The End of the Road – Last Service of Patterson Avenue Baptist

The End of the Road
John 12:24 (NIV)

24 Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.

Last Sunday, it was brought to my attention that an unattended closet in the education wing contained several volumes of church minutes, many dating back to the mid-1800s. These documents were in rough shape. Many of the pages had withered over time. Monday, I gathered these materials and transported them to the Virginia Baptist Historical Society where they will be repaired and properly preserved.

When I had finished this work; my hands and clothing were covered by layers of dust. I was quite literally covered with the dust of our ancestors.

I was reminded of that line from the Burial Rites in the Book of Common Prayer. A Priest stands near a casket, holding a fist full of dust. Dropping the dust to the ground, the minister says:

… we commend to Almighty God our brother (or sister) and we commit their body to the ground; earth to earth; ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

That’s how I felt on Monday as my body was covered with the ancient dust of our ancestors. That’s how many of us feel today in this, our final worship gathering. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

One of those volumes contained the congregational records from 1954. In those pages I found a letter of agreement declaring the church’s intention to purchase the 4300 block of Patterson Avenue. The property was sold to our congregation by the Reveille United Methodist Church for $12,500.00

When our ancestors eventually took possession of this property, it was established as a second site for what was then called Park View Baptist. Working under the supervision of Dr. Emmitt Robertson, students preparing for ministry at the University of Richmond conducted worship gathering, Bible studies, and other activities commonly associated with a church. For more than sixty years, this city block has been a gathering place for worship and a beachhead of ministry.

As I found myself covered in the dust of our ancestors, I thought about the awesome responsibly laid out before us. That dust – those volumes of minutes – contained the physical and spiritual DNA of those who came before us. That dust was the stuff of our ancestor’s lives. The stories told in those volumes are sacred material. Today we hold up the sacred dust of our common life and as it falls to the ground, we say: ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

Today we have reached “the end of road.”

Some of us might bristle at the thought. We do not like the bluntness or finality of that phrase. But for the Patterson Avenue Baptist Church, bluntness and finality is the tone for the day. For our congregation, this is “the end of the road.”

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

Today is the final worship gathering our congregation. Next Sunday, those of us who have been Patterson Avenue Baptist will wake up, dress in our Sunday best, drive to worship, not know where we are going. Even if we have preplanned the location, everything will be new, different, and unique. And there will be a part of us on the inside that feels like something has died. And maybe we will hear those words:

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

It’s “the end of the road” for our congregation. I imagine we might feel a bit like that proverbial seed that Jesus references in the verse I quoted moments ago. Like that seed, we are falling to the ground to die. This is our final hour. This is our last gathering. This is “the end of the road.”

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

This is not a new emotion for us. We have experienced these feelings before. Sometimes life is touched by sadness and sorrow.

I remember visiting a man shortly after his wife died. It was an unexpected death. He met me at the door and said, “Pastor, please do not tell me she is in a better place. Today all I know is that she is gone and I will never see her again.”

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

Several years ago, Chad Snead (then maybe five years old) had a conversation with my daughter, Michelle. Chad asked Michelle if I (her father) was the owner of our church.

Michelle said: “No, the church belongs to God. My dad is the preacher at the church.”

Chad responded, “So, what does a preacher do? Does he KILL people?”

That’s not really that odd of a question. Our congregation has dealt with a lot of funerals. Nearly 75% of our membership has died over the last several years. I have stood before you to officiate most of those funerals. For a long time, death has been a topic of conversation among us.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

About a year ago, as we gathered for worship, I remember looking out at the congregation as we were singing a hymn. I realized that in the previous year I had conducted a funeral for a family member of every person present that morning worship. That’s a lot of grief to pack into one auditorium.

That’s what it feels like at “the end of the road.”

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

It’s not just death. Young adults from area universities moved into different communities to start careers. High school students moved to different and often faraway places to pursue their life’s dreams and ambitions. Others have migrated to other parts of the country. Still others have become homebound or moved to nursing homes. All of this happened at the same time. It was as if we blinked and the size of our congregation decreased by 75%.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

There is some place in your life that deals with this kind of heartache, isn’t there? Some area of grief; some place of sorrow; some feeling of loss; some area of struggle. There is something that robs you of hope and leaves you feeling despair. There is some place in your life where it feels like a priest is dropping the sacred dust of your life, saying:

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

That’s what it feels like at “the end of the road.”

Our congregation has been on this journey for the last several years. We explored options. We pursued mergers. We sought creative ways to share space and limit expenses. We engaged in outreach activities to build connections to our community. At best, all we have been able to achieve was postponement of the inevitable.

Today we have arrived at the inevitable. Today we are at “the end of the road.” Today, we speak over the sacred life we have shared together, saying:

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

For each of us, grief comes and goes. People live and die. We know that. Each of us has probably visited a funeral home or a cemetery to honor a recently departed friend or family member.

For each of us, grief comes and goes. Institutions live and die. As I have reminded you on several occasions, each of the congregation’s mentioned in the Bible – the Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians and the rest – are now nothing more than dust in some Near Eastern archeological dig. They each reached “the end of the road.”

In the United States, 10 churches close daily. That’s 70 churches this week. It doesn’t make us feel any better to know that we are just one among many. But it does help us realize that what’s happening with us is a part of the cycle of life and death. Congregations die. But new ones are given birth.

We don’t like that, but we understand it.

And we know something else. This experience of death – this feeling that we are at “the end of the road” – was something God chose to take into God’s Self. That’s what we affirm when we express our belief that God in Christ Jesus took up a cross. On that day, Jesus traveled the way of suffering and arrived at “the end of the road.” We can talk about resurrection, and we should. But resurrection is preluded by death. Jesus died. In that moment we believe that God fully identified with our deepest anguish by taking death into God’s own experience.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

At the beginning of this sermon, I referred you to some words of Jesus, where he says, “…unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.”

This was more than sage advice about the circle of life. What Jesus was doing was foreshadowing his own death. Jesus would be the grain of wheat that falls to the ground. Jesus would be the seed that dies

Let that sink in. That’s the message of the cross. Its agony is real. Its death is real. Understand today, in this dark moment of our grief, that God understands our sorrow. God chose to identify with our humanity.

I say this to you to simply remind you that in those dark moments of grief and pain, you are not alone. God understands. God has chosen to identify with us in both life and death. God is with us even at “the end of the road.” God never has and never will desert us.

Maybe we can pause and simply appreciate the fact that God does not remove God’s self from the reality of human brokenness, pain, suffering and sorrow.

When my son Michael was about seven years old, we had a conversation after attending a funeral for a seven year old boy and his father, both killed in a car crash by a drunk driver.

“Daddy, are we going to die, too?” Michael asked.

How do you answer a question like that from a seven year boy old without scaring the hell out of him?

Of course, the answer is yes. My son is going to die. I am going to die. You are going to die. If it is not a car crash that takes him – it will be cancer, or heart attack, or earthquake, or a terrorist attack, or crime, or war, or maybe, if he is lucky, extreme old age. But he is going to die.

Michael is now in the Engineering School at the Virginia Commonwealth University. Just a few months ago at VCU a young man Michael’s age, and also a student in the engineering school, was shoot dead near campus in a random act of violence.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

Death is on the horizon for all of us. From the moment of our conception, we begin a journey toward “the end of the road.” We are all dying. Some day a minister will stand over the sacred dust of our life and commend it to God.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

But here is the GOOD news. God does not desert us, even when we arrive at “the end of the road.” God is with us. God weeps with us in abiding love. God knows first-hand what it means to suffer and bleed. God knows what it means to come to “the end of the road.”

No amount of pretend can make this day any less than what it is. No pabulum of pious rhetoric could make the grief of this day feel any less tragic. We are gathered to declare:

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

But there is still a message of hope. There is resurrection. Out of death, something new is born. Mixed within that sacred dust is a seed. As we die, that seed falls to the ground. And in the ground, surrounded by the dust of our ancestors, God causes that seed to sprout to new life.

It is the end of the road for Patterson Avenue Baptist. But in this place, life will continue. This place will remain a place of worship. This house will remain a place of service to humanity.

So we say WELCOME to Movement Church.

This week you take possession of this facility. Something new is about to be born in this place. I ask you to remember that what is born here has been touched by the sacred dust of our ancestors. It has been touched by the sacred dust of Patterson Avenue Baptist Church. Remember us. Remember the gift God has inspired us to entrust into your stewardship. Honor our history. It is now a part of your history.

You share some of our DNA now. It’s all over you in this place. No paint job, cleaning solution, or rearrangement of furniture will change that.

And not only that, remember the shared connect we have in Jesus Christ. He is called Rabbi (our teacher) by those who follow him.

Rob Bell reminds is that disciples are called to live in such proximity to Rabbi Jesus that His life will become OUR lifestyle. Disciples are invited to learn what the Rabbi knows, do what the Rabbi does, and live as the Rabbi lives.

In Jesus day, whenever a Rabbi would come to town, he would be surrounded by the disciples who were devoted to following their teacher. Wherever the Rabbi went, they went. Whatever the Rabbi ate, they ate. Whatever the Rabbi stepped in would also be caked on their sandals at the end of the day.

Rabbis were passionate and animated. As they traveled from one place to the next, they would literally kick up a cloud of dust. Whatever the Rabbi kicked up during the day would be all over his disciples by night

This prompted one of the Sages from the Mishna to offer this blessing to those who had taken on a life of discipleship. The blessing was simple this:

“May you be covered in the dust of your Rabbi!”

The Spirit of Jesus has kicked up a lot of dust in this place over the years. And now the Spirit of Jesus is going to kick up even more dust in the ministry of Movement Church. On this day, Patterson Avenue Baptist falls to the ground and dies. But the dust of our lives is the seed bed for something new to be birthed.

So, we die…but we die with hope.  And we close remember some additional words from the funeral rite in the Prayer Book.  As a service concludes, minister and people will say:

“All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”

Yes. Even at the grave, we must make our song.


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2 Responses to “The End of the Road – Last Service of Patterson Avenue Baptist”

  1. Deb Mills says:

    We are out of town at a wedding on Aug. 20 and were so sad to miss this service. As members of Movement Church, we continue to be amazed at the generosity of Patterson Ave. Baptist Church. So so thankful. We did visit your church a couple of weeks prior to this last Sunday. We were so taken by the kind and engaging treatment we received from so many. What a great body of believers. I know in the period of renovation, many will settle elsewhere, and maybe not consider Movement as their church home, but just know how very pleased we would be to have continued contact with you all. Praying for your next steps, Pastor Nieporte. You have a tremendous gift in the pulpit and a great love for God and His people. So glad to have met you.

    BTW, I wrote twice about your church in my blog: and

    Also really appreciated your blog on the church’s decision:

    Thanks again…we stand on the shoulders of giants. Will do all we can to be good stewards of what you have given us.

  2. Paul Simmons says:

    Well said. Pathos and irony in the truth of passing life on through the death of faithful witness. Blessings, Paul Simmons

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