• Greg Jarrell

A Gentle Man of This Place: A funeral sermon for John Richard Jarrell


John Richard Jarrell

My grandfather John Richard Jarrell died on Jan 23 at 92 years old. He lived his entire life on Jarrell Farm Road near Wentworth, NC, and was a lifelong member of Bethlehem United Methodist Church there. I was honored to deliver this sermon at his funeral.

I’m the only preacher I know of in the family, but a couple generations back, preaching nearly became the family business. When John Richard Jarrell was young, he began telling his parents that he thought he might want to become a Methodist preacher. They asked why he was thinking that, and he responded that he wanted to be able to eat fried chicken every Sunday afternoon. They must have thought they had young Samuel on their hands, but on closer consideration, it was not God calling John Richard, just his stomach.


Though the call God placed on Granddaddy’s life was not to preaching, not with words, anyway, but it ran as deep in this place as any call ever runs, as deep as the ocean that the Dan River, just down the hill from us, runs to.


For as long as I can remember, everyone who has stopped at the corner of Jarrell Farm Rd and Bethlehem Church Rd has seen, as they pulled in, a sign situating them to their location. It reads: “The Jarrells’ Favorite Spot.” And indeed it was, and is, the Jarrells’ favorite spot. Granddaddy was never keen on being away from his favorite spot for too long. No overnight trips for him, if he could help it. The gravity of that place was great for him, and for all of us. The favorite spot kept us grounded, and it called us all to return here regularly to visit, to connect, to remember ourselves.


There are a few stories, though, that I have heard overnight trips. Long-ago vacations to the beach, if I recall correctly. When Ernie, Ted, and Jay would invariably take to the brotherly task of annoying one another in the car, Grandma would turn around and sternly tell them to quit. She followed that instruction with the warning, “We’re going to have fun on this trip if I have to beat you every five minutes.” Granddaddy just kept driving, no doubt amused.



JRJ on the right, Harris grandparents on the left.

From the moment of his birth, John Richard Jarrell was faithful to this place. He belonged to it. And though he would not have talked about it in quite this way, that faithfulness to this place and its people is one way to understand the theological significance of his life. We read today from Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi. In a key section of that letter, written from jail, Paul strings together two thoughts that seem somewhat unrelated, but that I think form a terrific understanding of the life of my granddaddy. “Let your gentleness be evident to all,” Paul says. He follows that by saying, “The Lord is near.”


The Lord is near. This forms the basic Christian conviction behind the doctrine of the Incarnation. Jesus, by the improvisation of God and Mary, is God come near. And when God comes, God comes among regular, working folks. The kind of folks who fix it themselves, or who grow their own tomatoes, or press their own cider. The folks who punch the clock for years, or who build little community centers together that become outposts of neighborliness. God shows up in a particular time and place - a favorite spot, you might say. And for those who follow in the way of Jesus, one path towards holiness is to keep showing up in our particular time and place, and to learn to belong to the land and the people there.


This is most certainly what John Richard did, his own brother notwithstanding. [My uncle] Ted reminded me that not too long after John was born, his brother Edgar, 7 years his senior, was found placing the swaddled baby in the mailbox. Edgar was done with all the fuss around this baby, and was ready to ship him back from whence he came. Luckily someone intervened, but here is one ongoing testament to John Richard’s fidelity to this place, and to building it with his own hands: that same mailbox, nearly a century later, still stands on a post to receive its daily delivery at the Jarrell’s Favorite Spot. You might also argue that a hundred-year old mailbox is an example of him being famously cheap. Well, you’d be right about that. But he was obedient to his long vocation of tending what was given, without reaching beyond his grasp.


Granddaddy knew the details of his place--how the water drained down the hills, where to plant the garden so that the path of the sun would run just right for it. He knew how to amend the soil, how to make useful crafts out of fallen trees, how to sit in the shade of the maples, right next to the back steps.


And he knew not only that little spot of dirt, but he knew the people that make up this place, and he was faithful to them as well. Whenever a new preacher was called, Granddaddy made it his business to call him up as soon as he arrived, and to take him driving through the area to show him where all the church members lived. He had stories for all of the members, of course, and was more than happy to tell them. And though I was never in the car, I can tell you exactly how they went. First, he had some little anecdote about a bit of mischief or some silliness he and that neighbor had carried on before. And then, he turned a little serious and said, “but let me tell you now,...” and then he went on to cut incisively into the goodness of the person he was talking about. He saw the world in that way - a glint of mischief in his eye, and a big, open heart for all the goodness of his community.


For 92 years he faithfully attended this church, serving in every way possible along the way. And when in June 1997 the former building burned to the ground, he showed up and gathered some usable remains. Before it was clear what would happen next in this place, he was already in the wood shop, making dust and building bowls and napkin holders, all of them little altars to carry far out into the world, extending the hospitality of God that he and this congregation have stood for as long as they have been here.


“Let your gentleness be evident to all,” Paul says. Grounded in his place, among his people, John Richard Jarrell was a gentle man. On Sunday nights, before his beloved Jewell became sick, they regularly went out visiting. They would not visit the regular crowd, but instead took special care to see the sick and the infirm. They would remind Ernie and Ted and Jay that they had a duty to pay attention to those on the margins, the ones who might be forgotten. Those were the ones to go and visit.


Across this community, people knew this about him. For nearly thirty years, he greeted patients at Morehead hospital in Eden as they arrived for radiology appointments, at times transporting them from place to place within the hospital.. With his kind eyes, he surely set more than a few anxious patients at ease during crucial moments of their lives.


He won the affection of the staff there as well, not least because of his baking. Folks far and wide could count on him to have an apple nut cake ready for most any occasion.


His public persona was not an act. Sometimes those we love get the worst of our personalities in private settings. But the gentleness with which John Richard treated the people of Bethlehem, or the patients at Morehead, was the same gentleness he treated his great-grandchildren, and his grandchildren, and his children, and his beloved wife. Still to this day, a picture hangs near the spot on the couch where he most often sat. In it, he sits next to Jewell, suffering towards the end of her battle with Parkinson’s disease. And though they surely are tired of the suffering, joy jumps out of the frame. They are laughing, and their affection for one another is plain. He tended to her with diligence and tenderness until the day she passed on.




I recall once, when I was probably ten or eleven, being at the house at night, perhaps with [my siblings] Adam and Maria, but with no other adults except Grandma and Granddaddy. We bounced around the house, playing, reading, drawing mostly tending to ourselves, until I happened to step into the kitchen. They did not see me, but I saw them, across the room. And he embraced her, and then in the quiet of the house, with no music playing, they danced. Only for a couple of steps. But gently, they danced. That is who he was - tender to the core.


So, kindred, today we have danced our last steps with this gentle man of this place, who was so faithfully devoted to God, to his family, and to his community. Our only task now is to accompany him with singing to the gates of paradise - his new favorite spot - where we can say to God, “Well done, God. He was a good one - kind, gentle, faithful. And my, could he grow a tomato. We thank you.”


And though we cannot see it now, I can assure you, my friends, that there in the shadow of the great, gentle, faithful God of the universe, to the sounds of our singing, there will be dancing.

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