A Humble Spirit

Psalm 51
Ordinary Time
Elizabeth M. Deibert

Richard and I watched the movie, The Other Boleyn Girl, a couple of weeks ago. It tells the story of King Henry VIII and the way he, like King David before him, abused power to take any woman he wanted, terrorizing or killing anyone who stood in the way of his self-indulgent behavior. Anne and Mary Boleyn, driven by their family's blind ambition, were left to compete for the love of the handsome but sickeningly self-serving King Henry VIII.

While the movie was entertaining and well-acted I thought, I was shocked by the unchecked power of this King, who,when the Pope said you cannot pawn off this wife for another, decided he’d create Church which he had control over. And thus the Anglican Church was born. We worshiped in the Anglican Church for three years, and I understood that part of history, but watching the movie made me think what an awful way for a new church or new denomination to start. Disgusting, when you think about it: the lust of a King starts a new church.

Makes me just as mad to read about this: Nine of the financial firms that were among the largest recipients of federal bailout money paid about 5,000 of their traders and bankers bonuses of more than $1 million apiece for 2008, according to a report released Thursday by Cuomo, the New York attorney general. Yes, I understand it is expensive to live in the big apple, but come on. A million dollars per person in bonus money, after receiving tax dollars to be bailed out. How can anyone justify that? I hope the new bill passed by the House of Representatives will effectively curb the power mongering of Wall Street execs.

The trouble with sin is that we deceive ourselves into acceptance or justification of our own sin. When I read the story of King David’s infidelity, his shocking abuse of power, to take someone else’s wife, then lie about it and try to trick poor honorable Uriah. Then when that did not work, to have him killed. I am shocked at how David is in denial about his own sin. Hear the confrontation of the prophet Nathan from 2 Samuel 12

NRS 2 Samuel 12:1 But the thing that David had done displeased the LORD, and the LORD sent Nathan to David. He came to him, and said to him, "There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. 2 The rich man had very many flocks and herds; 3 but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. He brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children; it used to eat of his meager fare, and drink from his cup, and lie in his bosom, and it was like a daughter to him. 4 Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was loath to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the wayfarer who had come to him, but he took the poor man's lamb, and prepared that for the guest who had come to him."

5 Then David's anger was greatly kindled against the man. He said to Nathan, "As the LORD lives, the man who has done this deserves to die; 6 he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity."

7 Nathan said to David, "You are the man!
Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: I anointed you king over Israel, and I rescued you from the hand of Saul; 8 I gave you your master's house, and your master's wives into your bosom, and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah; and if that had been too little, I would have added as much more. 9 Why have you despised the word of the LORD, to do what is evil in his sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and have taken his wife to be your wife, and have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites.

But you see what I began to see as I studied what powerful David did, as I thought about what powerful bankers did, as I considered what powerful Henry VIII did, a self-righteous indignation rose up in me. Look what they did! I relish the moment when Nathan exclaims “You are man!” I like to see that David got what was coming to him. It is so easy to blame others. The blame game started early: Adam blamed Eve and Eve blamed the serpent. It is easy to delude ourselves that all the world’s problems are caused by the sins of others. The childish responses, “I didn’t do it.” and “It’s not my fault” and “I didn’t do anything wrong” are all the more prevalent among adults. Children are not learning to have humble spirits when their parents rush in to defend and excuse their every offense.

It is easy for me to contemplate David’s sin and David’s need to pray for God’s forgiveness. I can think about your sin and your need for forgiveness. I am very good at naming my other people’s sins. I like praying the prayer, “Create in him a new heart, O God.” Or “Renew a right spirit in them, those people who irritate me.” But the more I read David’s prayer, Psalm 51, I began to realize that God was really trying to get me to look at ME – not David, not others.
So as we read Psalm 51, I invite you into a spirit of humility with me, that God might scrub on your heart and mine, so we might take our eyes off others and take a look at ourselves.

(Read text)

So much could be said about the poetry of this psalm, about its beauty, about the number of musical pieces inspired by this poetry. “Create in me a clean heart, O God.” I got so intimidated by the magnitude of this psalm, I could not write this sermon. Any conclusions I started to make felt artificial against the backdrop of this psalm. Who am I to be standing here proclaiming when I have much to confess?

Hear the opening of the Psalm from the colloquial Message, Presbyterian minister Eugene Peterson’s translation:

Generous in love-God, give grace! Huge in mercy-wipe out my bad record. Scrub away my guilt, soak out my sins in your laundry. I know how bad I've been; my sins are staring me down.

Dating back to the 6th century many Christians have recited a prayer, which is often understood to be a short version of this psalm’s message. It is called the Jesus Prayer. Praying this prayer repetitively and deeply from the heart, mind, and soul and is a means of maintaining a humble spirit: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. Say it with me. “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” The Jesus Prayer is also considered to be the response of the church tradition to the lesson taught by the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee, in which the Pharisee demonstrates the improper way to pray by exclaiming: "Thank you Lord that I am not like the Publican", whereas the Publican prays correctly in humility, saying "Lord have mercy on me, a sinner" (Luke 18)

“If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us, but if we confess our sin, God who is faithful and just, will forgive us and cleanse us of all unrighteousness.” These words from 1 John 1 are often used in worship as an invitation to confession of sin in the early part of worship. I believe confession of sin is not taken nearly seriously enough in most Protestant churches. I believe it is crucial to human health, to a right relationship with God, to restoring the joy of our salvation. Confession keeps us humble. Even Jesus who was sinless did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a lowly slave.

Perhaps you have not done anything so horrible as David. But let me remind you that Jesus in his sermon on the mount tied unresolved anger to murder; he tied lustful looking with adultery. We commit personal sins and we are part of a sinful condition that pervades all our institutions and the very fabric of our society. Unconfessed sin takes people down a path of lies, deception, and death. But sin confessed brings goodness, truth, and life – in the midst of our troubled consequences. The good news is that if God forgave scoundrel like David, God will certainly forgive us too, no matter what we’ve done.

Professor and Priest Barbara Brown Taylor, in her book Speaking of Sin, brings a fresh perspective to discomforting words like “sin” and “repentance” – words that the modern church often tries to avoid. She asks, “Why, then, should we speak of sin anymore? The only reason I can think of is because we believe that God means to redeem the world through us.”

“Abandoning the language of sin will not make sin go away. Human beings will continue to experience alienation, deformation, damnation and death no matter what we call them. Abandoning the language will simply leave us speechless before them, and increase our denial of their presence in our lives. Ironically, it will also weaken the language of grace, since the full impact of forgiveness cannot be felt apart from the full impact of what has been forgiven.”
(B. Brown Taylor)

St. Augustine of Hippo wrote in the 4th Century, “Pride is the commencement of all sin.” He wrote one of the world's first autobiographies and it was called, Confessions. A hallmark of that work is Augustine's willingness to confess his own sins and the perversity of heart which inclined him to sin. In our day, autobiographies usually confess the sins of others. They tell stories about how it was the parents’ fault or the non-affectionate spouses’ fault or the company’s fault. It’s never my fault. The aim of such books is to build self-esteem, but the deepest and most rewarding self-esteem comes from knowing that we are deeply loved by God, no matter how much we or our parents or our circumstances have screwed us up.

C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity said pride is the greatest of all sin. He claims the other so called deadly sins – lust, greed, wrath, and so forth – really come down to pride. I can agree with him that pride defined as a pre-occupation with self might prove to be at the heart of all immorality.

But is there anything good about pride? We want a children to take pride in their accomplishments. We talk about taking pride in our work. We want the underprivileged not to be stripped of their pride or rather, their dignity. So how do we square that with our need for a humble spirit?

“Restore to me the joy of your salvation and sustain in me a willing spirit.” A willing, a generous spirit is one fully submitted to God. A humble spirit is one ready to learn. A humble spirit is one ready to admit error but not to wallow in it. Wallowing in guilt is another form of pride or pre-occupation with self. A humble spirit is generous toward others and secure in the love of God. A humble spirit is not arrogant or rude or proud. A humble spirit uses the power of position, of words, and of silence for good. A humble spirit is not quick to mistrust motives of others. A humble spirit says “I’m sorry. I was wrong. I made a mistake. My fault. Please forgive me.” Those words don’t mean much apart from a genuinely humble spirit, from one who is truly sad about failure and ready to change.

The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God , you will not despise.

Let us pray (singing):

Give me a clean heart, so I may serve thee.
Lord, fix my heart, so that I may be used by Thee.
For I’m not worthy of all these blessings.
Give me a clean heart, and I’ll follow Thee.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. Forgive me for my arrogance. Forgive me for my blind self-centeredness. Forgive me for mistreating others and not noticing that I have. Forgive me for holding my life back from your total control, for thinking I can manage it without your constant help. My heart is dirty. My life is messy. I need you to restore in me the joy of your salvation. Give me a more generous and willing spirit....control my impulses and attitudes with your Holy Spirit. (singing) Give me a clean heart...