“The Joy of Serving”
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning
Plymouth Congregational UCC, Fort Collins, Colorado
October 8, 2023
Have you ever wanted to have a time machine that would let you travel across the millennia? I’m intrigued by this passage for a number of reasons, the first of which is that it comes from very early in the Christian era. The Letter to the Church in Philippi is earlier than any of the canonical gospels, having been written about 20 years after Jesus’ death. Even without a time machine, this text allows us to glimpse into what was happening in the early church before it was burdened by the powerful hand of those who insisted upon uniformity and what they considered orthodox.
It’s also interesting because this piece of text is actually the earliest known hymn in the Christian tradition, and it contains pieces of the early wisdom tradition of Jesus that seemed as countercultural then as they do now. Paul writes of joy not in the things in the ancient world that one would hope for: honor, status, wealth. In the Roman world it was better to be an influential patron that anyone who had to rely on patronage for survival, whether you were a client trying to do business, a landless peasant, or an enslaved part of the household. This hymn rejects that status idea entirely.
Rather, Paul speaks of complete joy consisting in self-giving love, compassion, empathy, lacking selfish ambition, seeing ourselves in humility, looking after the common good instead of self-interest.
What Paul asks of the church in Philippi is what he invites us into today, namely getting a brain transplant. Now, before you start thinking of Dr. Frankenstein (or Boris Karloff or Mel Brooks) placing the brain of a criminal inside the monster, let me rephrase that. Paul is inviting us to have a MIND transplant, letting go of the old, socially normative way of thinking and instead embracing a new way of encountering the world. “Let the same mind be in you that was in Jesus Christ,” he writes.
This is the type of transformation that we refer to in the middle of our mission statement’s actions of inviting, transforming, and sending. It’s a big shift in our attitude about what is important in life. It’s about letting go of what our society (and Roman society) values most: status, wealth, worldly power, ego. There are plenty of examples of that in our culture; you don’t have to be Elon Musk to buy into it, because on some level it affects us all.
It isn’t a very easy sell to ask people to make that attitudinal shift. One of the great hymns of the Reformation asks us to “let goods and kindred go…this mortal life also.” I wonder if that is where many of us have attachments that keep us from letting go. It isn’t that goods and kindred and life are bad — not at all — but rather the sense of physical security they offer is actually pretty tenuous. Physical possessions and wealth may give us comfort, but they can disappear overnight in a fire or an economic downturn. Many of us have experienced the loss of our kindred through death or the rupture of a relationship. And while many of us cling to this life and aim to be healthy, none of us makes it out alive.
Sometimes, we need to let some attachments go in order to make space for something else to move in. Here is some trivia for you to share with a friend: when lobsters grow, they molt or shed their shell when their bodies need space. Here’s the weird part: in their first five to seven years of life, they do this process about 25 times. Imagine that: a juvenile lobster is feeling a bit crowded in its shell, so it sloughs it off, giving it room to grow inside a new shell that it generates. Do distractions or attachments ever make your shell feel too tight?
We all have attachments that we need to release, attitudes that may have served us well in the past, but perhaps have been outgrown. Or even cultural assumptions that we buy into without considering them in light of our faith. Think for a minute: what are some of the assumptions or attitudes that you cling to and need to let go of?
Our culture tells us that you have to be young, intelligent, ambitious, “successful.” What does your faith say to that?
Our culture prefers that you are straight, cisgender, white, and male. What does your faith say about that?
Our culture values those who are wealthy, powerful, influential. What does your faith value?
Paul writes that Jesus “emptied himself,” releasing all attachments. The act of self-emptying is called kenosis in Greek, and it is the opposite of clinging to our attachments. Richard Rohr calls this the touchstone of all Jesus’ teaching: “Let go! Don’t cling! Don’t hoard! Don’t assert your importance! Don’t fret.”
Does that sound appealing to you? To me, releasing those things sounds like being unencumbered, climbing out of a too-tight shell, and in a real sense freed from the cultural expectations that keep so many of us bound. In order to be free, we also need to let go of some of the distractions that fill in our empty spaces: worry, TV, and social media.
Once we have made some space in our minds, hearts, and attitudes, it allows the movement of the Spirit to flow through us, among us, without so many blockages. It isn’t that we’re ever totally successful in the letting go, but even releasing some of those attachments gives us room to breathe.
Kenosis, letting go, allows us to see things differently. It prepares us to hear the gospel message with new ears. It makes room in our hearts to experience joy in a new way, having put on the mind of Christ. Then we can “look not to our own interests, but to the interest of others.”
A couple of things that I love about the image and theme for our pledge campaign are the idea of JOY in giving, not obligatory giving. If we’ve released some attachments, it frees us up for joy. The other piece I love is the heart image. We can experience happiness in our minds, but joy is an emotion we experience with the heart, body, and soul as well. So, even if we’ve had a successful brain transplant, release brings joy to the other parts of our being as individuals and as a congregation.
I had planned to speak today more about servant leadership, modeling our lives after Jesus. And we have room on our boards for servant leaders. I know how many of us feel the pinch of time, of work, of family, of obligation. And part of letting go is entering the freedom of release from distraction, so that we have space to consider important ministry (which comes from the Latin word for servant).
May we see ourselves with the same perspective that God sees us. May we have spaciousness within our souls to make room for following Jesus. May we have freedom to do the work of the Holy Spirit. And in all of it, may we find true joy.
© 2023 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
 Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation for December 18, 2018.