There is one big prohibition and a half dozen permissions when it comes to preaching to the Easter-Only Crowd.

The prohibition is obvious. Make no reference whatsoever to the obvious fact that you haven't seen much of them lately. That's like yelling at a teenager who has just cleaned up his room by saying, sarcastically, "It's about time." Reward the positive behavior; do not punish the past. Punishment only works when we catch people in the act: that means we can call them some Sundays at ten a.m. and get somewhere with negative remarks. When a family or person has come back, it is prodigal time. It is welcome time. It is a time for feast and great joy.

Toe-dippers in Christianity deserve the same respect as the fully immersed. Jesus may even prefer some of these skeptics to those of us who have become self-righteously convinced. Manners are everything on Easter and other big crowd days.

More positively, what we can do is to make sure the service is as transparent as possible. It should be simple and short. The bulletin needs to be readable by someone in the sixth grade. It needs to make sense. There need to be no "little" mistakes like forgetting the "to stand" asterisk on the last hymn so the newcomer doesn't know to stand, even though the regulars do. There need to be no confusions about standing or sitting whatsoever. There need to be no bulletin bloopers that cause an "irregular" to feel dumber than he or she already feels.

These visitors may already feel like they're wearing a big sign saying "I'm new." Think from their side of the pew as the service is prepared. If there is a sharing of the peace or a time in the service when people greet each other with the kiss or handshake of peace, make sure it is fully explained before it happens.

Also, this Sunday is not the time for the preacher to tell everything he or she knows about the resurrection. Simple is better. Short is best. People who aren't coming to church regularly have probably been bruised by church somehow. Either people or preachers have insulted them. We need to take very few risks in repeating whatever behavior originally offended.

If regular churchgoers are getting nervous about your manners by now, good. You might want to take a look at a painting as a form of spiritual preparation for the service. I recommend Chagall's painting called "Exodus." There we see a jumbo crowd beneath the cross of Jesus. There we find a quiet and meditative way to prepare ourselves spiritually as well as practically for our Easter guests.

Gaze at (Russian Jewish) Chagall's crowd and be reminded once again that salvation is "what all flesh shall see together." Look at that crowd--almost as if the artist knew one day the six billionth baby would be born. Look at that crowd with the artist's simultaneity: this is an eternal, not a timed moment.

Or think of Easter and its guests as boarding a jumbo jet. A family of five will occupy the middle seat, playing cards and giggling. The boys will be poking each other. Some of the guests will have just discovered that they have cancer. Others will have been beaten by their spouse the night before. Still others will have discovered marijuana in their children's sneakers.

We ride this jet, we enter this Holy Service of the Easter Festival all together beneath the cross of Jesus, clutter clutched to our hearts, self-preservation continuing its old drumbeat. Those who are in will try to keep out those who are already 'out,' but fortunately will fail because of the size of our salvation.

The cross makes us new. How? In how we address the person in the seat next to us. The new will come in new relationships, just as Jesus warned eternally, saying that he lived and died so that we might love one another.

The new will be in relationships to what we don't know but do want to know about each other. The new will be packed tightly beneath the cross of Jesus, in urgent expectation.

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