Two years ago today, I officiated the funeral service of John Hall. Despite his absence, Mr. Hall’s service to the Barbers Hill community continues through the legacy he left behind. In his honor, I’m posting the text of the sermon I shared on this day in 2013.
At the age of 22, without any formal ministerial training or experience or theological education, I became the pastor of Mont Belvieu’s First Baptist Church, and the pastor of John and Francis Hall. It was a strange reality, to be the pastor of people who I’d been raised to love and respect so much. But the support of the congregation, and specifically of people like the Halls, has helped me to endure these last nine years.
Shortly after being installed as the pastor of the church, John Hall came to my office to give me some advice. That he would be willing to give “advice” is no shock to any who knew him. He offered some lessons in leadership, probably that he learned as a principle (for example, I should remind people to “be nice, be nice”), and he shared some thoughts from the perspective of a layman and church member. These included this helpful bit of information: “Jake,” he said. “You need be done by twelve o’clock, because at 11:55, people stop listening.”
Mr. Hall offered me a lot of advice actually. He was liberal with giving his opinion (O, how he would hate that I just called him liberal!). I’ve heard him laude the virtues of ROTH IRAs, for example, many, many times. I’ve been coached on how to read the Wall Street Journal. And—this one always got me—he was one of the chief critics of my clothes on Sunday mornings. Nearly every week on his way out of church he would let me know whether the colors of my tie, shirt, and suit were well coordinated. I always found this funny because of Mr. Hall’s own choice of attire, not so much on Sundays but during the week. I would run into him at the post office frequently, and he would have on brown work boots with white tube socks, sweat pants tucked into the socks, and a ragged Barbers Hill t-shirt. “Does your wife know you left the house like this,” I’d ask. “What?” he say, flashing his trademark toothy half-grin-smirk.
Some funerals are easy and difficult in all the right ways. This is such a funeral. This is an easy funeral because of the wealth of the legacy that John Hall has left for us. In his lifetime, he and his wife truly helped to shape our community for the better, as educators, workers, worshipers, and neighbors. This is an easy funeral because there is no difficulty to be had in searching for honoring memories to celebrate this life. Yet this is a hard funeral, and—as I said—hard in all the right ways: it is difficult to say goodbye to people who we love, admire, and respect. Mr. Hall is certainly such a man. So I take comfort, and I hope that you do to, in the fact that the Bible does not tell us that we cannot grieve at the loss of our loved ones. Instead we are exhorted to grieve as those who have hope in Christ, knowing we will see them again in a world made new.
On the night Mr. Hall passed away, I was at the hospital with his girls (as he called his three daughters), and we were talking about him and verses that reminded them of their dad. First John 3:18 was shared: “Little children, let us not love in word or in talk but in deed and in truth.” I agree that a more suitable verse could not be found for John Hall.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus instructed his disciples on the discipline of giving by saying this:
Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:1–4)
John and Francis Hall (I cannot honor the life of Mr. Hall without speaking of Mrs. Hall) modeled Christian giving. The first football season that I served as pastor, Mr. Hall came to my office at the church and sat down opposite me at my desk. He pulled out a stack of blue tickets and said, “Give me a number.” The blank look on my face tipped him off that I didn’t know what he was talking about. “I’m supporting my favorite charity,” he said. They were tickets to Homecoming Scholarship Association BBQ dinner. I said, “Oh, thank you! Um, I guess I’ll take two.”
He grinned. I’d misunderstood. He said, “Not just for you. How about…?” He began to name people in the congregation and community, many who struggle financially, others who he thought just deserved to be treated. As he named the families, he counted out the tickets in a stack before me. This became a yearly occurrence up until his health declined recently.
He and Francis would get it in their minds that the church had a need. He would come to me inquiring about what the cost of this or that might be, and then slightly more than that amount would show up in the church’s coffers. Mr. Hall would enter our office and hand his credit card to Rusty, our student pastor, and tell him to go take the van for an oil change, have it serviced, or have new tires put on it. And then there were the honey baked hams and turkeys. Whenever there was a death in our church, the Halls brought the ham. Mr. Hall used me as an intermediary with families who were facing hard times. Never wanting to be known, going out of his way to avoid the credit, he gave me cash and instructions, and would never mention the errand again.
I’m certain I was privy to only a fraction of the Halls’ generosity, but I personally saw them spend a small fortune on hams, BBQ dinners, oil changes, and anonymous gifts to families in need. He and Francis sounded no trumpet in the streets when they gave. But their Father in heaven, who sees all that is done in secret, took note, and I believe that today he is enjoying his reward.
First John 3:18 is certainly fitting to describe Mr. Hall’s faith. The paragraph begins in 3:16, two verses earlier:
By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth. (1 John 3:16-18)
Good works don’t get us into heaven. Mr. Hall, and especially Mrs. Hall, will scold me on the day when I see them again in glory if I don’t make that very clear. Mr. Hall’s generosity was not rooted in his desire to earn God’s love in life. I believe it was rooted in an overflow of God’s love already in his life. If you felt Mr. Hall’s generous love, then you felt the love of God through him.
The Bible tells us that genuine love for others is rooted in God’s love for us. God’s love—real love—is most clearly seen in the sacrificial giving of Jesus’ life for us: “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us.” The good news of Jesus Christ is that while we were sinners, Christ died for us. He died the death we owe for our sin so that we don’t have to suffer that death. He satisfied God’s wrath and won our salvation. He laid down his life for us, a sacrifice in our place.
And if we have believed that, trusted that, experienced that, then we should reflexively (will reflexively!) imitate such love. “He laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.” The Apostle John then asks, “If anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” No, Mr. Hall did not love in mere words and talk, but in deeds and in truth.
I’d like to say something to the family, and especially the grandchildren: You have inherited a great legacy of quiet service to your follow man. God has blessed you in your grandparents with an honorable example of godly giving. Communities need such individuals, people who act in ways large and small for the good of others. We need people to dream big ideas and create scholarship associations. We need people to notice small needs and quietly do what we can to better another’s life.
Really, I suppose this example has been left not just for the family, but for all of us who were given the grace of friendship with John and Francis Hall. They are now a part of that great cloud of witnesses whose legacies encourage us to finish this race on earth well. And I am certain that they would have me go one level deeper. John would tell me to be brief, and so I will.
The very next verse, 1 John 3:19, continues this way:
By this we shall know that we are of the truth and reassure our heart before him; for whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything.
You see, we’ll never give so much that our hearts are totally satisfied in our own righteousness. In fact, if we are giving in order to prove or earn our righteousness before God, we’re going about it completely backwards. Our hearts condemn us at times. God’s given us a conscience, and it tells us when we do wrong. God, who knows everything, knows our hearts and is great than our hearts.
Whenever we face the death of a friend or loved one, we must consider our own death, as well. One day we will breathe our last, just as Mr. Hall did. Are you ready for that day? Is your heart? Does it rest in confidence or condemn with fear? The Apostle John tells us in the next verse (3:22) that we can have confidence before God if “we keep his commandments and do what pleases him.” That sounds overwhelming: all his commandments? how do we please him?
He immediately tells us next in 3:23: “And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.”
It’s really that simple. Not necessarily easy, but simple. To merely give for others is to love “in deed,” but we must also love “in truth,” the Word says. The truth in the Bible is the gospel, the good news of Jesus, who himself is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” Trust in the work of Jesus Christ on the cross: he died in the place of sinners, rose again defeating death and sin, and gives life to all who turn away from self-will and trust in him. Believe in him and love one another, and your heart will have confidence on the day that you face your Father in heaven, who sees what is done in secret. Believe in Jesus’ death and follow his example, and then you love not with words or talk, but in deed and in truth.
Mr. Hall was always reluctant to take official positions of leadership in our church. In fact, he turned down every committee position offered to him during my tenure as pastor. That just goes to show that some people don’t need positions to lead. With his powerful example of faithfulness and kindness, John Hall has led many to better live their faith. His pastor is no exception, and for that I am thankful.