"Unforgetable Smell," Pastor Fred
The smell of perfume at Lazarus’ dinner party overwhelmed the whole room! In Mark’s version he says that the gospel story, will be told in memory of Mary – because Mary’s anointing of Jesus with costly perfume, was like an extravagant Memorial gift – no one would ever forget. Today, we know that memories associated with the sense of smell, are the strongest and deepest memories our brains can form. Smells, trigger memories!
There’s one smell I can never quite forget from when I was a kid. Every Sunday, aboard our Rambler station wagon, to Redeemer Lutheran Church, downtown Milwaukee, we passed the Red Star yeast factory. And, en route, I prayed for a north wind to blow that smell away! As we passed by, all of us kids held our noses. But to no avail. The smell that came out of that factory was so potent, you could never escape it.
Only much later in life did I come to appreciate its pungent, fermented odor, and associate it, as the leaven in the little packets you buy at the grocery store – which in the comfort of your home, you can bring back to life, and raise a lump of dough into a delicious loaf of bread! So today, the smell has been transformed in my memory, into a welcome and pleasing smell, the smell of fresh baked bread, and new life.
It must have been quite a dinner-party, the banquet that Lazarus, and his sisters, Martha and Mary put on for Jesus at their Bethany home. A home that was just over the hill from the Garden of Gethsemane, on the other side of the mountain, that was just across the valley from Jerusalem. And a few days later, at the beginning of Passover, Jesus would borrow a donkey to ride on, in Bethany, winding down the switchback roads to the Kidron Valley, and back up into Jerusalem, as the crowds hailed him, a king, waving branches they took from palm trees.
And this meal was a ‘Thank You’ dinner – if that’s what you call, inviting over the person who had just raised you from the grave?! After all, what do you get for the person who does that?! Lazarus’ own sisters, Mary and Martha, had warned Jesus against opening the tomb, because the stench would be so great. Today, they were still rejoicing that he had – the smell of death, was transformed into victory! So, out of their meager subsistence, they give back their best to Jesus, a banquet of fresh bread and vegetables, maybe even goat or lamb, if they could afford it, filling the house this time, with new and delicious smells.
Apparently, it was feast enough for at least 16, seeing the disciples were also present. But it was the dessert course, if you will, that stole the show, Mary’s stash of embalming perfumes, which she had saved for a moment such as this, that made a lasting impression. The dinner feast was just a prelude to this somewhat scandalous act of intimacy, when Mary pours the costly ointment on Jesus feet, and wipes them – with her hair!
Suddenly, as the fragrance fills the room, heads turn, marking the event with an indelible memory! You could cut the tension with a knife! And, when Judas tries to use the moment to demean her action and put a price on it, Jesus actually commends what she has done, even though that kind of money - 300 denarii, as much as a year’s salary - could support a lot of meals at Care for Real to feed the hungry! The truth is, says John, Judas, the treasurer of the 12, was just trying to divert everyone’s attention from the fact that, he was a thief, stealing from the treasury box for himself, or possibly for his pet charity, the underground armed Nationalists, called the Sicarrii,?
But Jesus rebukes Judas, and his spin, insisting Mary’s beautiful gift is perfectly appropriate for this occasion. Jesus’ hour of his glorification – his death, resurrection, and ascension – are at hand, and business as usual will have to take a back seat. No matter how important feeding the poor is, this is the time, “the hour,” when God has come to make history. Jesus, the bridegroom, is here, and a dinner party and ritual anointing for burial are exactly what are called for.
Knowing what time it is, is important. We know it is spring time, for example. Easter and Passover are almost here. The earth is turning, the light is gaining strength, the So/un is about to do a new thing!
The prophet Isaiah was this kind of time keeper, promising from Babylon better days, in the name of the Lord. Perhaps he remembered the smell of Passover, back in Jerusalem, when thousands of lambs were sacrificed by the priests for the crowds of pilgrims arriving, and it triggered for him that time when the chosen people were rescued down in Egypt, and how now in exile in Babylon, the time had come again. It was when hope was thin and morale was low, that God promised something new. ‘Don’t even remember the great things I once did for you,’ God says, bragging a little, ‘that I brought you out of captivity in Egypt, parting the Red Sea, extinguishing their warriors as easy as a dimly burning wick. That was nothing. Look – now I will make rivers in the desert, and bring you back to Jerusalem and redeem you! The Exodus was nothing compared to the new thing I am doing today.’
So Jesus is excited for Mary’s gift, for its newness, no matter how unorthodox. It is a sign of his anointing for burial, but with a brand new twist. Jesus knows he must die, but that is only Act I of his glorification. The grave will not be able to hold him, and so, this is a beautifully appropriate gift. Though he will die, he will not need perfume afterwards, in his grave. Peter and John will discover that the tomb is empty. And Mary herself will see him in his resurrected body, raised and springing up to new life in that garden, like a glorious trumpeting Easter lily. So now is precisely the time, for the anointing of Jesus! The house of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, is filled with the fragrance of perfume, not as a sign of waste or mourning, but of anticipatory joy for the new thing that God is about to do.
And, let me add one last thing, one more memory in regard to that Red Star yeast factory. Which is, how yeast is the also the key ingredient, that can transform barley sprinkled with hops, into beer! And of course, before this micro-brewery explosion we’re in now, Milwaukee was the beer capital of the world, dependent on that transformative agent, yeast for that beer, as well as bread. The pungent, stinky smell of the yeast factory, is also symbolic of the alcoholic lift and tastiness of the brew that pairs so well with, a polish, pizza, and any number of other tasty dishes!
What are the strongest smells you remember? Are any of them associated with a meal? Does their meaning change for you, over time?
The smell of perfume at Lazarus’ dinner party was overwhelming! It was a giddy, bubbly, over the top extravagance, that smelled like a sweetness, not of the tomb, or of death, but of something new, that God was about to do, to redeem us.
I would suggest that it smelled like a yeast factory, not only for the memory of its strong sour odor, but for how it transformed the memory of wastefulness that Judas suggested, into a new memory, a sweet memory of Jesus’ extravagant, life-giving gift to us – and the taste of the Bread of Life, which, when we share it around Christ’s table, nourishes and sustains us, here, and as a promise of the realm of God’s heavenly banquet, to come.