Sermon by Rev Stuart Simpson on 7 April 2019
Readings were Isaiah 43:16-21 and John 12:1-11
Today I want to talk about smells.
When our family got two beautiful cats from the SPCA, we were very excited. For me this excitement soon changed to frustration. One morning upon entering the lounge, I was greeted with the pungent odour of cat urine. Cat urine is, I believe, one of the most potent of smells ever created. It didn’t take me too long to find the exact spot the smell was coming from, the couch, the cushions and carpet under the couch was drenched. As I drew closer my eyes began to water and my gag reflex started to kick in. (I don’t know how everyone else in the family didn’t notice the smell.)
The clean-up was awful, where first I used the carpet shampoo and then over the next few days the use of a rug doctor and odour remover. One of the things that still remains with me (maybe I will carry it the rest of my life) is the mixture of smells. The smell of the carpet cleaner and odour remover mixed with the pungent smell of cat urine – not a good mix if anyone is considering a new perfume scent.
Like the beautiful smell of carpet cleaner mixed with cat urine, we’ve heard a story about perfume mixed with more unpleasant smells.
If we took a little time, I’m sure we could imagine the perfume Mary anoints Jesus’s feet with, permeating every nook and cranny of that room, possibly even, wafting out into the street. And yet this beautiful smell is contrasted with the smell of death, which by the way, is reclining on Jesus.
If we are careful, we will notice the simultaneous smell of love – the beautiful act of Mary – and the hint of certain betrayal – that of Judas, who doesn’t really care about the poor and the scheming of the chief priests. These smells continue to mix, where sometimes it is too hard to distinguish one from the other.
Although Lazarus is alive again – the smell of new life, he will still get old and eventually die again – the smell of death.
Even though Judas listens to Jesus, his deeper motivation of selfishness remain.
The disciples follow but don’t fully get what Jesus is on about.
Jesus continues to proclaim God’s Kingdom and yet some of his own people plot to murder him.
The smells are mixed.
And it is the same for us today. The world is full of life and death, joy and pain, selflessness and selfishness – the list goes on. They are intermixed. And it seems no matter what we do, no matter how hard we try, how much energy we scrub and scrape the beautiful is tinged with repellent odour.
I’m sure like me, you have been deeply affected by the shooting in Christchurch. I have been so impressed by the response of our national and local government, church and community leaders and many, many other people, who have responded by standing alongside those who are grieving, by proclaiming solidarity and witnessing, both in words and actions, hospitality, hope and love.
The desire to not focus on the perpetrator but rather on helping rebuild the lives of those who are grieving so strongly expresses words such as found in the Gospel of Matthew:
35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.
And yet, even with this response, racism, violence and suspicion continue. People continue to send the video link of the shooting. Jacinda Adern still gets death threats.
And, as much as I want to love, I judge. And the poor remain poor.
What will it take for us to get rid of these permeating odours? How much harder do we need to work, to scrub, before these pungent smells, that offend our nostrils, are gotten rid of?
Well truth be told, we can’t, no matter how much we do or how hard we try. No matter how many rug doctors or odour removal powders we use. It is only God’s perfume that can break into the cracks and crevices of distorted thought, selfish ambition, desires to oppress and the powers that create and keep people in poverty.
It is only God’s eau de Parfum that destroys the potent, corrosive stink that permeates the world and our lives.
This is the profound, life changing Good News of Easter. And yes I know, I know you have heard this before, and yet I want to say it again. Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, to crucifixion, to death, was so these utterly unbearable rotting odours were forever neutralised – this is the truth, the wonderful truth.
So why then does an odour remain? I don’t want to be gross now but I wonder if it is like putting the compost into the compost bin. Although the compost has been gotten rid of the odour takes a little time to dissipate. This question is probably one of the hardest to answer and is often posed more this way:
How can there still be evil in the world if it is defeated?
Why does God allow pain if he is so powerful and so loving?
I remember when I was unwell last year really struggling with reconciling my illness with believing in a loving God who desires our flourishing – why was I still unwell when I had prayed for healing? Why were my many blessings mixed with the odour of depression if God had defeated the powers that suck life and joy into a black pit?
As I reflect back on that time, I now realise that God’s perfume had not gotten rid of the black pit but had neutralised its power. If I was ever to enter the blackness again, due to working too hard, not resting, stress, my desire to be perfect, or a chemical imbalance, I would find God’s perfume in the pit itself, reminding me that I can rest in Jesus, that because of Jesus, I am loved, even with all my imperfection.
A statement by Frederick Buechner expresses this amazingly well:
Resurrection means the worst thing is never the last thing
I am reminded even in the pit that this worst thing will end. God’s perfume reminds us that no matter the awful events happening around the world, or how often good things seem to do so little, our scrubbing never seems to get far, these are not the end – resurrection is the final say, but that’s Easter.
This week I want us to use our nostrils. I want us to smell the beautiful scent of God’s unconditional love that has broken into the world. I would also love us to imagine carrying a bottle of perfume, God’s perfume and spray it into places that carry the odour of hate, despair, hopelessness and anxiety.