What’s So Full About Being Empty?
Romans 12:1-2 and Philippians 2:1-8
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
12 So, brothers and sisters, because of God's mercies, I encourage you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice that is holy and pleasing to God. This is your appropriate priestly service. 2 Don't be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you can figure out what God's will is--what is good and pleasing and mature.
Bible, Common English. CEB Common English Bible with Apocrypha - eBook [ePub] (Kindle Locations 43786-43789). Common English Bible. Kindle Edition.
2Therefore, if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort in love, any sharing in the Spirit, any sympathy, 2complete my joy by thinking the same way, having the same love, being united, and agreeing with each other. 3Don't do anything for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. 4Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others. 5Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus: 6Though he was in the form of God, he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit. 7But he emptied himself by taking the form of a slave and by becoming like human beings. When he found himself in the form of a human, 8he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
Bible, Common English. CEB Common English Bible with Apocrypha - eBook [ePub] (Kindle Locations 45118-45125). Common English Bible. Kindle Edition.
Welcome to our third installment of the sermon series, “Thorny Theological Themes.” Our words for today are.....“Surrender and Emptying.” Yikes! These are not usually positive words in our culture. To surrender implies giving up, admitting defeat, failure, sacrifice of everything. Empty implies there is nothing there. Nothing in the gift box, the grocery bag, the gas tank. Why would we want to give up, to sacrifice? To be satisfied with having nothing?
I grew up with these texts from Romans and Philippians. With the words, give your life as a sacrifice for Jesus, empty yourself of your self for God as Jesus did. Coupled with “Be Saved” sermons and “I surrender all ... all to Jesus I surrender” hymns, the words sacrifice, surrender and empty were full of conflicting emotions. I wanted to be a good Christian, to follow Jesus, but I also wanted to live my life with my gifts and joys and passions. Were these things bad? As a young adult and even into later adulthood, these passages had all the makings of what I now call “door mat” or “what a wretch am I” theology. I am nothing unless I discover and follow exactly what God wants me to be. Which couldn’t possible be what I wanted to be since I was only a sinner. My hopes and dreams couldn’t be the right thing, could they?
I was deathly afraid God’s ways would mean drudgery, invisibility, and second string status. That voice was coming from culture as much as from theology. For women were second string as human beings. Support staff for men. People of color were second string, at best. Same with pore folks of any color. LGBTQ people were totally invisible when I was growing up. To each of these groups the message of surrender, empty yourselves of who you are, is NOT good news! Thank God, since my childhood there have been activist and theological movements leading us out of closets of oppression and into liberation. Joyfully we now proclaim that we are all equally beloved children of God, each with unique, divine gifts and graces, regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation, or class. We have made great progress and the resistance movements of God’s liberation continue. We still have a ways to go.
Somewhere along the line of my life, struggling with the messages of culture and scripture and church, I discovered a paradox. To sacrifice or surrender or offer my life to God, I have to know I have a Life! A life of gifts and graces uniquely given to me by God and that I am God’s beloved. To be full of who I am in God’s image, I have to be empty of who I am in the eyes of culture, for that is not who I really am. To be Full = Empty.
A famous Zen master had a visitor....some say it was a student, some say it was another master, some say -- and I think its appropriate for this congregation -– it was a university professor. While the famous master quietly served tea, the professor talked about Zen. The master poured the visitor's cup to the brim, and then kept pouring. The professor watched the overflowing cup until he could no longer restrain himself. "It's full! No more will go in!" the professor blurted. "This is you," the master replied, "How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup."[i]
Can you imagine what happened next? The professor could have walked out in a huff and claimed the famous Zen master was an old coot, a fraud. The professor could have spluttered with anger and begun to argue with master. Telling the master that this was a ridiculous metaphor and why not open the lesson with a treatise on compassion, instead. That would be really worthwhile! Or perhaps the professor had the grace to blush, to be suddenly silent and thoughtful. To get a tea towel and clean up the mess. And then to sit and wait. Thoughts churning, perhaps. But to keep silent, to breathe, to listen. After a time the master may have poured the cold tea from the cups, brewed another pot and perhaps, then the teaching could have begun in earnest. Grace in action.
Life has taught me to empty my cup. Particularly, when it comes to scripture texts that hold the baggage of a life time. What I didn’t hear or understand in these texts way back when was their crucial, life-giving wisdom. In the letter to the church in Rome, Paul gives the church instructions about new life under the lordship of God through Jesus, rather than the lordship of Caesar and the false powers of the empire. He instructs the people to structure their lives through God’s grace. Grace, the power of God’s unconditional love that Hal invited us into last week in this series. Paul says, “Because of God’s grace, God’s mercies, you can present your selves, your bodies, your whole lives as living sacrifices for God. Not burnt up, dead sacrifices, but living offerings. Present your vital, passionate, gifted life ready to live under the structure of God’s grace in the midst of all the joys and challenges.”
“This is your appropriate priestly service.” In Christ Jesus, WE are priests to one another, each and every one of us under God’s grace –- women and men, slave and free, Gentile and Jew, no matter our race or sexual orientation or gender identity or social class. We receive God’s revelation for ourselves and collectively for the community. Therefore we do not need to be poured into the mold of the world’s values -– greed, scarcity mentality, fear of the other, intolerance of difference, power over to get control –- we are transformed, changed in form through grace and empowered to live into God’s will for life, what is good and pleasing and mature. Empowered by grace to grow into all we are made to be in God’s image. Giving our all to God through Jesus, who gave his all to God. I think the world needs our living offerings in a big way right now! The world needs us to help structure it through the structures of God’s grace.
In the letter to the church in Philippi, Paul leads us further in understanding how to be a living sacrifice under the living structure of God’s grace. “Therefore, if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort in love, any sharing in the Spirit, any sympathy, complete my joy by thinking the same way, having the same love, being united, and agreeing with each other. Don't do anything for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others. [THEN] Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus. Put on the mind of Christ.” Jesus became human, he emptied himself, made himself fully available to God, in order to be filled and used by God. To live God’ grace. An empty cup waiting to be filled.
Here is the seemingly dangerous part. The leap of faith to empty ourselves of the ways we are conformed to this world means looking inward. The leap of faith is to look within at the fear, greed, consumerism, possessiveness, scarcity thinking, suspicion even hatred of the “other”, to look at the anger, hurt, and wounds, that may be in our lives. I used to be afraid to truly be quiet and go inside....I was afraid I would find nothing there, a void, a nothingness. No one home. What I found was I was not really empty, but full of fear and self recrimination.
When I finally took the time to be in solitude and quiet, to intentionally go within, even just for a few minutes each day, I found that in “empty” was the presence of Love, the presence of God. Love first for family and friends and congregation. Then increasingly Love and forgiveness for myself.
If you take the leap to faith to empty your self in silence and solitude and prayer, to intentionally seek to let go with the body’s help of the energies of neediness, of fear, of not having or being enough, of anger, of greed, of false pride..... you name the unhealthy energies that consume you....if you seek to empty your selves of these things? Will you be filled? Will you even survive? If you come with an empty cup to learn from God’s ways of structuring the world through grace, will you really be transformed, changed?
Yes, my friends, you will. God wants to fill you with grace and love. In fact God has already put them inside of you. You only have to look within. To let go, empty your self with God’s help. Then God will show you who you really are and what amazing gifts you are filled with and how you are to use them!
So we take the leap of faith, individually and collectively as community. We give our lives as living sacrifices, offerings as Jesus did, and then the world comes back at us with fear and hatred and persecution and oppression, what then? Life happens – we lose a job, a marriage, a child, a beloved parent or friend. We receive a diagnosis that is not good. What then? We feel emptied of all strength to keep on keeping on, empty to the point of nothingness, what then? God’s Holy Spirit will fill our cups with grace– which also brings love, courage, justice strength and compassion. We will be able to respond with a cup full of the gifts of grace and we will withstand the onslaught that can sometimes be life. So practice emptying to be filled. Empty can be so full.
©The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson, 2018 and beyond. May be reprinted with permission only.
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson, Associate, Minister, is a writer, storyteller, and contributor to Feasting on the Word, a popular biblical commentary. She is also the writer of sermon-stories.com, a lectionary-based story-commentary series. Learn more about Jane Ann here.
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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