but that was all we knew when we first moved to Pennsylvania. Making the move from sunny Florida to rural Pennsylvania brought with it the weighty responsibility of pastoring a church. It also meant living in proximity to a very full cemetery.
(The church to which I was called graciously arranged for my family and I to stay in the on-site parsonage of another church. This act of unmeasured generosity meant that Natalie and I didn’t have to shoulder the added pressure of finalizing housing on top of uprooting our entire lives and adjusting to a new way of life in a new region of the country. But, even still, within that arrangement, we found ourselves sleeping next to neighbors who were all six-feet-under.)
There is something sobering about walking through a graveyard, especially one to which you have no connections. Each step equates to decades of history, of memories, of experience, of life. Each tombstone represents a life fully lived. Passing through the rows of buried souls brings with it an immense existential reality check.
Graveyards aren’t haunted by ghosts, but the long forgotten legacies of the dead. Often cloistered in our own little worlds, we rarely have the bandwidth to entertain the idea that there are others who have needs, desires, hopes, dreams, etc., too. Graveyards unlatch our hearts to at least consider, in the words of Dr. Frasier Crane, that maybe Copernicus was right, and “you are not the center of the universe!” Though jarring, there’s something hopeful about that. Sauntering through a church cemetery and seeing gravestone after gravestone makes my mind wander, speculating about what sort of moments those saints and sinners experienced. If those bones could talk, oh the stories they would tell. Even though many of the grave-markers of our neighbors were of individuals whose lives ended well before the First World War, I like to think of each of them as having lived in ways that are not too dissimilar to our own. And in that way, strolling through the cemetery can be quite sermonic. You see, for me, the hope of a full cemetery is the hope of a padlocked church.
There’s a coffee shop a short drive from my house that has become a favorite of mine to meet parishioners, read, and study. And I think it has to do with the atmosphere. You see, this particular coffee shop is housed in an old church building. It is a stirring experience to sip on an espresso in what used to be the sanctuary, the hardwood floors still bearing the evidence that pews used to occupy the space that leather couches and industrial metal tables now inhabit. The halls no longer are privy to bishops and sinners but to baristas and salted caramel macchiatos. Where once the good news of Christ’s reconciliatory death was served up every Lord’s Day now is a place that only serves up medium hot cortados.
A padlocked church ought not make us wholly downcast. Nor should one that is now a café. Because even in the face of those disconsolate changes, there is an element of hope there. It is the same hope which breathes even in places where the dead sleep. Closed churches and full cemeteries stand as monuments to the persistence of the church against the crosswinds of time. The faith of those who’ve long since passed fertilizes the ground upon which our faith thrives. The previous year’s crops, which today look like death, give birth to the seeds of next year’s harvest (John 12:24). Our faith — “the faith which was once delivered unto the saints” (Jude 1:3) — is a faith of death and resurrection. The beloved Robert Capon captures this well in his treatment on The Parables of Grace, writing:
Death and resurrection are the key to the whole mystery of our redemption. We pray in Jesus’ death and resurrection, we are forgiven in Jesus’ death and resurrection, and we forgive others in Jesus’ death and resurrection. If we attempt any of those things while still trying to preserve our life, we will never manage them. They are possible only because we are dead and our life is hid with Christ in God (Col. 3:3). And they can be celebrated by us only if we accept death as the vehicle of our life in him. (71)
There are times when we can become more than a little conceited about the day-and-age in which we live. As Dave Zahl asked at the beginning of 2020, almost prophetically, “Doesn’t every generation believe they are living through the ‘end of history’?” Indeed, we do. Each year brings with it some seemingly portentous threat that’s forecasted to shake life as we know it from off its relatively comfortable moorings. Concurring with Dave’s assessment, “There’s something deeply hubristic in the conviction that our specific problems will be the ones to do in the human race.” As if we are the ones to bring in or do in God’s kingdom. As if the hope of the ages rides on us and how successful we are. As if we are the gears that keep the engine of God’s purposes continually churning forward.
The deluge of seeming apocalyptic evidence right outside your window makes ours a top-tier time in which to embark on a Sherlockian quest to figure out where we might be on the eschatological timeline. Such endeavors prove, in short order, to be overwhelming. The burden of contextualizing our days is not one you and I were meant to bear, despite how thrilling it might be for some of us to attempt to do so. For the past twenty-four months, nearly every media outlet has ran reports on the varying degrees at which our world is burning. And there’s a lot of variance there because some seem to be gauging everything in Celsius, others in Fahrenheit, and others in Kelvins. And the conversion chart has long since been lost. The end of all things feels incredibly near, so it seems. But what if that were not the case? What if we are not able to see the ins-and-outs of our days? Illustrator and essayist Tim Kreider alludes to this in a commencement address he composed for the class of 2020, many of whom were never afforded a “graduation moment.” He writes:
We’re constantly rewriting the narratives of our lives, and the more time and perspective we have, hopefully, the clearer our understanding becomes; to paraphrase a saying, our journals are the first rough draft of our personal histories. And, like breaking news, they’re rife with misinformation and more heavily censored than we realize. We’re very unreliable interpreters of the present; what we think is happening is — though we may not realize it till years later — not what’s really going on at all. We don’t know what the present is for, any more than I know what an essay is going to turn out to be about when I start writing it.
The reason contextualization remains forever beyond our reach is mostly because we are too given to sensationalization. The moments we encounter and events we endure do not have concrete endings, leaving the implications of the present to be determined by those who dwell in the future. Our sensationalism, however, is motivated by that old menace known as Control. We bow to that master, hoping beyond hope that our next act of obeisance will afford us some measure of the supposed peace that comes from him. Sensationalizing and contextualizing our times is, in effect, our attempt to administrate the narrative of our lives. But, counterintuitively, it is only as we surrender the narrative writing grip of our lives that we ever understand who we were made to be. Grace announces that our stories have all been written already, in the red-blood-ink that spills down Golgotha’s tree. Such is the place where the Good Seed has fallen to the ground dead, paving the way for resurrection and new life. Such is the good news that never ages, never wanes, never fades.
A cemetery that’s full and a sanctuary that’s padlocked tell us a biting bit of good news. Namely, that you and I aren’t that important. God’s plans and purposes with this world are not dependent upon us. They’re dependent upon him and his sheer faithfulness. Jesus’s death and resurrection liberate our faith to work itself out in love (Gal. 5:6). We can keep going, keep pressing forward, keep leaning in and holding on to what God’s doing — precisely because, as we’re told in his beloved Word, only God is sovereign over what he’s doing. His plans for us, and for this place, are unstoppable, informing us that the death of some things means the birth of others. His work persists even if we do not. Generations after you and I are dead and gone, the work of Christ will still abound and advance. Even though you and I will pass away, his Word will not (Matt. 24:35).
Robert Capon, The Parables of Grace (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996).