Thirty-one years ago, my boyfriend Steve died of AIDS. It was a sudden, unexpected death of a young man. Steve went into the hospital with pneumonia on a Tuesday, and died five days later.
Steve’s death was a huge shock for his large, Catholic family—with six brothers and three sisters. What made it awkward for all of us was that before Steve’s hospitalization, I had only met one sibling—Mike, Steve’s closest brother. Mike was the only one in the family that Steve had told he was gay, a couple months before he went into the hospital. And while Mike was supportive, he also told Steve to make sure he never got HIV. So, Steve had never told Mike about that.
A couple weeks after the funeral, Steve’s family invited me to dinner at his sister Connie’s home. Later in the evening, Connie came to me with a difficult question. With tears in her eyes, Connie asked me why Steve had never told them he was gay. She said they all loved him, and she couldn’t understand why he had kept it a secret.
I hesitated, and then told her the truth—that Steve didn’t tell them because he was afraid. Afraid that they wouldn’t accept him as he was. Afraid that they would stop loving him.
I could tell Connie had a hard time hearing that. Because it was too late to do anything about it. Too late to show her love. Which is sometimes the story of grief and families. Of loved ones wishing they could have said or done something different before their loved one died.
Today’s Gospel lesson is another one of those grief stories. Another story about siblings—two sisters and a brother. Another story of a brother’s death. Though there’s a big part of the story missing here. Just before our Gospel lesson in John, you find the story of Mary and Martha, and their brother Lazarus, who was raised from the dead.
We don’t know what caused Lazarus to become seriously ill. But it was unexpected. The sisters send a message to their friend Jesus, begging him to come quickly. But before Jesus arrives, Lazarus dies. A few days later, Martha meets Jesus in front of their home and asks him a question: “Why didn’t you come sooner, Jesus? You could have saved my brother.” When Jesus leads the sisters to the tomb, and asks the stone to be rolled away, Martha warns him that the stench of death will be horrible. But Jesus tells her, “I am the resurrection and the life.” After someone rolls away the stone, the women are amazed to see their brother walk out alive.
These two sibling stories foreshadow the death and resurrection of Jesus in this Gospel. And both are connected by intense smells. In the first story , Lazarus suffers a human death, which produces a horrible stink. In the second, Mary, the sister of Lazarus, prepares Jesus for his own death. Using a nard ointment that was also burned as incense in the sanctuary of the Jerusalem Temple.
The scent is symbolic. The overwhelming perfume of eternal life destroys the stench of death. The house stinks of Heaven. The fragrance of amazing grace and abundant life. A scent all Christians should wear—carrying a divine aroma into our world.
Nearly a century ago, the famous spiritual leader, Mahatma Ghandi was asked by a missionary what he thought of Christians coming to India. Ghandi replied with a question: “Let us think of the bulk of your people who preach the Gospel…. Do they spread the perfume of their lives? That is my sole criterion. All I want them to do is to live Christian lives…. Don’t [just] talk about it…. [For] a rose doesn’t have to propagate its perfume. It just gives it forth, and people are drawn to it.”
While living with Christians in his country, Gandhi expected to experience qualities like unconditional love, forgiveness, and kindness. But in his eyes, the Christians he knew failed to live up to the standards preached by Christ in the Sermon on the Mount and on the cross.
Sadly, many people could say the same today. Like LGBTQ individuals rejected by churches. Like women who still can’t serve as leaders in some denominations, or congregations that won’t call a female pastor. Like people of color who face passive microaggressions and blatant racism from white Christians.
In our Gospel reading, Mary, a Middle-Eastern Jewish woman breaks through others’ expectations. Her outrageous behavior reveals her radical love. Her perfume is shocking in its extravagance. Its fragrance overpowering, filling the house.
Today, seeing a woman wipe the feet of a religious leader like Jesus would seem inappropriate. Yet, it’s something that Jesus imitates when, during the last supper, he washes the disciples’ feet. Maybe Jesus even borrowed the idea from Mary. (Men have been known to do things like that.) Like Ghandi, Mary challenges us Christians to live out the love of Jesus in our lives and actions.
This past Monday, I attended a support group run by the Minnkota Health Project. Minnkota is a volunteer-run nonprofit for people living with HIV/AIDS. Each month, they meet in a room at the Fryn’ Pan Restaurant not far from here for a meal and emotional support. I serve as their spiritual advisor.
This month, I also brought $30 gift cards from Hornbacher’s, funded by a grant we received again this year from the ELCA’s Office of HIV and AIDS Ministry. Thirty dollars might not seem like much to most of us. But for an HIV+ individual living in poverty, it makes a huge difference in helping to buy enough food each month. They’ve told me how grateful they are that St. Mark’s does this for them. Like Mary’s perfume in our Gospel story, the gift cards are a tangible sign that our church cares about them.
The ELCA likes it, too. They tell me that most HIV ministry today happens in large metro areas. It’s unusual, they say, to see it happen in a rural area like Fargo. And in a little congregation like ours.
As I was getting ready to leave the Minnkota group on Monday, one of the members—who’s a Native American woman (whom I will call “Carol”)—stopped with her husband to talk with me, and another man who often helps other group members with rides or shopping or errands. Carol told us how much the group means to her. Then she added, “Boy, the two of you sure smell nice.” We all laughed. The other guy joked that he had just taken a shower. And Carol told me she liked my cologne.
Reflecting on that conversation, I like to think her comment wasn’t just about body odor. That it was Carol’s way of telling us how much our involvement affects her. That a disease, still closely linked to death, can bring us face-to-face with people to love. That’s the kind of perfume Mary shared with Jesus—not just a pleasant-smelling ointment. But also a graceful compassion revealed in a lifelong journey of faith in following Jesus and serving others. A love that ultimately led her to stand with a small group of women where Jesus was crucified, abandoned by others.
That’s the kind of love Jesus calls us Christians to share with our community and world. Even when it leads us to places of disease and death. Even when it leads us to the cross. Amen.
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GOSPEL LESSON: 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.”