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John 12:1-8

The Aroma
Sermon preached March 6, 2016
I heard of a church where the scripture reading on a particular Sunday was 1 Corinthians
13 - the love chapter. If I speak in the tongues of humans and of angels, but have not
love... The lay reader got up and read the passage. The pastor then got up for the
sermon, looked down at his carefully prepared manuscript, and instead of preaching it,
raised his voice and bellowed out one word, Love! and sat down. The congregation
applauded, they sang a hymn and then beat all the other churches to the restaurants for
Our reading today makes me feel a little like that - overwhelmed by the beauty and power
of this passage, but stumped by how to preach it. So I dont know if I have a sermon here
or not and maybe I should just sit down - but I do have a few thoughts that maybe will be
of value.
The setting. Jesus is taking a break in the home of some close friends. Mary and Martha,
and their brother Lazarus. We think this is the same Mary and Martha we know from the
gospel of Luke where Martha gets exasperated by how her sister is sitting at Jesus feet
when theres the whole crowd of Jesus disciples in the house who need to be fed. And
we know for sure that their brother Lazarus, is the man Jesus raised from the dead after
being in the grave for three days.
They throw a dinner party for Jesus. Just like before, Martha is doing the serving. Then
in front of everyone, Mary takes a container of perfume that was worth the equivalent of a
years wages for the average working person - probably her lifes savings - and pours the
perfume over Jesus feet and then wipes his feet with her hair. And the fragrance of the
perfume fills the house, fills the nostrils of everyone there. And to add to the emotion of
it all Mary is weeping over Jesus feet as she does this.
What to make of this?
You read this and you might be baffled, might think, what the heck? A fortune in
perfume poured on Jesus feet, the weeping - because it seems - excessive - emotionally
overwrought and overdone. Over the top. Especially in the cooly rational, emotionally
restrained setting of a church like ours that tends to approach things mind first, heart way

And Mary not only touches his feet, not only pours perfume on them, but then she wipes
his feet with her long hair - which was kind of indecent because respectable women kept
their hair up when there were men in the house - she in a way lets it all hang out, forgets
respectability and appropriate restraint and pours it all out at Jesus feet.
We prefer a more restrained and rational faith, do we not?
Im reminded of one of my favorite stories of the time a fellow visited a church in
a town he was visiting. The sermon was especially good, and during the sermon
the fellow couldn't contain himself and blurted out, "Amen - preach it, brother!"
Quickly an usher came over and asked the man to hush up. The visitor protested,
"But I was just praising the Lord!" The usher shot back, "I'm sorry, sir, but we
don't do that here!" "But, but I've got religion,"' said the astonished visitor.
"Well, you didn't get it here!" huffed the usher.
Then theres Judas objection to what Mary did. Now...John adds the aside that Judas
made this remark only because he liked to stick his hand in the cookie jar holding the
traveling money used by Jesus and his disciples - but the man has a point. If you wanted
to honor Jesus why not instead sell the perfume and use the money to help the poor?
So what to do with this passage?
So what are we supposed to take away from this story?
One application could be - we SHOULD be like Mary. We SHOULD recognize the
beauty and magnificence of who Jesus is and what he does for us and we SHOULD pour
out everything we have at his feet in continual acts of sacrifice, love and generosity.
But the problems with that are, first, there was no should, no compulsion, in what Mary
did. The should came from Judas - you should have used that money to help the poor.
The second problem is, shoulds dont work as motivation.
And the third problem is, most of us probably dont want to be like Mary in this passage
Most of us, most of the time, think of our faith, our relationship to Christ, our
participation in the church, as one piece of a too-busy life to be shoehorned in
when we have a little daylight in our schedules. Our faith may not be the last
thing on our priority list, but its certainly not the first. If you think Im being
unfair, just take a look at your calendar and checkbook and see what obligations
have first claim over your time and resources. Im not trying to be mean, but for
most people in most churches, it aint Jesus.

And yet, there is something here for us

Mary saw something in Jesus, something about him, that moved her so much that she
poured herself out like that at Jesus feet. Something so beautiful and wonderful that her
love and gratitude came gushing out of her; something about Jesus so magnificent that
she felt the only appropriate response was to fall at his feet and pour out that perfume.
I think Mary saw some things about Jesus, that maybe we do not. Mary had an encounter
with Jesus, that maybe we could have. And it would change us. Heal us. Give us new
The story of one person who has
Listen to the testimony of our friend Shelley Marangoni:
Some thoughts on the Bible passage...regarding the woman who washed Jesus
feet with her perfume and her hair. The question we were pondering at staff
meeting led me to think about a time when all else in my life was poured out at
Gods feet and only my faith, the belief in him, the ability to lean on and cling to
him was all I could do.
As we were sitting in the intensive care unit watching our child battle against a
virus that we could not identify, all other concerns drained away and you begin to
focus on what you know to be true. I had a peace that I had only heard others talk
about, a clarity about the situation we were facing, and a strength to endure things
that I could never have imagined I could handle. In those hours and days as we
waited and watched our church prayed, we prayed. It was a constant conversation
from our hearts to Gods heart. A pouring out of words, emotions, praise, fears
and buckets of tearsGod held them all. I did not receive the answer that all
would be ok, or that healing was on the way, but I knew, just as I believe the
woman who washed his feet with her tears knew, that he would carry us through.
I wish I could say that...I am forever sin free and blameless before him. I am
not.and we (God and I) both know it. But my resolve to keep reaching out, to
keep learning, to remember to cling to him in the best and worst of times has
endured. For that lesson I am eternally thankful.
Marys encounters with Jesus
You see, Mary had had an experience of Jesus mercy and love in her life.
First, she was invited to be one of his disciples. So what? In Jesus time, women
were never invited with the men to be disciples of a rabbi. That was too deep, too

important, for a mere woman to take part in. That kind of thinking isnt so far
from us - if youve watched Downton Abbey, the early seasons, youve seen the
true-to-history portrayal of how after dinner, the men would go off by themselves
for cigars and Port and deep discussions, and the women werent invited.
Rabbis didnt let women sit at their feet. Women didnt hang around men much,
period, especially unmarried women. A teaching of the day went like this:
Let thy house be opened wide...(but) talk not much with womankind...He that
talks with womankind brings evil upon himself and neglects the study of the Law
and at the last will inherit Gehenna (the pit of fire).1
Jesus repudiated that kind of thinking. As the great writer Dorothy Sayers put it,
It is no wonder that the women were first at the Cradle and last at the
Cross. They had never known a man like this Man...A prophet and teacher
who never nagged them, who never flattered....or patronized....who never
made jokes about them...who took their questions and arguments
seriously, who never mapped out their sphere for them, never urged them
to be feminine or jeered at them for being female...who had no uneasy
male dignity to defend...there is no act, no sermon, no parable in the whole
Gospel that borrows its pungency from female perversity; nobody could
guess from the words of Jesus that there was anything funny about
womens nature.
Mary sensed, knew something of Jesus greatness and majesty and beauty. But
there was nothing cool or remote about it - I mean, some beautiful and great
people you can admire from a distance but youd never get close to them - but this
man - the Son of God in the flesh - let her, a mere woman - into his inner circle
and shared the deep teachings of what it was to know and love and serve God
You and I have the same access. Jesus invites us to be his friends.
We are told in the Bible that the risen Jesus is the one who holds the universe
together by the power of his word. Not a Lord who wants you to crawl on your
knees and cower - one instead who reaches down and lifts you up and invites you
into a relationship of friendship.
This is astonishing. I heard an illustration that goes like this. The distance
between the earth and the sun is 93 million miles. Imagine that distance as the
thickness of a sheet of paper. To represent the distance to the next nearest star,

youd need a stack of paper 71 feet high. To represent the size of our galaxy the
Milky Way, youd need a stack of paper 310 miles high. And our galaxy is like a
speck of dust among the billions of galaxies in the universe. The one who holds
that in his hand, came down to earth to bring you back to God and offers you
When that hits you, really hits you, and you experience the reality of Christ in
your life - well, you might do stuff that seems crazy, like Mary did.
Its like G. K. Chesterton wrote: thanks are the highest form of thought,
and...gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.
But something even bigger than that happened.
Marys brother Lazarus - sitting there at dinner - was a dead man brought back to
life. Some months before Lazarus got sick and died. Jesus came to Bethany and
stood outside Lazarus tomb - and there the shortest verse in the Bible is recorded
- Jesus wept - outside the tomb of his friend. But then Jesus dried his eyes and
raised his hands and let out a shout, Lazarus, come out! And the dead man was
brought back to life...and ended up at the dinner table that night in Bethany.
And maybe Mary was anticipating what lay ahead for Jesus, too.
When Judas rebuked Mary for her waste of the perfume, Jesus shot back,
Leave her alone - Shes anticipating and honoring the day of my burial (12:7,
The Message).
Did Mary know that Jesus was going to die in a few days, die for her sins and the
sins of the world? The male disciples never seemed to get that. Maybe, Mary did,
and part of what she did was gratitude mixed with sorrow that her Lord and friend
was going to, was willing to, go all the way through death for her.
An illustration
Someone sent me a link this week to the story of a Catholic army chaplain named Father
Kapaun who went into Korea in 1950 during the Korean War. A horrible conflict,
millions of people were killed.
When the fighting stopped in 1953, a group of U.S. soldiers emerged from the darkness
of a P.O.W. camp carrying a 4 foot high crucifix carved out of firewood, with a crown of
thorns woven from radio wire. A Jewish P.O.W. made it in honor of the Catholic
Chaplain that every man of faith loved..Father Emil Kapaun.

On November 2, 1950 a battle broke out, and Father Kapaun with a few thousand
American soldiers were overrun by over 20,000 Communist Chinese forces. Hundreds
were taken prisoner. A death march ensued, all the soldiers were made to march over 40
miles. Anyone who staggered or couldnt continue was killed right there.
Fr. Kapaun carried one soldier, a Sgt. Miller, and helped him make that entire 40 mile
march. He also stopped to help other soldiers who were about to give up their lives. He
encouraged them to go on.
In the P.O.W. camp, Fr. Kapaun continued to care for those soldiers. He found out a way
to sneak out of the camp to get food to supplement their starvation rations. He figured out
a way to make a bowl out of a piece of medal so he could boil water to save the soldiers
from dysentery. He helped keep them clean, hed wash their clothes and led them in
prayer services. He celebrated Mass when he could. And on Easter Sunday, he led them
in a prayer service, inspiring everyone so much that the whole camp erupted in songs of
praise to God.
His captors hated him for the hope he brought to his fellow prisoners. Theyd make him
stand in the bitter cold, naked for hours. They brought him to classes where they would
educate him on Communist doctrine. And when he finally got sick, they saw their
chance to get rid of him.
They brought him to a Death House, thats what the soldiers called it. They, called it
their hospital, but no one ever came back alive. When they were taking him away, the
soldiers were crying, begging them not to take their priest from them, but he comforted
them. He said, Boys, Im going where Ive always wanted to go, when I get there, Ill
pray for ya. The last thing they saw him do in this life was bless the men who were
taking him to his death and prayed out loud, Father forgive them for they know not what
they do.
On April 11, 2013, President Obama told the story I just quoted while he presented the
Medal of Honor posthumously to Father Kaupan, our nations highest honor.
How do you honor someone whos done so much for you?
The Son of God came down from heaven and became a human being and offers you his
everlasting friendship.
The Son of God went to the cross for you to rescue you from the power of sin and the
everlasting abyss of death.

The Son of God now reigns over the universe at the right hand of God the Father and has
you in his hands forever.
That seems worth some perfume. Some weeping. That seems worth our devotion. Our
whole devotion.
And if it all still seems strange and over-the-top...why not ask Jesus to reveal to you his
love, majesty, goodness, compassion. Because like Mary, once you come to know him,
youll never be the same. Amen.
1. Kenneth E. Bailey, Mary, Martha and Jesus: A Continuing Reformation, in The Presbyterian
Outlook, October 26, 1998, p. 16.