A dishonest pastor is bad enough, but a dishonest pastor who has not done his homework is the worst of all. When I think of Easter, I think of two stories. There's a third that sometimes creeps in as I'm telling the other two. Many years ago I attended a church because my uncle and his family were active members. It had a temporary pastor when I arrived. My uncle was keen on finding a permanent one. He rose to address the question at a church meeting, faltered, sat down and died. In a sense, it was the perfect ending. The man he was about to suggest was contacted and eventually hired. Of course, my uncle wasn't there to interview him for the job or to follow his exploits. After the new pastor arrived, I continued attending. Eventually, I attended mostly as an act of solidarity with those seeking to remove him.
Preying on widows has a long and almost Biblical history. He was quick to calculate the financial status of my aunt and just as quick to make sure she stayed on as treasurer, where she could make up deficits with personal checks and authorize his expense vouchers. He was a piece of work. One Sunday he warned us to keep our eyes out for people in brown robes, because he heard something about a Buddhist church looking to buy property for a retreat center. We were to follow them closely, if they showed up, to make sure no one buried anything like statuettes of Buddha. "That's how they claim territory," he explained, "for the devil."
Anyway, his first Easter sunrise service was memorable. He had a platform built on the hillside next to the church with a cross beneath it. The cross was staked out and dug into the ground, and required an entire pickup load of white blossoms from trees then in bloom to fill. If Reverend Schuller could do it, so could he. He had widening horseshoe rings chalked into the parking lot with individual spaces marked out so people could attend Easter sunrise service from the comfort of their cars. A small ocean of folding chairs was placed in front of the cars and below the platform. There were speakers pointing in all directions, huge speakers pointing toward the cars. Unlike Reverend Schuller's first drive-in church, there were no speakers to hang from the windows, no radio signal, just chalked in horseshoes, loudspeakers and a self-important pastor.
The second wealthiest member of the congregation was a successful contractor who was more supportive of his wife's membership in the church than his own. The pastor's idea was to buoy him up, make him more important. He felt no need to be more importance than he already was, but the pastor took him aside shortly before the service and said, "I want you to give the invocation." The contractor held his hands out saying, "No, I don't pray in public." The pastor said, "Sure you do." After all, wasn't it the greatest honor in the world to be selected?
That year's sunrise service was scheduled for 8:30. The idea was — I'm guessing — not to inconvenience anyone. Also, I suppose, to give the sun plenty of actual time to rise. The preparations were excessive, to say the least. There was a building project for the platform, the purchase of expensive sound equipment, flowers, chalking the parking lot, fliers — all for a church of perhaps forty members, counting a few who had long since moved away. By 8:30 there were two cars in the horseshoed area and a smattering of people spread out in the seats. The same twenty or so who always attended. The pastor walked onto the platform. He was wearing a white robe no one had seen before. He made the announcement about the invocation, but the contractor didn't budge. After a few uncomfortable stares and gestures, the pastor made his way down the hill and they talked for a while. Slowly, the contractor trudged his way up the hill, onto the platform, positioned himself in front of the microphone, and with eyes open, head held high, he said, "The Lord is risen. Amen."
After that, we might easily have gone home.
The story I'm reminded of at this point took place at the Norbertine Abbey down the road. I went with Bob Myers as often as I could. They were allowed to say Mass in Latin. We sat in the heathen section, as Bob called it — the back row where you could kneel or not kneel without calling too much attention to yourself. Bob died a few years after we moved. Father Parker, the founder and retired Abbot died a few months ago. He was the genuine article. A polyglot, he frequently translated his homilies or remarks into the language of visitors, switching effortlessly from one to the next. They came from everywhere. He spoke slowly and in an accent that was thick and difficult to place. On the Sunday before Easter, before the celebrant that day dismissed us, Abbot Parker made his was to the lectern for one final remark. A man of infinite patience, a man who had seen and heard it all a dozen times over said, "By the way, Easter sunrise service this Easter will be at sunrise."
It was the following year that the second story took place. The pastor, who by then had become the Reverend Pastor, showed up inside the church this time wearing a new suit, brand new cowboy boots, a bright silver buckle, and a stole or something over his shoulders that no one could remember seeing. As always, he wore his enormous silver and jade cross that had vague stories and miracles attached to it. In the course of his sermon, which was not interrupted or postponed by the recalcitrance of a wealthy congregant, he intoned on heathen Easter traditions. New clothes were a heathen tradition, despite the no expense spared look he presented. Easter bonnets, Easter eggs, Easter candy, Easter bunny. None of it was Christian. "There is only one truth to Christianity," he allowed in an odd mixture of precision and obscurity. Then his tone changed. He said, "Now don't you be going home and telling your kids the pastor says they can't have Easter eggs or chocolate, and don't be telling them the pastor said they can't get dressed up and have fancy dinners, and don't be telling them they can't have fun, because that's not what I'm saying. All I'm saying is, if you're going to partake in these heathen traditions, and I know you are, then make sure they know what Easter is all about. Make sure they understand that Jesus died on this day for their sins."