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Life As a Sermon


This week, we mourned the passing of Rosalynn Carter, wife of former United States President Jimmy Carter. Like most of you, I didn’t know her personally, and like most of you, I watched her life from a distance. Hers was a life of total devotion to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and so I wasn’t surprised when I heard her grandson describe her with these words: “Her Life was a sermon.”


To argue that someone’s life was a sermon is, in itself, a bold claim. But none of us can make that claim out of context and, in fact, few of us would disagree with the claim that Rosalynn's life was a sermon. For example, I am familiar with her work in Africa and other developing nations. Of the many stories I have heard about her work and life, there is one that restores hope for me, that makes me look at life, not from the abyss to which we can all descend, but from the heights to which we can all ascend.


There’s a story of a grizzly bear that was born and raised in a 6' by 6' cage. That was the only space that this bear had known all his life. Part of the bear's routine was to pace the cage up and down. One day, the bear was released from his cage and taken to an open field where he could explore miles and miles of green pasture. But because he was so used to only walking his tiny cage, all he did was walk that length - even with more limitless boundaries available. It was as if the bear had been programmed to count the steps he had to take before he made a turn after every six feet. The bear had the whole world in front of him, but he couldn’t see the potential for a new life, possibilities, and joys that come with breaking free from the chains that have held him in the past.


Rosalynn was born in the Deep South and grew up in a segregated environment. She witnessed firsthand an unequal society and the myriad of challenges that African Americans had to contend with. Rosalynn could have been emasculated by the limits her society placed on her. She could easily have bought into the narrative of the superiority of the dominant race. But how would she have lived into the gospel meant to set everyone free if she had done that? How could she have fully embraced the gospel and yet reject its sanctity?


She couldn’t!

She chose the better part, which liberates.

Of the many stories I heard about her, one of the most moving involves a woman named Mary Prince. Mary was an African-American woman who served as a nanny for Rosalynn.


Not to go too much into the details of Mary’s story, she was wrongfully convicted of murder. But because she was a trustworthy prisoner, she was able to serve President Carter when he was Governor of Georgia.


Unfortunately, Mary had to be sent back to prison when President Carter’s term as Governor ended. But Rosalynn didn’t forget about Mary, nor did she forget her story that she was wrongly and unjustly convicted of a crime she did not commit.


There’s a story in the Bible where a cupbearer of Pharaoh was in the same prison cell with Joseph but didn’t remember Joseph when he was restored to his former position.

This is the interesting part of the story - when President Carter moved to Washington D.C., Rosalynn wrote to the parole board asking for permission for Mary to travel to DC for the inauguration, and President Carter also requested that he be designated as the parole officer of Mary.

How was it that the President of the United States would offer to be the parole officer of a convicted felon? You have to believe in second chances! You have to believe in redemption. You have to believe in God’s redeeming grace to be able to take such a step, one where your credibility is dependent on the behavior of a convicted felon.


You have to believe in the possibility of life outside the cage.


Both requests were granted, and Mary lived and worked in the White House. She eventually earned a full pardon after a re-examination of the evidence on file against her.

This is but a snippet of Rosalynn’s advocacy, however. What fascinates me about her life, and this particular story, is that she didn’t allow herself to be constrained by the limits of what was, or is. Instead, she looked at what could be; she was willing to look at the possibilities ahead in Mary Prince’s life. Unlike the bear that was so comfortable with the 6x6-foot cage, Rosalynn was not.


She may have asked herself, on multiple occasions, "How far can I go? How far can we all go?" And I am sure the answer was always along these lines: as far as we can go, for until God’s restoration is complete, we must keep our hands on the plow, as Steve indicated in his sermon last Sunday.


When I heard her grandson refer to her life as one of a sermon, I was reminded of St. Francis of Assisi’s words: “Preach the gospel at all times and, when necessary, use words.” Our reality is one where words are often empty, but if only we can let our faith speak for us. If only we can let our lives speak for us!


St. Francis is right in the sense that our actions should speak louder than the beliefs we proclaim. Rosalynn wasn’t a preacher, but she preached a sermon with her life.


That tells me that you don’t have to be a preacher or steeped deep in theology to preach - living a life of gratitude and love can speak volumes for you.


Advent is a season of rebirth. Like the bear, having a new experience outside the cage can be a rebirth for you. But the value of your rebirth would be determined by your desire to explore the world beyond the 6x6-foot cage.


If only we live a life beyond the cage, our lives could be sermons, too.


Manny+

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