The holy gospel according to John, the 12th chapter.
Glory to you, O Lord.
1 Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2 There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3 Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus' feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4 But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5 "Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?" 6 (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) 7 Jesus said, "Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8 You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
The gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, O Christ.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Creator and our Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Smells bring back feelings and memories at the deepest levels. When I smell boxwood shrubs I am taken back to Lexington, Virginia where I used to visit my grandparents. That shrubbery lined many of the streets in that small town where they lived. I could smell its pleasant aroma as we would drive into town on a summer day with the windows down. My sister and I used to say we could smell Grandma’s house.
I loved visiting there because my sister and I were allowed to walk downtown to the library and the park by ourselves. We could smell the boxwood hedges lining the fenced in yards and enjoy the freedom and independence of being trusted to go somewhere alone.
I know that boxwood is probably an unusual scent to bring back a memory, but I bet you have something that brings back memories. If you are a parent, you might have wonderful memories associated with the scent of baby powder and baby shampoo.
Lots of us have memories from cooking smells. The smell of coffee reminds us that morning is here. Turkey roasting in the oven brings back memories of big family dinners and holidays. Maybe there was a certain kind of cookie that your grandma always baked and you think of her every time you smell it.
Some smells are not so good, though. There’s that smell that reminds you that you forgot to throw the onion away. Or the smell that says the litter box needs to be cleaned, or the garbage needs to go out. Or that icky smell that says we have a dead mouse somewhere.
Smells aren’t the only things that evoke strong memories. There are phrases that bring back things we learned in early childhood. We only have to hear the first part and we are taken right back there.
We can instantly finish the phrases:
“Twinkle, twinkle, little star… how I wonder what you are?”
“Now, I lay me down to sleep…I pray Thee Lord my soul to keep.”
“The Lord is my Shepherd…I shall not want.”
“God so loved the world....that he gave ...”
We have known those so long that we might not even remember when we learned them, but they certainly take us back. We hear the first part and we automatically hear the rest of the verse.
Today’s gospel is a story about smells that evoke memories
and phrases we know that make us automatically hear the rest of the verse.
This story takes place the week before Jesus enters Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. That’s why we read it today.
There were some strong smells in the story. A couple of the strongest smells are in the background. They are smells that nobody is really talking about, but everyone notices.
There was a smell of fear in the air. The way people were talking, there may as well have been wanted posters with Jesus’ picture on them all over Jerusalem. There was talk of killing Lazarus, too, because he was living proof of Jesus’ power.
Along with the smell of fear, there was a lingering smell of death. Death is a rotten stinky smell. It is a depressing smell. Jesus knew he was a wanted man. He knew there were plots to kill him and that his time on earth was growing very short. He was a dead man walking.
But Mary showed us that God was doing a new thing. There was a new smell in the air. She used so much perfume that it overwhelmed the smells of fear and death.
Her love for Jesus was so great, so strong. She wasn’t embarrassed to show everyone. He had raised he brother from the dead. Death, the ultimate enemy had been defeated.
That perfume was the smell of resurrection. And it was a strong, beautiful smell. Better than turkey dinner at Thanksgiving. Better than chocolate chip cookies at Christmas. Better than a dozen red roses on Valentines Day. Better than anything you ever smelled before.
It was the smell of new life, the smell of victory over sin and death, the smell of resurrection and eternal life. It was a smell that the people at that dinner party would remember days later on a Friday, when the smells of fear and death got strong again and their nostrils were filled with them, and they needed to stay inside just to breathe.
Our sense of smell brings back feelings and memories at the deepest level. Then there are phrases that bring back things we learned in early childhood that also touch us at a deep level.
Judas challenged Mary’s use of the expensive perfume. He called it wasteful. Then Jesus quoted the first part of a Bible verse they all knew. He didn’t have to say all of it because they all knew it.
Unfortunately, through out the years, Christians who didn’t know the whole verse have misunderstood. Jesus said, “You always have the poor with you.” quoting the first half of the verse from Deuteronomy 15:11. Here is the second half of the verse - Therefore I command you, “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land."
Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land. Mary, Martha, Lazarus, and all the disciples knew the whole verse by heart from their childhood. They knew what Jesus was getting at when he said that you will always have the poor with you.
Jesus would not be there personally much longer. He is not with us the way he was with them. He is with us in a different way. He has told us that whenever we look into the face of someone in need, we see his face in theirs. When we open our hands to our poor and needy neighbors, we open our hands to Jesus.
We open our hands in gratitude because we can smell the rich perfume of the resurrection. Its fragrance reminds us of all that Christ has done for us.
On Maundy Thursday evening, I will anoint you with oil as I proclaim to you that all your sins are forgiven. That oil is scented with the fragrances of frankincense and myrrh. They are beautiful scents that bring back memories of the gifts of the Magi. They are scents that were used in the Bible when the women wrapped the body of someone who had died, scents that cover the smell of death.
You will be marked with the scent of resurrection, the scent that covers the smell of your own sin and death. It is a beautiful smell, the smell of forgiveness and new life, the smell of baptism. I have some of the oil at the font in the back. You can smell it on your way out if you like.
Memories from smells, memories from what we have learned, all help us remember how much Jesus loves us. In gratitude for his great love, we show our love for Jesus.
So, “Open your hands to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.” Amen.