Each day in Lent 2015, I am recounting confessions and celebrations that grew out of my six pastorates (the non-pastoral years are available at http://www.celebrationrock.wordpress.com). Today, adventures in a llama pasture at sunrise.

The East Craftsbury Presbyterian Church in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont had a long tradition of gathering for worship as the sun rose on Easter. My first year there, I followed the lead of those who had gone before, hesitant to make any changes early in my tenure. We researched what time the sun would rise that Easter day, and in the dark we drove up the “road to the Common,” stopping halfway up the hill, pulling our cars off the roadway and into snowy drifts. We’d walk through maybe two feet of snow, through a fence gate, and into Ned Houston’s field.

As we walked, or plowed our way to the hillside facing the eastern sky, someone asked whether anyone had remembered to ask Ned’s permission. The consensus was that it had always been OK before and that he and his wife would be likely to join us. As we greeted one another, the familiar words, “His is risen!” were spoken, bring the response from the already initiated, “He is risen, indeed!” Many voices in the early morning frigid temperature still sounded “unrisen.”

Fielda Calderwood had provided me copies of the previous years’ services, a collection of songs, scripture readings, and space for my short sermon. People shivered. As was the custom, the church youth had leadership roles. Imagine that: teens, having practiced the week before, were there for a 6 a.m. sunrise service. I was impressed.

Of course, one of the hymns we would sing was very well known and almost required of every church of every denomination: “Jesus Christ Is Risen Today,” with all its alleluias. But there was a song new to Joan and me. We let the sunrise service veterans lead us in it. It was an old song, “Up from the Grave He Arose.” Imagine each word in the title moving up a note as you sing it, and you pretty much have the first line. I confess that I didn’t think much of it, and Joan and I later (and always) referred to it as the “Jack-in-the-box” Easter song.Bum, bum-bum-bum, bumpa bummm!     Boing!

We may have sung it one more year after that, but easily found replacements (like Sydney Carter’s “Lord  of the Dance”) and no one complained.

After the 20-minute service, looking often in vain for the sunrise (no one had told Vermont that clear skies would be a good idea for Easter Day), we’d drive back to the church for breakfast. White table cloths covered the tables which were joined together in the shape of a cross, and one chair at the head of that cross was vacant, symbolizing the risen Christ. What a relief to come into that warm church basement, and soon smell the aromas of breakfast, knowing that pure Vermont maple syrup would be lavished upon stacks of hot pancakes. Happy Easter, indeed!

After breakfast and clean-up, folks would head back home for a couple of hours before returning for the eleven o’clock Easter service with its more-joyful-than-sunrise-service alleluias. Joan would have driven forty miles south to her church in Danville (where she played the organ and directed the choir), so she missed my Resurrection-inspired sermons. But she’d return to our neighborhood toward the end of our service (in time for the offering, she reminds me), and after extending final Easter greetings to worshipers, we’d head toward Easter dinner at Marvin and Georgette Rowell’s home where their large family and extended family (the Kinseys) and others filled every downstairs room in the farmhouse.

Everyone brought a dish or two, and the final course was always “sugar on snow,” maple syrup heated to just the right temperature that it thickens when poured over trays of snow. Twirling a fork into the sticky syrup, you pull the syrup from the snow and savor its sweetness, over and over. When you’ve had enough maple goodness, there are doughnuts and pickles (yes, pickles) on the table to give respite from the sugary taste. Then you go for another fork full or several! Now, Joan’s not a fan of pickles, and when Morris Rowell encourages her to bite into that pickle so she can enjoy more sugar on snow, Joan resists. Morris insists. Joan resists. And so on. Joan wins. Morris: “More for the rest of us….”

And, in case you are not aware of this factoid, no, one doesn’t eat the snow. Just the syrup. In those years when Easter came later in the spring and snow was melting away, we’d wonder where the snow for this after-dinner delicacy had come from. “Oh, just out near the barn,” was the response. (Think about it.)

After we’d been in Vermont a few years, Ned’s field was used for pasturing llamas. If, on Easter morning, the ground was still frozen and snow-covered…no problem. But if the weather had turned milder, one had to be careful where one stepped as we walked the hillside to face the sunrise. There was ample evidence that llamas had been in the field, and we didn’t need to track that evidence into our cars as the sunrise service came to an end.

Another good memory of those East Craftsbury Sunrise services… One year, with the weather particularly un-spring-like, we  made our way into the llama pasture, gathering church members and Craftsbury neighbors on the hillside. As I left the car, to my dismay I realized I had left my Bible at home. I hoped that someone else had thought to bring one, maybe one of the youth who’d be helping with the service. But no. But the alternative to reading the story from the Gospels turned out to be an Easter present for us all. And I was tempted to make this remedy into an Easter sunrise tradition! We told the story from our collective memory, step by step.

When it came time for the normal scripture reading, I confessed that no one had brought a Bible, so we’d have to tell one another the story. I got it started by asking who had found the grave empty that morning. And then as the gathered folk shared what they recalled, we’d ask another question, and other details followed. These people knew their Easter story, detail by detail, and frankly, we told more of the story than any one Gospel contained. I commented that the process we were sharing in was exactly how the stories had been shared before the gospels had been first written down. This was oral tradition, storytelling, and faith sharing at its best. I hardly needed to add my Easter meditation that day. (But I did. After all, I had spent some time on it.)

“He is Risen!” And then you say….