Sermon: A Feast of Unexpected Joys

Funeral of Helen Jindra
March 24, 2023
Svoboda Funeral Home, Schuyler, NE
watch this service online (readings start around 5:04; sermon starts around 9:26)

Readings: Isaiah 55:1-3, 10-13; Psalm 23; Luke 12:22-24, 27-34

I spent my last year of seminary on internship, which basically involved shadowing a pastor at a congregation in order to learn the ropes of ministry – there are some things you just can’t learn in a classroom. As part of my learning, my supervisor entrusted me with planning the midweek services for the whole season of Lent. There were already bible texts traditionally assigned to each week, but I got to be totally creative in designing services around each of those readings.

Lent, as you probably know, is typically a very solemn, penitential kind of season. It’s a season of prayer and fasting and sacrificial giving as we walk with Jesus on a journey to the cross. It’s often a time when people give up some little pleasure like chocolate or video games or alcohol and focus on repentance. And so, naturally, I had a lot of very thoughtful, serious, prayerful ideas for what to do with each of these Lenten services. But as I went through the readings for each of the weeks, you can imagine my surprise when one of the readings turned out to be this text from Isaiah 55 that we just read:

Hear, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; come buy and eat! Come buy wine and milk without money and without price! Come eat bread! Eat what is good and delight yourselves in rich food!

Isaiah 55:1-3 (edited)

It’s not at all what you’d expect in the season of Lent! Isn’t this the season when we’re *not* supposed to eat rich foods? Instead of the sense of austerity and discipline you’d expect, here is God – speaking through the prophet Isaiah – pouring out this feast of goodness and richness and abundance and inviting us all to come and eat.

So for the Lenten service that Wednesday, instead of some kind of quiet, reflective prayer practice, we had a feast! Right there in church! I spread a beautiful white linen tablecloth over the altar itself; and my supervisor and I heaped it high with a whole feast of rich foods: there were olives and meats and fancy cheeses, fresh, crusty bread and fruit and caviar and nuts and honey, and of course, milk and wine to drink. It was a beautiful and totally unexpected sight, right in the midst of Lent, to see God’s table overflowing with all this abundance.

As I heard stories about Helen this past week and thought about what I was going to say today, the image of that table kept coming back to my mind.

Helen had a hard life. Raised in an orphanage, separated from her siblings, pushed out into the world on her own at the tender age of 14, prevented from having children of her own, widowed as a young woman, and in the end, faced with the long, slow death of dementia – the story of her life is not one in which you’d expect to find a whole lot of joy.

And yet, as I sat down with Cheryll this week to learn more about who Helen was, the stories she told kept coming back to all the things Helen loved, all the little things that brought her delight. Even in a world that had dealt her such a lousy hand, Helen somehow still managed to find a life that was filled with joys.

For instance, she was no stranger to a feast of rich foods. If you’ve ever eaten ice cream with Helen, you know that she is very particular about her chocolate ice cream. For Helen, anything less than the very darkest, richest double chocolate ice cream might as well be vanilla! And wine and milk are all well and good, but Helen would probably just as soon have washed down her feast with a good, long swig of Dr. Pepper. 

Helen also loved children and animals and delighted in taking care of them. Though Helen was never able to have kids of her own, Cheryll talked about how grateful Helen was to get to help out with her kids and what an impact she had on their lives. And of course, Helen’s love of animals showed up in her work at the Schuyler Vet Clinic and in her efforts to help animals get medical care, as well as in the generous way she actually cooked and served up meals to her own animals, serving up fresh chicken and meat also to the strays that somehow found their way to her house.

Helen also had a love for flowers. She developed a passion for gardening and took great pride and delight in the different kinds of flowers that she was able to grow.

I never had the chance to meet Helen, but I’ve gotten to hear a lot about her this week. The stories I’ve heard paint her as a person with this gruff exterior – someone who surrounded herself with this hard, protective shell that was forged in response to a tough life.

But inside that shell, behind all that gruffness, there was all this tenderness, this love of beauty. There was this sense of joy and delight in caring for others. And in particular, there was this soft spot for the vulnerable – a soft heart for children and animals in need of care. And knowing what kind of a life Helen had, I find that extraordinary. It’s incredibly beautiful and powerful that she managed to stay so soft on the inside, and, despite everything, so full of love.

Helen’s heart points us toward the very heart of God. God’s heart overflows with tenderness and love most especially for all those who are vulnerable and marginalized and forgotten. God feeds the ravens and clothes the lilies – and you just know God probably also cooks up fresh chicken for all the cats running around the kingdom of heaven. God tends to us when we are hurting and brokenhearted by leading us beside still waters and bringing us to places of peace. 

I have no doubt that God loved Helen all her life long. God walked beside her through the valley of the shadow of death. And now, God will keep God’s promise to bring her safely home. God will keep the promise in which we all hope: that just as we have been united with Christ in death, we will one day be raised with Christ to new life.

We wait with hope for that vision: the vision of a world made right; the vision of a table where all children are loved and welcomed, of a heavenly banquet where the ice cream is double chocolate and the Dr. Pepper freely flows. We live with faith and hope that one day, together with our sister Helen and with all the saints, we too will take our seats at the glorious feast of life that has no end.

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