The following Easter Sunday message was conceived in the nighttime darkness of Maundy Thursday, as the members of a parish observed the traditional, overnight prayer vigil on the night that began Good Friday.
Somewhere in the middle of Thursday night or of the early morning of Friday, I was sitting in this space and taking my turn to stand vigil with Christ, as he prayed again in the garden. In between my prayers and semi-awake dreams, I began to look at these walls, at the trim around the windows, and little signs of other people's life that this place has accumulated - the little nicks and scratches in these pews, the impressions worn into those kneelers, and the layers of loving care that have been etched into these surfaces.
When I was boy, a science teacher caught my imagination when she proposed that every sound wave since the beginning of time is, somehow, still traveling through space - except for those portions that have been absorbed into something solid. As I looked around the room that night, the thought occurred to me that these walls have absorbed more sounds of human life than I could probably ever imagine. I started to wonder what I might hear if I could somehow tap into those thousands, if not millions, of layers of voices and music that are embedded in these plaster walls and wooden boards.
If it were possible to listen into those fibers and the vibrations that may still be in that stone, I wonder if we would hear the prayers of long-passed mothers and fathers - prayers that pled for God's protection of a son or daughter, maybe a son on some far away battlefield or a daughter who had simply disappeared. I started wondering if we'd hear the prayers of a child from generations ago - a child who was baptized in this room, who later made marriage vows at this rail, and whose family, at the end of her life, gathered here to celebrate the gift she'd been to them.
I started thinking about how many sermons had been worn into these walls - some of them masterpieces of theological wisdom, and others that were completely forgotten before the benediction. I wondered how many sermons of my own I'll wish could be forgotten and scrubbed away.
And, then I tried to calculate how many Palm Sunday and Easter messages might be layered into this plaster - how many messages of persistent hope and perseverance had been preached into these walls = but then I realized that those numbers wouldn't account for the degree of passion in those words.
Slowly, the awareness crept over me that I may not be the first to try to comprehend the enormous investment of life that this structure contains - that maybe there've been others who tried to imagine how much of the life of so many people has been poured into, not just this physical place but into this community.
I know I'm still the new guy in town, but I'm beginning to recognize the lines of faithful inheritance that show in most of your faces - the traces of someone else's investment in you, someone else's investment of love and sincere prayer. Over the past few years, I've been learning how to recognize the remnants of those fading voices and prayers of the people who loved you and hoped for your bright future - the subtle signs that you found your way here because someone, somewhere refused to give up on you, because someone kept holding hope for you.
Maybe I'm projecting my own story onto the people I meet, or maybe I'm imagining that there have been people who love you like I love my own children and family. Or, maybe I simply can still feel the prayers that have been prayed into me - the hold that's been held for me, until I was ready to make it my own.
That phrase, "holding hope," comes so easily to my mind when I think about the generations of people in our parish who've given so much to keep God's hope alive in this place, among this family. For me, "holding hope" conjures up such beautiful images of loving people willing to carry something that you and I weren't ready or capable of carrying.
Long lines of our spiritual ancestors have held hope in this community, holding that hope and keeping it alive simply for you and for me - until we were ready to make it our own, until we were prepared to keep carrying it for those who are still to come.
The hope that's been held, though, isn't something anyone before us has "owned." The hope they've held was transmitted into their lives by someone from their past - by someone who had found the source of hope, the source of hope that was unleashed upon Creation on another Easter morning a long time ago.
Into a world hell-bent on self-destruction, the earth opened up and a ray of light - a ray of hope - emerged from the depths of despair, from the depths of death itself.
The long generations of people who had held hope up to that point were finally able to rest, aware that what they'd held had finally been reborn. They passed the good news of that event down to their children, and to their children's children; each generation carrying that hope to the next, and guarding it with their lives.
The prayers they've prayed for our grandparents, our parents, and for us have almost been embedded in the cells of our bodies. The hope they'd held for us - the hope of Easter - is reborn this morning, reborn in each one of us.
What this hope brings us is the promise that life and living have an aim beyond what we can see; beyond the apparent death of our bodies, beyond the apparent loss of our memories. The hope that is reborn, today, is nothing less than the promise that God desires an eternal relationship with us so much that He's willing to bend the laws of life and death by offering the death of his Son as a final cure to human hopelessness.
The hope that's reborn, this morning, is absolutely nothing less than the hope that's been held since the beginning of time: the hope that you and I would find our way back to a relationship with the One who created us, the hope that we would sense the infinite reach of His love and that we would respond by giving ourselves back to Him in love.
For me, the power of Christ's resurrection - the power of Easter morning - is the unbroken line of hope that connects us all the way back to our heavenly Father, to love that has so persistently pursued us that even death can no longer separate us from him.
If I'm quiet enough, sometimes I can put my ear to skin and hear those prayers of my human family that have been holding God's hope for me. I can hear my grandparents - the one still living and the others who've gone ahead - I can hear them praying for me, pleading with God to help me find my way to the hope that they've known, the hope of Easter, the hope that gave me life.
I can hear my parents desperate prayers - the same kind of prayers I pray for my own children - begging God to envelope me in His love, begging God to shield me and to lead me home. I know my own prayers, that God will protect my children from my mistakes, prayers that God will help them find their own ways to the hope of Christ's resurrection.
I know this has to seem like a strange kind of Easter Sunday morning message, but, sitting in the near dark in this room earlier this week, I simply couldn't ignore the deafening sound of the prayers embedded in these floors and walls.
What I heard, over and over, were the prayers of people just like you and me - prayers that have arisen from people who were desperate to remain in touch with hope in a world seemingly without any hope. The sounds I couldn't ignore were voices upon voices of people who were willing to sacrifice any and everything they had to carry the hope of Easter to us. And I know how many of you have offered almost identical prayers for yourselves, for the people you dearly love, and for our parish.
As a family and as a parish, we exist to hold the hope of Christ's resurrection that we've known in our own lives. We gather to keep the hope of Easter alive in ourselves and alive for all those who aren't yet ready to carry their own hope.
For us, what is reborn, this morning, is nothing short of a miracle - the rebirth of life and love that even extends beyond the grave - and that hope is reborn in the resurrected Christ. That's the good news...the good news of Easter.
Coming to us, across space and time, the hope that's been held for us re-enters the world in our resurrected Savior, Jesus Christ! Our hope is very much alive!
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
Matt Greathouse is rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Paris, Tennessee, an out-of-the-way parish in the Diocese of West Tennessee.