Today I had the honor and the dismay to preside at the funeral of Neill Townsend, an old friend. For those who knew Neill but were unable to attend the ceremony, I’m posting my sermon below, in his memory. You can also find Neill’s obituary and leave a note in his guest book here.
Neill Townsend Funeral Sermon – October 12, 2012
I met Neill when we were in preschool. He had those big glasses and that big smile. We went on to 1st and 2nd grade together, where I remember Neill already being heads and shoulders above the rest of us when it came to anything athletic. He was funny and made friends easily. And he was really smart. I can still remember him explaining to me in front of the class why I should know 7 + 5 can’t be 13. We ended up at separate schools for a few years after 2nd grade.
I didn’t see Neill again until we were in 6th grade. The big glasses were gone, but not much else had changed. He still had that big smile, was starting for the basketball team, the quarterback for the football team, and the star of the academic team. Yes — quarterback for the football team, star of the academic team. And seemingly friends with everyone.
Again, we ended up at different schools after middle school, and I didn’t see Neill for a few years. We actually ended up re-connecting not long after his terrible car accident in high school. That was a hard time, obviously, but also one where I was impressed with how Neill carried himself through it. I still remember him at Aldersgate Camp just about a year after the accident, sharing one night about the incredible change in his life because of the people who had surrounded him and the renewed hope God had given him.
And even in that tough time, Neill still had some bravado. We went on a first date double-date together – on Valentine’s of all days! – and Neill insisted that we take roses. He walked up to the door, put the rose in his back pocket to make it a surprise, and then stepped inside where the door closed and chopped off the head of the rose! He ended up pulling out an empty stem. And yet he came back to the car smiling and shaking his head, and he dated the girl for another year. From big to small, Neill rolled with some of those punches a lot better than most of us do.
At root, it was still the same Neill. Still an excellent athlete, still incredibly smart, still a special knack for making people laugh and smile, still a loyal friend.
I hadn’t been in touch with Neill since high school, but it wasn’t surprising to hear the more recent stories as I talked with Lee, Jane, and Scott this week:
- Stories about a workplace that saw him come in and quietly do his job, and before they knew it, he seemed to have his hands in everything. They’ve been talking about how many people they’ll need to hire to replace him now.
- Stories about Neill asking his mom to put him on speaker phone so he can talk to the dog
- Stories about friends that Neill had reached out to and been a steady presence in difficult times
I think Scott said it best the other day. A number of different people have been calling, writing, visiting, and sharing about Neill. Scott said some of the stories were new, but none of it was news. He said, “We just keep getting confirmation that everyone knew the Neill we knew. The same Neill we’ve known all his life.”
And though we all knew the same Neill, it’s also amazing how many different sides there seemed to be:
- The athlete and the avid reader.
- The person who could so easily make a crowd laugh and the person who went out of his way to give special attention to friends going through tough times.
- The passionate sports fan and the passionate advocate for justice, all the way from Appalachia to international war crimes victims
We gather this morning to thank God for blessing us with Neill in all of his wonderful diversity.
At the same time, as much as there is to celebrate about Neill’s life, we can’t believe we’re here.
Several of us have had the same thoughts this morning as we came here. We’ve had the same thoughts throughout this week. “It just doesn’t seem real. Doesn’t seem believable that we would be preparing for Neill’s funeral.”
In the reading from John, we just heard Jesus say, “Let not your hearts be troubled,” and, “Peace I leave with you.” Now I doubt most of us could honestly say our hearts haven’t been troubled this week. It would be difficult to say we have had a real peace throughout. And that’s okay. In the Bible, we even find Jesus weeping at the tomb of his friend Lazarus.
But I’m comforted to know that even in the face of a terrible loss like this, the words of Jesus are still, “Let not your hearts be troubled… Because I live, you also will live.” This is the hope I know and rely on in times like this.
In Jesus Christ, we see the promise of life, even where the world may see only death. In Jesus, we see that God sent his only Son to walk this earth and to endure even death, so when we come to times like this, we know that God is not a distant God, unable to understand or empathize with our pain.
And in Jesus, we see a triumph over the grave and over the forces of evil. When Jesus said, “Because I live, you also will live,” he told us that death does not have the last word. And when he died and rose again, he proved that word true. This is why he says, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.”
We sang “Great is Thy Faithfulness” earlier. We heard Jesus say, “You trust God, trust also in me.” We believe that God’s compassions do not fail, that God gives strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow, that He is a faithful God.
If you come here today with deep pain, the best thing I know to do is point you to the God who says, “Comfort, comfort, my people.” If you come with sorrow and distress, I pray you find hope in Christ who says, “My peace I leave with you.” Though we mourn now and have every reason to, I trust a God who says that in time he will turn our mourning into gladness; he will give us comfort and joy instead of sorrow.
With that hope, we come now and entrust Neill to God, who can be trusted.