Luke 7:36-50; 1 Kings 21:1-21
Let me share an additional reading for the morning, from 1
Kings, as rendered by Eugene Peterson in The
: 1 Kings 21:1-21
In the bulletin, this homily is called “Broken Pride,” but
it would be more accurate to call it “Broken Pride, Broken Promises, and
The texts we’ve read this morning are all about brokenness, from
the personal sin of the woman in Luke’s story to the systemic sin that would
keep her in her place, from the personal sin of Ahab’s greed to the systemic
sin that allowed his household to act murderously to satisfy his greed.
The stories, however, are also about accountability, and,
ultimately about grace and forgiveness.
In the story from Luke, Jesus offers extravagant grace to a
woman whose brokenness if never named, but is acknowledged as significant. Jesus
offers grace and never shames the woman. She responds with extravagant love
that raises the ire of the proper leaders of the traditional faith community
who would, it seems, rather see the woman punished than forgiven.
Rather than judgment, Jesus shows forth a forgiveness that
challenges not only the Pharisees, but, honestly, me, too. This story makes me
wonder if I can show the kind of grace that has been shown to me. Do I have the
kind of compassion for those with whom I disagree or for the ones I find
That kind of grace and that kind of compassion have the
power to transform, not only individuals, but communities, and entire systems,
as well. If you doubt that, think back to the truth and reconciliation process
that Nelson Mandela initiated upon assuming the office of the presidency in
South Africa. He launched that public process while, at the same time, personally
forgiving the individuals who had unjustly imprisoned him for almost 30 years.
I certainly have never experienced transformative
forgiveness and grace on that kind of scale. Few of us have, but we all have
opportunities to share such transformative power on more personal terms.
You may be wondering why I’m wearing this old t-shirt this
morning. Well, it’s not merely because it’s summer time, nor has the household
gone to hell in a handbasket with Cheryl out of town last week, nor is it because
my nice clothes are dirty – they’re not. No, it’s because this shirt reminds me
of something important.
Most of you know that every summer for the past decade I
have spent a couple of weeks serving as pastor-in-residence at Camp Hanover,
the Presbyterian camp outside of Richmond in the Presbytery of the James. Camp
Hanover sits on almost 600 acres, of which a bit more than 500 are mostly
woods. Given that, it may surprise you to hear that a common phrase at camp is,
“let’s meet at the tree.” Sounds pretty unhelpful as directions go, right?
But such directions work perfectly well because, on the
field that greets you when you drive in, stands a lone tree whose branches
spread out in a tangled warren casting delightful shade across a circle easily
broad enough to gather several dozen kids in its cool.
For many years I’ve called it “the forgiving tree,” because
beneath its boughs I learned an important lesson about brokenness,
accountability, forgiveness, and grace.
It all began at a morning devotion that I led for the older
campers – middle-school and high-school kids. I have no recollection of the
point I was trying to make that morning, but I’ll never forget the lesson I
learned when I made an off-hand crack in the midst of the back-and-forth with
I know it shocks you to hear that I might make an off-hand
joke, but, yes, I did. Alas, I made the crack at the expense of the middlers. I
didn’t intend to be mean-spirited, but I came off that way, and following the
devotions one of the counselors called me on it.
I thanked him for pointing it out, and at lunch time I
invited all of the middlers – probably 30 kids and counselors – to meet me at
the tree right after lunch. I apologized to them for my words that made them
feel excluded or belittled, asked them to forgive me, thanked them for the
grace of that moment, and sent them on to rest time.
What has any of this to do with Pride, with the texts of the
morning, with any larger concerns?
It has to do with gifts and shadows, and what I’m calling broken
We all have gifts. Our particular gifts shape what we do
with our lives. From time to time we justifiably take pride in those gifts.
Personally, I’m good with words, and, sometimes, with word play. It’s a gift
that has shaped my vocation both as writer and preacher, and also, to some
extent, as one who tries to lead with good humor.
But our gifts also come with a shadow side that tends to be
exposed when we don’t balance gifts. That morning at camp, the shadow side of
leading with humor and a facility with words was exposed when I didn’t balance
it with compassion and thoughtfulness.
Giving him the benefit of a doubt, I’d suggest that King
Ahab probably rose to power both as a son of the former king and because he had
leadership gifts, including a desire to make Israel great. The shadow side of
such desire is marked by materialism, greed, and egocentrism.
Working within a system shaped by others before him who
shared similar characteristics, Ahab’s greed is unbridled until he encounters
Naboth and his vineyard. As Carolynne Hitter Brown points out,
Naboth’s response to Ahab went much
deeper than a simple refusal to sell a piece of land. Naboth specifically told
Ahab, “The Lord forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance.” With
this response, Naboth stood for righteousness in the face of a powerful and
corrupt system. His words pointed straight to the essence of Ahab’s and
Israel’s problem. As a nation, Israel had turned away from God’s covenant and
was serving foreign idols. In his heart, Ahab knew the truth, but after a
lifetime of blasphemy, his conscience was seared. Naboth’s words convicted Ahab
of deep sin.
Contrast Ahab’s situation with the one I found myself in. We
were both confronted by truth-tellers who spoke a simple prophetic word calling
us to account for our actions. Ahab was cut to quick, and refused to eat. Then
the household of Ahab responds by murdering the truth teller and stealing his
I didn’t follow that path, but it’s not because I’m somehow
fundamentally different and better than Ahab. No, I didn’t follow that path
because I was in the midst of a community that, for decades, has worked to find
and carve out other paths. I had plenty of options, and well-worn paths to
follow to get to places of grace, forgiveness, and reconciliation.
In other words, I could take the gifts I have been given and
in which I take justifiable pride, and, by grace, use them for building up
relationships and communities, rather than allowing their shadow sides to rip
apart relationship and undermine communities.
At their best, celebrations such as Pride remind us of
giftedness – what have we done today to
make us feel proud!
They challenge us to accept ourselves and one another –
I am what I am!
– and to own up to
the fullness of who we are, as well.
God’s grace opens space for us to be honest with ourselves.
It opens space for accountability, for forgiveness, for restoration of right
relationships, and for community to grow and prosper.
It’s a happy coincidence – or perhaps just a logical choice
– that the image of a tree figures prominently in scripture as a symbol of
peace and the security that comes with justice and right relationships.
Isaiah assures the people of Israel, even in the midst of
“You shall go out in joy and be led back in peace;
The mountains and the hills before you shall burst into
And all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.”
“In the days to come the mountains of the Lord’s house shall
be established as the highest of the mountains … that they shall beat their
swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; national shall not
lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more but they
shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one
shall make them afraid.”
In other words, the tree of life shall belong to everyone,
and we will all be welcome to gather in its shade, enjoy its fruit, and rest
beneath its branches. As the old spiritual promises, we all have a right to the
tree of life.
We come, as we are, bringing our gifts and their shadow
sides, because we are all rooted and grounded in the same life-giving source of
grace. So come with pride in your giftedness, come owning up to the shadows,
come as you are to take your place beneath the tree.
We have our own little “tree of life” this morning,
decorated with some rainbow bling, We also have some rainbow paper, and some
pens. You’re invited to come and write your gifts on the paper. This will be
our prayer today, as we give thanks for the gifts we have been given, and as we
own their shadow sides, we pray for wisdom and courage to use what we are – all
of what we are – for building a wider world in which everyone born finds a
place in the shade of the tree of life.