(This sermon was preached at Messiah Lutheran Church, Knoxville, TN on the Fifth Sunday in Lent, March 17, 2013. The sermon is based on the gospel text or the day, John 12:1-8)
My first pastoral call was with a small family-size parish named Mt. Zion - St. Luke Lutheran Church. The small southwest Georgia towns of Oglethorpe and Montezuma - separated only by the dirty brown water of the lazy Flint River - and the surrounding farm lands made up this mostly agriculture parish. In such an earthy place, so near the land, you couldn’t help but have your senses awakened by the smells and sounds, images and textures that surrounded you. Known mostly for its vast cotton fields and “pee-can” orchards, this land is also home to chicken farms and paper mills. Which, for any of you who have experienced the like, you know, chicken farms and paper mills produce THE...most...offensive...odor. Especially when those odors mix together on a hot, humid day. Depending on which way the wind was blowing, the smells of chickens and chicken manure and wood being milled into paper would repel your senses. The odor was sickening. It was like...it was like the stench of death.
It seems in life, the stench of death is always near. Through physical, mental, and emotional illness; through family conflicts and national wars; through the uncertainties of economy and simple every day life; through aging and the approach of literal dying; the stench of death is carried on the wind, assaulting our senses.
Just paragraphs previous to our gospel reading for today, we hear the story of Jesus and Lazarus. Jesus had been summoned to come and save Lazarus before he dies. But, Jesus doesn’t arrive until it is too late. Nonetheless Jesus asks to see Lazarus in the tomb. In one of the more obvious pronouncements in scripture, just as Jesus is about to have the stone of Lazarus’ tomb rolled away, Martha, sister of Lazarus, declares to Jesus, “Master, by this time there’s a stench. He’s been dead [like] four days!” Yes, the stench of death must have filled that tomb. Roll the stone away and it would assault their senses; it would fill the town and the land with that stench. The odor would be sickening. But, Jesus ignored its threat, the threat of death, and he rolled back the stone and breathed it in. Lazarus was raised. New life had come.
Our gospel reading for today then, picks up between Lazarus’ death and Jesus death on the cross. I can’t help but wonder, now that Lazarus was raised, did the stench of death still linger? Did the wind still carry it over the town and over the land? Was there some sense that Jesus’ death was imminent? Regardless, Lazarus’ sisters, Mary & Martha had to celebrate for their brother was dead and is alive again, he was lost and is found. And so they threw a dinner party inviting Jesus and his disciples to join them. Mary, thankful for what Jesus had done for Lazarus, brought a pound of costly perfume and anointed Jesus feet. Notice, she doesn’t anoint his head, as was the custom when anointing a new king. (Although that image shouldn’t be dismissed.) But, she anoints his feet, his body, like one would customarily do when preparing a body for burial. Mary knows death is in the air. The cross of Jesus looms there just ahead. It seems Mary is grasping what the disciples, including Judas, cannot: Jesus, their Rabbi and friend, will die. So Mary knowing Jesus destiny, extravagantly, excessively shows Jesus her love for him. She anoints his feet. She washes them. Then, dries them with her hair. And the house where they dined, it was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. For a time, the stench of death no longer lingered. The fragrance of Mary’s act of love is carried on the wind, filling the house, filling the land. Mary had foreshadowed what was to come.
If you are thinking John the Evangelist intended there to be resonance between these two stories, the story of Lazarus being raised and Mary anointing Jesus, you would be right. The thing about the gospel according to John is, it is filled with layers upon layers of meaning. One story resonates with another. One image foreshadows another. Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, foreshadows Jesus’ own resurrection. When he brings Lazarus forth out of the stench of death, it signals the ultimate victory Jesus will secure over all things deadly, and the promise of new life which Jesus’ resurrection gives to us all. Mary’s act of love and devotion, washing Jesus feet, it is a foreshadowing of what Jesus will do for his disciples on the night before his death. On that night, he will take on the role of servant and he will wash his disciples’ feet. Jesus, their Rabbi, their Master, their Lord, their Teacher, will yet again serve and in doing so show them what real discipleship looks like. Mary’s offering is a sign of the ideal disciple, a foreshadowing of the servant discipleship the whole church is called to emulate.
By now I am sure you are aware, that this week the Roman Catholic church elected a new pope, His Holiness, the Vicar of Christ, shepherd for 1.3 billion Catholics around the world. Interestingly those fancy titles seem oddly applied to this new pope. Because Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina, now known as Pope Francis doesn’t act like any fancy pope I have ever seen. Others have noticed too. Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest, writing about Pope Francis in the Huffington Post, said this:
“As a Franciscan, I was, of course, elated that one of the the first decisions of the new pope was to take a name that has not been taken by a pope before -- "Francisco" -- which in itself says an awful lot. Francis of Assisi...is surely the most wonderful example of a joyful...approach to church reform...For Cardinal Bergoglio to identify himself so clearly with a reformer of Christian lifestyle, instead of [with] a doctrinal apologist, is extremely telling and very hopeful...The simple details of his Buenos Aires apartment [instead of the normal Cardinal’s palace], his cooking his own food, his use of mass transit [instead of the Cardinal’s limousine], his visits to wash the feet of AIDS patients, his passion for the poor, all tell us that this man is about lifestyle Christianity more than perpetual doctrinal food fights, which bear so little real fruit anyway.”
None of us know what kind of papal leader Pope Francis will be. But, at least for now, it appears he intends to focus on “lifestyle Christianity” or “servant discipleship”.
I have to imagine that Pope Francis learned this lesson from Jesus - the servant king, down through Mary of Bethany - the ideal disciple, down through St. Francis of Assisi - the disciple of peace, the disciple of the poor. Yes, St. Francis understood Jesus’ sacrifice and service. St. Francis understood Jesus costly grace. Mary of Bethany also comprehended that costly grace. She understood what Jesus did first for Lazarus, and thus what he intended to do for the whole world, saving us and freeing us from the stench of death.
About this time of year, Springtime, the land around Mt. Zion - St. Luke Lutheran Church is saved, saved from the stench of death carried on the wind. In the Spring, the wisteria and magnolia, dogwood and azalea, bloom, filling the land with their fragrance. Even folks with seasonal allergies prefer it over the stench of death! Like a fragrant perfume filling a house, the sweet smell of blooms pervade the land. Senses are no longer assaulted by the stench of death. The sweet fragrance of new life is now carried on the wind.
That’s what God is doing in the world through the sacrifice and service of Christ. Like a fragrant perfume filling a house, the sweet smell of Christ’s love and service pervades the land. Senses are no longer assaulted by the stench of death. The sweet fragrance of new life is now carried on the wind.
Even today, God continues to push back the stench of death at every turn. He does so through the gift of his Holy Spirit blowing through the body of Christ, the community of servant disciples, the church. Mary foreshadowed this, signaling to us our identity and purpose. As a sign of devotion, of love for God in Christ Jesus, who first sacrificed and served us, we too are called to serve. And our service, performed in Jesus name, brings the sweet fragrance of love to awaken the senses of humankind. St. Paul said it this way:
"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 of salvation—an aroma redolent with life." - 2 Cor. 2:14-15a (The Message)
So, this Lent, on into Easter, on into our everyday, may we follow Jesus in his perpetual victory parade. May we look to the example of Mary of Bethany, her devotion, her sacrifice, her service. Together may we be a sweet scent rising to God, pushing back the scent of death at every turn. May we, the church, servant disciples be an aroma redolent with life,...new, abundant life for the whole world.