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A sermon preached from John 12:1-8, as published in Lectionary Homiletics, by Kim Justice

“The Stench of Death, The Fragrance of Love”

When my parents moved away from our home of twenty three years, they moved right before Christmas. I was away at seminary and hadn’t even seen the house yet, but they wanted me to have a great first Christmas. In the two weeks before the move and Christmas, they unpacked as quickly as they could and had the house looking really great by time I got there. Surprised though I was, I walked in the door and immediately saw a fake, pre-lit tree, and some part of my heart just fell. It couldn’t possibly be Christmas if it didn’t smell like Christmas. Though I was pretty careful not to let my disappointment show, my parents seemed to read my mind. Mom said, “Honey, you forgot!” Knowing exactly what she was talking about, Dad rushed over to a drawer and grabbed a little bottle of spray. Suddenly, even though the tree was very definitely fake, it smelled like Christmas. I would’ve tried to put up a brave front, but something just would’ve been missing had Christmas not smelled the way Christmas smells.

Have you ever stopped to think about the power of smell? (I know, I know. There’s a bad pun waiting to happen there.) Obviously, we’re flooded with all sorts of smells every day, some good and some definitely not so good. Because our noses are assaulted by so many smells, certainly not all of them can be processed by our brains. But every now and then, a certain smell grabs your attention. Maybe you walk into a bakery, and the smell of all that bread takes you back to “the good ol’ days” when your Nana would bake rolls just because she knew you loved them. Or maybe you walk into a dear friend’s house, and immediately know you’re “home” just by the way it smells. Or maybe your big, stinky, wet dog gets so excited to come in that all she wants to do is love on you. Now you too smell like big, stinky, wet dog, but you don’t mind as much as you should because she just loves you so much.

Even as smell has the wonderful, magical power to take you somewhere safe and comforting, smells can also do the exact opposite. I remember the rainy cold day that my beloved car blew a head gasket just by the way it smells, and I think of that sad day every time I smell that smell on another car. When I go in emergency rooms, I think not only of the day I went to see Virginia Briggman and had to tell her that her sister had died in that wreck that they were in, but I also am taken back to the hours after my parents were in that really awful wreck last year. When I smell latex gloves, suddenly I’m sitting in a dentist’s chair as they try to put my teeth back together after that ice skating accident.

Smells are powerful. The most offensive smell I can think of is the smell of death. I bet every person in this room could describe the smell of a funeral: sickly sweet, half wilted flowers; ladies’ perfume and men’s aftershave; and then the food– because the parade of casserole bearing well-wishers has started. Every bit of it is well intentioned, but to the mourners, perhaps it all adds up to the stench of death. And what’s worse, every time you go to a funeral after that one that you were pretty sure you couldn’t make it through, you’ll be reminded of that day you’d really just as soon forget.

If we could have been in the room with Jesus and Lazarus and Mary and Martha and the disciples, perhaps we too we would have been assaulted by the stench of death. Judas sure caught a big whiff of it. It was offensive, really, truly, incredibly offensive. But for him, the room didn’t reek of sickly sweet flowers or overpowering aftershave. For him, the stench came from hopes dashed.

I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for Judas. We’ve so thoroughly villianized him, that we forget that he was a disciple too. I can step back, and tell myself maybe he was there as a divine character would could start the ball rolling so that Jesus could die for our sins. I think that’s true, but I think that before Judas was the betrayer, I think he was a disciple who believed that Jesus might just be one who would change things. The other disciples didn’t get what was going on, didn’t understand that Jesus was really about to die, though they’d been warned by Jesus enough times. I think Judas might have understood more than we give him credit for. While he didn’t yet know that he was the one who would betray Jesus, he understood that Jesus would die. And in his mind, that meant that Jesus couldn’t be the one to change the world. Perhaps he was filled with disappointment, and that left him quite vulnerable to temptation. I can hear him now, “If he’s going to die any way, I might as well make a little money off of him. Somebody might get something good out of all this, and besides, I’ve given years of my life to serving him, and never gotten so much as a dime.”

As the day wore on, the lovely homey scene that we see in the text just got to be too much for Judas. The Hallmark world became something he wasn’t a part of. The stench of death became more and more powerful, and as it did, the stench changed sources. It was no longer the smell of disappointment, it was the smell of betrayal. And it was all over him.

To make matters worse, that woman made a big display of showing her love for Jesus. She poured oil on him, and washed his feet with her tears, and then dried them with her hair. It was disgusting, really. What an awful, unashamed display of affection. And it made Judas sicker and sicker until he had to say something. Finally, he just blurted out something about the wastefulness of all this display, thinking that surely any reasonable person would agree with him.

He might have been right, but he didn’t count on the fact that he was the only one smelling the stench of death. There was another smell in the room, and that’s what Jesus and the others were smelling. It was the fragrance of love.

Just as I know you’ve smelled the stench of death, I also know that you’ve smelled the fragrance of love. Maybe it’s the way your spouse’s clothes smell, or maybe it’s the smell of a clean house, which was cleaned for you as a labor of love when you were too overwhelmed to do it yourself. Maybe it’s the smell of a home-cooked meal that shows up on your doorstep when you’re too sick to cook it yourself.

I bought a sweater from Judy’s consignment shop last winter. If you’ve ever been in there, you know that the whole store has this nice, inviting, lightly perfumed smell that comes, I’d guess, from the women who work there. All day long, every time I moved, that smell was released. Because it reminded me of her, and because she’s one of my favorite folks, every time I smelled that smell, it was the fragrance of love to me. I remember that day because it was a rough day with too much going on. But every time I caught the fragrance of love, it made me smile just a little bit.

For Mary, the same Mary who just wanted to sit at Jesus’ feet while her sister Martha practiced hospitality, the smell in the room wasn’t the stench of death. All she could smell was love. The love that Jesus had for her. The love that Jesus showed her family when her brother Lazarus died.

I think it’s ironic that Mary smelled the fragrance of love so clearly, when we know she was the other person in the room who really “got” was Jesus was doing. After all, she was, in the best way she could, annointing him for burial. But even the fact that Jesus was getting ready die had a beautiful smell of love to it, at least to her nose.

Two characters. One called a betrayer, one hailed as a great giver of love. One who could only smell the stench of death, one who could smell nothing but the powerful smell of love.

As I’ve been thinking about these characters, I’ve had to laugh a little to myself. When I’d complain about some smell or other, my dad would always say “it’s your upper lip.” It’s a silly expression, but maybe there’s a little bit of serious truth behind it. Maybe you smell most clearly the smell that you give off, at least in the metaphorical sense.

For Judas, he metaphorically reeked of betrayal and greed. No wonder Mary’s act of love was so offensive to him: the more she tried to spread the divine smell of love, the more his own stench smelled sour to him. Then there’s Mary, who was so intent on filling the house with the fragrance of extravagant love that she couldn’t smell anything else, including the stink of Judas’ impending betrayal.

I wonder what the others in the room experienced while all of this was going on. They were probably being assaulted by these conflicting “smells”. Perhaps it depended on how they perceived Jesus and his ministry. Sometimes, I think, the great act of love that we see in Christ is sour for us when we realize that it wasn’t just for us. It was for even those that we don’t like, even for those with whom we disagree. That act of extravagant love was even for liars, and thieves, and murderers and adulterers. Sometimes our own greed makes that deed sour for us. Maybe you smell the stench of death on Christ’s act as you realize that the old way of life, which for you might be the “good ol‘ days”, is forever gone. But then again, once you’ve had the experience of being set free, maybe that act can smell nothing but sweet. What would you have smelled?

Maybe, in a surprising way, this text offers us a choice. Maybe it’s not just about what we smell, maybe it’s about the smell we give off. What are you offering the world? Are you sending out “stinkwaves” like the Peanuts character, Pigpen, or might folks think you belong in the same garbage can with Oscar the Grouch? Are you so full of the negatives that all you can smell is the stench of death, as you focus on the ways you’ve been hurt or let down? Or, are you filling the world with the fragrance of love? Are you making the world a better place, and changing people’s lives for the better? I’d say that the “smell” you’re giving off is directly related to how you perceive Christ’s death, and whether for you, it carries the stench of death or the fragrance of love.

I wonder how Christ’s longest walk to the cross smelled? Did it stink with betrayal, and greed, and mistrust, and death? Or was he maybe able to hold on to a few wafting smells of love?

We live in a world where we’re ok with seeing the foul things of life. We’re used to people only looking out for themselves. We’re used to not being able to trust anyone because they might hurt us. We convince ourselves that nothing really matters that much, and that our misdeeds really don’t smell as sour as we think they do. After all, if everyone is doing it, who could tell one stench of death from another?

But if we sit stewing in our own foulness of soul, when an extravagant fragrance of love wafts in, it makes the sour air around us all the more sour.

For you, does Christ’s death reek of unmet hopes, of grace granted to another “undeserving” one, of love for one who is “unlovable”? Or is it surrounded by the sweet fragrance of entirely extravagant love, because you know that you have been the unlovable one and that you have been called beloved anyway?

My prayer, as we begin this long journey to the cross with Jesus, is that we find ourselves filled with the fragrance of love. And not only that, but that the sweet aroma of extravagant love is so powerful on and around us, that all we want to do is fill the world with that same sweet smell. To do so, I think, is to begin living as Christ would have us live.

Amen.

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From Luke 1: 39-45, Preached on Advent 4

Finally. We’re in the fourth week of advent, and finally there is someone who is excited. Advent started out with scary lectionary readings about signs in the heavens, and parables about fig trees. Then Zechariah was struck mute because he wasn’t quite sure about the angels words to him. Last week, John was all up in our faces, and called us a “Brood of Vipers”. Talk about “Merry Christmas” and a dose of nice holiday cheer.

But this week, we find somebody who’s merry and not bothering us with their “Bah Humbugs”. Two somebodies, in fact. Two pregnant, impossible women. One too old, one, truthfully, too young– at least according to our standards. One married to a high priest, one not married at all. Impossible, no doubt.

And these are the two chosen to herald the news that the world is about to be shaken up. Peek with me into their world, on this day.

(From Mary’s Thoughts)
Who can I tell? Who can I trust? They’ll throw me out of the family. When Joseph finds out, he’ll call me all sorts of names. Or worse, he won’t call me anything. He’ll just turn and leave.

The angel made this sound like a blessing, but he didn’t tell me what to do in the meantime. There’s nowhere I can go, no one who will believe my story. I’m bearing the Son of God, and I can’t show my face anywhere.

I don’t know that she’ll understand about me, but the angel said Elizabeth was having strange things happening to her, too. Besides, she’s my family– distant though she is. Maybe she’s a haven for me. Or maybe, once she hears my story, maybe she’ll throw me out, and shake my dust from her doorstep. After all, no one would want one such as me ruining their family’s reputation.

(From Elizabeth’s Thoughts)
Pregnant, at my age? What will people say? Nobody would bother to say anything if Zechariah fathered a child by a younger woman. But for me to be pregnant at my age?

It’s not that I’m not overjoyed. I’ve prayed for this for years, until I didn’t dare pray it anymore. We’ve moved on. We’ve long since quit praying that God would give us a child.

And now here I am, at my age. And I’m going to have a baby. But who can I tell? Who would understand? I’ve talked to Zechariah, but he can’t talk back. He didn’t understand the angel’s news…so all he can do is listen until this baby is born. It’s great to have a listening ear, but what I want is someone who can share my joy without letting all their questions get in the way. If only…

*****

Can you imagine this meeting? I imagine the shocked look on Elizabeth’s face when she opens the door and finds a relative from long ago. I imagine Mary, with her head bent, not quite daring to look in Elizabeth’s eyes. But after a long moment, after Mary finally dares to look at Elizabeth, and they have a second to take each other in, and then joy takes over.

I imagine Elizabeth catching Mary in a big bear hug, the smile on her face uncontrollable.

Suddenly they are dancing around, and laughing like little school girls– the joy between them tremendous.

In the instant that Elizabeth takes Mary into her arms, suddenly Mary knows that all well be well. But Elizabeth takes it a step farther, and says with a sparkle in her eyes, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!”

And all this because of a well-timed kick from a baby.

I don’t know much about babies or pregnant women, having never been around many, but I would think the fact that a baby kicks is not an event to write home about. I mean sure, when the glowing mother-to-be is standing in a group of people, she’ll say “Ooooh…he’s kicking.” And everyone will put their hands on her belly, as if it somehow belong to all of them.

But unless I’m mistaken, this isn’t a once in a lifetime occurrence. My understanding of these things is that baby kicks happen often.

Yet, as Luke is telling us this story, he wants to make sure we realize that something is different about Elizabeth’s unborn baby’s movement. Luke has Elizabeth attribute it to joy– as if to say that the joy between these two women is so strong, that even the baby feels it.

We don’t know much about Elizabeth, other than she was married to now mute Zechariah and that she’s expecting a baby, well after that should be a possibility. But, I think, after having already received a miracle herself, Elizabeth is open to seeing miracles in other places. She expects that her world, and indeed the whole world, is about to be dumped on it’s head. I wonder if she feels like she’s in an M.C. Escher painting, where nothing is as it should be.

Yet oddly enough, Elizabeth character doesn’t seem to be terribly fearful. Instead, she is about to be a sanctuary for Mary, who is cut off from her community, which in turn allows Mary be a sanctuary for her.

Make no mistake. These women, by virtue of their pregnancies that don’t follow anyone’s rules, are outcasts. They can’t go anywhere and be part of any “in” crowd.
“Marginalized” is a popular word these days– and it refers to all those who aren’t in the center of things. That ugly word refers, oddly enough, to two women whom we would consider to be abundantly blessed.

In this beginning to a Topsy Turvy world that Jesus ushers in, God provides these women with the two things they desperately lack: community and connection.1

Though most of us loudly say how much we love this time of year, secretly, I think we’ve all been battered by the world in some way, and I think we feel that more at this time of year than we do at any other. For some of us, we’ve been battered by too much to do, and not enough time or money to do them. For some, we’re battered battered by the memories of Christmases that aren’t any more, or how Christmas is “supposed” to look.

Whatever it is, it weighs on us more than we’d care to admit, and when things get quiet, we feel it deep within our hearts. I think we’re in need of a sanctuary more than we’d like to believe.

I’ll bet you’ve never thought about it– about what a sanctuary you find when you’re here. So many of us were shocked earlier this year when there was a church shooting, as much as anything, because we just don’t think about that sort of thing. We feel safe from the world here. I hope, though, it’s deeper than that. I hope it’s a place where we not only feel safe from the perils of the world, but it’s a place where we find acceptance, and feel loved and nurtured.

I think that’s what Elizabeth and Mary must’ve found in each other.

That’s nice to think about– about how they were able to smile conspiratorily together– but sanctuary is not something we give much thought to. Perhaps such a thing is a luxury so common in this place that we neither think about what our world would be without it, nor what another person’s world might look like without it.

Our first instinct is never to think about how another person has been battered by the world, or how they are without community that we all crave so much. Our first instinct, instead, is to think how “those” people (whomever they are– they’re different for each of us) aren’t like us.

I think it’s really interesting that Elizabeth and Mary, the two outcasts, sing and dance around together. Elizabeth never lectures Mary, never asks any questions, never bothers to think about her own reputation. Instead, they rejoice at the opportunity to share their blessings together.

When I first started working this this story, I thought that maybe this was Mary’s passage. But as I’ve sat with it, I think Elizabeth plays a much bigger role than I would have guessed at first. Because Elizabeth had already seen a miracle, she was much more open to believing that other miracles might be out there. Because she her eyes and heart had been open, and she dared to hope beyond the possible, Elizabeth was a safe place for Mary. I think by giving Mary a place where she felt loved and cared for, Elizabeth gave Mary the courage to see her situation as a blessing, and gave her the hope that leads to her song.

My first instinct when I began crafting a sermon was to focus on Mary’s song, and what a Topsy Turvey world she saw being ushered in by Jesus. Maybe that instinct was right, just not in the way I saw it playing out. There is something Topsy Turvy afoot, and we see in the ways that these two outcast women are role models. What they offer to us is not only a joyous look at the coming savior, but through their actions, they invite us to offer sanctuary to all whom we meet. They invite us to take the ones who aren’t like us, the ones who might hurt our reputations, the ones who aren’t doing the things we think they ought to be, and bring them into our safe fold. They invite us to rejoice with those in our midst, opening our arms to them. After all, we’ve seen a miracle, and that opens our eyes to the miracles that just might be taking place in the lives of those around us. Who knows? Perhaps by so doing, we’ll help someone find the courage and hope to sing their own song.

Preachers all over talk about what a problem it is to preach the incarnation: that is, when God became human. They talk about how hard and inconvenient it was that God in Jesus was born a baby, of a virgin mother, in inconvenient circumstances. It’s fleshy and earthy and full of things that we just as soon not think about or preach. It would have been a lot easier if an angel did all the proclaiming, if Jesus wasn’t like us at all. It would’ve been easier if Luke had left these singing, dancing, pregnant, outcast women out of it.

But Luke put them in, and hoped we could hear their story anyway. And today, they are the ones heralding the good news, more beautifully than most preachers could. The news they herald is that no matter how far out we are, we are brought into community. They herald that the sanctuary we find in each other, and pray that we might offer other people, makes all the difference in the world. But perhaps the best news they herald is that miracles are all around, and might even be happening in the life of someone who isn’t on the “inside”.

I don’t think fleshy, earthy Jesus would mind these “impossible” women proclaiming that message, because that will be a big part of his ministry: taking the ones we consider “out” and doing something miraculous and life changing with them.

And thanks be to God for that.

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