What it means to be free

June 12th, 2016

Preacher: The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

Today we meet a woman who is free. She inspires me to talk about freedom. It’s the theme of today’s sermon. She’s not bound by fear; she has no need to create a predictable future; she lives beyond the influence of cultural expectation. She is authentic and powerful in the moment, and as Jesus says of her in the Gospel of Matthew: “whenever someone shares the Good News of the Gospel this woman will be remembered.” It’s a pretty big endorsement, so it seems to me that she is worth knowing. What do you think?

She is free. She is not afraid. She is not bound by the need to create a predictable future; which means she is willing to take risks; which means she is willing to be authentic in the moment; which means she doesn’t march to the drumbeat of cultural expectation, and that makes her free.

She knows something. She knows something that is probably is worth knowing—at least, I’d like to know what she knows, because I don’t always feel free. And when I say that, I don’t mean I’m not free to go where I want or to say what I want or to do what I want. I am, but I don’t, because there is all this stuff that sits upon me: expectations—about success or right actions or what is good or bad or scary or risky or dangerous. Expectations about what it means to be a winner or a loser. Expectations about who’s smart, and by what standard. There are a lot of expectations out there that sit upon us. I think a lot about creating a predictable future. I put a lot of energy into mitigating risk. I worry too much about expectations.

I wonder what it feels like to be free like this woman is free. Maybe she has something to teach us.

We meet her in the house of Simon the Pharisee. He lives in Bethany just over the hill from the hospital where Iyad was born. Those of you who have been on pilgrimage with me know what I’m talking about. It is just east of Jerusalem. My son Desmond and I were there at this very house about a year ago when I was on Sabbatical. It is right next to the tomb of Lazarus.

Simon was a Pharisee, which means he was a scholar of the Torah, which means he knew the expectations for living an upright Jewish life. Jesus often hung out with Pharisees. They liked Jesus because he liked engaging them in conversations about the Torah and the rules and how to live a godly life. That is what Pharisees talked about and thought about, because if they live by the right rules they would meet God’s expectations, and God would blessed them with a predictable, risk-free life.

But life doesn’t work that way, does it? Sometimes we can do all the right things and make all the right plans and pray all the right prayers, and we still get curveballs. Isn’t that right? That was the case for Simon the Pharisee, because in addition to being a Pharisee, he was also a leper.

Clearly Simon wasn’t living ALL the right rules. Clearly Simon wasn’t living up to God’s expectations. Usually lepers were outcasts, but not Simon, which means there was some mitigating blessing that counteracted the curse of leprosy. I imagine he was wealthy. After all, in the same way Pharisee’s believed that God’s displeasure caused leprosy, they also believed that God’s favor created wealth.

So Simon the wealthy leper had a dinner party. I’m not sure if everyone who was invited came, but Jesus did. Then a woman appears; our woman, the woman from the Gospel today. She enters the room. No one seems surprised, which is surprising to me. She is carrying ointment to rub on Jesus’ feet. She gets down on the ground, on her knees, and begins to rub them. And as she does, she starts to weep. I mean really weep, like a flood on the floor. Tears landing on Jesus’ feet, and without even thinking she wipes them with her hair.

And I wonder: How did she come to be there? Who is she? Did she already know Jesus? Why didn’t someone kick her out? To find answers we must explore other parts of the Bible for clues, which leads us to the Gospel of John, chapter 12: back to Bethany and the home of Mary and Martha, and their brother Lazarus, who was raised from the dead.

You’ve heard me talk about these people before, in fact a few weeks ago I preached about Mary, who also rubbed ointment on Jesus’ feet and wiped them with her hair. I’m guessing it is the same story. What do you think? It turns out some scholars believe that Simon the Leper was the father of Mary and Martha and Lazarus. And that would explain a lot. It explains why Mary was there in the house, and no one was surprised. It explains why Mary and Martha were both unmarried; they were daughters of a leper. It explains why Mary was described in the Gospel as a sinner—the status of someone born to a leper. You may remember the question put to Jesus: “Who sinned, the parent or the child…” (that she should be born this way.) It explains why Mary could afford the expensive ointment. And it explains her unexpected tears. Jesus had raised her brother, Lazarus, from the dead.

Her tears flowed uncontrollably and yet even as she wept, she stayed to care for Jesus. She stayed as the tears splashed off his feet. She wiped them with her hair. She seemed not to care what others thought.

Imagine the scene. Not only was she the daughter of a leper, but also a spend-thrift (300 denarii) who would touch a man’s feet in public. Impulsive. Certainly not the kind of woman anyone would marry. She was done. Her future was set: a spinster at best, more likely an outcast.

Yet, Jesus said, “Not so fast. She is freer than anyone in this room. Whenever the Good News is proclaimed, after all, she is the one who will be remembered.” She is the free one! So what’s going on here?

Well, let’s return to the Gospel of Luke to see, because it’s a different message than the one we find in John. Luke doesn’t even mention the woman’s name, because he’s not teaching about the context of her life, he’s teaching about the freedom of her soul.

Here is the assumption Luke is making: every soul deeply desires freedom from the expectations of their context, whether a hedge fund manager in Manhattan, or a grandmother in Seward Park, or a shepherd in the Sudan. We all have cultural expectations set upon us, and while much of this is good and healthy, some of this can be constricting and onerous and cause us to give away our lives in favor of someone else’s expectations. And that is not Good News. Jesus came to give us Good News. He came to set us free, to liberate us, which is why he introduces us to this woman. Because she is free.

But you know why? She had the capacity to live into uncertainty; into mystery. What she knew is that the future is always unpredictable. So she let it go, in favor of service to the Jesus she found right in front of her. We all have that option, because Jesus shows up in front of all of us all of the time. We all have the opportunity to forego our anxiety about the future in favor of caring for the Jesus we find right in front of us.

Here is the truth: even if I had a million dollars of life insurances and died knowing that my family would live in the same house, and go to the same schools, and take the same vacations, and buy the same clothes, and drive the same cars, their future would still be unpredictable. So instead of my spending the strength of my soul trying to mitigate risk and seek the impossibility of creating a predictable future, maybe I should take a page out of this woman’s playbook.

She threw her whole life into making the most important thing the most important thing. She embraced mystery, and she lived her priority. And what made her free is what makes us free: embracing an unknowable future, and making the most important thing the most important thing. She set the standard for what that would be. She didn’t make her reputation the most important thing. She didn’t make her marriage eligibility the most important thing. She didn’t make what the men in the room thought of her the most important thing. She made her love of God the most important thing. She made her service to Jesus the most important thing. She made living by the grace of the Holy Spirit the most important thing. And this made her free.

And while the cultural expectations of her time would have predicted that she would become an outcast based on her actions and her background, Jesus said something else: that she would become an icon of freedom, not for what she had done, but because of how she lived. She set God first and let God lead her into the future.

How do we do this when we still have things we have to do and plan and accomplish? How do we do this and still be upstanding and responsible and diligent, and do our jobs? Is that what you’re wondering?

Well, I don’t know how you do it specifically. But I do know that, universally, God loves you. God sees you. God thinks about you. God cares about you. Trust this! And in your heart and your mind, set God first, and let God lead you into your future.

Imagine that. Imagine letting God lead you into your future. Imagine living that way. It is possible to be free from the need to control the future. It is possible to embrace mystery. It is possible to trust God. It is possible to find Jesus right there in front of you to serve, beyond or even despite expectations.

It is possible to be that free. That is the Good News of the Gospel, and it is why we remember this woman today.