A Sweet Fragrance Poured Out
by Timothy J. Mooney
I invite you to close your eyes, quiet yourself, and open your heart to God. Become as present as you can to this moment. I invite you to remember a time in your life, when the smell of something or someone captured all of your senses and struck you as profound. It could be the smell of a loved one’s perfume or cologne, the smell of a newborn child, the smell of a forest primeval, the smell of grandmother’s freshly baked bread, the smell of foreign spices. What memories arise in connection with this smell? Immerse yourself in the memories, the feelings, the desires, the experience as a whole.
You are invited today to let smell be a part of your worship experience. Three small bottles of Spikenard, the very same perfume Mary used to anoint Jesus, will be passed down the pews. If you wish, roll some on your wrist, neck, third-eye. As the perfume filled the room 2000 years ago, let it fill the sanctuary today, and fill your senses.
Rudyard Kipling wrote, “Smells are surer than sounds or sights / To make your heart-strings crack.”1
Our text today from The Gospel of John is full of smells real and metaphorical. Mary – the same Mary who instead of helping her sister Martha cook, chose to sit and listen to Jesus, of which he said, “There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” This Mary lavishly pours out a pound of costly nard perfume on Jesus’ feet, dries his feet with her hair, and the perfume permeates every corner of the room. This sweet smell is in contrast to the memory of the foul odor that came from her brother Lazarus’ tomb, whom Jesus raised to new life, and who is present now in the room with them. Lazarus’ presence indicates that death does not speak the last word, for him, for Jesus, or for us. Mary’s anointing of Jesus’ feet, prefigures Jesus washing the disciples’ feet in the upper room. This is such an intimate act. It speaks of her love for Jesus, and his love for the disciples; it speaks of Jesus’ belovedness, and the disciples’ belovedness, and invites us to see ourselves, and all others, as beloved. Then there is the sour, stifled, stagnate smell of Judas, his selfishness, his affected care for the poor, which is only a ruse for his care for himself. Mary’s intimate touch and exuberant outpouring of expensive perfume is set against the stinginess of spirit seen in Judas.
Something is being contrasted here, and Barry and Ann Ulanov express this profoundly: “Our best parts, if left unlived, can be as poisonous as our worst, if left unhealed.” It is easy to see the worst in Judas that needs healing. But we often miss the need to live our best parts. This is what we see in Mary’s actions. Jesus’ words, vision, actions, his very being, has brought her to life, and she expresses it with all her “heart, mind, soul, and strength.” Her act is over the top, almost embarrassing. Yet it is an invitation for us to express with our whole selves – body, voice, mind, emotion – our love, gratitude, joy, and adoration, for that which brings us to life.
This invitation is woven throughout scripture and expressed in different ways. It has to do with giving our all because we have found something that means all. We’ve seen it the past two Sundays in the extravagant, prodigal love of a father for his two very different sons. We see it in King David as he danced nearly naked before the Lord with all his might, embarrassing his wife Michal (2 Sam. 6:14). We see it in the person who found a treasure in the field and sold everything he had to buy that field. We see it in the pearl merchant who found the pearl of great price and sold everything he had to buy it. We see it in the great commandment: “Love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength.” We see it in Paul’s words to the Philippians, “Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”
What are we willing to pay everything for? What are we willing to give our all to?
Bishop Spong puts it this way. “In that process of coming to know that which we name as divine, the God who is love is slowly transformed into the love that is God – boundless, eternal, passing beyond every limit and calling us to follow this love into every crevice of creation. We journey into this God by being absorbed into wasteful, expansive, freely given love. The more we enter and share this love, the more our lives are opened to new possibilities, to the sacredness of otherness, to a limitless transcendence.” (Bishop Spong, p. 71, “A New Christianity for a New World”)
Extravagance. Pleasure. Effusiveness. Exuberance. Expressiveness. These aren’t ideas that we usually associate with Lent. Nor with Presbyterians who are known for doing everything “decently and in order.” But as someone has said, “Moderation in everything, includes moderation. Sometimes you just need to go all out.”
It seems odd to me: we only deeply articulate what a person means to us, at their funeral, when they are no longer around to hear it. I am planning my 65th birthday party, a little less than 3 years away. At my party I want people to say what they would say at my funeral. Why not let the persons we love hear how we feel about them? Do we shy away from it because it feels exuberant, or it will all go to their head? In my experience, these words don’t go to their head. They go to their heart: they hear how loved they are. Is this not what we all need to hear deep in our bones? Is this not what God has been saying from the very beginning?
I received a taste of this in 1981 when I was all of 24 years old. It was my first year as the Residence Hall Director of the freshmen men’s dorm, Smith Hall, at Anderson College. In order to break down some of the cliques that had developed in my dorm, I came up with an idea that would force jocks, nerds, and everyone in between, to get to know each other, rely on each other, and build friendships. The idea was called, the Smith Hall Olympics. Each half of a floor would become a team, so we had 10 teams. And our events were everything from athletic, to musical, to board games, to solving mathematical problems. For a floor to win, they needed everyone to participate. Our last event was just before Christmas break, and we held it in the gym. We had a series of competitions the teams had to do together, and we had a great turnout of nearly all 200 freshmen men, with a crowd of people watching in the stands. The last event was the Bat Spin Relay. You ran from one side of the gym to the other, picked up a baseball bat, put one end to your forehead, the other end to the ground, and you had to spin around ten times before running back to your teammates and the next teammate would do the same thing. Of course after spinning around ten times you are dizzy and even the most athletic guys had the hardest time getting back to their teammates. It was hilarious! We tallied the final results and 3rd Floor North won it by the hair of their chinny-chin-chin. We celebrated, gave out medals to the winning team, and I thanked them for being good sports, and for seeing each of their teammates as valuable despite their differences. Then the unexpected happened. One of my RA’s grabbed the microphone from me and invited me to sit in a chair. He said, “We have something for you. You poured your heart and soul into the Smith Hall Olympics because you knew it would help us learn to see each other with new eyes. Jocks and nerds are friends now! We can’t thank you enough,” and they gave me a rousing applause. And then the RA said, “Here,” and he gave me an envelope. In the envelope, was a round trip ticket to CA for Christmas Break to see my family. The RA said, “Every one of the guys in the dorm sacrificed something so they could give enough money so we could buy this ticket for you. Merry Christmas.” And of course, I wept like a baby. Their act of love still smells so sweet to me.
How is the God of love, becoming the love of God in you, poured out in extravagant love for others?
As the perfume fills the room, on what would you pour yourself out extravagantly? How is the God of love, becoming the love of God in you, poured out in extravagant love for others? How are you being invited to give your all, because you have found what means all? Amen.