Many of us are affected by our senses (seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, to name a few) and the memories they bring back to us. I learned that smells can take me back in time. If I smell Walmart’s fresh bread baking and their rotisserie chickens roasting, I want to buy them. Food smells remind me of comfort foods. I’ve learned to shop later in the day.
There are other smells that connect to memory. I learned, while driving the Turnpike to Philadelphia, not to leave the car vent open between the Quakertown and Lansdale exits. There are miles and miles of chicken farms there and they spread the manure on the fields. After closing the car vent and wiping my eyes, I drove for fifteen miles until that smell disappeared.
Last week brought a new memory to me. Driving home from Ohio, I found dairy farms along Route 80, before you get to Williamsport. Those farmers spread cow manure on the fields. I grew up cleaning stables on a dairy farm, so it wasn’t so offensive. To me, it smelled like spring was here.
Our senses often connect with memories we’ve had in the past. From time to time, I smell the soft musk perfume my grandmother wore and it reminds me of Nanny, who died years ago. Or I’ll notice the mingled smell of dirt, sweat and fresh air-a reminder of my childhood, my own children’s past and the fact that spring is coming again.
Stories are always tied to our memories. Today, I want to take you away from thinking of the past and the present and take you into the vision of the future God shows to God’s people. We people of God, God’s creation, need to start living there on a permanent basis and we can do that when reading the words that God spoke through the prophet in the first lesson.
The prophets give us the beginning and middle of stories, but then they point us to what is the ending for us humans-to the place of freedom, hope and love that God always offers. While our lives end, God is eternal. God is always making all things new and keeps telling us to look ahead and see the plans God has for us. There is so much more to come!
God’s new plan today in the book of Isaiah reminds us of God’s agreement with God’s people in the past. Their religious heritage, called the festival of Passover, was freedom that God gave them. This was when God lead them out of slavery in Egypt, through the Red Sea, with Moses leading them. Their past years in slavery are remembered each year, as the story is passed from generation to generation. The story is shared to remember how God heard their cries, cared for them and set them free. As God speaks in this first lesson, they aren’t free. God’s plan will set them free again.
Using the familiar story of the journey through the Red Sea and across the desert wilderness, God tells the people that once again, God will make this miracle happen. They will be set free and will travel in safety across the desert, protected, because God has not forgotten them.
Can you not see, do you not perceive it, the prophet asks. Do not remember the past, look to the future, to the new thing I am doing. If God has provided in the past, don’t you think God will keep the promises made to us for the future? We can ask ourselves the same question. Do we trust that God keeps and cares for us today? Or have we abandoned the hope God has given us and try to live our lives apart from God?
Our gospel lesson takes us to the simple home of Jesus’ friends- Mary, Martha and Lazarus-and to the dinner party that Jesus attends with his disciples. Jesus is the guest of honor because he raised Lazarus from the dead just a few days earlier and his friends want to thank him. They’ve been friends for a long time and they believe he is the son of God, not because they saw him raise Lazarus from the dead, but because they’re friends-they know each other very, very well. And while they don’t like what Jesus has said will happen soon, as friends, they honor and support him.
This home in Bethany holds many memories of their times together; the smells of cooking are a result of the dinner they share at this moment. But the smells and memory of death are still with them; Lazarus was in the tomb four days before Jesus raised him.
This is no simple dinner party here; it’s a heartbreaking memory of the past and a hope against all hope for a future. As they come together, Mary uses an expensive jar of perfume to wash Jesus’ feet and wipes them with her hair. The memories within these walls are mixed with the perfume fragrance and it’s a sacred moment, when time stands still.
No words need to be spoken, because everyone understands what’s happening. This perfume is used to anoint bodies for burial, after the person had died. But in a moment of love, intimacy and extravagance, Mary pours it on Jesus now, as a seal upon the relationship they’ve shared. Even at his death, just days away, Mary will be faithful. She will continue the work that Jesus began.
All of the disciples have seen the miracles that Jesus can do, but they also know Jesus’ plans for the future. They know he’ll go to Jerusalem, where he will face beating, crucifixion and death. Now, Jesus is with them as they share this meal together. As all of these memories swirl in their minds, the smell of the perfume lifts their spirits. No words are necessary.
But you know how it is, in these special moments, sacred, holy and united with God, someone has to speak. Someone always has to say something or needs to bring attention to their own importance. Judas, the treasurer, breaks in to complain about the waste. Judas can only see as far as his own greed and this perfume would have put some money in his pocket. But Jesus stops him with the reminder that this anointing is for his burial. This anointing is Mary’s goodbye to her best friend. It’s a sign of her devotion and her discipleship. Mary will carry on the work that Jesus began. Judas will die as the cheater he has chosen to be.
It’s difficult to tell this story of Jesus, to stress how important the events of the coming weeks will be. If we are the disciples we claim to be, we are called to follow Jesus’ example-he came to show us what God is like. He came to remind us that we are beloved people of God, called into action for the sake of Christ.
While we are the hands of Jesus, our hands will never bear Jesus’ scars. While we can show the heart of God’s love, we will never know God’s heartbreak at loving a creation that does not love back. We have the privilege of a special, precious memory. That memory is that God’s words of love are written on our hearts, we are empowered through the Holy Spirit and we are marked with the cross of Christ forever. Amen.
Rev. Dawn Richie