Politics: seems to become a more pejorative word with every election cycle; but the ultimate detriment to society is not passionate debate about social issues that leads us to cringe in our seats or talking points along party lines that make us roll our eyes. No, the ultimate travesty is apathy: when we reach the point of simply not caring anymore, when we are under the impression it's not worth fighting for, when we feel as if the problems of our communities and our nation are far too immense for us to make any difference whatsoever. Neal was absolutely none of the above: not simply because he served in public office or even in leadership here at St. John's. All you needed to do was spend a few minutes with him, and you could just feel his passion; in his topics of conversation with all people who came into his life.
Now I didn't come along until about three years ago, and I was told by my internship supervisor awhile back that the best way to get to know people and build relationships in a new congregation was to meet them in their homes. Now most people here at St. John's brought me into their living room, sometimes had dinner in their kitchen, but Neal was different: I talked with him outside as he leaned on his tractor and smoked his cigar. That was Neal: authentic to his roots, to his passion; as the conversation ranged from his parents from years ago, to his present public service and his family (his sister Nancy and his brother Nathan), but also to the future: what lies ahead for St. John's and Baroda. Neal was anything but apathetic about the church and his community, and the truth is, we still need all the Neal Nitz's we can get. We need all the infectious enthusiasm filled with loving adoration we can get our hands on.
After all, we gather here today not only with saddened hearts, but with joyful celebration, because of the One Who possessed an unbelievable passion for the whole world of all times and places. What would have happened if our Lord and Savior had thought we were not worth the fight? What if after hearing one of His best friends deny even knowing Him, after one of His inner circle betray Him into a hideous torture, and after a massive crowd unexpectedly flip-flopped their support from Palm Sunday, "Hosannas!" to Good Friday, "Crucify Him!"s; what if after all of that, Jesus thought we were not worth it? What if He gave up? What if He threw that cross down on the ground and said, "take care of it yourself?" Where would we be?
But thanks be to God that's not how the story goes. Even after flat-out denial, betrayal, and mocking and spitting, Jesus took that cross on His back all the way up the hill with a boundless love that saved us all, including Neal, and all of us. Evidently, Jesus thought we were more than worth the fight.
And if any of you had the privilege to see Neal the last couple of years especially, through far too many up's and down's with this terrible cancer, you would have seen first-hand a fight that no one can fully explain. There would be times filled with hope and expectation for his health, and then all of a sudden it seemed to come crashing down with not-so-good news from oncologists. Then there were these past few months as he dealt with his shoulder in pain.
Now Neal could have very well given up. It would have been more than understandable that he wouldn't want to do anymore therapy to improve that shoulder. He had enough on his plate with the cancer. He could have just given up. But he didn't. Every therapist who came into his room was met with as eager of a work ethic and dedication as he ever had throughout his life, because you see, with Neal, it wasn't just about getting better for him. He did it for Nancy, for Nathan, for Eric, for Rebecca, for Jeff, for you, for me, for his community, for his church. He still had work to do. He still needed to have conversations to make sure that people were being taken care of, including those he would never meet.
This man after hearing yet again more disturbing news about his cancer only weeks ago wanted to talk to me about the state of Sunday school in the church(!), about young people, some of whom, he didn't know whatsoever, and children who will be coming through those doors for years after he's gone. In the midst of his own agonizing pain and the most intense frustration, Neal still had an overwhelming passion that could more than conquer all that he was enduring.
That's what Jesus did for us, after all. Yes, he did conquer death on the cross, and we are forever grateful for that. But I often wonder if we overlook the even greater power behind the empty tomb on Easter Sunday: it's not just about the promise of everlasting life. What Jesus did on that day was set us free not only from sin and death, but set us free to go out into the world and do something with this Great News for all of humanity. Jesus not only thought we were more than worth the fight to die on the cross to save us from death; our Lord and Savior evidently trusted us enough to do something for His world, for all His children of God, to make an impact through the Holy Spirit. We no longer have to worry about impressing this God; Jesus more than took care of that for us. We are set free to no longer worry about ourselves and our future eternal state, but instead to care for others in this very world, in this very life.
Evidently Neal got the message, not just in his service to his county and his state, but most importantly to his family, from something as simple to having you all over for dinner and using the best plates and silverware he had (even if he made you clean it up, but minor detail), to the finger Jello he made for his niece Rebecca year after year, to keeping the family farm going long after his father was gone. And yet all of you have lost a wonderful brother, uncle, and most importantly a dear friend. We cannot begin to express our sorrow for all of you: Nathan, Julie, Nancy, Rich, Rebecca, Jeff, Eric, Michelle, and Jeff. You lost him in this life far too quickly.
Nevertheless, be more than assured that he thought all of you were more than worth the fight that he gave with all he had up to the very end. And all of us are here to remind you how much Neal cherished you, and how much God loves him to care for him from death to life forevermore.
I would like to end with a portion of Neal's final floor speech to the Michigan House of Representatives several years ago. In his own words:
Above all, I am so grateful to God for giving me the opportunity to serve Him and serve others, but also for all the ways He graced me with the joy of His presence, from thoughtful but passionate discussions within these walls to being able to help pick up a few pieces in Pass Christian, Mississippi [when a congressional delegation went down to help after a hurricane], to sunsets over grape vines in Baroda; God is good.
God is good indeed, Neal, and you made us realize us that all the more with your life as well. And so on this day, we give thanks to God for the sacred privilege to be part of the life of Neal Nitz, brother, uncle, farmer, public servant, friend, and most importantly, brother in Christ. God be with him forevermore! Amen.
St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church
Rev. Nan Dehnke, Pastor
Office: Mon - Thu: 9 a.m. - Noon