GiftsEden On The Bay

All are welcome ~ Come as you are

Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising, Michigan

Modeling Jesus Heirarchy - 09/19/2021

When I was a seeker looking for a church where I could worship and be part of something bigger and more authentic than I could be on my own, one of the characteristics of the Lutheran tradition that attracted me was the hierarchy of the community.

Truth be told, I couldn’t have said that to you for years after I joined an ELCA Lutheran community.

Hierarchy is a system or organization in which people or groups are ranked one above the other according to status or authority. These structures inhabited by people often make a pyramid shape on an org chart. It is what the disciples were thinking about in our Gospel reading today. “…on the way they had argued with one another who was greatest.” (Mark 9:34)

When we think of hierarchy, we might think of government, or a school, a police department or a housing authority. We need hierarchy in places. It benefits us to have a clear chain of command, to know where the buck stops, to match certain specialized skills with higher levels of authority or status.

Hierarchy shows up in seemingly less structured communities and organizations too. On the playground, in our families and in our churches. I come from a Christian tradition that is steeped in a lot of hierarchy. I saw how some – not all – who were ranked higher in status and authority abused those positions and how others ranking above them turned a blind eye. I saw how some who enjoyed status and rank used that authority to exclude instead of include people. I saw how God’s Word was too often used to condemn rather than elevate God’s people. I also saw how people like me, who felt strong calls to religious life early on, were discouraged or prevented from following those calls with all their hearts, minds and souls because they weren’t from the correct part of the hierarchy.

And so when I was introduced to an ELCA Lutheran community, even though I couldn’t name it, I could sense there was something different.

What we strive for in the ELCA is a flat hierarchy – when we come together as this body of Christ, and when we are out there as individuals of this larger body, we are all on equal footing – saints and sinners, all of us; people filled with belief and disbelief; people of various gifts and duties; people of faithful tradition and people of faithful innovation.

Some of you who have done Christian education with me have heard me talk about this when I use this book by Daniel Erlander, “Baptized We Live: Lutheranism As a Way of Life” – my Lutheranism 101 go-to book. You can see in this picture …

… illustration of people gathered for worship

… the furniture and finishings that typically appoint our worship spaces

… and notice in this picture, like in our space here at Eden, they are literally on equal footing, one level.

Many of our churches are designed in this way because of this Lutheran goal of flattened hierarchy in our faith communities.

This is not to say that churches with steps up to the altar or platforms are not Lutheran enough. There are good reasons for these worship space designs, said the short woman from behind the pulpit made for a 6-foot-tall man. Even Luther preached from raised pulpit, high above his congregation when he preached … it was the best A/V technology of his time.

The point is Erlander’s drawing does an excellent job of envisioning what we strive for in our Lutheran faith communities … we strive to remember we all are on equal footing in the eyes of God. Why is that important? Because, my Beloved friends, it stems from what we can know about God through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus … that there is no difference in the breadth and width and depth of love God has for you and the one next to you. There is no difference in the forgiveness and redemption God pours upon you and the one who sinned against you – or the one you sinned against. There is no ranking of the gifts and functions a pastor brings to this place over and above those brought by Cody Lincoln and Blake Walther, our newest adult members of Christ’s Church.

It seems simple enough on the surface, but I think it’s hard for us to fully embrace this counter-cultural approach to forming community, maybe precisely because there are versions of hierarchies all around us where people are clearly ranked and sometimes even judged and valued based on status and authority.

Jesus offers us something different though. He opens our hearts, minds and souls to a vision of a community where those pyramids of hierarchy tumble. And Jesus began these communities with people who were at the very bottom of these hierarchies all around him and his disciples?

In our Gospel reading today, he uses the example of the first century Galilean child to explain just who is to be welcomed into the communities of his followers. Elevating children like this sounded absurd and radical to his disciples.

Here’s how one commentary explained it:

“Children where the weakest, most vulnerable members of society... the first to suffer from famine, war, disease, and dislocation and in some areas or eras few would have lived to adulthood with both parents alive. Children had little status within the community or family. While a minor, a child was on par with a slave, and only after reaching maturity was he/she a free person who could inherit the family estate. The orphan was the stereotype of the weakest and most vulnerable member of society.” ( Malina, Rohrbaugh, Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, Fortress Press, 2003, pg. 336)

And that is Jesus’s starting place. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all … 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, para)

It is curious to me that the word “welcome” has such a vital role in this teaching. Jesus holds the act of welcoming high above efforts to jockey for positions of status and authority.

When I talked to Blake and Cody about their connections to Eden and Christ’s Church in general, they shared what was important to them, how the community benefits them. They said it was a place of happiness and joy, a safe place, a place where you can talk with others and feel supported.

When I asked them what they felt they offered to this community, how they are a benefit to Christ’s church, they reflected on their service as ushers and how they felt very comfortable and good about their ability to welcome anyone who walked through those doors to worship with this assembly.

I call that a case in point for the fruitfulness of flattened hierarchy. Here they are, Cody and Blake, just coming into Christian community as full adult members and they’ve already internalized the vital role of welcoming that Jesus holds up for us. And we can see it clearly because Blake and Cody, you, me, all of us – from council member to confirmand, are on equal footing. 

Jesus called others to create this new kind of community too – this flattened hierarchy of people gathering around font and table, entirely and equally dependent on God’s mercy and providence.

He called fisher people and administrators, people already ministering to their neighborhoods, people of wealth with hearts for sharing their abundance, people with a variety of skills, abilities and visions, people who were outside of the “proper,” or “respectable,” circles, people seeking the God of steadfast lovingkindness they sensed in the words of the prophets and in the stories of our forefathers and foremothers in the faith.

Jesus called people just like us, everyday working people, people who screw things up, people who succeed one day and fall flat the next and then start all over again, people who love and fear, come and go.

Invited us into this different Way of being community that sees and loves its people and the world around a little more like God does. Amen.

Pastor Ann Gonyea

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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising Michigan ~ An ELCA, Northern Great Lakes Synod Congregation
P.O. Box 360 ~ 1150 West M-28 ~ Munising, MI 49862 ~ 1-906-387-2520 ~ contact@edenonthebay.org

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