How do you say goodbye?
Lent 4C – 3/13/16
St. Alban’s, Annandale, VA
The Rev. Dr. Rosemary Beales
The fragrance of the perfume filled the house.
Honeysuckle …… Ocean air.……. Baking bread………
When you heard those words, didn’t you almost SMELL them? Didn’t they take you back to some summer, some holiday, some Saturday?
Some say our sense of smell is the oldest and most primitive of all. Perhaps that explains why words fail to describe something that has to be experienced. Imitation fails, too: I’ve never smelled a perfume or air freshener or candle that comes close to the real essence of baking bread, or ocean air, or honeysuckle.
I can only imagine what pure nard smells like — something spicy and complex, the experts say .But I know what it smelled like to at least two people in our gospel story today ¾ and like something quite different to a third.
The house in Bethany, on the eastern outskirts of Jerusalem, was filled that evening, as Martha and Mary and Lazarus – LAZarus! – hosted the habdalah meal that ends the Sabbath rest. Jesus and his disciples had spent that Friday evening and Saturday in Bethany, their home away from home.
Was it pure intuition that Mary knew how soon that peace, that togetherness,would be shattered?
Or was it because, in another story, she had sat at his feet and listened, really listened? Had she heard him predict his passion and death and, unlike many others, believed him?
For suddenly, above the familiar odors of roasted lamb and olive oil and wood smoke comes a startling aroma, so strong it must have taken thousands of spikenard roots to produce it.
Into the house that so recently knew the stink of death ¾ Lazarus’ death ¾ comes the luxurious scent of spice. And there is Mary, massaging her expensive balm into Jesus’ feet, caressing them with her hair, demonstrating her love not only with her worldly wealth but with her body.
To Mary, AND to Jesus, the aroma smalls like love – generous, sacrificial love.
To Judas, it smells like . . . a waste of money. Greed, and envy, and perhaps a cup of wine too many, make him mutter, “Why wasn’t this stuff sold and the money given to the poor?”
Mary has nothing to say but lets her actions speak.
Jesus defends her, knowing that beneath her shimmering gesture of love lies a shadow. He knows… she knows… that her perfume will have to last his lifetime. Her hands — the last gentle human touch he will know — are preparing him for his own act of sacrificial love. She is preparing him for his burial.
How do you say goodbye?
Mary gives her answer, with her intimate act of comfort.
Jesus gives his answer, too. His goodbye to Mary is a refuge: “Leave her alone.”
His goodbye to Judas is a reminder: “You always have the poor with you.”
Jim Wallis, founder of Sojourners and a passionate voice for justice, calls these words of Jesus the most misused in all of scripture. “You always have the poor with you” does not mean “there’s nothing you can do about poverty, so why bother?”
Rather, his words suggest that the disciples ¾ after Jesus is gone ¾ will remember him by remaining close to the least and the lowly.
Jesus assumed, Wallis says, the disciples’ “proximity to the poor.”
In a sense, Jesus is telling Judas, and the rest of the room, where he wants his memorial contributions, in lieu of flowers, to be sent. Mary has already provided the flowers, distilled into perfume. Let the rest of his followers honor him by serving those he loved most in life.
How do you say goodbye?
This week, I had a good example of how a community in mourning is following the example of Jesus.
My brother priest in the Diocese of Maryland, Wes Wubbenhorst, delivered a final sermon as his earthly life drew near its end. Wes has fought cancer for 11 months and is now too weak to stand and speak. His spirit ¾ joyful, wacky, and filled with LOVE and HOPE ¾ shone through his words. His final sermon, was posted on a site set up by his friends.
Wes’s post, punctuated by the WHISTLES, WOWS, AND TA-DA’s that marked his passionate work with young people in Maryland, recounts how he and his wife, as a young Peace Corps couple, ended up in Honduras, years ago.
Working with special-needs children and abandoned street kids, Wes found his way to El Hogar de Amor y Esperanza – The Home of LOVE AND HOPE.
From Peace Corps to Baltimore, Wes shared his gifts with young people ¾ and changed lives, bringing countless teens from the Diocese of Maryland to Honduras. Their tributes to him on the website are clear signs of how his influence has rippled into their lives.
But God isn’t finished with Wes yet.
“One of my last wishes,” he wrote, “is that you remember me by remembering Honduras.” In lieu of flowers, Wes’s friends will send LOVE AND HOPE to El Hogar and the Episcopal Diocese of Honduras. The last time I checked, donations had so far exceeded the $20,000 goal that it was raised to $50.000.
That outpouring is a little like Mary’s outpouring of her expensive perfume. It will send Wes on the rest of his journey with the knowledge that while “the poor will always be with you,” their lives will be a little richer.
Wes understood those words of Jesus. YOU, individually and as a congregation, have also heard and heeded those words. “The poor will always be with us,” but we are called to pour out our love for Jesus by pouring out love for the children of Our Little Roses in Honduras, for the families at Belvedere Elementary next door, for the people of Hurley, Virginia in Appalachia, and so many more.
Because of people like you, and people like Wes and his friends,
people who are poor will never be without LOVE AND HOPE.
BECAUSE JESUS poured out his love in sacrificial offering for us all,
we have LOVE AND HOPE too.
We can enter the final weeks of Lent knowing that
we are not, after all, saying goodbye.
The burial will happen, but it will be like a seed
that holds within it the promise of new and fragrant life.
Soon, the fragrance of Jesus’ self-giving love and its glorious fruition on Easter morning will fill THIS house again.
One day, the fragrance of his followers’ love for the poor will fill the world.
 Jim Wallis, God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005),