Sunday, March 21, 2010

Sermon by Deacon Mark Sluss 5th Sunday of Lent 2010

John 12:1-8
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus' feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, "Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?" (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, "Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me."

For myself, my sense of smell brings such vivid memories to me.
Certain smells bring back to me those times in my life where I encountered those smells. I will never be able to smell Patchouli without instantly thinking of Debbie Nelson-Linck. The smell of cherry pipe tobacco and butterscotch candies remind me of my grandfather. I especially remember the smells of the state fair in Ohio. I remember the smell of roasted corn; I remember the smell of French fries with malt vinegar, cotton candy and candy apples. My Dad loved going to the fair and we always hit the roast corn booth as soon as we got into the fair grounds.

I got this (hold up cologne bottle) from my mom, when we were cleaning out some of dad’s things. This for all intents and purposes, is what my father smelled like. This was his favorite cologne. I still take the cap off, and just smell, when I’m missing Dad, and it helps. What are the smells that trigger the most memories for you? Are they Christmas cookies baking?? How about thanksgiving turkey cooking? Anything else???

You see, smell is such a great trigger of memories. I try to place myself into the gospel reading today, here is Jesus, at the home of his friends, Lazarus, Martha and Mary, they have made a brief stop on their way to Jerusalem for the Passover. Bethany is within walking distance of Jerusalem they are having a dinner party for Jesus and his disciples are there as well. And as usual Martha is tending to the kitchen, and Mary is about to do something. Now recently Jesus has just recently raised Lazarus from the dead. So in an act of pure joy and respect and to honor Jesus for the gift of her brother’s life, Mary, who along with Martha would have been destitute without Lazarus, Mary does something so out of the ordinary, she takes a jar, of pure spikenard, and she gets down and anoints Jesus’ feet.

And wipes his feet with he hair. That’s what I find weird. Her hair? I mean come on.. ask Martha for a towel. How very odd, especially since this is such an intimate action. Especially within their culture, Mary and Jesus were not married, neither were they related. So surely the action would have been shocking to those present.
Can you imagine the smell of this Nard, filling the house. It would have been hard to not notice it. And then the criticizing starts, Judas chimes in, that this is such a waste, that it could have been sold and the money given to the poor. Blah, blah, blah.

I try to imagine Mary here. Here she was doing something that she thought showed the joy and wonder of being friends with Jesus, and then to becomes the subject of criticism. I can imagine a bit of shame and embarrassment, when Judas attempts to call her to the carpet. But just then Jesus steps in.
He tells everyone to back off, and that Mary has done a good thing. The poor he says will always be with them, he himself won’t always be there.
And that Mary had bought the Nard to use for his burial. I can see Mary’s rationalization, she has just seen Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead and as a gift to Jesus, who she must see as one who defies death, and she uses the Nard to anoint him as a sign of joy and adoration.

You see nard is a fragrant oil, derived from the roots and hair stems of a plant not native to Palestine, but to the Himalayas. Nard had to be imported by caravan all the way from North India and Nepal. Half a world away to those in ancient times. This perfume was imported and used for a wide variety of purposes. Celebratory, cosmetic, medicinal and mortuary.

I look at it this way, Jesus was allowing this anointing to happen, knowing that he was to go to Jerusalem and die on the cross, he permits the use of the Nard so that they could form a very intense memory about their time together. Jesus gives this to them as a gift. Tying it to the smell of the nard, and then during the time of strife and persecution and in celebration, they would be able to remember back to the happy event at the home of Lazarus.
The woodsy, musty smell of Nard would always remind them of Jesus and a happier time, when he was living among them.

I think that one of the most amazing things about the action of the church is anointing. The church anoints to consecrate to set aside things.
And often our anointing oil is scented, with herbal components.
Often Sandalwood or rosemary, or some other aromatic I believe we honestly want to create a memory of the time. We anoint at baptisms, we anoint at times of sickness and we anoint at times of death. We want to hold those moments with us.
A dear friend once told me after a time in my life when I was praying very intently for guidance and on behalf of someone to come through a medical emergency, how powerful prayer is to a person. He went on to say, that when a prayer is answered, you fully realize how much an awesome responsibility prayer is. And I would add to that, and say what an awesome responsibility and power it is to pray in community.

And then to add another layer, that of anointing to the act of prayer is a very powerful sensory combination. We are fully engaged in almost all of our senses, sight, sound, and smell. We are fully there and in the moment.
No distractions, fully in the prayer. I have felt that total immersion in prayer once.
When my father had taken a very bad turn in the hospital, and my mother and brothers and I were told by the doctors that there was nothing left for them to do. And that Dad would not recover. I was devastated. I was thoroughly emptied. I went home and just cried and cried, But the next morning as I usually did I went to visit dad in the ICU. Mornings were the best time to go. Before regular visiting hours. The nurses didn’t seem to mind me being there. And quite frankly wearing a collar into a hospital gets you access to places people don’t normally get to go after hours. I took a bottle of anointing oil with me. And I started talking to my dad. I started out with just telling him how much he meant to me.

The machines were still going and beeping and whirring in their endeavor to keep him alive. I entered his room and the smells hit me, antiseptic, the smell of medicines, the smell of his perspiration and the smell of the soap that the nurses used to clean him up. I then started to pray. I prayed to God to take one of his own. I prayed that God would welcome dad, I prayed that the transition would be quick and not painful or scary for dad. I sat some in periods of silence. I sometimes begged and pleaded. And I cried some more. I then started to feel that there was another person in the room with me. Looking around expecting to see a nurse at the door, I saw no one.
But I started to feel at peace with the decision we were making, to let dad go. I realized at that very moment that Jesus was in the room with me.
Holding me up, in my time of grief and longing. Knowing full well what I was going through. Jesus understands grief. Jesus knows how much it hurts. Jesus wept at the tomb of his friend Lazarus. I then took out the bottle of oil and I started to anoint my father, and to say good bye to him.
I started with his head. The fragrance was sweet not overpowering, the oil was warming in my hands. I put it on his head and I kissed him. I then moved to his arms which were bruised from the many IV punctures.
And I rubbed the oil on them, I moved to his hands held them in mine, swollen noticing the indention where the previous week the hospital had to cut off his wedding ring. I put my hand up to his like I used to do as a child, to see how big his hands were next to mine. Almost the same size now.
His much more calloused, scarred from years of working. And I anointed them. Then I moved to his feet. Holding them up noticing that his body would react, a reflex we were told, his feet would kick and move.
I put oil on them, noticing how rough and dry his skin had become, noticing that the oil permeated the cracks of his heels.
When I finished I covered his feet with the blankets, placed his prayer quilt over him.

And the smells of the hospital room were replaced with the smell of the oil.
I washed my hands. I sat by his bed for another 15 minutes in silence and I finally said good bye to him. I left the room and never returned again alone, only going with family.

I had said my goodbye.

4 days later, the day we had decided that we would have the doctors turn off his respirator, was very sad. There were many friends there with us.
Renee Fenner was there, Ron Clingenpeel was there, and others were checking in as well, knowing what was to happen. I remember feeling confident that this was right. I remember crying of course, but not over the loss of dad, more over the grief of my mother and my brothers.
I was upset that they were hurting so much. I caught a whiff of the smell of the oil that had remained on the prayer quilt we had left with him. And I felt better. The preparation was so important for me.

It allowed me to be more involved in helping my family get through this time. I had grieved. And I would grieve more, but I was able to be there to help my family.

This is one thing that the church does very well for each other. When our provost Mike Kinman and I first met after he accepted the call here,
he asked me to think about what it is that the church can do for the community that other social service agencies cannot. What can we do that would better the community. I truly believe that to pray for our community, Pray for thanksgiving and in celebration of with and for our community.
In that total engagement that I experienced in praying for my father. I have seen what the church can do, in those times where we reach out. Not afraid of looking foolish to the community.

I am still awed by the reaction we received at the Komen walk last year, when Mike went out and Asperged the crowd in blessing. This year lets offer anointing as well! I am amazed at what the church does for the GLBT community at pride. Mass on the Grass is one of the major evangelical celebrations for the city. In sad times we can also pray for the community.
I picture a yearly celebration of the lives of police and firefighters who have lost their lives in the call of duty, held here in our space. I can picture a requiem mass for the downtown homeless who have lost their lives on the street, offering the church’s blessing to those who have lost their lives.


The city is right outside our doors every day. During the summer months there are fairs and street fests near the Soldiers Memorial that we can be open to offer support for. There are many marathons and parades that are held within blocks of us. We can gather to celebrate those who run and march. I look forward to us engaged with our community, opening ourselves and our gifts to blessing the city and our community.

Prayer is the only thing I can think of that we can offer the community that other social service agencies cannot. We can pray in celebration, in thanksgiving and in grief. We can bless and consecrate our city through our presence and active participation in the surrounding neighborhood.
Lets not be afraid to step out and offer this gift to the neighborhood.
Afraid of embarrassment, for expending our gifts to something some would consider unnecessary and silly. We can serve Christ by anointing our neighbors, when we reach out to the community, when we hold up our neighbors, in their grief and celebration.

When we anoint and pray for our community we can engage our senses, and perhaps we can try to remember the story of the gospel today. That in building memories of our lives together in this city and neighborhood, that we honor Christ in each of us, we can become partakers of that dinner party in Bethany, and remember Jesus’ life here among us. We can remember the gift that Mary has given Jesus; we can remember that we can offer the same gift to Jesus, by reaching out to our neighborhood, with our extravagant gifts of prayer. For it is when we offer our selves wholly in prayer in love and celebration and mourning, to the city of St. Louis, we anoint Jesus once again.

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