First Reading – Isaiah 43:16-21:
Thus says the Lord, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters, who brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick: Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. The wild animals will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches; for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise.
Second Reading – 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.”
A few years ago, I was walking through a nice department store when I accidentally strayed into the section selling men’s and women’s colognes and perfumes. Now, I’m not a cologne kind of guy. To be honest, I own exactly one bottle of cologne. It’s still about half full, and I distinctly remember buying it on a trip to Bermuda in 1993. Clearly, I was out of my element in this aisle of the store. One by one, several pretty young women came up to me asking if they could spritz me into olfactory nirvana by sampling whatever bottle they had – explaining that this one had a sporty, adventurous scent with undertones of lilac and jasmine; another one was reminiscent of the great outdoors, with hints of pine and cinnamon.
One by one I declined their offers, until one of them asked me “Well, what’s your current fragrance?” I felt completely intimidated by her question, like she was expecting to suddenly speak some language I didn’t know, and in the moment I was worried I was going to blurt out that my current fragrance was probably best described as “Decaf coffee with notes of stale Cheetos.”
I was reminded of that experience, and the whole topic of fragrance, when I read our two Lectionary texts for today. When I read the first one, from Isaiah, talking about God creating a new thing that’s springing forth, a rebirth, water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, it made me think of a picture I’d seen online a few days before. It was the picture you have as an insert in your bulletin this morning. It’s the “Super Bloom” in Death Valley. Every year, the Spring rains in Death Valley prompt all of the wild seeds that the winds had blown across the landscape, lying dormant all year long, to suddenly burst forth, filling the place with new growth and beauty. It only lasts for a few weeks, before all the growth dies off again for lack of water, but during that short time, as you can see, it’s an incredible thing. When I saw the picture, I began to imagine what it would be like to be there and experience it with all my senses – the beautiful colors, the fresh air mingled with the smell of all the wildflowers blooming as far as the eye could see. For those few weeks, I guess you could say that God’s current fragrance might be called “Death Valley Wildflowers.”
That fragrance couldn’t be any less extraordinary than the one that filled the house on the night we heard about in today’s gospel text – Mary expressing this most incredible and intimate sign of her love and devotion to Jesus, breaking out a huge amount of perfume that was so expensive it made Coco Chanel and Hugo Boss look like a couple of posers, and working it into Jesus’ feet with her own hair, of all things. Just imagine being there – Jesus and the disciples are there at the table; and so is Lazarus, who’s been something of a celebrity ever since Jesus rose him from the dead; people looking at him as much as they were looking at Jesus himself. Martha is there, of course, bringing dinner from the kitchen to the table for all of them, when she looks down and oh good Lord, what’s Mary doing this time; and the fragrance of the meal and the perfume are filling the house like incense lifted up to God.
There’s no question that from the standpoint of the ledger sheet, Mary’s actions didn’t make any sense at all. From that standpoint, Judas’ criticism made perfect sense; to be honest, if we’d been there, most of us would probably have felt the same way. But Jesus’ response to Judas was a reminder that neither humanity, nor the Church, live by the ledger sheet alone. There are times and places where extravagance is a justifiable way to express our love and devotion to God.
This story prefigures a struggle that has gone on within the Church since its very beginning. Architects, painters, sculptors, stained glass artists, musicians, and any number of other artists, have been commissioned by the church to express God’s grandeur and transcendence in extravagant and expensive ways. Through their creativity they’ve expressed their own devotion to God, and they’ve made incredible artistic contributions to human civilization in general. Their work was their own fragrant offering of themselves and their talents to God.
At the same time, others in the Church have claimed that these artistic achievements are beautiful, and possibly well-intentioned, but they just aren’t appropriate for a church that was established as the earthly agent of a poor, itinerant rabbi who owned next to nothing and called his followers to personal sacrifice and denial in service to others as a primary way of serving and pleasing God.
You find these two views throughout the entire history of the church, and it’s still going on. When he was in Philadelphia during his recent U.S. trip, Pope Francis made some people very uncomfortable and upset when he complimented the ornate, high walls and beautiful windows of the cathedral he was preaching in, but then pointed out that the church is not at all about building walls, but rather, breaking walls down, using its resources to reach out to others through acts of charity and service.
And of course, Westminster is part of this struggle, too. This congregation is the heir to previous generations of the faithful who expressed their devotion through the beauty of stone and wood and stained glass and organ pipes. The question for Westminster isn’t so much “Were all these expenses appropriate when they were made?” but rather, “What is appropriate for us now, as we follow God’s mission into the future? What, in our time and place, is an appropriate balance between extravagant expression and prudent use of financial resources to serve as many of God’s people as possible?”
As an architect, the issue of this balance was a theological question that I thought about, and wrestled with, long before I entered the ministry. And to be honest, I still haven’t reached a completely sufficient answer to please my own mind, let alone please yours as you think about the question. The only answer I’ve been able to come up with is this: To go to great expense through architecture, art, music, or similar things as an expression of love and devotion to God is a very good thing, and pleasing to God – but only as long as it lifts people’s spirits and makes them more devoted to God, specifically inspiring them to greater acts of helping and serving others in need. If that act of extravagance – whether it’s expensive perfume or a cathedral or the Pietá or a Tiffany window – does that; if it leads the people of God to greater and greater outpourings of service to others, then it’s something pleasing to God. But if it becomes something revered in and of itself, and its preservation takes precedence over the mission of being the body of Christ to those in need in the world, then I don’t believe it’s pleasing to God at all.
And when it comes to that kind of expression, every one of us has to discern what our particular gift is, what kind of extravagant offering we can make to God. Maybe you create art. Maybe you sing, or play a musical instrument. Maybe you make musical instruments.
On the other hand, maybe you know your way around a financial report like nobody else; or maybe you’re a wizard in the kitchen and can plan and organize dinners and social gatherings for the church; or maybe you know how to get through the red tape and bureaucracy at City Hall that needs to be hurdled to get a new homeless shelter up and running. Each of these gifts, each of these talents, used appropriately in service to God and to others, is our own perfume, our own fragrance, that we can offer to God with the same kind of devotion and extravagance that Mary did in today’s gospel text.
Most of us probably know what gift, what talent, what our own fragrance is that we can offer to God. And if we don’t, I think it’s especially appropriate during this season of Lent, this time of deep personal reflection and contemplation of our spiritual lives, that we should do everything that we possibly can to discern what our fragrance actually is. You might even say it should be our
Thanks be to God.