Bill Jetton: Kingdom First (Luke 12:22-34)


    My grandfather died at the age of 95 last Sunday morning just before we gathered for worship - just in time for us to include his name in our All Saints Day prayers.  I’ve spent most of this week going to Arkansas to remember him with my family. Grandpa embodied our text today in his own life.  He trusted God with everything.  He sought the Kingdom first, and he invested his treasure in Kingdom things.  Today, I just want to tell his story as a picture of how to live this text and what a difference it can make.  

    My grandfather Bill Jetton was born in a farm house in eastern Oklahoma in 1921.  I’m not sure how much the roaring 20’s reached Oklahoma, but I know the Great Depression of the 1930s hit them hard.  It was a fairly big farm but still poor.  Grandpa helped his family around the farm, but his father was deeply committed to education. When Bill was a senior in high school, he met and fell in love with my grandmother, Myrtle Lee, a freshman.  He rode his horse 10 miles each way to court her on Saturdays.  
    My grandfather had grown up in a good honest family that had no religion.  He had never been in a church building for any reason until he met Myrtle Lee.  But she had grown up as a committed Methodist, and she said she couldn’t marry him unless he was a Christian.  He struggled with that for a while, and then his sister and brother-in-law helped him become a Christian during a conversation in their living room.  Then, he started going to the Baptist church with them.  
    The two got married at 18 and 15 years old.  My grandmother always says, “Well, I was almost 16.”  And granddad would always say, “Myrtle Lee, you were three months shy of 16.”  And with a twinkle in her eye, she would say, “Well, that’s almost 16.”
    Grandpa was taking classes at a business college, and they lived near his school.  Within a year after they got married, she was pregnant with their first child, and my grandma said, “Bill, I’m 16 and pregnant. You better get me a ring!” He sold four pigs to buy a set of rings, and they were married for 76 beautiful years.  I’d say he got a bargain on the rings.
    Not long after they had their second baby, Bonnie, my mom, Grandpa got drafted to fight in World War 2.  At the age of 18, my grandma had two kids and a husband fighting in Okinawa.  My grandpa sent nearly all his paycheck back to support the family, but it still wasn’t enough.  Grandma worked in a photography studio, and Grandpa earned extra money playing poker with the other soldiers.  
    After he was wounded, Grandpa returned home, and he kept his fox hole promises to God by taking his family to church every Sunday. He also restarted business school, scraping together income through whatever means he could.  
    My mom remembers one time when grandpa and grandma were sitting around the kitchen table counting their bills and money, and there were more bills than money.  Suddenly, Grandpa said, “I think we should start tithing again.”  Grandma said, “Bill, we’re already behind on every bill we have.  How are we going to make it if we give 10% away?”  He said, “I don’t know, but I just think we ought to,” and they did.
    Not long afterward, they started selling VitaCraft Cookware.  It was the Pampered Chef of the 1940s.  Just before Christmas break, their team leader gathered this team of young salesmen to state their sales goals for the holidays.  They went all the way around the room, and the boss almost didn’t ask Bill how much he would sell because no one thought this backwards hillbilly could do very much.  By the end of Christmas break, my granddad had sold more pans than the other nine salesmen combined - including the boss.  
    Grandma would cook these fantastic meals for their prospective customers, and Grandpa would sell the pans.  They were a great team.  Within a few months, their bills were paid up, and they bought a brand new 1950 Chevy in cash.  
    He kept going to classes, but sometimes he was late because of his breakfast pancake sales meetings.  Once his professor started raking him over the coals for being late and questioning his commitment to learning about business.  Grandpa said, “Prof, I made a hundred dollars this morning.  I don’t care if business school keeps or not.”  By the end of the year, he was making more money than the college president.
     In his last semester of business college, VitaCraft put my grandpa in charge of the entire state of Arkansas.  They moved to Little Rock, and Grandpa had 25 people on his sales team.
    One of the guys he hired was a Nazarene preacher.  At a Nazarene revival service, my grandpa had a sanctification experience, where he felt that God wanted a deeper level of commitment from him.  On the way home from the worship service, he threw his smoking pipe out the car window as they passed over the railroad tracks.  
    Not long after that, Grandpa began to feel that God was calling him to be a pastor.  That set off a war in his soul.  He said, “I explained to God that he could call lots of people better qualified. ‘Lord, you’re making a mistake. I know very little about the Bible and absolutely nothing about preaching.’  I also told the Lord if He would call someone else, I would pay double tithe.  But,” Grandpa said, “I discovered God was not one to bargain.”  
    Then, Grandpa said he had an argument with the devil that went something like this.
If you become a preacher, you won’t have any friends.
   Even so, I’ve got to do it.
If you become a preacher, you’ll be poor all your life.
   Even so, I’ll be poor with Jesus if that’s what he wants.
If you become a preacher, you’ll never get that herd of poled Hereford cattle you’ve always dreamed of.  
   Even so, I’ve got to do it.  

    Grandpa took his first church in Collegeville, AR twenty miles south of Little Rock.  He didn’t have any training or a minister’s license, just a calling.  The first month, his 10% tithe from his last VitaCraft commission check was more than his entire salary from the church.  I asked my Grandma, “So that means you took a 90% pay cut to pastor that church?!”  She said, “Well, I think it was near about 100%.”  
    He worked through the Nazarene minister’s “Course of Study” training program right there on the job.  There were 50 people in that church when they started, and there were more than 100 before the year was over.  A year later, they had 150.  Grandma said, “He baptized I don’t know how many people before he even had a license.”

     Then the district superintendent asked grandpa to go up to North Little Rock to pastor a group that had split off from the North Little Rock Church. They had about 20 people when he got there.  They had received $75,000 from the denomination to help with a building (maybe from Alabaster funds?), and they got the basement poured and the posts up for the main level before the district leaders showed up.  The DS and the Building Committee said, “You can’t build that whole building for $75,000.  You’ll just have to cut those posts off and worship in the basement.”  
    Well, Grandpa wasn’t having any of that.  The next Sunday he told his church what the district leaders said, an they raised $25,000 right then and there with another $10-15,000 pledged to come in later.  My grandma said, “I know for sure we gave $500 because we had to borrow it from Bill’s brother.”  They got the whole building up, doing most of the work themselves. That church started with 20 people, and there were 200 faithful members when they left.  
    My uncle Max remembers that Grandpa spent a lot of time with a matriarch of the church, “Mother Hammond,” as his spiritual mentor.  He was a young pastor without much experience, and he needed someone to guide him and support him.  Mother Hammond prayed for him all along the way until she died.  
    Grandpa paid it forward.  One young man, Charles Scott, lost his wife in a tragic accident. He was devastated, but grandpa helped coach him back to life and fruitfulness.  Charles went on to become a multimillionaire running a plumbing empire in Arkansas and giving decades of faithful service and support to the church.
    But those first years of pastoral ministry were hard times for the family financially.  My Uncle Danny remembers that in particularly lean times, the kids would dig through the cushions of the old brown chair to try to find enough change to go buy a pound of hamburger meat so they didn’t have to eat beans and corn bread for dinner again.  
    My mom tells stories of lining their shoes with cardboard to patch up the holes in the soles.  She also remembers collecting pecans to sell by the road so they could buy Christmas presents.  The presents in those first pastoral years were often just socks and underwear, but they were happy to get them because their older ones were so raggedy.
    My Aunt Billy told the story of when she was in a car accident because someone ran a stop sign.  She felt really bad a bout it, but grandpa fixed the car himself and the insurance money helped them through a tight spot.  
    They had young airmen from the nearby Air Force base over to their home to play games and spend time with the family.  Grandma made gallons and gallons of popcorn because that was all they could afford to feed them.
    Later, when he pastored in McComb, Mississippi, they broadcast their evening service on the radio. Grandma said many of the Baptist folks in town stayed home from their own church on Sunday night to listen to Grandpa on the radio.  He also had a daily radio show that somehow broadcast right out of his office.  The kids all remember having to be very quiet for that.  His time at this church produced an especially abundant crop of pastors who became significant Nazarene leaders: Andy Johnson (New Testament professor at Nazarene Theological Professor), Larry Leonard (Mid-South District Superintendent), and Dan Boone (President of Trevecca Nazarene University in Tennessee).

    Grandpa had a short 4 year stint pastoring in New Albany, Indiana - near Louisville.  But he couldn’t handle the weather.  He had pneumonia in June.  On their last Sunday, though, the people who had become members of the church during those four years stood up and formed a circle stretching around the sanctuary - more than 100 of them.  
    He pastored two more churches in Alabama before retiring after Grandma had a heart attack.  Grandpa just didn’t want to be a pastor if she couldn’t be his secretary.  
    But when they retired to the Ozark Mountains of northern Arkansas, the District Superintendent asked them to start a Nazarene church in their town.  They got the church started and got a building and a parsonage up, and then they passed it on to someone else.  

    Throughout his life, Grandpa pastored mostly small to medium country churches.  He usually didn’t get paid very much, so they put their kids through college by buying and selling various things: land, houses, cars, appliances, horses.  Once they bought a car that had been used as a chicken coup. They cleaned the poop and feathers out, got it running again, and sold it for a profit.  Another time, he bought and resold 20 Amish buggies.  

    Some people might say he didn’t do very much.  He was never wealthy or famous. But by my count, Grandpa helped more than 600 people become Nazarenes during his 34 years of ministry, and most of those were new Christians.  Grandma thinks that around a dozen young men became pastors under grandpa’s leadership.  

    But that’s not all.  Remember that argument Grandpa had when God was asking him to be a pastor.  When Grandma and Grandpa retired, they built a house across a pasture from the White River in Arkansas.  One day, when Grandpa was walking way up the hill to get the mail, God reminded him of everything he thought he would lose by giving his life to God.  
The devil had said: If you become a preacher, you’ll never get that herd of poled Hereford cattle.  
   Grandpa looked out over that field where his 50 head of reddish poled Hereford cattle were grazing on the green hills, and God said, “There’s your cattle.”
The devil had said: If you become a preacher, you won’t have any friends.
   Grandma counted, and in their first year out on the farm, 100 different people came to visit and stayed over for at least one night.
The devil had said: If you become a preacher, you’ll be poor all your life.
   They never had great riches, but they owned their own beautiful home, their own little ranch, and they could buy whatever they needed - and whatever they wanted since they didn’t want much.  

    In the last sermon he prepared, when he was 83 years old, he preached on the story of how God broke Paul and Silas out of jail so they could carry on their missionary work. I want to quote some of that sermon for you now:  “Now, young people, I want you especially to hear this. One of the devil’s biggest lies is this: ‘If you become a Christian, you won’t have anything interesting to do. It’s a dull life.’”  But think of what happened to Paul and Silas.  They got thrown in jail, busted out of jail, baptized the jailer and his whole family, ate a good breakfast, then went back to jail and called the government leaders to account for mistreating them - “all between midnight and daylight. I can’t promise you that if you become a Christian, all your nights will be like this.  You may never have a night this exciting.  But I can promise you this: Jesus said, ‘I have come that my joy might be in you and that your joy might be full.’  And when Jesus gives us his joy and our joy is full, it doesn’t get any better than that. … No matter what circumstances we may be in (and it couldn’t be worse than Paul and Silas), if we pray and be true to God, He’ll bankrupt heaven or see us through.”   

    What do you want your life story to be?
    Years from now, what do you want people to say about you?