Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.

In our family, it is often joked that when we visit a new city, Janna wants to sit down and enjoy life from a coffee shop, I want to tour every church and cemetery in sight, and our boys want to get as far away from their parents as possible. Fortunately, on Memorial Day weekend, we all agree on leaving town to visit the family cemetery, “decorate the graves,” and afterwards drink coffee – and perhaps enjoy a piece of fresh, rhubarb pie. Although, Memorial Day was intended to be the most sacred and holy day of remembrance across America for honoring and mourning the personnel who died while serving in the Armed Forces, many families, regardless of their ties to the military visit the cemeteries this weekend and catch a memorial service. Others will pause to remember the sacrifice of those who lost their loved ones in war.  These are good and noble ways to honor the hallowedness of this day.

Growing up on Memorial Day, I simply walked through the long lanes of marble stones in the Community Cemetery in Geneva, Minnesota bearing the names of the families I knew, all the  while waiting for the program to conclude with its ceremonial firing of the rifle volley by the American Legion color guard and then the playing of taps. I must admit that I have grown fond of those newer family moments out in the cemetery at Valley Grove, south of Northfield, where Janna and I will one day be buried. There we discard the old winter stubble, dig up the soil, plant new flowers, and then pump the well to water the flowers.  In the cemetery at Valley Grove,  four and five generations of Janna’s family and ancestors are laid to rest. These are the names of the living as well as the dead. The Hopes, the Grindes, the Quies, the Boevers, and Heggedahls, and new names as well. Many of these are families no longer live there, but they come back because they have roots there.

That’s why it puzzles me today that so few people seem to need roots. They certainly don’t seem to need the community that their ancestors did, or perhaps like you and I do. Funeral services in many churches have become a thing of the past, replaced by a celebration of life at almost any venue where there is no prayer, no service, no marked grave, nothing to show that a person ever was. It leaves me to wonder, if a world can forget the generations that went before us so quickly and easily, how will we know what values those past generations stood for, and what we owe to them?  And how will they remember us?

The majority of those buried in the family cemetery in Geneva and at Valley Grove were not so famous that their stories were written down or recorded, but I do know something about who them. They trusted in Jesus’ parting words to his disciples, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nation, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember I am with you always to the end of the age.”  Even before their first church was built, they baptized their children under a great oak tree on the edge of the church yard.  These men and women believed in hard work and so they carved farms out of the legendary Big Woods and broke the land on the great, endless prairies. They hauled away stone and built towns. They believed in God and family and the potential for this new country, they called home.  They cared for their aged parents and grandparents whom they laid to rest beneath the earth. All too often they had to bury their own children as well. They engraved the names of these parents and children on their grave stones because they felt were worth remembering, and they set aside plots of land for themselves for the end of their days. The majority were ordinary names, but all the names, whether they are well-known today or faded and known only to God, they are written in God’s book of life, and these people will never be forgotten by God.  For in God they placed their sacred trust, for he promised that he would be with them always, to the end of the age. That was the hope that sustained them in their last days, and like all other good things from the past that they have given us, they have passed this hope on to us to as well. Finally, when they in turn were laid to rest, they passed on their farms and businesses to their children, along with their love and wisdom and faith. Yes, that generation gave their land to tend, as well as their graves.

Certainly, cemeteries are associated with moments of profound loss and grieving which many prefer to avoid. Death is too close and imminent. Perhaps that’s why so few choose to visit the cemeteries today or linger there long. The men and women who established the cemeteries, however, did not despair and they did not deny this reality.  Instead, they lived with hope, and sculpted these places from the earth as a sign of hope and comfort.  Often placed atop the highest hills with pine trees pointing upward towards heaven, the cemeteries cry out, “See this place and remember it, because God sees it and God will remember it.  For he is with you always to the end of the age.”  These cemeteries are a reminder that God knows everything, including the names and the resting places of those who have gone before us, and he will not forget them. As the Psalmist says, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.” (Ps 116:15).

Of course, some critics today liken the archaic beliefs of heaven and eternity to the task of tending the cemeteries of the earlier generations.  So old school.  After all, countless better informed people today prefer to discount the previous generation of settlers and pioneers and their intentions and efforts as misguided- as well as the teachings which inspired them. The same is said of pastors and churches. Some pride themselves on belittling them by asserting that they did more harm than good. So leave the graves to the pastor.  Let the dead bury the dead. As for the cemeteries? Is that not a job best suited to the Cemetery Board?  Who truly needs roots anyway?

My friends, that’s why I think there is something important, something intangible to yours and my visits to the cemetery to decorate the graves- that we all need to embrace.  And it is out of more than mere sentimentality and responsibility. I think the graves actually tell us something about who we are. Tending a grave and caring for a cemetery is a very real way of saying that you take seriously the values and responsibilities that you have inherited from those who have gone before you. The cemetery is one of the foundational pieces of our historical memory that holds us together as a society and keeps us stable. It reminds us of what we have been given from the past, and what we will have to pass on one day.  It is a confidence and hope in God, the family and the future, and he will be with us always- even in death.

That is the responsibility we share this Memorial Day as a nation, as we remember those who have lost their lives in service to others. How you choose to honor the dead says a lot about how you look at life. May you be guided in your remembrance by the Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.