Christmas Eve “Just Desserts”

A holiday celebration – Christmas, or almost any other, really – is a natural time for assembling with family and friends, sharing the company of the people who are most important to us in the world. And good company calls for good food, which leads quite inevitably to one of the most important existential questions that has bedeviled the hearts and minds of human beings since time immemorial: “What’s for dessert?”

One episode of the old sitcom friends offers a particularly memorable answer to this question. At a gathering of family – some by birth and some by choice – the hapless roommate Rachel is determined to create a delicious and memorable dessert. The occasion is Thanksgiving and not Christmas, but the same rules, generally, apply. She’s not exactly a confident hand in the kitchen, but she has a good cookbook and sets to work making a traditional English trifle: layering ladyfinger cookies with jam and custard and raspberries, bananas and whipped cream. Unfortunately, the pages of her cookbook get stuck together, and so some of the layers end up borrowing from the next recipe: a shepherd’s pie. The result is a delicate and artful arrangement of fruit and sweets and cream paired with ground beef sautéed with onions and peas.

Aghast at her obvious mistake, Rachel’s friends nonetheless want to protect her from the embarrassment of it. So, with painful grins of resignation, they tuck into the odd combination of flavors, pretending to enjoy it while muttering to each other about how terrible it is when she’s not looking – at least, those of them not quick-thinking enough to offer an excuse for why they can’t eat it, or find a way to dispose of their plate without being caught. The general opinion is that the dish tastes like feet, except for one member of the dinner party who thinks that whipped cream, custard and ground beef are a delicious combination. Keeping Rachel from realizing her error, however, requires her friends to keep her from actually trying her own dessert. In the end, she figures the problem out all on her own when, looking back through the cookbook she discovers the pages that were stuck together.

As some of you may be aware, this little bit of kitchen farce comedy has actually spawned a minor trend of people attempting to make and eat their own renditions of this bad-idea dessert. It has always struck me as strange that an American television program chose an English dessert that they had to change in order to make it shocking to a mainstream American pallet. Traditional English cooking is rife with quote unquote “desserts” which contain ingredients that would be *ahem* surprising to most American diners. The easiest example is probably a dish called Spotted Dick – a baked pudding spotted with raisins or other dried fruit, usually served with custard, and enriched with beef or mutton fat. But if I appear judgmental in a way which offends either your tastes or your heritage here I assure you that I do not mean to say that you or the good people of England are wrong for liking what you or they like. As a person of Swedish ancestry myself – a cooking tradition renowned primarily for its wide variety of grey pastes – I am acutely aware that I live in a culinary glass house, and so ought not to cast any stones.

Rather, on this night when sweets and treats are often on the agenda – cookies for Santa, visions of sugar plums dancing, etc, etc – I want to encourage you to think seriously for a moment about that so-important question I mentioned earlier: What is for dessert? That is, what are our just deserts – what is it that we truly deserve? It is commonly said that we reap what we sew, and the popular western meaning of karma – though almost completely divorced from the actual meaning of the term in Buddhism and Hinduism – gives a name to this theme. Sometimes some of us like to take comfort in the idea that being good leads to good outcomes and behaving badly leads to bad outcomes. But one consequence of that way of thinking is the hard-hearted attitude that if something bad happens to you it must be because you deserve it. That the poor deserve their poverty and the oppressed their oppression. And as Unitarian Universalists, we have been adamantly against that line of reasoning since our very beginnings. For if you have ever examined the world even briefly with honest senses and a heart that is willing to break, you must know that not every evil which is suffered can have some just underlying cause, and not every good which we do can be returned to us directly in this life.

The teacher Jesus, whose birthday we celebrate tonight and tomorrow, said to have said of the God of his own understanding that, “He makes the sun to rise on the evil and the good alike, and makes the rain to fall on the just and on the unjust.” Jesus was a theist; I am not; at least not in the way that he was. But whether you are or you aren’t or you do not know what you believe about God, this night I want to tell you that I find comfort in those words for us all. Mercifully and miraculously, the conditions of the universe we inhabit together are shared abundantly and universally for us. Night and day, cold and hot, the wind, the rain, and the snow, the weak nuclear force and the third law of thermodynamics – none of us can escape or deny these realities, and it is good that it is so. Each of us is subject to them equally; none of us could live without the world being as it is.

The conditions of the cosmos are good enough for us to live, here and now, upon this earth, together. But they are not organized or orderly, and life is not all sweetness and joy. There are peas, and onions, and sautéed beef mixed in amongst the ladyfingers and the custard. So it is up to us to be at least as good to ourselves and to each other as the circumstances of the universe are to us here – and in our best moments, to aspire to be better. To help one another to separate the raspberries from the peas. What, then, yet again, do we deserve from each other? Love – that compassionate kindness which finds joy in another’s joy and sorrow in another’s sorrow. Forgiveness, and the chance to make amends, for our many faults and our inevitable failures. And the truth – the honesty which makes it possible to know and to trust one another. There are a thousand thousand excuses we concoct for not being true, but Rachel’s friends were not protecting her by pretending that they liked her trifle. These are the three layers of our just deserts: truth, forgiveness, and love. Whatever sort of holiday treat is gracing your table tonight and tomorrow – and I hope that it is something delicious, friends – may these three delicacies attend it as well. May you receive them from and offer them to everyone you love, and everyone you meet. And in this way may we come to enjoy together the sweeter world which we all deserve.