My friends, you all know that Robert and I were away for nearly three weeks seeing the southeastern part of our country in our pickup camper. This was an epic journey in many ways as we had decided before setting out that this would be our last, such camping trip, so it was mixed with the bitter-sweet that such journeys hold. It was an ending to this kind of adventure, but a beginning and an opportunity for different kinds of trips.
It became clear to us early on and throughout our journey that we don’t have the stamina for this kind of travel anymore. So it made many things more sweet, realizing we were seeing some places, and doing some things, for the last time. Now that having been said; we also experienced a sense of relief in knowing that we had made a good decision.
Today’s readings for the 32nd Sunday in [Extra] Ordinary Time are full of the same type of life-changing decisions, or at least, the opportunity for them. The reading from Maccabees is a very violent one documenting the lengths that people will go for a belief, both from the standpoint of an oppressor and that of the position of those being oppressed.
The Greeks served in this reading as the oppressors and the Maccabees as those oppressed. These young Maccabeeian men and their mother believed so strongly in being faithful to their God that they were willing to suffer horrible torture and ultimately, death, rather than renounce their God and while the Greeks didn’t hold these same beliefs, they admired what they witnessed in these young men and their mother. We might ask ourselves whether we would have such resolve.
Paul’s simple prayer is that in whatever comes, he will be strengthened to better spread the word of Jesus, which we know is, love—love for all.
Jesus clarifies this basic message, giving direction as to how that should be done—not looking one-dimensionally at the world, but in many dimensions—“outside the box” we might say—as God does. The Sadducees, spoken of in today’s gospel, were one of three Jewish political and religious movements in Jesus’ time whom he regularly had to contend with—in their very conservative thinking, accepting nothing but the Law of Moses. The Sadducees want Jesus’ opinion on who will be married to who in the next life and Jesus is basically saying—think broader, wider, higher.
As I think back to our trip, reflecting on what we saw and did—the places we visited, it seemed the Spirit directed our traveling to many sites that spoke of injustices suffered by many in this great country of ours over the years. And even though we didn’t actually plan on going to all these places at the outset—it was more like, “Oh, this is along the route, or this site isn’t far off our general journey.”
The places I am speaking of included, The Peace and Justice National Monument in Montgomery, AL, documenting lynching of blacks in this country through the 1950’s, the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma, witness to Martin Luther King Jr and company’s 40 mile march from Montgomery, pleading for equality for all people, a tour through the extensive battlefield of Vicksburg, MS,
a turning point for the Union at a time that this nation took sides against each other over the right to hold slaves and finally, a tour of Andersonville, the Confederate-run prison camp in Georgia, ill-equipped and irresponsibly led where in the course of a year, 13,000 Union prisoners died in squalor and neglect. All these places caused us to think deeply about what makes a nation great.
Amid those places that we didn’t actually plan to visit, a couple of places were in fact on our radar. Our trip’s furthest destination was to Titusville, FL, the home of the Space Center and we spent a full day marveling over the courage and determination of so many to stretch beyond our beloved planet to see, what is out there yet to be discovered! And of course, we had to get to the Atlantic Ocean and stick our toes in, at least, I did!
The highlight of this last camping trip was, we both agreed, a visit to Plains, GA and participation in our 39th president, Jimmy Carter’s Sunday school class! We had made a reservation to attend several weeks ahead of time, which didn’t guarantee that you would get a spot in the sanctuary, but only to let the people at Maranatha Baptist church know how many to expect.
We chose wisely to go on November 3rd as the previous week; President Carter wasn’t there due to a fall the week before, fracturing his pelvis. Even up until a few days before; we weren’t sure that he would make our Sunday, but we had decided to go and pray with the Maranatha community regardless. The president was determined though, not to miss two Sundays in a row, so we weren’t disappointed! And here, we talk about greatness!
The event was quite a drama, complete with Secret Service presence and checks as is protocol for all present and former presidents and their families. We began lining up at 745 A.M. for the 10 o’clock class on a cold morning, 35 degrees, and even being there ourselves before 6 A.M. to get a number, to stand in line, we were in an over-flow section of the church and watched the class on a television screen. Hindsight dictated that those with the best seats spent the night in the church yard! But all of it was worth it to be in the near presence of a man who truly lives his faith and by example challenges the rest of us, to do the same. You may or may not be aware of the fact that about a decade or so back, Jimmy Carter left his life-long Baptist community church because they would not admit blacks to worship. And today at Maranatha Baptist, the community has a black pastor! And again, we think of the Maccabees and what a person might be willing to do because of a belief!
Of Jimmy Carter’s much fine wisdom of 95 years; I will share just one of his challenges to his hearers the day we attended and more perhaps, in weeks to come. With all that he has personally experienced in his long life; first-hand racism in the deep south in his growing-up years, which he reflected on deeply in the ensuing years, the military during his years in the navy, the presidency, his experience in Ghana post- presidency fighting health issues, and his own bout with cancer; he puts out there the challenge, that if our lives aren’t, for the most part, full of joy, thanksgiving and peace, it’s our own fault!
He went on to explain: “We may not have the highest I.Q., or the most money, or all the comforts in life, but we can deal with that and decide how we are going to live our life. If we are not satisfied, who can change that, he asked?” The answer of course is, “us!” “This is the kind of person I decide to be! We can make that decision,” he concluded. I think, we can see that this notion is about something bigger than our position in life, what we have materially, and so on.
“We have the God-given gift of freedom, he said, and God will never interfere with that!” The hopeful piece that I took away was his assurance that we can go to God with anything, (and I think his 95 years have proven that to him)—that whatever life challenges us with, we will do it, “in the presence of God!” So while God will not interfere in our freedom to choose the life we will live, that same God, sees it all, and will support us, no matter what!
So my friends, just as Jimmy Carter is a man of the Scriptures, and calls us to the same, today’s Scriptures call us to our own greatness—to decide what it is perhaps, like the Maccabees, like Paul, that we are willing to stake our lives upon and then go out there and live it!
This living will no doubt call us as did Jesus with the Sadducees to think in a bigger, broader way about life as we experience it, always being open to where justice isn’t in our world and then doing our part to bring it about.
And when we speak about “joy” in life; I think it behooves each of us to share all the joy we can! In that light; I could hardly end this homily without sharing with you a fact we weren’t aware of ahead of time in attending Jimmy Carter’s Sunday school class. Part of the experience is the gift of a photo op with the former president and first lady! They have a fine-tuned “operation” for moving each family group through for a picture, on your own device in about 5 seconds or so, a piece. And on November 3rd, we stimated that there were 250-300 people in attendance, but in about 30 minutes, all the pictures were captured! Instructions were to not talk with them or touch them, simply hand your camera off to the waiting picture taker and go and stand near the couple, one on either side. We were flanked by Secret Service folks and it was all quite awesome! When we walked up, President Carter said, “welcome” as we moved to our place. With his “breaking” of the rules, we “broke” them too and thanked them!
So, to conclude my friends, it is great to be back with you and to share a bit of our journey. My challenge to you, as Robert and I were challenged by Jimmy Carter, is to attempt in our own meager ways, to always strive to be our best selves, realizing that we do, each, have the power to make it so! Amen? Amen!