Matthew 26: 1-13
March 30, 2014
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
This is the fourth Sunday in our Lenten series, “Sensing the Glory of God.” This week we focus on the sense of smell. It was perhaps the sense that was easiest to think of a text for, because this story came to mind immediately. But it took a while to think through how to talk about smell, a very powerful sense.
Our sense of smell is so critical to our functioning – to taste, to memory, even to our ability to discern when there is danger. But there are also smells that we laugh and joke about – unpleasant smells, usually. And we didn’t want to find ourselves inviting all of you to start thinking about how Jesus smelled, or smells!
I don’t know about you, but when we start talking about smell, I think of pleasant aromas like bread baking, or flowers, or English lavender soap. But I also think about Pepe le Peux, the cartoon skunk, and spoiled milk, and diaper pails. So, now that we maybe have skunks and sour milk out of the way, let’s engage all of our senses as we listen to the gospel.
This 26th chapter of Matthew finds us in Bethany, at the home of a leper. Five chapters back, Jesus has entered Jerusalem, riding on a donkey. Now he is in the last week of his life. He’s been teaching them in parables, telling stories like he does. And now we will hear of the plot to kill him. When next we gather for worship, we’ll be at the last supper with Jesus. The time is drawing near when Jesus will be arrested. Listen for God’s word to us, and breathe in the fragrance of the anointing oil in Matthew 26: 1-13.
When Jesus had finished saying all these things, he said to his disciples,
2 "You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified."
3 Then the chief priests and the elders of the people gathered in the palace of the high priest, who was called Caiaphas, 4 and they conspired to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him. 5 But they said, "Not during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people."
6 Now while Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, 7 a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment, and she poured it on his head as he sat at the table.
8 But when the disciples saw it, they were angry and said, "Why this waste? 9 For this ointment could have been sold for a large sum, and the money given to the poor."
10 But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, "Why do you trouble the woman?
She has performed a good service for me. 11 For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. 12 By pouring this ointment on my body she has prepared me for burial. 13 Truly I tell you, wherever this good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her."
What, for you, is the fragrance of love?
Perhaps it is one of these things:
bread baking, soup on the stove,
your grandmother’s soft perfume, deep in the folds of her scarf,
your father’s pipe tobacco,
your baby, just out of the bath, diapered and powdered, ready for bed,
your wife’s hairspray,
your husband’s aftershave,
a child in from play, smelling of grass and summer…
For me it is the smell of homemade fudge, the recipe from the Hershey’s cocoa can, cooking on the stove. My father was the candy cook in our house, and for special occasions, like Christmas, he would make fudge. Using only the best ingredients – all butter, no margarine, evaporated milk, to make it richer, he would cook the fudge to the exact right stage, then beat it by hand to aerate it.
Sometimes he’d take it out on the back porch, in the winter’s cold, where he’d put a towel on his lap because the pan was still hot, and he’d beat the fudge smooth, smooth in the cool air. When we were older, and we’d come home for a visit, Dad would make a batch of fudge. Just because we were there. With him and mother. The aroma of chocolate filled the house, and it smelled like love.
What does devotion smell like?
Is it spicy, or sweet? Flowery? Citrusy?
When Jesus came to the house of Simon the Leper, perhaps love smelled like a whole mix of things – men crowded into a tiny house, food cooking on an open fire, dust and sweat and wine. But for a moment, when that woman broke open her alabaster jar, and poured that oil out on Jesus’ head, the way you anoint a king, for a moment, as the scent of that oil filled the room, that was the scent of love. It was the fragrance of devotion, a devotion that foreshadowed Jesus’ death. It was the scent of a great gift, of sacrifice. It was the aroma of grace.
Throughout the scriptures, both the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament, there is a description of offerings to God – as fragrant offerings. In the days of Exodus, an offering at the altar included fragrant incense. And St. Paul, in Ephesians five, carries that image forward as he considers another offering: “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children,” he says, “and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”
Scientists tell us that the sense of smell is far more refined than we ever knew. Research had said that the number of smells we can distinguish is about 10,000. More recently, research has increased that number to about a trillion. That’s right, a trillion.
An interesting thing about smell is that it is invisible, just molecules floating in the air.
You can’t see a smell – you can only experience it. But when an aroma is strong, it can pull us in close. And when a stink is powerful, it can push us away in a hurry.
Have you ever thought about what neglect smells like? What carelessness, or meanness, or prejudice smell like? I think we can sense such things, even if we can’t identify them. We sense them the way a horse can smell incompetence in a rider, and the way a dog can smell fear.
When I was a Christian educator, I ran across a quote from an early educator, from the 19th century, when Sunday Schools were set up to educate poor factory children. They came to Sunday school because they worked the other six days of the week. They came to learn to read, because they couldn’t go to school. This educator commented, about these children, “The odor of the house is in their garments.” And it is still true today, and it is true of us as well. Maybe not the odor of cooked cabbage, or spoiled food, or wood smoke or unwashed coats. But the odor of our house is in our garments – whether it is the aroma of superiority and judgment or the scent of grace and forgiveness and love.
There’s a little village in France, in Provence, that is considered to be the perfume capital of the world. For hundreds of years, this village has been making perfumes from flowers. They supply the fragrance for about 2/3 of France’s natural aromas. This village is the home of a perfume museum, and every year they have a parade, which features floats with young women throwing flowers into the crowd. Everyone is soaked by the perfume of the flowers. Even today, after hundreds of years and the development of synthetic perfumes, around 3500 people are employed in the making of perfumes there. It is said that if you are in the streets around five o’ clock, when the bell rings to signal the end of the work day at the factory, the workers head for home. As they pour out into their separate streets,
the town is permeated with the scent of lavender.
Like those workers in Provence, we, the people of God, when we leave the church and go out into the world, carry the fragrance of love with us. Our community should be permeated with the love and grace we absorb in our life together here in church. The odor of this house is in our very garments! Christ gave himself as an offering for us, fragrant to God, and calls us to offer ourselves as well – fragrant offerings, acceptable to God.
So what does love smell like?
It has the sweet aroma of a woman who brings an expensive oil to anoint her Lord.
Love smells like the crayons and markers our church bought for a school.
Love smells like gravy on biscuits down at Loaves and Fishes,
like a hearty supper taken to the PADS shelter,
like bean soup mix given away to anyone who wants it.
Love can smell like cookies, too, and like a potluck dinner,
like flowers given for the glory of God,
like apple juice served to the Vacation Bible School kids,
like the soil turned up in a community garden,
like coats and blankets given to those who are cold.
But most of all, love smells like humility, and generosity and hospitality.
Love smells like the bread and cup, like the water in the font.
Love smells, well, it smells like church.
Sensory Prayer – Breathing in Love
Close your eyes and sit as still as you comfortably can. Pay attention to your breathing.
As you breathe in, pray this silent prayer: Come, Lord Jesus
As you breathe out, pray this phrase: teach me to love.
Sit quietly and repeat the phrases in your mind for several minutes. Allow the prayer to take on the shape of your breathing, so that the words flow with your every breath.
Now let the prayer phrases move in and out with the rhythm of your breathing.
When the woman came to anoint Jesus, she brought an alabaster jar of valuable and fragrant oil. Her gift was beautiful, for it was a gift of deep love. When she opened the jar, the scent filled the room. All who were present, with every breath they took, could sense the aroma of her devotion, the fragrance of her love.
She did not count the cost of her gift; she was not ashamed of her history; she only knew that her love moved her to action. To be in his presence was a treasure beyond words. She anointed Jesus for his burial, and she most certainly knew of his resurrection. She understood that his death was not the end, but his love, our love, would never end.
The fragrance filled the room.
“Come Lord Jesus, teach me to love.”
Carry the prayer with you throughout the day, throughout the week, through your whole life long. Amen.