A Generous Spirit

I love reading the psalms.  I love that they tell the full story of what it means to be human.  They describe our joy in God’s creation, our hope for safety and joy, and even our deepest despair and fear.  But it’s not even just that the psalms are the most honest and human book of the Bible.  It’s also that they’re written in Hebrew!  I love Hebrew.

Psalm 51:10-14

I love reading the psalms.  I love that they tell the full story of what it means to be human.  They describe our joy in God’s creation, our hope for safety and joy, and even our deepest despair and fear.  But it’s not even just that the psalms are the most honest and human book of the Bible.  It’s also that they’re written in Hebrew!  I love Hebrew.  In seminary, we had to learn ancient Greek so we could read the New Testament and ancient Hebrew so we could read the Old Testament.  My classmates and I used to joke that you could tell what kind of person you were by whether you liked Hebrew or Greek better.  Greek is formulaic, like a math equation, clear, rigid.  Hebrew is more about the feeling of the words, the way they relate, their context, their intentionally multiple meanings.  Gimme poetry and ambiguity.  I love Hebrew.

Psalms tend to be the basis for songs and liturgy because they invite people into reflection and devotion.  The psalm we read today is one you’ve heard hundreds, maybe even thousands of times, but maybe you didn’t realize it.  We sing it any week we sing “Create In Me” as the offertory response when we worship in the sanctuary.  Traditionally, this psalm is read on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, as a reminder of the penitential nature of the season.  I even remember a camp song based on these words.  These words are familiar – maybe even too familiar.

This is when I love to return to the Hebrew and see if I can coax some additional meaning out of a familiar passage.  When Mark and I studied this text over the summer, during our annual sermon planning session, we noticed a little something in our Bibles.  Sometimes, when you’re reading your Bible, you’ll see a little footnote by a word.  How many of you actually go down to the bottom of those pages and read those footnotes?  You should!  Don’t be scared to learn a little more about what your Bible says!  When Mark and I did, we noted that in verse 12, there’s a footnote by the word “willing”.  It said that word could also be translated as “generous”.

I guess I didn’t trust experienced Biblical scholars, because I went back to my office, dusted off a stack of Hebrew translation books, and searched the word out.  Sure enough, the Hebrew word used there can have multiple poetic meanings: it could mean willing, but also noble, and most interestingly for me, generous.

Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a generous spirit.  This psalm is a penitential psalm, a psalm of repentance.  It’s a lament over the wrong that has been done and a plea that God will forgive and renew.  The connection between being forgiven and being generous might feel out-of-place.  You might feel like you might go back to that neutral, nondescript “willing spirit” description.

Don’t give up yet.  Forgiveness and generosity absolutely go together.  It is because of what God has done for us that we are even able, much less willing, to do for others.  We forgive because we are forgiven.  We love because we are beloved.  We are generous because God has generously provided for us.  We don’t do these things because God’s gifts to us depend on our right action.  The good we do only happens because God has first done it for us.  We are freed – not only from our sin and brokenness, but from our dependence on anything in this life that isn’t God.  God gives us all things.  Therefore, we are generous in all things.

The entire Christian tradition is preparing to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation starting next week. One of the things we celebrate about the reforms of Martin Luther and many like him is the accessibility of faith.  Luther wanted all Christians to understand what they believe.  He wrote the Small Catechism specifically so that people could take on the work of learning about their beliefs and teaching it in their homes.  In the Lord’s Prayer, for instance, he teaches about the petition “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” by saying, “We ask in this prayer that our heavenly father would not regard our sins nor deny these petitions on their account, for we are worthy of nothing for which we ask, nor have we earned it.  Instead we ask that God would give us all things by grace, for we daily sin much and indeed deserve only punishment.  So, on the other hand, we, too, truly want to forgive heartily and do good gladly to those who sin against us.”[1]

Do you hear that?  Because God forgives our sins, even though we don’t deserve it, so too will we forgive and do good gladly to those who sin against us.  When we ask for forgiveness, we don’t just ask it for our sake.  We ask it so that we can go back out into the world to give and serve all God’s people, whether or not they want it, whether or not they’re worth it, whether or not they deserve it.  No one does.  Our generosity is an image of God’s own abundant love and care for us.  I don’t need to play Hebrew word games to prove to you that we are freed from sin and death and brokenness so we can go out into the world and do the same for others.  But I do need you to spend time with God in prayer and devotion and with your neighbor in service and sacrifice to realize that it’s true.

We have banners up around the church to remind you of all the ways your generosity does work in the world, both inside Augustana and outside its walls.  I’m not asking you to consider whether you think these things are good enough and deserve your support.  I’m asking you to consider what God has already done in your life and if you, a forgiven, willing, generous child of God want to live in that abundance or not.  I’m asking you if you want to make the choice to live in joy and gratitude.  I’m asking you if you want to take one of those “Dare To Be Different” cards that we handed out last week, that we still have for you, and if you want to make the choice to intentionally make a generous financial gift or to boldly choose joy.

I’m not asking you these things because you need to prove to God that you’re better or more worthy.  I’m asking you to do these things because God has already chosen you, already chosen forgiveness, already chosen abundance.  You didn’t earn it, and you don’t need to.  What you choose to give today, right now, here, and the rest of this week, and the rest of your life, invites others into that abundance.  God gives you a willing, generous spirit.  Will you choose fear?  Will you choose to believe you can’t?  Or will you choose to live out what God is already doing in your life by giving abundantly of your time, your resources, your money, so that others may realize what God does for them through you?

Be bold, people of God.  God has put a new and right spirit in you, a willing spirit, a spirit of generosity and gratitude.  You are forgiven, blessed, and called to be a blessing.  This is the time.  This is the place.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] As printed in Evangelical Lutheran Worship hymnal, pg 1164