I have celebrated the Eucharist countless times in a myriad of parishes across this country, but nothing could prepare me for the conundrum I found myself in with Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Georgia. You see they have a rather famous Sunday School teacher there, a former president named Jimmy Carter. For many, President Carter represents the best of political values and a storied post-presidency. Even though he was vilified during his one term in office, I find it amazing that the man accomplished so much in one term and remains a humble human being in spite of being “in the spotlight.”
Being raised as a presidential history buff I remember learning about Carter, so to meet him was remarkable and a blessing—but that wasn’t the conundrum I faced. I have met some pretty amazing people in my lifetime, but I haven’t been the celebrant at a table with the former President of the United States of America in the congregation. I was left with a question: What do you say when he comes to the table?
Now for many this may seem like a silly question, but I like to call people by their first name when I serve them the body and blood of our Lord if I know what it is. That being said my mom and dad raised me right to remember that if you’re in the room with someone like President Carter, you refer to him as I just did or with a respectful “Mr. President” when he is talking to you. Even when my parents come up to the altar I call them by their given names, “Rusty, this is the blood of Christ, the cup of salvation.” Still this felt a little different.
So, when President Carter came up to me I had a choice to make, who is he in the eyes of God and the hope of the Eucharistic feast we are partaking of? If the Lord of time and space was present he would call President Carter by his given name, and I’m sure President Carter would respond in kind.
I took a deep breath, he came up to me and I said with as much gusto as I could muster, “Jimmy, this is the blood of Christ, the cup of salvation.” He looked at me, smiled, and said “Thanks be to God.”
After the service the former president came up to me and told me that he appreciated that I called him by name, and that I had preached without fear of his presence in the room. (Little did he know I was an anxious wreck.) Stephanie and I had dinner with him and found him and his wife Rosalyn to be some of the humblest people we have ever encountered. It wasn’t a competition for the president on who had the most accolades, or who had the most experience. He would clearly win in that arena. It was an inquisitive human being asking me about reading Reinhold Niebuhr, about my experiences at Duke with Stanley Hauerwas, and other theologians he had read.
The point I’m reporting back is that we need more of this. We don’t need the opulence of millionaires running our country—a peanut farmer from the middle of nowhere Georgia did us well, and we would be remiss to forget his legacy.
In one of his newer books, titled “Faith: A Journey for All” President Carter writes, “To me, Jesus Christ is not an object to be worshipped but a person and constant companion. I pray in is name to the Father, and I seek through him to understand our present world and to better comprehend my own duties and responsibilities in dealing with daily life. I have no doubt that Jesus is living now, not simply that once upon a time Jesus existed. I look on him as the epitome of love, of all that is good.”
May that love embrace us, call us by name and bring us to that table with the saints of glory. Thanks be to God for this experience. It is one I will never forget.