I read the front page headline in the Washington Post on Tuesday, January 26: “Renegade liberal Republican represented Maryland in Senate.” Immediately thought to myself, “What is this all about?” Catch words like “renegade” and “liberal”, words from the dictionary that we throw out today as if they currently define a simple, contemporary genealogy of a polarized nation; simple but inelegant words that seem to define the present scope of politics in this great nation, but surely are not the simple, limiting, “loaded” words that describe one of the lions of the United States Senate whose life and legacy we honor this morning.
His political career in years is simple enough to comprehend; elected to the House of Representatives in 1960 where he served four terms and elected to the Senate in 1968 where he served the great state of Maryland and this nation as senator until he retired in 1985.
On the domestic side, his love of the family farm, his likable nature, and his strong sense of humor were significant gifts experienced by those who knew him. His dedication to family throughout the years of service to state and nation is to be celebrated given the many demands made on his time; demands that, as we know, are so consuming for anyone who commits their life to government service. So this morning as we celebrate Mac’s life, so we honor the family that stood by him during his years of devoted public service: his wife of 51 years, Ann Bradford Mathias, his sons Charles and Robert, his sister Theresa, his brother Edward, and two granddaughters. His legacy will be carried in the hearts of those who now survive him and his memory will long live in the annals of the Congress of the United States.
Several years ago it was suggested by Mac to his sons that they arrange a luncheon with the new Episcopal Bishop of Washington, who just happened to be me. And so the senator, Charles, Robert, and I gathered for lunch to spend time getting to know one another. We discussed some of the pressing issues of the day that were of a concern to Mac. His health was failing and he walked very slowly, with assistance, stooped in posture. But there was nothing wrong with his mind. And he nimbly addressed one issue after another; whether it was about the political instability of Middle East, the spread of HIV and AIDS in Africa, the challenges facing this nation’s elected leadership, especially the political polarization that has made it so difficult to do the people’s business in the Congress of the United States.
As I sat with the senator, Charles, and Robert, I thought to myself how true it is that the body ages, sometimes with cruelty, yet with the outward signs of aging comes this wondrous maturity of the soul and mind. Even with physical frailty, the mind becomes a library of past memories and present opportunities. And from my perspective, on that afternoon of good food and fellowship I reflected on the theological truth that God speaks to us when we least expect it. And age and wisdom open the letters of God’s correspondence to us. And Mac, as the “mailman” that afternoon reminded me of the importance of living into one’s conscience no matter what the personal or political price might be and to seek justice and truth in all that we undertake so there truly can be liberty and justice for all.
In the Book of Proverbs 1:1–6 it is written: “The Proverbs of Solomon son of David, King of Israel: For learning about Wisdom and instruction, for understanding the words of insight, for gaining instruction in wise dealing; righteousness, justice, equity; to teach shrewdness to the simple, knowledge and prudence to the young—let the wise also hear and gain in learning…and the discerning acquire skill to understand.” Mac was in truth a man of great wisdom possessing uncanny insight and who dealt wisely with those he served with in the House and Senate. He never stopped learning about himself, the people and country that he served, and the ever changing world that swirled about him. He was a man who was a seeker of justice and equity for all, and he consistently placed his political career and future before the voters, believing that by understanding the issues and by serving the greater good, reason and knowledge would trump political expediency. And voters respected him for that, even during times when they disagreed with some of the controversial positions that he took. And Mac, in turn, respected them. And that made all the difference in the world and defined his longevity of service in both the House and the Senate.
Mac as a member of the House and then the Senate was a person who was more concerned about serving the common good of the commonwealth rather than whether positions taken on controversial issues facing the nation would inhibit his re-election chances. He spoke out boldly against the Vietnam War, worked hard to seek reconciliation between blacks and whites in this country, and physically walked with Bella Abzug and Gloria Steinem in support of the Equal Rights Amendment. He embraced “home rule” for the District of Columbia and was an early voice crying out for campaign finance reform. To that issue, and addressing a long-held interpretation of the First Amendment and campaign financing, an interpretation that has recently been overturned by the Supreme Court, he was quoted as saying: “No problem confronting our nation today is greater than that of our steadily eroding confidence in our political system. This erosion of confidence results from undeniable evidence that our current political campaign process—relying on big money and secrecy—corrupts our principles, our leaders, and ourselves”.
As the Washington Post pointed out in its article about Mac, in his first term as senator, he voted with his Republican colleagues only 31 percent of the time and compiled a voting record more liberal than that of most Democrats. Yet he continued to be re-elected because of his honesty, integrity, and courage to speak out for what he believed to be right and just.
Senator Mathias was “green” before “green” ever became a word defining the environmental movement in this country. It is to be noted that he as a strong advocate for protecting and preserving his beloved Chesapeake Bay, and he sponsored a bill to create the C&O Canal National Historic Park.
This morning we gather in fellowship as friends, family, former colleagues, and faithful constituents in this great Cathedral, the sixth largest in the world. And we gather to give back to God one of his children. For in truth Charles “Mac” Mathias was a child of God. And so he returns to God, the source of everlasting life that gave him to his country, his family, friends, colleagues, and the world. We give thanks to almighty God for a live well lived and a servant who was tempered and made stronger by the teachings of Jesus Christ. And be it known to all, that Mac also had a place in his great heart for this Cathedral. He served on its governing board, the Chapter, and was on the Building Committee, responsible for its completion.
And so it is fitting that one more time Mac comes home to this sacred place, a place that gave him much pleasure, but also a place that fed his soul. He loved this Cathedral and used to walk in the Bishop’s Garden when all was in bloom and share with his family the story of the Cathedral and how insurmountable odds were conquered to bring its construction to completion.
Senator Charles McCurdy Mathias was a man who traveled his earthly journey following the unconventional political road less traveled, with intention, purpose, and courage. As a native New Englander let me share in closing a favorite poem of mine written by the once Poet Laureate of the United States, Robert Frost.
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that, the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how ways leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence;
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the road less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.