The Rev. Hal Chorpenning, Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
May 27, 2018
Part of the American myth is that anyone can make it, no matter how humble our beginnings. The novels of Horatio Alger in the 19th century often told the narrative of a penniless young man who, through hard work and perseverance, made it into the ranks of the middle class. And that narrative of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps and doing well is deeply ingrained in the American ethos, but it has shifted a bit. It’s no longer enough to make it into the middle class. Now the idea is to get rich quick, which doesn’t quite square with the Protestant work ethic heralded by the Horatio Alger stories. Now, it’s more about flash and a quick rise to the top. This might explain why lottery tickets are as popular as they are…because somewhere in the back of our minds, perhaps we, too, believe that we’ll hit the jackpot. And it’s no coincidence that one of the most popular TV game shows on both sides of the Atlantic is “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” (cue video)
Maybe this seems normal to us. Perhaps getting rich quick by any means has become the new American success story.
Now, imagine that you are a TV producer and you have to come up with a new game show. Tell me how you think this one would work: “Who Wants to Take the Form of a Slave?” Well, that program wouldn’t have done well under Roman occupation in the first century either. Nobody wants to be a slave…but what about a servant? Anyone for “Who Wants to Be God’s Servant?” Still not so popular. But stay tuned…we’ll be back after the break.
Our trajectory as Christians is not to conform to the ideals and aspirations of American culture; it is to “Let the same mind be in [us] that was in Christ Jesus.” We Christians are called to different standards. We are invited into distinctive patterns of living that do not conform to the dog-eat-dog consumer mentality.
And even when we don’t fall into the trap of craving material wealth, we do have a consumeristic question that we almost always ask: “What’s in it for me?” or “What will I get?” or “How will I benefit?” And that’s not a bad idea when you are in consumer mode: looking for a job or shopping for a major home appliance. But we don’t always need to be in consumer mode, even though that is what our culture asks of us. It’s almost as if everything must be framed as a transaction: if you do this, then you will get that. This may be the reason some Christians are so fixated on the idea that if I behave well on earth, then I will get into heaven: it’s just one more transaction. There is even a theory called Transactional Leadership. “Transactional leaders focus on increasing the efficiency of established routines and procedures and are more concerned with following existing rules than with making changes to the structure of the organization.” (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transactional_leadership)
James MacGregor Burns, a historian who wrote extensively on leadership in the mid-20th century contrasted transactional leadership and transformational leadership by explaining that in the former leaders offer tangible rewards for the work performed, while transformational leaders engage with followers, focus on higher order intrinsic needs and outcomes, raise consciousness about them, and develop new ways to approach a path toward meeting goals.
Which path do you think Jesus chose as his leadership style? He used metaphor and parable to engage the hearts and minds of his followers; he framed the characteristics of the kingdom of God in ways they had never heard before and used it as an alternative vision to the Roman imperial domination under which his people lived. “Take up your cross and follow me,” isn’t going to be a winner in any game show…it’s simply going to make a world of difference both for you and for God’s world.
Today’s passage from Paul’s Letter to the church in Philippi is actually a very early hymn of the church. And there are gospel echoes, too. Hear this from Mark’s gospel:
Jesus called to his disciples “and said to them, ‘You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their 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 of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’”
We get that theme of socio-economic reversal in both the text from Philippians, where Jesus “takes the form of a slave” even though he was “in the form of God,” and later “God…highly exalted him.” And Mark’s gospel tells us that “whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” I don’t think I heard that sentiment expressed on the reality TV show, “The Apprentice.”
In the mid-1960s, Robert K. Greenleaf, after a long career studying management with AT&T, started the Center for Servant Leadership. He wrote this about 50 years ago: “The servant-leader is servant first….It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions…The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types. Between them there are shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature.”
Do you hear that? It sounds like an entire departure from the transactional leadership style of rewards and punishments and moves toward something more akin to what Jesus himself espoused.
And later, Greenleaf wrote “The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?”
How does servant leadership play out in your life? As Bob Dylan sang, “You’re gonna have to serve somebody…Well, it may be the devil, or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.” Whom will you serve?
I see a significant number of servant leaders in this congregation: people who are not asking what’s in it for them, but what difference their effort in serving might make to someone else. Plymouth is an outstanding laboratory for servant leadership, where you — no matter how old or young you are, how experienced or green you are, how wealthy or poor you are — can serve and help others become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, and more likely to become servants themselves.
I see a lot of this going on, but I’m going to risk picking on a few people. I see Irene Wheritt and Fran Milde, leading our centering prayer group through Contemplative Outreach, participating actively in our Celtic II small group, one chairs Stewardship and the other serves as a deacon. I see Phil Hoefer, who (whenever he isn’t washing dishes for the First Name Club or coffee hour or a potluck) is a friend of the Trustees and serves on the Environmental Ministry Team. I see Nic Redavid, who is in his early 30s, scheduling and serving in the sound booth, chairing the Progressive Evangelism Task Force, representing Plymouth at Conference annual meeting, and being a leader of our campus ministry. And Kathee Houser, who is the kitchen maven, chaired Congregational Life, conducts the youth bell choir, chairs the chancel guild and helped make these beautiful quilted paraments. And our moderators, Bob Sturtevant, Dianne Stober, and David Petersen, and our Leadership Council, who get to make the tough calls and set budgets and steer the course without a lot of thanks or fanfare. I wish I could name all of you who serve: to thank you, to recognize you, to let you know that without you, Plymouth wouldn’t be as vibrant and alive as it is today. You know who you are: all of you people who do the less elegant, less flashy work of servanthood…the jobs that no one else wants to do. Thank you…you are noticed and blessed.
Here is a secret about being a member at Plymouth: the more you give the more you receive. And my axiom for membership is that you never really feel like a member of the church until you’ve worked in the kitchen. But being a part of Plymouth isn’t about a transaction; it’s not about what you’ll get in return. Servant leadership is about what you have to offer and the difference you want to make.
It isn’t an accident that “minister” is the Latin word for “servant.” And perhaps, when we were revising our governance, we should have done some translating and instead of calling them “Ministry Teams,” we could have called them “Servant Teams.” All of us are ministers, all of us are servants. It’s how Christianity has worked for 2,000 years. And that work is love in action.
“Therefore, my beloved…work out your own salvation with reverence and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for God’s good pleasure.” [my translation]
May it be so. Amen.
© 2018 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.
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