A WILLING SPIRIT
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
November 13, 2016; non-lectionary sermon
Psalm 51:1-12; 2 Corinthians 9:1-15
“Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.”
As most of you know, I’ve been doing a sermon series on 1 Corinthians chapter 13, “The Excellent Way” — but it’s time to set that aside for a while. Stewardship Sunday is upon us, and next week it’s Harvest Home, with its Thanksgiving theme. Then, it’s Advent and Christmas. So, we won’t be getting back to Paul’s great hymn to love until the New Year.
Well, what a week this has been! Two leading candidates go into Election Day, and only one comes out as President-elect. For most of America — on both sides of the political divide — it was not the candidate we expected.
That can happen with elections: as Harry Truman knew all too well. Remember that famous photo of him holding up the newspaper with the banner headline “Dewey Defeats Truman”? The news story was wrong, of course: as nearly every pollster was wrong in the Clinton-Trump presidential contest.
The nation’s very unsettled just now. There have been demonstrations in major cities for the past few nights, set off by a spate of racial-bias incidents. U.S. News reports there have been more racial hate-crime incidents in the days following this election than there were in the days following the 9/11 attacks. Those on one side say this is the reason for the angry demonstrations: concern for the safety of racial, religious and sexual minorities. Those on the other say it’s just sour grapes on the part of those whose candidate lost.
Whatever explanation you prefer, it’s clear that America’s proud tradition of “peaceful transfer of power” is taking a little longer this time around.
There’s been more talk of scandal during this Presidential election than any I can remember. When have we had a candidate investigated by the FBI during her campaign? And when have we faced the prospect of a President-elect defending himself in civil court on allegations of fraudulent business practices?
Scandal in politics is nothing new, of course. Ambrose Bierce’s famous Devil’s Dictionary, published in 1911, contains this definition: “Politics, noun. A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage.”
Groucho Marks had his own definition: “Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly, and applying the wrong remedies.”
Then there’s this little gem, written by Mark Twain: “Reader, suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.”
The temptations of human nature being what they are, wherever there’s a political system, it’s — sadly — often the case that scandal is not far away.
No one knew that better than the reputed author of today’s Old Testament lesson, Psalm 51. This psalm has a little introduction that says: “A psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone into Bathsheba.” The very first words of the psalm are “Have mercy on me, O God.”
As well they might be — as you surely realize, if you know the incident in David’s life that’s the basis of that introduction. Bathsheba was the woman the King sexually harassed: then, in his capacity as commander-in-chief, he arranged for her husband, a military officer, to go on a suicide mission, just so the King could have Bathsheba whenever he wanted. It all came to light when Nathan made the affair a public spectacle. King David was well and truly shamed for his reprehensible behavior.
Sometime after, he wrote this psalm: one of the most plaintive penitential songs ever written. David says to God: “Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight…. Purge me with hyssop and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.”
David prays to God for “a clean heart…and…a new and right spirit within [him].” Then he speaks the words that are our sermon text this morning:
“Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and sustain in me a willing spirit.”
A willing spirit. One translation calls it “a generous spirit.” David prays to be turned from his acquisitive, self-serving behavior and transformed into a man who seeks the way of God, first and foremost.
When it comes to Christian stewardship — that decision we all make about what portion of God’s good gifts to return to the Lord, for holy purposes — a willing spirit is what it’s all about.
A willing spirit is a beautiful thing. Think of some of the people in your life who’ve had the greatest positive influence on you, who’ve made you who you are. Maybe it was one of your parents; or a teacher; or a coach; or someone you worked with at your first job, who showed you the ropes.
Think of that person, whoever it was. Try to recall what it was about his or her personality that made such a difference. The reaching out. The unconditional acceptance. The patience to make you a better person. The willingness to put other priorities aside and make time for you.
There was sacrifice involved — as there always is, with any great work that’s worth doing. And what greater work could there be than giving of ourselves for the sake of another?
All this is in contrast to a subject that constantly came up, all through the election campaign. That subject is the American Dream.
The American Dream says, if you work hard you’ll get ahead. You deserve that. Conversely, if you don’t get what you think you deserve, you get angry. That anger may even drive your decision of who to vote for, for President. There’s a lot of that going on in America today. A lot of feeling cheated out of what’s rightfully ours.
The thing is, that’s the American dream, not the Christian dream (there are some people who think the two are the same, but let’s not go there: they’re flat-out wrong, and that’s all there is to it).
The Christian dream is different. The Christian dream doesn’t say we’re entitled. The Christian dream says we’re all sinners and therefore don’t deserve anything at all.
There’s good news, though. God graciously comes into this world in the form of Jesus Christ and makes it all right: if we just accept that gracious offer. Accepting that offer is not meant to make us proud. It’s not meant to make us wear the name “Christian” as though it’s a badge of honor. It’s not meant to make us think we’re better than other people. It’s meant to make us humble. And grateful. And willing to give from some of the abundance we’ve received for the benefit of others. That’s the sort of willing spirit God is looking for.
Yes, as King David bears witness in Psalm 51, there’s joy in our salvation. From out of that joy comes the impulse to give. From out of that joy come cheerful givers.
In that passage from 2 Corinthians chapter 9 I just read for you, Paul teaches:
“Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”
You and I have the opportunity today to become that kind of cheerful giver. The way to do it is by means of an estimate of giving card. There are some of those in the pew racks. Many of you received one in the mail this week as well. I hope you brought it with you.
Now, there are some who see their estimate of giving card as a rather tedious matter of accounting. But it’s more than that. Your estimate of giving is nothing less than a concrete expression of your Christian faith.
It’s not so much the amount you write down. It’s the fact that you do it at all — and, more than that, it’s how you do it. Do you and I make our gifts to God with a willing spirit?
There’s an offertory prayer I’ve never had the nerve to use, at that moment when the ushers bring the plates forward and I say a few words of gratitude and dedication. I don’t think I’ll ever actually use this prayer in the liturgy — like I say, I don’t have the nerve — but I can tell you about it. It’s very simple and it goes like this: “Lord, no matter what we say or do, this is what we think of you.”
Pretty nervy, eh? But it’s true. You know it’s true. Which is why the subject of stewardship is such a problematic one, for so many disciples. Literally, it forces us to put our money where our mouth is. It forces us to take that thing that’s, hands down, the biggest idol of our lives — money — and stop worshiping it as a source of value or meaning. Instead, we take the idol and reshape it for holy purposes. We melt it down and recast it, until it looks something like a cross.
To pursue that Christian discipline is a joyful work. It’s a transforming work: not only for all the people our gifts help, through the ministries of this church and our mission around the world. Our gifts to the work of Christ transform even ourselves, as the givers. The more you and I make giving a part of our everyday life, the stronger the willing spirit takes root in our hearts.
Let’s celebrate that transformation now, as we sing our next hymn. It takes form of a prayer, set to the lovely old Celtic folk song, “Wild Mountain Thyme.”
Spirit, open our hearts to the joy and pain of living.
As you love, may we love, in receiving and in giving.
Spirit, open our hearts.
Copyright © 2016, by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.