September 19, 2021: Sermon Preached by The Rev. Katie Holicky

Year B, Proper 20                                                    The Rev. Katie Holicky, Assistant Rector

Just a little over eight years ago, with a lot of excitement and a little bit of fear, I wandered into St. John’s Chapel on the campus of Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It would become one of the most sacred and formative places to ever hold me, but on this breezy day in mid to late August of 2013, I sat down in the Chapel for the first time for student orientation. After a welcoming prayer, we were told the story of Jonathan Daniels. In the early 60’s Daniels was a student at what was then Episcopal Theological School. He worshiped in this same chapel, ate in the same refectory, and studied in the same library we would shortly tour.

The Civil Rights Movement of the 60’s, especially the Selma, Alabama demonstrations, were at their height, and Daniels struggled with what this meant for him as a young white man and faith leader. At first he fell in line with the Bishop of Alabama who did not want outsiders meddling. It was not until tensions and violence rose alongside The Rev. Dr. King’s call to white faith leaders, that Daniels gained clarity on his own call to Civil Rights. So, he left the comfort and beauty of his New England Campus and headed South to join the ranks of Civil Rights workers.

As he examined his own privilege and what he was being called to set aside for others, how he was called to serve, to have the first be last he said: “…something had happened to me in Selma…I could not stand by in benevolent dispassion any longer without compromising everything I know and love and value. The imperative was too clear, the stakes too high, my own identity was called too nakedly into question…I had been blinded by what I saw here (and elsewhere), and the road to Damascus led, for me, back here.” He met Jesus in his work of serving others in this way.

In mid to late August in 1965 he was arrested at a demonstration. After spending almost a week in unsanitary conditions with other activists, Daniels, upon his release, stopped with another white faith leader and two black activists to get a Coke from a nearby store. A local deputy denied them entry and began shooting. Jonathn Daniels stood in front of Ruby Sales, a black activist, and became the twenty sixth civil rights worker killed in the south. The Episcopal Church now celebrates the feast on Jonathan Daniels in August.

Today Mark helps us to engage more deeply with this notion of serving the other. For me, Mark has the most cinematic feel to it. The urgency paired with Jesus constantly telling his friends that he will be betrayed, killed, and rise again. And that all of the kinetic energy is supposed to remain secret. So, who is included in God’s kin-dom? Who is God/ Jesus asking us to be with? To share what we have with? These are deep questions of Christian Hospitality.

So, the disciples are journeying with Jesus, and yet again are not fully understanding what he is saying. And, they are afraid to ask. Then, we get this juicy bit about them arguing about who is the greatest. In his question to them, and their returned silence, we see the depth of our own humanity reflected in the disciples. One writer notes, “Some of us spend a lot of time worrying about our status, trying to get the symbols of prestige and seeking to maneuver so that we get the acclaim. Many of us would fall silent if we were asked to explain how what we are doing and saying accords with the way of life that Jesus sets before us” (FOTW, 94).

For me though this week, the notion of the first being the last is the real meat and potatoes. In the Greek the word used here for servant would have referred to the one who served meals…this “servant of all” would have been the lowest ranked of all of the servants and would have been the last to eat only after everyone else had their fill (FOTW, 95). Children and servants had rather low status. Tending to or showing preferential treatment of a child would not have ANY impact on aiding to the status of someone” (FOTW, 97). The point then is that we are called to serve those with less power than ourselves (TBC, 318). This is a “…powerful and even shocking depiction of the paradoxical values of God’s will and reign, which confront the dominant values of human society and assign worth and importance to every person’ (FOTW, 97).

Now, let me be clear about Jonathan Daniels, most of us are not called to martyrdom, and thank God! Yet, all of us are called to examine ourselves and invite the Spirit in to help us to know how we truly set down our privilege and take up the mantle of serving the other and bring about God’s kin-dom.

Ruby Sales, whose life was saved by Jothan Daniels, has become one of the most legendary justice activists, scholars, and public theologians traveling the country and speaking about race and reconciliation. With degrees from Tuskegee Institute, Manhattanville College, and Princeton University, and Episcopal Divinity School, she is one of the most prophetic voices living today. She is even one of fifty civil rights leaders showcased by the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. One person, giving over their privilege and serving another came at a steep price, and yet was still a reflection of the long arc of justice… of resurrection.

The first being last is a call for us to live into a higher ethical standard than that of the empire. To not just use or leverage our privilege but to give it up, hand it over to those on the margins. To give what we have of our resources and time and not to try and control it but to give of it freely. In fact it is in doing this that we truly welcome God in our lives. Who is God asking you to hand over your privilege for? How are you called to be last?

Resources: Feasting on the Word, Theological Bible Commentary,,