Expanding the Guest List

Expanding the Guest List

by the Rev. Karen Siegfriedt, Rector, Trinity Episcopal Church, Sutter Creek; Reading: Mark 9:30-37 Proper 20/B

Jesus said: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” (Mark 9)

Have you ever had to make up a guest list, deciding whom to invite and whom to leave off the list? It can be quite difficult, especially when space and resources are limited. I remember my first invitation to a relative’s wedding. Initially, the invitation was made to my parents, but for some reason my father could not attend. The family throwing the wedding party was frugal and had some very strict limitations. The guest list included immediate family, best friends of the bride and groom, and relatives extending only to first cousins. Since I did not fit any of these criteria, an exception was made so that my mother did not have to attend alone. Sometimes, guest lists are limited because of financial concerns, while at other times they are limited to only “the fun people.” You know, those people who are extroverted, interesting, and exciting. Because people often use Facebook to invite guests to events, you can preview those who have accepted the invitation. That way, you can decide ahead of time whether there are enough “cool people” coming to the event to justify your time.

A few days ago, the Wall Street Journal published an article about the White House guest list for Pope Francis’ visit next week. It seems that the Vatican has taken offense at the administration’s invitation of several folks who are deemed inappropriate for the papal visit. These guests include a transgender activist, the first openly gay Episcopal bishop and an activist nun who endorsed a national health bill that would require Catholic institutions to provide contraceptives to those employees requesting them as part of their health care plan.

As you can imagine, this guest list has caused a kerfuffle. On the one hand, many view this guest list as being “a rude gesture” that would surround the Pope with dissidents who disagree with Catholic teachings. On the other hand, the guest list, which consists of over 15,000 people, includes a few marginalized folks who are representative of the diverse population of the United States. Should the Obama administration back down and dis-invite these guests or should it hold its ground and include the full diversity of the American people? Since the guest of honor is a Christian religious leader, I think we should ask: What would Jesus do? Let’s take a look at today’s gospel story to see if we can get any insights on making up a guest list that would embrace the spirit of Christ.

At this point in Mark’s gospel story, Jesus is passing through the region of Galilee, surrounded by his closest disciples. On the one hand, Jesus is being exclusive by not wanting anyone to know his whereabouts. He is trying to spend some quality time teaching his disciples about the basic principles of compassion and to warn them about his future fate. Instead of understanding that the kingdom of God is all about self-sacrifice, the disciples begin to argue about who among them is the greatest. Can’t you imagine these 12 young men, arguing over who is bigger, better, smarter and faster than the other? Competition for power, wealth and prestige infected all of the Middle Eastern cultures in the 1st century, and the disciples were part of this mind set. But Jesus rose above this conventional wisdom of his day. He had a different vision for the world, which would lead to peace and harmony. He said: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all. Then he took a little child and put it among them," and taking it in his arms he said, "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” (Mark 9:35-37).

Now before you think this is a sweet Sunday school scene, with meek and mild Jesus hugging a cute child with blue eyes, think again! This was a radical statement that would have shocked his disciples and the culture of his day. It is just as radical as the Pope kissing the feet of a Muslim woman or embracing a transgender child with tenderness. As you might remember, a child in 1st century Palestine was regarded as a non-person or a not-yet-person. Children were simply possessions of the father in the household, until such time as they could be economically useful or bear children for the next generation. Children and servants were of equal low-social status. But to be the “servant of all” was to be the lowest servant on the totem poll; one who would be allowed to eat only what was left over, after everyone else had eaten their full.

So imagine hearing Jesus tell his disciples that if they want to truly follow him, they must become “the servant of all.” Who would want to follow such a teacher? Why would anyone want to be part of a religious tradition where the first are last and the last become first? Who wants to serve the lost, the lonely, the loser and the left-behind? The only reason I can think of for serving humanity in this sacrificial manner is because it is the only hope we have for a better world. And without hope, the human heart would break.

I am glad that Jesus taught his disciples to embrace the path of self-sacrifice and to serve the needy. Imagine what would have happened during the Butte Fire if the operating principle had been “every man for himself!” The firefighters would have abandoned ship when the flames got hot enough or endangered their lives. People would have left town to get relief from the smoke, leaving those who were in harms way to fend for themselves. Many animals would have been burned to death, unable to escape their confines or find a safe place. In summary, without a posture of compassion and generosity, the inferno would have engulfed our county, leaving us traumatized and impoverished.

But that didn’t happen. Immediately as the fire began to spread, the best of human nature (all that is good, honest, just, pure and generous) sprang into action. Fire fighters from all over the state rushed in to minimize the spread of the fire. Many of them were fighting the fire while their own homes were at risk. Hotels, campsites and businesses opened their arms to house the evacuees, while restaurants and stores donated food and supplies. The Rancheria opened its doors, filling their halls, conference rooms and parking lots with cots, tents and cages for the animals. Three times per day, they fed the evacuees, while the Red Cross volunteers organized and triaged the rescue efforts. People dropped off clothes, food and money, while others comforted the sick, the frightened and the homeless. Others with trailers transported horses, sheep and stray dogs, while ranches and the Fair Grounds boarded them until the fire had passed. Episcopal Relief & Development has sent money to our diocese to help in the recovery efforts, while many others have donated money and services to the Butte Fire Donation & Community Support. Jesus said: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”(Mark. 9) This is what I observed in our greatest hour of need. And for all of the outpouring of compassion, resources and self-sacrifice, I give God thanks.

But now that the fire is almost out, the refrigerators are restocked and most have returned to their daily routines, will this posture of self-sacrifice and generosity continue? Now that things have settled down, will we continue to care for the victims of the fire or have compassion for the needy? It is difficult to sustain a concerted effort of giving over a long period of time. This kind of caring requires something that is greater than our ego strength alone. It requires the grace of God, a power that can transform us into the generous disciples that Jesus calls us to be. That is why belonging to a church community is important. We are part of a tradition that reminds us of our higher calling to be people of compassion and self-sacrifice. By encouraging us to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, we grow stronger in caring for others, ourselves and the earth. Our sacraments offer us grace in the face of trial. Instead of having a narrow focus, we become more committed in building a global community, where people of all ages, races, nations and ideologies can live together in peace and health.

Trinity Episcopal Church is one of those places of compassion. We are an inclusive, spiritually dynamic, loving Christian family, sharing the good news of Christ with each other and the world. Today, we are celebrating our 20th anniversary at this location on Hwy. 49; the golden nugget on the hill. Trinity Church began as a mission in June of 1897 and finished construction of its small, white church in Sutter Creek four years later, where it served the faithful for almost a century. By the 1990’s, the congregation had out-grown its church building and purchased the former Seventh-Day Adventist Church, where we are worshiping today. And while our congregation has fluctuated in size and demographics, we have remained faithful to the great commandment to love God and to love our neighbor. Whoever you are, wherever you are in your journey of faith, you are welcome here!

In today’s gospel, Jesus emphasized a path of love, humility and inclusivity. He called his disciples to serve the helpless, the dependent and those of low social status. So what do you think Jesus would say about the White House guest list? I think you already know the answer!


1 comment (Add your own)

1. Linda Clader wrote:
Excellent sermon! Thank you for sharing it with us, Karen!

Wed, September 30, 2015 @ 7:33 PM

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