Opposable Thumbs

Sermon for Sunday, October 1, 2017 || Proper 21A || Philippians 2:1-13

Until recently, my children have been pretty good at sharing with each other. Being twins, they’ve always had the other there, so they’ve never experienced a time when all the toys in the playroom were “mine.” But since they turned three, a switch has gone off in their brains and they have started claiming territory at an alarming rate. They have realized that “if you’re playing with a toy then I am not playing with the toy, and that’s bad.” The top of our refrigerator has become something of a demilitarized zone, where toys go when the twins won’t share.

I remember one moment a few weeks ago. It was almost comical in its illustrative power. One of the kids (I won’t say which) didn’t want the other interfering with the blocks. So the child gathered all the blocks together and held them, just held them, for fear of losing the toy to the other. But with both hands and both arms full of blocks, the child couldn’t play with them. There were plenty of blocks to share between the two, but since one was intent on hoarding that particular toy and the other fixated on getting in on the action, neither had any fun. And the blocks ended up on the fridge’s DMZ.

We humans are hoarders. Maybe not all of us are like the people on the TV show who haven’t thrown anything away since 1973, but we are hoarders nonetheless. We have these evolutionary wonders known as opposable thumbs. And with them we have learned to grab. To grasp. To amass. Only a society of hoarders could have invented the game musical chairs (that chair is mine and I will knock you to the ground to sit in it) or better yet, Hungry Hungry Hippos.

My children hoard their toys and their books. The second puzzles me, as multiple people can listen to a book at the same time and all still enjoy it, but as we’ll see later in the sermon, the idea of hoarding was not part of God’s original design, so perhaps it’s meant to be puzzling. We adults hoard many different things. Some go for the old classics: money, fame, and power. Others experience hoarding in the form of addiction to alcohol, drugs, gambling, shopping, video games, you name it.

I’ll let you in on what I hoard. I hoard anxiety. I soak up the stress of all those around me like a sponge and hold onto it. When I’m in a low anxiety situation, everything’s fine. But when high stress times roll around, everything goes sideways for me. I can’t sleep. I have no sense of humor. And for the last three or four years, during these high stress times, I have experienced intermittent panic attacks. I’m thankful I only have them a few times a year because they’re really horrible. This is all a toxic byproduct of my hoarding of anxiety.

I’ve prayed about it. I’ve attempted to give my stress to God through meditation. I’ve tried to “let go and let God,” as the bumper stick theology proclaims. But in the end, these opposable thumbs are the opposition. I can’t seem to give up my anxiety, for this is what I hoard, and we humans are hoarders.

But we don’t have to be. I’m reminded of this every year when it comes time to make a new financial commitment to God’s mission here at St. Mark’s. And I am amazed every year by the radical generosity of the members of this wonderful parish who give so much of their time, their gifts, and their financial resources back to God in this place. Such giving is a way to counteract the hold which hoarding has on our lives. Such giving can rehabilitate us and return us to God’s original intent for humanity, before we used these opposable thumbs to pluck fruit from the wrong tree.

We saw God’s intent in last week’s reading from Exodus. The people are wandering in the desert without food, so God provides manna. But only enough for today. It was impossible to hoard the manna; when people tried (and oh, they tried) the manna spoiled on the second day. The prayer Jesus taught us contains the phrase, “Give us this day our daily bread.” This day. Give us our manna, not to hoard, but to get us to tomorrow when we’ll pray the same words again.

Nowhere in scripture is the anti-hoarder message clearer than in today’s reading from Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. Or else I wish it were clear. Our translation muddies the water a bit. Paul says, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself…” The words “something to be exploited” are better translated “something to be hoarded.” Christ Jesus did not regard equality with God as something to be hoarded. I can’t think of anything more precious than such perfect closeness with God, and yet Christ did not hoard that perfect relationship. Instead he shared it with us by taking on human likeness. Paul continues, “And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.”

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus. This is Paul’s prayer. And it’s mine today too. I seek with every fiber of my being to give up my stranglehold on stress, to not consider anxiety as something to be hoarded. But it’s hard because I start to stress about not being able to give up my stress. So I start with something easier for me to help train me to give up the thing I really hoard. I use my financial commitment to God’s mission here at St. Mark’s as an exercise in trust.

Ever since we got married, Leah and I have been inching our way towards giving 10% of our income back to God. And this year, I’m so happy, we’re finally doing it. I can think of so many other things to spend that money on, but such things would just end up spending me, expending me. So we give it back to God as an act of faith, a spiritual detox from our tendency to hoard. And you know what? We still have enough. We have our daily bread. We have our manna. And we have an ever-patient Lord who knows my struggle with anxiety and is waiting there – right there – with an open hand, yearning for me to open mine. To release that which I hoard.

Our giving back to God is not a transaction. It’s an act of transformation. I invite you over the next few weeks, as you consider your financial commitment to God’s mission here at St. Mark’s, to pray about what you hoard. What kind of power does it have over you? What kind of weight would be lifted if you could just open your hand? Let your financial commitment be an act of intention, a signal of your partnership with God as you work together to release that which you hoard. And as you rejoice in this internal partnership, rejoice too in your collective partnership as members of this wonderful church. For your collective financial commitment to God’s mission allows us to keep those doors open, to proclaim the Gospel, to feed the children of St. Luc’s School, to share in one another’s lives, to serve our community, and to abide together in the overwhelming love of God.

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