Preacher: Jo J. Belser
Location: Goodwin House Alexandria, VA
Text: John 10:11-16
Day: Eleanor Burleson’s memorial service
“Jesus said, ‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away…”
So begins our Gospel lesson today. I literally laughed out loud in delight when I realized exactly which text we would use for Eleanor Burleson’s memorial service. I am delighted because Eleanor LOVED sheep. Not actual sheep, you understand. Actual sheep are smelly, stubborn, and rather stupid. No, the sheep Eleanor loved most were the idealized depictions of them. Idealized sheep are rather like idealized bears—teddy bears—but warmer, fuzzier.
Eleanor had these kind of sheep, sheep that her family and friends gave her, sheep in every artificial shape and size and color and depiction. Sheep with scarves and bows and cute little ribbons. Yes, Eleanor had quite a collection, quite a flock, of these kinds of sheep.
And Eleanor had quite a flock of friends, didn’t she? This is because she listened, really listened, to people. She really loved people. And she worked really, really hard at not judging people. Maybe privately she did, in her much younger years, because the kind of space that Eleanor left for other people to be who and what they are doesn’t often come naturally. I think Eleanor must have worked hard at not judging other people; I never heard her do so. But what came naturally to Eleanor is how to be in relationship with other people.
Listen to me, talking about Eleanor. This is what we might need, might value most in our grief. But this is the very activity that Eleanor had hoped to avoid.
I have three more short stories about Eleanor that I want to share with you.
First, Eleanor dearly loved her family. You know, that group of metaphorical “sheep” who God gives us as a “starter set” to practice living with in harmonious relationship. And Eleanor dearly loved her friends, that additional group of “sheep’ who we invite into our lives as “family.” Eleanor, you see, knew the Good Shepherd, Jesus. She had a keen sense of what was required of her to be a follower of Jesus and to help the shepherd tend the sheep in his fold. Yes, Eleanor knew the Good Shepherd well, and she invested her whole life in working toward the Shepherd’s desire that we all be one.
Eleanor knew her daughter Betsy very well. (Not well enough to know that her name is really “Liz,” but very well.) And Eleanor knew that Betsy would grieve her death. So she told Betsy that, if at all possible, she would put a sheep in Betsy’s path after she had died, and this would be their private sign that she was OK. Would you be surprised to hear that the Sunday after Eleanor died was “Good Shepherd Sunday,” and that Rev. Bruce—who didn’t know of Eleanor’s promise to Betsy—walked down the aisle here in Betsy’s presence carrying a large sheep? What a coincidence! [Shaking head NO.]
The last story about Eleanor I want to share is about her final time here in this life. A person doesn’t get to be 98 years old in a retirement community, nice as this one is, and not give some thought to the “end game” of their earthly life. Someone is always actively dying here, whether they know it or not! So each of us here wonder how we will handle the news of THAT diagnosis, when it comes, and we wonder how we will spend the time we have left, once we know the end is near.
For the last year Eleanor had the example of Stella Beyers, whose “end time” was especially gracious: full of shared love and forgiveness and even joy which far outweighed her pain. Eleanor wanted her life transition to be like Stella’s. Or, failing that, like Liz Day’s, who got to go—BOOM—just like that, no warning at all. The last thing Eleanor said to me in the Intensive Care Unit was, “I don’t want to have to live on the second floor.” She got her wish, and although WE grieve her loss, I rejoice for Eleanor that she is with the Good Shepherd, who came and found her and brought her safely home forever.
Our gospel lesson today says that the hired hand runs away from situations like this, from final times here on earth, abandons us to the dangers that we face during our transition. The hired hand abandons us to the dangers of this life, dangers like anger at God for illness and death, dangers like falling into despair in our grief. But the Good Shepherd puts his own life on the line for us, has actually already given his earthly life for us so that we might have eternal life. And the Good Shepherd has made a place for his entire flock, uniting us all into one. And then the Good Shepherd walks us each to that new home; he shepherds us home.
If it is possible today in your grief, or over time as it becomes possible, I invite you to rejoice for Eleanor, who we see no more, but who has been shepherded home.