Homily for Joan Riedell Nelson

Homily for the Memorial Service of Joan Nelson ||  Saturday, September 20th, 2014 || Isaiah 25:6-9; Romans 8:14-19, 34-35, 37-39; John 6:37-40 ||  The Rev. Margot D. Critchfield*

She reminded me ever so much of the movie star Bette Davis, both in her physical beauty and her “doesn’t suffer fools kindly” personality: Joan was sharp and strong-willed, obstinate and opinionated, forthright and demanding, passionate and perfectionist, a stickler about just the right way to do things—whether it be things liturgical, sartorial, educational or political. Joan was no shrinking violet; she never had an opinion she didn’t offer!

The funny thing is that last April, when she and I were driving back from the Special Convention to elect our new bishop, Joan used almost those exact same words to describe the sister who had predeceased her, and who she missed so much–-without connecting them to herself even remotely. “People either loved her or hated her,” she told me as I did my best to keep a straight face, “and at her funeral the preacher said as much.” This last part seemed to please Joan enormously, so I took a silent vow right then and there to honor Joan with equal candor when the time came.

Count me among those who loved her. From day one I loved her. I loved the Bette Davis force-to-be-reckoned-with, and I loved the big-hearted softy who broke down in tears when told that she’d inadvertently hurt someone with her words. I loved the fierce defender of church tradition, and the unrepentant iconoclast of parochialism. I loved the incredibly brave woman who deplored the use of words like “battle” to describe how one might deal with cancer, yet who fought stubbornly to get out of bed till the day she died. “You don’t fight cancer,” Joan would insist. “You just live with it.”

I think in Joan’s case it might be more accurate to say it lived with her. Joan made up her mind she was not going to let the cancer take her until after the bishop’s election, after Lily’s 16th birthday, and after Nathalie’s graduation. And despite all the odds, despite all of our assurances that it was okay and she could let go now, Joan got her way. She died the day after Nathalie’s graduation. So Joan!

And then there was the Joan who not surprisingly planned every last detail of her funeral, but who more surprisingly, perhaps, chose a number of hymns and readings around the theme of the Jesus the Good Shepherd. You see, this strong, capable, independent woman we all knew as Joan, knew herself as nothing so much as a lost sheep who’d been rescued by the gentle love of the Good Shepherd. Her favorite Psalm: the 23rd. Her favorite hymn, “The King of Love My Shepherd Is.” Her favorite anthem, Howard Goodall’s “The Lord Is My Shepherd.”

Some of us marveled at how fearlessly Joan approached her own death, but Joan was not afraid of death because essentially, she didn’t believe in it. To the very core of her being she believed that when the time came, the Good Shepherd would gently lead her home, then raise her up on the last day to the glory of resurrection life.

Joan loved Jesus, truly, and she was gifted with the grace of knowing his love for her. She belonged to him. Unequivocally. And in his presence the tough Bette Davis like broad was transformed into the pious and prayerful little girl of her Sunday school days. Devoted, wanting nothing more than to follow him as a child of the light.

Just a few minutes ago Trevor and Liam read Joan’s favorite passage from Paul’s letter to the church in Rome. Listen as I read just a bit of it again, but imagine this time that Joan is the writer:

“I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us…For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

So Joan! Joan was that convinced of eternal life. Joan was that persuaded of the power of God’s love. Joan was that assured of the promises of Jesus Christ the Good Shepherd.

Let there be no doubt that Joan knows now the joy of new life with him—healed, whole, more fully alive than you or I can imagine. And let there be no doubt that goodness and mercy will follow her all the days of her life, as she dwells in the house of the Lord forever! Amen.

 *The Rev. Critchfield was unable to attend this service due to illness; the Rev. Adam Thomas read Ms. Critchfield’s homily in her stead.


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