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I think Paul is inviting the Philippians to join him in singing. (Us too!) Not just because the hymn tells of what God has done for us. Not because singing familiar hymns is a comfort. But because singing fills the emptiness … in our hearts and in this space.

Peace and Global Witness Special Offering Bulletin Insert

Philippians 2:1-13

October 1, 2023

Dr. Todd R. Wright The church in Philippi was struggling … with financial stress and social rejection, with hostilities from without and divisions within. They needed help. Paul’s heart went out to them. After all, they have a history together. He helped found the church and form it. They have worshipped together and worked side by side. They have praised God for each other and prayed for one another. He wants the best for them – “He wants their love to overflow. He wants them to stand firm in the face of outside threats. He trusts that their lives are marked by comfort in Christ, by consolation in love, by partnership in Spirit, by tender compassion and mercy. He wants them to shine like stars.”[1] As Paul sits down to write, he searches for the right words to help them, to comfort and encourage, to teach and guide, to nudge and lead them to the right path. Perhaps he paces within the confines of his cell. Perhaps he jots down a few lines and then balls the paper up and throws it away. Perhaps he stares at a blank sheet and feels like his pen is empty of good ideas. Maybe, without meaning to, he begins absently humming a tune. Maybe that hymn tune presses against his heart like a cat circling his leg. Or maybe it begins barking like a dog, forcing him to pay attention. Maybe he eventually realizes that this hymn – which is well known to the Philippians – speaks eloquently to their situation for it describes the way Christ lived: How he humbled himself. How he emptied himself. How he chose to obey God … even when it was difficult. How he trusted God … in life and in death.


It has been almost 10 years since Jan Richardson lost her husband just as Advent started. It was not expected and she says it left her with “a physical sensation: in the center of my chest, an emptying nearly tangible, a hollowing out of the heart and of the life I had known.”[2] Now, because Richardson is a pastor, she explored that emptiness in theological terms: “Life will empty us out,” she says, “whether we [wish] it or not.” But then she turns to the same passage we are looking at today, reflecting that “Paul reminds us that we belong to the Christ who freely chose to empty himself: who gave himself completely in a way that, paradoxically, did not diminish him but helped to reveal the fullness of who he was.”[3] And then, because she is a poet, she also poked at that emptiness with an evocative blessing: “This blessing keeps nothing for itself. You can find it by following the path of what it has let go, of what it has learned it can live without.”[4] I read that and thought of Paul sitting in prison, forced to let go, to live without, so much. I read that line and recognized the grief we all feel at letting go and living without. I know that World Communion Sunday often hums a triumphant tune, but perhaps today we will permit ourselves to sing a lament with generations past and siblings near and far. Like any good lament, the “Christ Hymn” Paul quotes ends with a confident statement of faith, but not before lifting up some of the painful parts of life to God. Christ’s glory was preceded by a humiliating death on a cross. Even things bustling with life are not immune to death’s hollowing. Richardson talks elsewhere of being “in the room as [her husband’s] nurse removed everything that had helped to keep him alive during the awful and beautiful vigil that we had kept with him for eighteen days. I watched as she removed the ventilator tube that had kept him breathing, watched as she took out the seemingly innumerable lines that had delivered medications. Finally, [he] was shed of everything that had kept him living, everything that had tethered him until it became clear that nothing would return him to us.”[5] All that was left was an empty shell. But Richardson pushes back in her blessing: “Say this blessing out loud a few times and you will hear the hollow places within it, how it echoes in a way that gives your voice back to you as if you had never heard it before. I read that and thought of the disorienting way sound echoes against the hard surfaces in hospitals and prisons. I read these lines and reflected on the way sound echoes in a sanctuary with empty pews that were once filled with people we knew and loved. Our voices sound strange without their voices to accompany us in the singing. But Richardson presses on with her blessing for those with broken hearts:

“[C]ome and sit in this place made holy by its hollows. Lift up your voice — in laughter, in weeping, it does not matter — and let it ring against these spacious walls. Do this until you can feel the hollow in your heart where something is letting go, where something is making way.”


I think Paul is inviting the Philippians to join him in singing. (Us too!) Not just because the hymn tells of what God has done for us. Not because singing familiar hymns is a comfort. But because singing fills the emptiness … in our hearts and in this space. And because, as he says, God is at work in us. And, finally, because as the hymn swells within us, something does let go, and makes way, and overflows … out into the world to fill the emptiness in others. May that emptying lead us to discover the fullness of who we are as children of God. Amen

[1] From Liz Cooledge Jenkins’ reflections for Christian Century, 9/25/23; see Philippians 1:9, 1:27-30, 2:1, and 2:15 [2] See [3] Ibid [4] Here and throughout, from “Blessing that Becomes Empty as it Goes” [5] See
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