Pastor Becca Ehrlich
There was a guy named Dave who always seemed to fall asleep during the sermon at church. His wife, Martha, was fed up and decided to deal with the embarrassing situation. The next Sunday when he fell asleep, she quietly removed some pungent Limburger cheese from a bag in her purse and passed it under his nose. Startled out of sleep, Dave blurted out, “No, Martha, no, please don't kiss me now!”
Bad breath notwithstanding, we all have smells that we like and don’t like, right? What are some smells you enjoy…? I love the smell of fresh cut grass, the smell of a wood-burning stove, and the smell of clean laundry. My Mom and Dad, who are from Long Island originally, love the smell of salt water-- which is probably why they go on cruises so often!
And what are some smells that you don’t like…? One of the big ones for me is when the trash starts smelling, but you don’t notice it until you walk into the house from a long day and that’s the first thing you smell when you open the door. Gag. When I was holding my very scientific poll about smells (as in, I asked 4 people, and just asked what smells they like or don’t like), Pastor Randy and my husband Will actually share a hated smell-- new asphalt.
A lot of times, why we like or don’t like a particular smell is because of what that smell reminds us of. It’s called a conditioned response. So Dave in our joke, for example, was conditioned to think of that limburger smell as his wife Martha’s breath, even though it was the cheese that time in church. I like the smell of a wood burning stove because it reminds me cozy winter evenings by the fire with hot chocolate. I hate the smell of trash because… well, trash is nasty. But also because growing up, one of my chores was taking out the trash. And I would have traded to clean a million toilets over having to smell that trash as I carried it to the garbage pail in the garage.
Smells can be powerful. They can take us back years or even decades when we smell something that reminds us of a person or place or event. When my Mom went to Brotherhood Winery in Washingtonville, NY as an adult, she stepped into the wine cellar and immediately thought of her Grandfather, my Great-Grandfather, because of the smell there. Apparently when she was a kid, she would travel with him to Brotherhood to get his favorite sherry, and they would go to the wine cellar together. Even though more than 25 years had passed, that smell still made her think of him.
This conditioned response to smells is why many people avoid smelling a certain flower, because it reminds them of a loved one’s funeral. It’s why real estate agents have cookies baking in the oven when they hold an open house for a place they’re trying to sell. It’s why people go nuts over pumpkin spice lattes at Starbucks every year—it may still be 80 degrees outside when they first start serving them, but gosh-darn it, it reminds people of fall and leaves and football and sweaters every time!
In our Gospel reading from John today, we hear about another powerful smell. So picture this. It’s a few days before Jesus is going to go to Jerusalem After that, he will have his Last Supper with his disciples, and then go to die on a cross.
But before all this happens, Jesus is having dinner at Lazarus’ house. This is the Lazarus that Jesus rose from the dead to the amazement of everyone, and whose sisters are Mary and Martha. We hear earlier in John’s Gospel that Mary loved to learn at Jesus’ feet, and Martha got angry because Mary should be helping her make the food and serve rather than sitting and listening to Jesus. So Mary is used to doing things with Jesus present that other people don’t like.
And at this dinner, Mary takes a pound of a very costly perfume, anoints Jesus’ feet with it, and wipes his feet with her hair. It says that this perfume was worth 300 denarii. Just to put it in perspective, 300 denarii would have been equal to almost a full year’s salary for a typical person back then. A full. Year’s. Salary. So this was like the Lamborghini of perfumes. If, you know, they had Lamborghinis back then.
And it says that “The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.” So during that dinner, the smell of that perfume was everywhere. It permeated everything.
And like smells for us today, people had a conditioned response to this smell back then. First of all, people would have known that this was an expensive perfume. It’s like how we can smell the difference between cheap cologne from a discount store and Chanel perfume. Mary was sparing no expense.
And we hear Judas complaining because of his conditioned response to this smell. He knows this perfume is very expensive. He knows that if they had sold it and put the money in the group’s common purse to give to the poor, he would have stolen from it and had some of it for himself. The expensiveness of this perfume could literally be smelled from miles away.
Second of all, they would have had another conditioned response to this perfume. Perfume and oil like this was used in Jesus’ time for very important rituals. Rulers, like kings and queens, were anointed with perfume just like this when they became official. And this perfume was also used to anoint the dead before they were buried. The people at that dinner would have smelled this perfume and been reminded of these types of major moments in history and in their lives.
So by using this costly perfume to anoint Jesus’ feet, Mary is connecting the smell to anointing a king and preparing him for burial. While Judas is stuck on the cost of the perfume, Mary is seeing something more, something way more important.
I heard this story recently, and it’s apparently from a 2007 Washington Post article—and it actually won a Pulitzer Prize. The story is about a man playing a violin in the Washington DC Metro Station. He played six Bach pieces for one hour. During that time two thousand people passed through the station. People hurried past the man on their way to appointments and destinations. After 4 minutes the violinist received his first dollar but the person didn’t stop to listen. A 3-year-old boy stopped but his mom pulled him along. The boy stopped again, but again the mom pulled him forward. In the hour the violinist played Bach only six people stopped and listened for a short time. Twenty gave him money but continued to walk at their normal pace. The violinist received a total of $32. When he finished and silence took over, no one applauded and there was no recognition.
The violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the greatest musicians in the world. He played one of the most intricate pieces ever written-- with a violin worth $3.5 million dollars. Two days before Joshua Bell had sold out a theater in Boston where the seats in 2007 averaged $100.
It’s so crazy that, during the time he played, no one saw Joshua Bell for who he really was. His specialness was lost in the shuffle of peoples’ lives and travels.
Mary recognized the specialness of Jesus and acted accordingly. She anointed him. While the others around, especially Judas, didn’t notice who Jesus was, she did.
This anointing is Mary’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah—which literally means “anointed one”-- the one who will save the world. She simultaneously anoints him as king, and anoints him in preparation for his death. THIS is what’s most important. Nothing else matters, because in that moment, as that smell permeates every nook and cranny in that house, she is telling them that Jesus is the one they have waited for, longed for, need for their salvation. Their conditioned response to that perfume smell is her way of telling the world who Jesus is.
And the story didn’t stop there. As we will hear in more detail next week at our worship services, Jesus enters the city of Jerusalem, has his last meal with his disciples, and then is sentenced to death on a cross, and dies among criminals. Mary anoints him in preparation of his impending death, the death that will ultimately bring salvation to all who believe that Jesus is the king, the savior.
And we, too, proclaim that anointing smell. In Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, he writes in chapter 2 starting at verse 14: “But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads in every place the fragrance of knowing him. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved…”
Or as the Message paraphrase of the Bible puts it, “In the Messiah, in Christ, God leads us from place to place in one perpetual victory parade. Through us, he brings knowledge of Christ. Everywhere we go, people breathe in the exquisite fragrance. Because of Christ, we give off a sweet scent rising to God, which is recognized by those on the way to salvation—an aroma redolent with life.”
We, like Mary, are the ones called to send the scent of salvation into the world, for all those who need it. We proclaim to our world that Jesus is king, the savior, the one who brings life and salvation. In a world filled with pain and hurt and anger and uncertainty, we bring that “exquisite fragrance” of Jesus’ love and salvation to people who are in desperate need of love and saving.
WE are Mary, called by God to give off that “sweet scent” of Jesus. Who in your life is someone who needs to smell that amazing aroma of Jesus’ love for them? Who can you share your faith story with so they, too, can forever smell that sweet smell of salvation? Who can you do that for? Amen?