Sermon: Spilling the Perfume (John 12:1-8)

One day when one of our girls was a toddler, I was getting ready for a denominational meeting at another church, and she was lurching around the bedroom, happily pulling the dresser drawers open and throwing mommy’s scarves on the floor and dancing on them. 

It was starting to become a mess, so I scooped her up for a second while I picked my tie.  

Now, picking a tie is not something that takes a long time to do, of course, but you know how it is with toddlers—your attention is distracted for a split second, and those little hands pounce on some delightful new discovery.  

In this case, what she discovered was a bottle of cologne from the top of the dresser, and just as I turned to see what she had, she sprayed me squarely in the face.  

Twice.  

But you know, it’s not over then, is it?  

Because in an instant, now you’ve been blinded by the cologne in your eyes, and you’re trying to scrape it off your tongue with your teeth, and not drop the baby…and not for nothing, but by the way, guess who still has the bottle of cologne?  

The last shot got all over my hands as I wrestled the cologne away from her, which made her mad. 

I called for backup and did my best to pull myself together for my clergy meeting.  

So off I went to that. 

The story doesn’t end there, though. 

I roll in late and have to grab a spot as unobtrusively as possible, which I do. 

The opening speeches are happening, and for a while, everything is fine.  

I sip my coffee. Take notes.  Try to look clergy-like.  

Have you ever been in a meeting and you see some nice elegant woman quietly reach into her handbag and take out a handkerchief, which she discreetly holds to her nose? 

Then someone else kind of puts their hand over their mouth, like they don’t want to blurt out something random…except it’s not that. 

You notice people starting to look around…is it him? Is it her? 

And I remember actually having the thought, “Gosh, with all this cologne on, I just can’t smell whatever it is they’re smelling….”

It was only then that I realized.  

I was sitting there like Pepe LePew.   

Or, you know, whatever, Calvin Klein LePew. 

Long story short: I ended up interrupting the meeting to explain myself, everybody laughed and was nice about it, they opened every window on the western side of the building and put me there, and it turned out fine. 

II.

But I have to admit that, as a result, when it comes to this morning’s Gospel, in which perfume plays a central role, I am a little triggered.  

Mary pours pure nard, on Jesus’ feet.  

Mark’s version of this story says it came in an alabaster jar, which suggests how precious it was, and as we heard a moment ago, Judas says it is worth 300 denarii, which is to say, 300 days wages for a regular laborer.  

For contrast, when we are told later that Judas betrays Jesus, he does that for 30 pieces of silver, that may well have been 30 denarii…just 30 days’ wages.  

And so, at the heart of this story is this gesture by Mary of Bethany—the Mary who some would say never helps throw the party but is happy to attend it, even when it’s in her house and everyone else is left scrambling. 

At the heart of this story is this strange gesture of honoring Jesus that most everybody else seems to find so wasteful that it’s downright offensive.  

It goes downhill from there.  

Because not only does she pour a year’s worth of wages over Jesus’ feet—in a move that’s both unbelievably tender and unbelievably strange, Mary then wipes Jesus’ feet with her own hair.  

I can’t help but imagine the conversation around the table as this all unfolds. 

The people starting to look around, as the smell of that pure nard, lovely but somewhat overpowering, fills the room. 

Martha is bustling to get dinner on the table, but after a moment, one of the other guests discreetly takes a handkerchief out of her purse.  

Another puts their hand over their mouth.

But this isn’t a faux pas that can be explained away easily. 

Judas gets angry, but the thing about this moment isn’t actually its wasteful extravagance.

It’s the startling vulnerability of Mary that nobody seems to know what to do with—nobody but Jesus.  

III.

It can be so startling when real life disrupts the well-oiled machine of social convention.

Genuine emotion – sincere feelings – can be something we believe we want more of in our relationships, but then don’t always know what to do with when they show up.  

When someone actually goes there, a little goes a long way.  

To me, this second-to-last supper takes it even further than that. 

The sheer indignity of it makes it cringey to watch. 

She’s their hostess.  

This is her house.  

This is the big party after the Master has raised their brother from the dead.  

They’re expecting the fatted calf and the best china, not this…display.  

So when Judas starts sputtering about the wastefulness of using a full bottle of pure nard, I wonder if it isn’t really about the money as much as that’s the first thing he can think to say—the first words that pop into his mind when he’s trying to put his sheer disgust into language.  

But it’s telling to me that, unlike the story of Martha and Mary in Luke’s Gospel, this time there is no tension between the sisters.  

There is no eye-roll from Sister Martha.  No anxious throat-clearing from Brother Lazarus.  

They’re not bothered by Mary.  Not anymore.  

If real life is disrupting social convention, they don’t seem to bat an eye.  

IV.

Why is that? 

I think it’s because the raising of Lazarus has changed them. 

It’s taken their relationship with Jesus beyond a form of earthly friendship and transformed it into something else.  

It’s transformed them into different people. 

Because this is what I know about God: 

…when you’ve felt God’s hand on your life…

…when God has made a way out of no way for you…

…when God has led you from death into new life…

…there’s a lot you suddenly care about….and a lot that you suddenly don’t care about at all.

When you see the movement of God’s love sweep across the world, it is hard to get worked up over the same old things. 

Time for compassion? Sure. 

Time for kindness? Of course. 

Time for gratitude? Absolutely.  

Time for keeping everybody happy?  Not so much.  

Faith in Jesus hasn’t made Mary weird.  It’s made her real.

Real in a way she’s never been before.  

Martha and Lazarus get it.  

The others seem to find this awkward and bewildering, which, inevitably, suggests much more about their faith than it does about hers.

It also says something that in this moment, even as guests in her house, these men choose to center their own discomfort rather than this woman’s profound gratitude to Jesus—a gratitude they are presumably there to celebrate and share with her, but which they feel free to define on her behalf.  

It won’t be for a little while yet that they truly feel God’s hand on their lives…when Easter will show them how God can make a way out of no way.   

Mary is already there.  Martha and Lazarus are already there. 

V.

What’s it going to take to get us there? 

What will it take for us to center the power of love and Creation and transformation so squarely in our lives that the raw emotion of a woman like Mary of Bethany makes sense to us…that we have a place for that? 

What will it take for us to take God up on God’s invitation to be real…to be who we really are…to show the depths of how we really are? 

Some suggest that the scent of pure nard is so strong that even almost two weeks later, even on the cross, Jesus might well still have detected it.  

If that is true, then perhaps even in the midst of Good Friday itself, Jesus still held onto some indication that how he lived and what he lived for had, indeed, taken root.  

That some truly had seen and understood.  

Mary’s extravagant gestures reflect her gratitude for the extravagant love of God.   

That love transforms us not into something we are not, but precisely into who we are and always have been, as we lie in the arms of the God who lets us unknowingly squeeze the perfume, and yet still counts himself blessed.  

Amen.

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