Kennebunkport, Maine — When the president worships on the road, it is customary for the pastor to pretend he’s not there — or to, at most, greet him and maybe remember him in a prayer. The fiction is a tad ludicrous, given the armored entourage in the driveway and the press pool back by the collection plates. But it is observed more often than not, as the president tries for an hour to appear to be just one more parishioner.
Well, no one told that to the Very Rev. Martin Luther Agnew Jr., who was up from Shreveport, La., for eight weeks as the summer minister at St. Ann’s Episcopal Church, a stone, seaside sanctuary less than a mile from the Bush family compound.
Saturday night was George Prescott Bush’s wedding, to another Texas lawyer. So his uncle, President Bush, spent the weekend at his folks’ place, and 10 or so Bushes went to the 8 a.m. service at St. Ann’s. The dynasty got a lecture through one of the more liberal prisms that can be used to look at Scripture — a Social Gospel exhortation about the biblical imperative to sell your goods and give the proceeds to the poor.
During the Holy Eucharist, the president got a shout-out in the part of the prayers of the people that asks for blessings on “those who govern and hold authority … that there may be peace and justice on the earth.”
But Agnew got personal during his message about tithing and stewardship. He singled out the first President Bush’s golf prowess during a parable designed to make the point that an “intimate, meaningful relationship” with Christ requires shunning earthly possessions.
“Our material gifts do not have to be a wall — they can very well be a door,” Agnew said. Then referring to Luke 12:33, the priest said, “Jesus says, ‘Sell your possessions and give alms.’ “
“I’m convinced that what we keep owns us, and what we give away sets us free,” he said.
Agnew held up a golf iron and asked his flock to imagine the first President Bush taking repeated swings to try to hit a ball out of the rough. The former president made what Agnew called “a mighty swing” at the ball, now resting atop an anthill, and missed, killing about 346 ants.
With Agnew brandishing the club for effect, he said the former president whiffed again and this time killed 641 ants.
According to Agnew’s telling, one ant said to another ant, “If we’re going to live, we better get on the ball.”
This was received with Episcopal silence in a parish where the parking lot was full of Volvos, Mercedes, BMWs and Land Rovers.
“What God is reminding us to do,” Agnew said, “is to get on the ball.”
The former first lady, Barbara Bush, looked at her husband with a smile, seemingly hoping he would be amused. Her son the president nodded a few times but the former president sat stone-faced through the story.
After the parable, Agnew jovially high-fived the first President Bush. He sportingly returned the gesture, but did not smile during the rest of the sermon.