A sermon delivered by Keith Herron, Pastor of Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City, Mo., on March 21, 2010.
March 21, 2010
Nancy Angier once described our sense of smell as, the second-sexiest organ of the body. What’s amazing about the nose is that it’s linked so strongly to memory. She added, Nothing can evoke a time, a place, an emotion past better than an aroma. Have you ever been jolted back to a past time by the power of a smell? It could be your grandfather’s pipe out on the front porch on a cool fall evening or your grandmother’s homemade biscuits fresh from the oven or the smell of your mother’s favorite perfume.
The idea that smell and memory are powerfully linked prompted pastor Beth Sanders to wonder, What does God’s love smell like? For some, there are smells that draw you back in memory to the church of your childhood. Maybe it’s the warm smell of fried chicken at the church potluck that helps you remember the smell of church. Or perhaps it’s the delicate floral bouquet of your childhood Sunday School teacher’s perfume as the woman who first taught you the stories of the Bible. Unbeknownst to you at the moment, the smell of your teacher and the stories she told were inextricably mixed together into an indistinguishable smell you remember as the smell of God’s love.
Strangely, the story of Mary pouring out the costly ointment can be understood best through our sense of smell and its powerful ability to help us remember what it means to give a costly gift to God. When Jesus sat down to dinner with his friends, it was less than a week before he was arrested and executed at the hands of the Roman government. It was the day after the Triumphal Entry into the city of Jerusalem and he and the disciples had retreated back to Bethany to visit his dear friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus.
The power of smell dominates the story both in the present moment and in the recent memory of the one whom the Bible claimed, he stinketh. To be blunt, I’m talking about body odor. The Bible in all its honesty describes someone by the pungent smell of his body. Only this is not the kind of body odor we do everything in our power to suppress or hide through deodorants and perfumes. This is the body odor of the dead.
This may have been a meal to celebrate the resurrection of Lazarus from the grave. Jesus had been called when Lazarus became ill but he arrived too late to prevent him from dying. Lazarus had been in the tomb for 4 days by the time he showed up. And Jesus grieved so deeply he wept. If there’s any uncertainty about his death, John leaves us with no doubt because Lazarus’ lifeless body had decayed in the darkness marked by the pungent smell of death that emanated from the tomb. It was a clear indication to the skeptics this was no resuscitation. He was dead and his body stunk to high heavens in its decayed state. So when the story tells us Lazarus was sitting at the table at dinner, maybe the wafting smells of his death were still fresh. No doubt Lazarus had bathed after being covered with the spices of death, but it’s not hard to imagine he still carried with him the faint odor of the myrrh that had soaked into the pores of his skin.
But mixed with the smell of death were the smells of the meal they shared. Likely there was the warm sweet smell of the fresh-baked bread or the husky roasted smell of the lamb cooked over an open fire. Such are the smells that make our fellowship meals powerful moments where our sense of community is built. In the midst of all the talk and the laughter, Mary moved silently across the room to do something necessary in the holiness of the moment. She moved around the table to where Jesus sat and uncorked a small vial of fragrant oil. Without a word she knelt at his feet and poured the oil over his feet. Most did not notice what she had done but the smell of the ointment wafted across the room and a silence fell upon them.
It’s Judas’ criticism that splits our understanding of the story. The split falls across the differences between our need for extravagant beauty and our need for pragmatism in the name of service. Surely Jesus would affirm the wisdom of Judas and see the terrible waste of anointing his feet with this costly ointment. But Jesus did not criticize her. Instead, he accepted her extravagance and commended her to the group.
This story is absolutely compelling as we think about our gifts to God. There are times when a gift transcends the pragmatism of need and becomes our gift to God as a sign of our awareness that God has given extravagantly and we feel a need to offer something extravagant because we realize small gifts aren’t enough. Give until it feels good, we’ve said to one another. So Mary poured out her whole bottle of perfume without regret because she knew it was only a trifle compared to the magnitude of God’s love she had found in her friend Jesus.
She had seen this love in action with her own eyes as she watched her dead brother come back to life. In the end, she realized her pragmatism was not enough. She simply had to act extravagantly in response to the love she had for Jesus. When she was done, the fragrance was in Mary’s hair as she dried the feet of Jesus while he sat at the table enjoying a meal with his friends. Perhaps in our memories the gift of fragrance is ours to remember every time we give God an extravagant gift of love through our service to Him.
Intentional interim minister at Countryside Community Church of Omaha, Nebraska, the Christian partner in the Tri-Faith Initiative, a partnership with the American Muslim Institute and Temple Israel. He is author of Living a Narrative Life, Exploring the Power of Stories (Smyth & Helwys, 2019).