Isaiah 43:16-21, Psalm 126, Philippians 3:4b-14, John 12:1-8
Codes, preached by Rev. Peter Courtney
I will never forget those 90 minutes back in 1954. My parents had taken us to see the movie version of “Brigadoon” with Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse. The stage show by Lerner and Lowe had been changed from a singing event to a dance venue to accommodate the gifts of Kelly and Charisse. I inherited from my dad the love of dance in any form. Then as now I thought Cyd Charisse is an enchanting name!
Even at age 11 the movie charmed me, including the love parts. I remember something else much more vividly. There was a woman in back of us who had bathed in cheap perfume. She reeked of it. It our whole row was drenched in a noxious cloud of stink.. Every olfactory nerve in my body was in agony. I spent the entire time with my finger clamped over my nose and breathing through my mouth. I discovered that cheap scent has a bad taste too. My sense of smell is inherited from my dad too who suffered the same agonies as I did.
Scripture says that the perfume Mary of Bethany brought to anoint Jesus’ feet with “filled the house”. This does not mean people were reaching for gas masks. Here it means that everybody and their cousin knew that something extraordinary was happening. They were not in the Media, Pennsylvania movie theatre suffering; they were being exposed to a whiff of heaven.
There has always been a temptation to assume that the perfume was noxious since the church officially confused Mary of Bethany with Mary of Magdala who is a different person with a different history.
The principle protagonist in this story is not the Chanel #5. No, the principle is the elaborate code that Judas uses to disguise his perfidy and larcenous spirit.
“What kind of waste is this? The teacher doesn’t need fancy scent, especially something as expensive as this! This is poor stewardship, why it could have been sold for $150 an ounce and the money given to the poor!”
This is code. It is the kind of code we all use when someone uses power or money or both in ways we don’t agree with. This kind of rhetorical code is useful because at one level it really works.
I do it myself. One day a big old elephantine, blinding-white Hummer pulled up in front of my office to let a child off at the Day School. The thing took up half the block. The windows were blacked out so I could not see the driver. I said with great disdain: “why we could sell that thing and give free tuition to every child in the school!”
This was code for “if I had that kind of dough, I would buy a Porsche.”
Judas’ remark was code for “If they had sold that stuff there would be more for me to steal!”
As usual, Jesus does not fall for the codes. He says, “Leave her alone. She bought it for the day of my burial.” Mary of Bethany’s anointing of Jesus points to the final anointing that will take place very shortly. After Jesus has been betrayed by all the codes in the world including his own religion he will be anointed in death.
Then Jesus says one of his more widely quoted remarks: “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
He is saying to us all: “Don’t be fooled by pious rhetoric. Cheap talk is like cheap scent, but it is still like the stuff you smell in dance movies in 1954. The precious thing you have is me, Jesus. You will not always have me as you do now.”
This story was written by the Church. The church’s experience was that it could still smell the rich fragrance of Jesus’ anointing by Mary of Bethany. It could also still smell the scent of his burial anointing as well. It could smell these things because it also knew that Jesus had risen from the dead. He had overcome the traps and lies that put him to death. He had risen above the codes and cheap bad smells. He is now the Christ of the Church which enjoys the sight and smell of the Risen and Ascended Christ. He is doesn’t fall for rhetoric or even pious liberal slogans designed to distract us from the urgency of telling the truth.
I have wondered more than once what Jesus would have said about the lady in the Media, Pennsylvania theatre. One possibility is: “You have clueless and inconsiderate people all the time, but you will not always have me as you do now.”
56 years is a long time to remember a bad smell. Rejoice with me and Mary of Bethany that the odor of sanctity of our Risen Lord trumps them all.