Laura Everett: When heaven tastes like Jell-O salad
All Souls is the respect we pay to the dead and the reminder of life to us who still mourn, says the executive director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches in a homily for All Souls Requiem.
Editor’s note: Faith & Leadership offers sermons that shed light on issues of Christian leadership. This sermon was preached at Christ Church of Hamilton and Wenham, South Hamilton, Mass., on Nov. 4, 2012. Everett also writes on her blog.
Isaiah 25:6-9 (NRSV)
The only thing -- the only thing -- that got me through that day was Jell-O salad. Lots and lots of Jell-O salads.
After decades of suffering in body and spirit, my aunt Sally died in 2005. The youngest of three sisters, Sally Worth Eddy slowly deteriorated as the multiple sclerosis took her mobility and parts of her mind. A house she could no longer live in, a young son she could no longer care for, a marriage that could not survive under the strain of such sickness.
My mother and my aunt had become Sally’s caretakers, and it took a huge toll on their lives, too. I remember the grim Thanksgiving dinner we had at the Boston Market on a strip of highway before returning to the nursing home -- where Sally was the youngest resident by decades.
There were glimpses of joy in Sally’s old drawings, or her friend Saul visiting, memories of summers in Indiana or songs still remembered; but all in all, illness and the shroud of death wrapped tighter around Sally’s body and threatened to break the spirits of those around her.
The funeral was at a small United Methodist church near Detroit. I participated in the service somehow, but just barely. The grief and injustice of a young woman dead, a son without a mother and sisters left bereft was just too much.
After the unremarkable service, we dutifully filed into the fellowship hall, dazed. Before us on thin, worn tablecloths were small ham sandwiches on squishy white rolls dressed with iceberg lettuce and mayonnaise, green bean casserole made with cream of mushroom soup, and neatly cut lemon squares, all prepared dutifully by the women’s guild.
And then a sight that my East Coast family and I had never seen before: an entire table filled with Jell-O salads, as in the technicolor rainbow after the flood -- cherry Jell-O with sliced bananas suspended in the ruby glow, orange Jell-O with mandarin oranges, sliced into squares so you could pick them up with your fingers, lemon Jell-O with crushed pineapple, artfully shaped in a Bundt pan mold, green Jell-O with shredded carrots threatening to escape and, finally, raspberry-blue Jell-O with swirls of white Cool Whip, making the whole thing look like the froth of the ocean as imagined by a 4-year-old.
Such joy, such color against the drab institutional green of the fellowship hall walls! My sister and I walked through the crowds and politely greeted the other mourners, giggling every time we snuck a glimpse of the bounty of Jell-O laid before us.
“On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food …” Let us pray …
We live among the living and the dead. As I pulled into the parking lot of the cemetery on Cape Cod to visit my great-uncle’s grave, I saw a feast laid out by a woman I did not know. She had parked her car right up alongside a grave. Pulled out a beach chair, one with the nylon webbing to support her body as she sat low to the ground. She set up an umbrella to shade her from the August sun. She set out a bowl of water for her yappy Pomeranian and gave him a bone.
From the front seat of the car, she pulled out a large cup of Dunkin Donuts iced coffee and a bag of muffins. And she plopped down in the beach chair next to the grave and started talking.
We live among the living and the dead. The memories of the dead sneak up on us. Every time I begin to type an email to someone whose name begins with “E,” my colleague Father Ed O’Flaherty’s name fills in. Autofill on my computer adds in his name, even though this faithful friend has been dead for almost a year.
But I cannot bear to delete him. It’s as if by deleting this email address that goes nowhere I would be deleting this faithful Jesuit priest who dedicated his life and ministry for the unity of the church. I know that’s not true, but still his name remains in my address book.
We live among the living and the dead, and today our discipline is to remember all who have gone ahead of us while we remind ourselves that God promises life eternal.
Earlier this week, an older woman I met at one of the parish visits I make on behalf of the Massachusetts Council of Churches sent me a note inviting me over for a spaghetti dinner. “When you call,” Millie wrote, “don’t mind Jim’s voice on the answering machine. I just like hearing him there.” Years after Jim’s death, and his baritone voice still greets those reaching out to his widow. All Souls is the church’s way of gathering up our snapshots, pictures, email addresses with no one on the other end, voices on our home answering machines, and holding these precious loved ones together.
Perhaps what is so remarkable about the All Souls Requiem is not just the names on our tongues but those unknown, and those whose faith is known to God alone. On All Saints, we remember the well-known. On All Souls, we remember the lesser-known and the unknown. The winning design of the Vietnam War memorial in Washington, D.C., taught us the power of remembering all of the names. All Souls invites us to recite the names of the dead. All Souls also gives us the liturgical equivalent of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. A place to remember all those who have died who have no one to remember them.
I think of an elderly relative who said to me recently, “I’ve outlived all my friends. Who will come to my funeral?”
Today we do the holy work of the church remembering the friendless, the unknown, the forgotten and the lost. We pray for those for whom the weight of life felt so heavy they could not imagine another year alive. All Souls is the respect we pay to the dead and the reminder of life to us who still mourn.
The accent mark is on the all -- All Souls. Not just some of the souls, but all. Even the souls we found grating in life, we remember them today. All Souls frees the deceased from the plasticizing of automatic sainthood and allows us to have complex feelings about the dead.
Again and again, the church reminds us that we are bound together not by our own choosing but by our common baptism -- all the souls. Not just those who worship like you, look like you, vote like you. But all the souls that are precious to God -- Father Ed and Jim, Sally and the unknown one in the tomb whose loved one brought iced coffee and conversation.
It’s that same universal commitment that shows up in the reading from Isaiah. Proclaiming a vision of the heavenly banquet, Isaiah declares, “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.”
So far removed from the writing of this text, it’s hard to remember how revolutionary this would have sounded to the Israelites -- a feast for all peoples. A feast for All Souls.
In that vision from Isaiah, God promises to destroy “the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever.”
You know what it is like to live cloaked in the shroud of death. You know what it’s like to face death -- in the words of United Methodist Bishop Will Willimon, that “great omnivorous thing.” You know what it’s like to live so close to death that you are not sure that life is possible. In that Canaanite world, death would have been personified as the god Mot, who devoured all around him. Instead, Isaiah proclaims the paradox that God himself will “swallow up death forever.” We live with this strange paradox in Christian life: to look at suffering and death squarely and not turn away, but yet to remember that death does not have the final say.
We live wearing our baptismal robes and our burial shrouds.
Sometimes it’s easier to wear our burial shrouds than our baptismal robes. My friend Ashley’s grandmother Maureen drives around with hers in the trunk. Next to the shovel and first-aid kit, in the back of that cavernous Cadillac trunk, sits a granite headstone.
When Maureen’s first husband died, the gravestone carver offered her a deal if she purchased her headstone at the same time. And as a good Yankee, she took the deal. Maureen keeps her gravestone in the trunk of her car, needing only to fill in the final date, driving around Connecticut with this weight in the back so that she has a little more traction on slick winter roads.
But sometimes our death-defying culture isn’t so literal as Maureen. We twist and contort ourselves to stay looking younger, deceiving ourselves that we are farther from death. We have a thousand euphemisms to say someone is gone without naming the cold, hard truth of death. We proclaim our desire to die at home comfortable with family and friends but so fear having these conversations with our doctors that we have struck the language for consultations about our death from the Affordable Care Act.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means for Christians to die well unto the Lord. As a country, we live with a shroud of death, or, as Isaiah put it, “the sheet that is spread over all nations.”
But in the heavenly vision that Isaiah puts forth, God destroys our shroud of death and, like a father gently tending a child, wipes away the tears from all faces. In the Revised Common Lectionary -- that ecumenical innovation that asks the divided church to read our common Scriptures on the same day -- one of the other times we get this reading is on Easter Day.
We are a people trained to say “death” and “resurrection” in one breath. Or, in the words of Johnny Cash’s final album, “Ain’t no grave can hold my body down.”
I attended the funeral of Presbytera Susan Maheras last year, the wife of a Greek Orthodox priest. It was so thoroughly not-Protestant. No lengthy eulogy about the dead, though there were many wonderful things to say about this faithful woman. Rather, the entire liturgy seemed designed to remind the mourning parishioners of what they already know but in a time of mourning have a hard time remembering: death is not the end.
You may not feel it, but we will proclaim it for you today, even at a funeral. This is part of the paradox of Christian life. Even as we remember the dead today, we look to the heavenly banquet to come. Even as we taste the broken bread, we proclaim the risen Christ. Even as we mourn the dead, we rejoice in the living.
We live wearing our baptismal robes and our burial shrouds. We confess that sometimes our shroud of mourning wraps around us so tight that we cannot escape our grief. We confess that as we mourn the deaths of those we love, with throats sore from our wailing and our tears, we cannot speak the words of Martha to proclaim, “Yes, Lord, I believe” (John 11:27).
We confess that we do not have strength to proclaim it, and we lean on the voices around us who recite, “We look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.”
We confess that we are tired, hungry, worn out by the weight of the death and sin that surrounds us. We confess that we sometimes forget what that heavenly banquet tastes like … And then it sneaks up on us as we eat that first sweet spoonful of pineapple Jell-O.
You do not have to end your weeping, but know that God desires to wipe away every tear. You do not have to have the strength to say the names of your dead today, but know that the Lord knows and cares for all souls. You do not have to have the taste of heaven on your lips today, but you are invited to eat the bread of heaven.