Saturday, March 27, 2010

The fragrance of love

John 12: 1-8
******** United Church of Christ
Sunday, March 21, 2010

(I preached a sermon very similar to this one three years ago in a different setting. On this occasion I asked some questions of the children and youth, as well as the adults, and their responses are in italics. I also had some fragrant oil in a diffuser on the communion table, and you guessed it, it filled the whole house.)

“If God was a smell, what would God smell like?”

The woods.

The ocean.
WindSong and Old Spice.
An old attic.
Ice cream.
Freshly baked bread.
Babies and baby powder.
Everybody. (Someone said they hoped this was wrong.)
Cut grass.
Sweet wine.
Earth after rain.
The fragrant oil.
Everything together and separate.

Our sense of smell is one of the most potent of the five senses, because it has the power to bring us back in time to a place, a person, an experience and make it real for us. For instance, I love the smell of celery and onions sautéing in butter because it reminds me of my mother making her Southern cornbread dressing and of her cooking in general. The aroma of coffee brewing and bacon frying takes me back to my grandparents’ house in Mississippi when I was a little girl. Whenever I am in an office supply store, the smell of Scotch tape and ink and paper remind me of my childhood church and the office that contained a mimeograph machine on which the Sunday bulletins were printed.

Human beings can recognize more than 10,000 different scents or odorants. We have hundreds of olfactory receptor neurons in our nasal passages, each receptor encoded by a specific gene. If we do not possess a certain gene, then we have difficulty picking up particular scents.

The sense of smell is an important character in this passage and in the one leading up to it. In chapter 11 in John’s gospel, Jesus arrives four days too late to save his friend Lazarus from death. When he asks to have the stone taken away from the tomb, Martha, the sister of the dead man, says to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” The body has already begun to decompose; according to belief, this was a sign that the spirit or soul had left the body and resuscitation therefore impossible. But for Jesus, with whom nothing is impossible, this permeating odor of death is but a mere whiff of the perfume of resurrection to come. He then prays to God and calls forth Lazarus, who emerges from the tomb, the smelly graveclothes still clinging to his face and body.

Now, in this morning’s passage, the scene has changed completely. Lazarus now washed and clean, is host to Jesus and his disciples for dinner. His sister Martha serves the dinner but not with complaint as she did in the Luke story between her and her sister Mary. There is no resentment about serving this time; the Greek word for ‘serve’ is used in the tradition of a deacon. There are the pleasant aromas of roasted meat and bread and wine and the air dense with the emotions of contentment, joy, and the intense feeling that very soon it is all about to end, for in raising Lazarus, Jesus has signed his own death warrant.

Into all this enters Mary with a jar of perfume made from pure nard. The word ‘nard’ comes from spikenard, a flowering plant that grows in the Himalayas of China, India, and Nepal, which explains why it is so costly. Its underground stems can be crushed and distilled into an intensely aromatic, amber-colored essential oil, very thick in consistency. It was a luxury item in the ancient world, something that would be used to anoint the head of a king, not the feet of a poor wandering rabbi. To anoint the feet would be part of preparing a body for burial. And to wipe Jesus’ feet Mary lets down her hair, something a woman would do only for her husband or in grief.

In this story Mary, sister of Lazarus, is the prodigal, which means ‘wasteful extravagance’. In her whole manner we see wasteful extravagance. She unleashes the potent fragrance of love into the dinner banquet, disrupting the heady scent of the meal and the mood of Judas, who reeks of stinginess and the betrayal to come. She does not use ordinary oil but one that is costly and pungent: the whole house is filled with its perfume. She lets loose her hair as a spontaneous gesture of her gratitude for her brother and a sign of her exuberant affection for Jesus. She does not wait for his burial but anoints him now, alive in her home, where she can enjoy his company and presence.

This lavish act of extravagant love is Mary’s prophecy of Jesus’ death: God’s lavish act of extravagant love in human flesh. Jesus’ death is indeed wasteful extravagance; there is nothing prudent or economical about God’s love on the cross. And there is nothing prudent or economical in Mary’s discipleship. In her unrestrained display of devotion we see the portrayal of supreme faithfulness. While Judas plays the role of bean counter (and not a very honest one at that), Mary in her filling the whole house with the fragrance of her love for Jesus fulfills the role of one passionate in love and service. The smell of death may be on the heels of Jesus but Mary witnesses to the overwhelming persistence of God’s love, that God’s love smells sweeter and stronger than death itself.

But I wonder: does God’s love always smell pleasant and sweet? Can God’s love smell like the sweat of migrant workers picking coffee, oranges, and grapes; the sweat of day laborers mowing grass, laying brick, tarring roofs? Can God’s love reek of a person who hasn’t bathed in days or months? Can God’s love stink of prison cells and tenement hallways and dingy nursing homes, battlefields and refugee camps? Jesus said that we would always have the poor with us but not always him. What did he mean by that? Do not all of us deserve a roof over our heads, health care, nutrition, clean water, clean clothes, clean hair, teeth and bodies, to know that we will never have to question these things?

Jesus was quoting from the book of Deuteronomy, chapter 15, verse 11: "Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.’" The stench of poverty cannot be covered up with sweet-smelling platitudes, like Judas. If God’s love stinks, it stinks of the need for justice, for peace, and for resurrection. The sweet smell of God’s love reminds us of the extravagant gift we have been given, that continues to be lavished on us daily. The rank odor of God’s love is a pungent call to give extravagantly, wastefully to those who are always with us but to give as though there may not be a tomorrow.

If God’s love stank, what would it smell like?

My dog.

A garbage can or dump.
Farm manure.
A skunk.
A turkey sandwich left under a couch for two months.
Low tide.
A school bathroom.
Horses and cows and chickens.
The smell that signifies you need to change a diaper.
NYC subway.
The cat box.
A boys dorm room.
The lack of health care.
Car exhaust.
Lindberger cheese.

One day our opportunity to serve will come to an end; the fragrance of our love will diminish and fade. At some point it will be too late. How is God calling you, ******** United Church of Christ, to give today and to give lavishly, wastefully? How do you as a congregation define waste, extravagance? What sorts of limits have you placed on what you spend or give away or use, that define what is "reasonable," and what is "excessive"? How do you think about your giving and your gestures of love and generosity, the things that come from deepest within your hearts? God is not yet finished with you; how is the day and the moment before you in such a way that your acts of extravagant generosity can wait no longer? What does God’s love smell like in this church, in this time and place?


Men's breakfast at the diner.
Easter flowers.
Coffee hour.
Fragrant oil.
A well-cooked mission or shelter meal.
Tears and hugs.
A smoky fireplace on the women's retreat.
The radiance of a rainbow.
Fresh breeze in the sanctuary.

The fragrance of love is sweet and smelly, heady and rank, perfume and stench. It is seizing the moment to give what we have, not counting the cost. It is uninhibited, exuberant, exultant love celebrated and cherished in the here and now. It is a sacrificial, humble, extravagant gift of God that has the power to permeate our lives, resurrect us, and transform us into new beings. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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