Hierarchies and the Baptism of Jesus


A sermon preached on Sunday, January 13th, based upon Matthew 3:13 -17, entitled “Hierarchies and the Baptism of Jesus”

I’ve been thinking a lot about hierarchies this past week.

Take wolves, for instance. There was a wonderful presentation here at the Church Wednesday night by a group called “Defenders of the Wildlife” who brought along a beautiful, live wolf. Within every wolf pack there will be a hierarchy that establishes whose up and whose down. And wolves as a species exist in the animal world atop the most basic of hierarchies, also known as the “food chain.“

Though we humans often experience hierarchy as sinister, it is not in and of itself evil. Following a children’s sermon I once gave in which I invited the children to imagine the fulfillment of the Biblical image of “the wolf lying down with the lamb,” my engineer friend Lincoln reminded me that the actual demolition of the animal hierarchy would be a disaster for the animal kingdom. The bigger guys eat the littler guys, or more precisely, some of the littler guys — that’s how the system works. Do away with the hierarchy of the food chain and chaos and starvation would quickly follow.

Animals seem to intuitively recognize the need for hierarchy: put a bunch of dogs together for the first time, and they will immediately set about establishing whose up and whose down in the pecking order. Following a few initial growls and maybe a couple of bites, all the dogs can relax and interact easily with one another, since each dog now knows his or her place in the order of the pack.

Because wolves sit at the very top of the animal food chain, human beings have often unfairly demonized them, perhaps projecting our own darker impulses onto these predators. Consider, for instance, the portrayal of the wolf in “Little Red Riding Hood“, with which every kid grows up. But wolves do not recklessly kill as humans are known to sometimes do. And when human beings have taken it upon ourselves to play God with the animal kingdom, believing it would be better off without those mean wolves at the top of the hierarchy, we soon discovered there were unfortunate consequences. Hunting wolves down to near extinction meant the elk and other natural prey of the wolf quickly became too numerous for their environments to bear, resulting in a barrenness in the land from which the rest of the animal kingdom suffered.

In the animal kingdom, animals instinctively fulfill their place in the balance created by this hierarchy. Generally speaking, animals don’t maliciously hunt one another. They hunt specifically to eat, and in doing so a delicate balance is maintained.

It goes without saying that there is plenty of hierarchy in the human world. My daughter Kate described some of the customs she witnessed in Tanzania that reflect the hierarchies in place there. Among the most primitive tribe that Kate stayed with — the Maasai, older people are honored for the experience they have gained over the years of their life. When a younger person encounters an older person, the younger person bows his or her head in respect, and the older person responds by gently touching the top of the person’s head in a kind of blessing, in a mutual acknowledgement of the implicit authority the elder has over the younger person. Kate thought this was a nice custom, and I do too. Because of the shorter life span in Tanzania, at 52 I would be considered downright ancient there, receiving great honor and many bowed heads for my many years. I thought it might be a nice custom to introduce here as well.

The same custom, however, was also in place in other relationships within the Maasai people in ways Kate didn’t care for so much. There is a class of men ranging in age from 17 to mid-thirties who fulfill the function within the tribe of so-called “warriors”, theoretically defending the tribe from its enemies, but Kate’s impression was that for the most part all they really did was swagger about drinking beer. Because they were understood to be at the top of the hierarchy, when other members of the tribe would encounter a warrior, they were supposed to bow their heads in submission so that the warrior could pat them on the head. As you might expect, Kate wasn’t about to bow her head to any testosterone-driven, beer-swigging teenager, which in turn quickly identified her as something of a rebel to the system.

There is, of course, a great deal of established hierarchy in our culture as well, as reflected in the relationships of parent/child, employer/employee,doctor/ patient, teacher/student/ bishop/ds/pastor/layperson, to name but a few. These hierarchies provide a structure that we rely on for order. Although hierarchies often need reforming, and some hierarchies can be done away with altogether, without any hierarchies human interactions would be inclined to descend into a destructive chaos.

But unlike animals who are driven by instinct, gravitating automatically to their proper place and function in the hierarchy, we human beings have some measure of freedom, which means, among other things, that we make choices to either fulfill our place, or to abuse the power given to us in the hierarchy.

With human beings, there are two kinds of authority. There is the external authority given to a person by the hierarchical system — the authority bestowed simply by virtue of the fact that he or she has been given the title of “pastor“, or “teacher“, or “policeman“, or whatever. And then there is internal authority, a kind of spiritual reality that arises from who a person truly is (or have become) in their personhood. Ideally, the person who has been given external authority carries within him or her the internal authority that corresponds to their place in the hierarchy. (Obviously, Kate didn’t perceive within the young Maasai warriors the internal authority to match their external authority.)

We find ourselves in the midst of a presidential campaign. When we assess the candidates, beyond their position on policy we are asking, in large part, whether they possess the internal authority to match the external authority they are seeking in being elected president.

It’s a pretty crucial question, because obviously it is quite possible for someone to run for president who is driven by nothing more than blind ambition — a desire to possess more political power than any other person on the face of the planet; to be, essentially, the chief wolf sitting at the top of the human food chain, so to speak. Presidents driven by blind ambition end up doing a tremendous amount of harm.

Accurately or inaccurately, Hillary Clinton got a bounce in the polls last week when she became teary eyed and spoke convincingly of how she was running not merely because she wanted power, but because she truly believed she had something to offer that would serve the country well in these difficult times. The perception of her as a woman with the internal authority required to be president became believable to many people.

It is helpful to consider the story David read us this morning in the Gospel lesson in terms of external and internal authority. Sometimes a person can possess great internal authority but have no formal role in society. This is the first public appearance of Jesus in the Gospels. He is, in a certain sense, a nobody, holding no external authority. Unlike the priests, scribes and Pharisees who all had been given a certain external authority in the society, both Jesus and John the Baptist carried no title. Their internal authority, however, was unmistakable. When they spoke, people listened, because their integrity and innate wisdom was simply compelling.

Immediately upon Jesus’ arrival at the River Jordan, John raises a question regarding hierarchy. Jesus, he perceives, is, in truth, above in him, carrying a greater internal authority than his own. But Jesus has come to submit to John’s baptism as though John were above him. John is discomforted by the fact that they seem to be undermining the hierarchy of authority. Jesus reassures him that this is okay.

And then Jesus does a remarkable thing. Though he is, in a very real sense, above every body else, he humbly takes his place in the waters of the Jordan, placing himself alongside every other human being who ever lived.

To be a parent, rightfully understood, is to serve one’s child — not in the sense of being their maid, but in terms of exercising authority over them specifically for the purpose of enhancing the child’s life. The same can be said of pastors, teachers, presidents, or any position of authority.

Once, as Jesus was making his way to Jerusalem where he would confront those who had abused their authority, he was approached by two of his disciples, James and John.

“Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”
And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?”
And they said to him,
“Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”

Jesus is asking, in essence, whether they have the internal authority necessary to take on the authority they are seeking. When Jesus was baptized by John, he was indicating his willingness to suffer with, and indeed to die for, those who he would have authority over. Jesus took the occasion of his disciples’ question as an opportunity to speak regarding the nature of true leadership and authority.“You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and there great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave to all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.” (Mark 10:35 -44)
For those of us who would seek to follow Jesus, our call to serve knows no limits.
A woman wrote about an important lesson she learned in college:
During my second month of nursing school, our professor gave us a pop quiz. I was a conscientious student and had breezed through the questions, until I read the last one: “What is the first name of the woman who cleans the school?” Surely this was some kind of joke. I had seen the cleaning woman
several times. She was tall, dark-haired and in her 50s, but how would I know her name? I handed in my paper, leaving the last question blank. Before class ended, one student asked if the last question would count toward our quiz grade.
“Absolutely,” said the professor. “In your careers you will meet many people. All are significant. They deserve your attention and care, even if all you do is smile and say hello.”I’ve never forgotten that lesson. I also learned her name was Dorothy.

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