The sense of smell is a powerful thing. Those who study such things have found incredible links between the sense of smell and memory, and not only in humans, but also bees and rodents. I did some research into this this week and read the following in an article on Sciencedaily.com this week:
Researchers at the Kavli Institute for Systems Neuroscience have
recently discovered the process behind the link between memory
and smell. The brain, it turns out, connects smells to memories
through an associative process where neural networks are linked
through synchronized brain waves of 20-40 Hz. The results are
published in the latest edition of the journal Nature.
“We all know that smell is connected to memories,” Kei Igarashi,
lead author, explains. “We know that neurons in different brain
regions need to oscillate in synchrony for these regions to speak
effectively to each other. Still, the relationship between interregional
coupling and formation of memory traces has remained poorly
understood.” Until now.
The article included the following anecdote:
When I was a child I used to sit in my grandfather’s workshop,
playing with wood shavings. Freshly shaven wood has a distinct
smell of childhood happiness, and whenever I get a whiff of that
scent my brain immediately conjures up images of my grandfather
at his working bench, the heat from the fireplace and the dog next
As a sideline, I also found articles about how researchers are now using information like this study from Kavli Institute to help improve our understanding of diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, a disease that some of us know more about than we’d ever like to.
So, right about now, I bet at least half of you are sitting there thinking: Ok, fine, Pastor, that’s all very interesting and all, but what in the world does it have to do with anything?
Well, smell plays an important role in our Gospel for today. All 4 Gospels, it turns out, have some version of this story of Jesus’ anointing, with 3 of them having Jesus connecting it to his impending death. But John places it within a subplot involving the characters of Martha and Mary and their brother Lazarus who live in Bethany, some 11 miles from Jerusalem. In every version of the story a woman breaks open a jar of expensive perfume and uses it to anoint Jesus – and when I say expensive, I mean, we’re talking about the equivalent of a year’s wages for a common worker – 300 denarii, or somewhere in the $25,000 range in current dollar values. And, again, in 3 of the 4 versions, someone complains about this extravagance being shown to Jesus, and Jesus says something that connects the anointing to his impending death and burial.
The difference here, in John’s version of the story, is that it’s Mary who makes this costly, loving, extravagant gesture. Not surprisingly, for those of us who remember what Luke’s Gospel tells us about Mary and her sister, Martha, Mary offers this anointing, while, you guessed it, her sister Martha is serving the dinner! But why this particular extravagant act? And what does it have to do with the connection between memory and smell? And what might this mean for us as we near the end of this Lent?…
This is John Chapter 12. So, who remembers what happens in John Chapter 11 involving these same friends of Jesus? (Hint: the answer’s right there in the first verse of Chapter 12) Lazarus gets sick and is dying, and when Jesus gets word, he waits two days before going to Bethany so that, by the time he gets to their home, Lazarus has been dead for four days and when Jesus tells the people to remove the stone from the entrance to the tomb
Martha says: There’s already a stench; He’s been dead for four days!
Oh, we know what she’s talking about, don’t we? The stench of death, that putrid, horrible smell of sin’s last hurrah. Martha and Mary know that stench all too well. Mary knows what she’s doing with this costly perfume made of pure nard. She remembers, she’ll never be able to forget, that smell of death. Perhaps she thinks if she can only use a large enough amount of perfume, if she can only use a strong enough smelling perfume, maybe, just maybe, she can mask the stench of her friend’s impending death…
From the time that sin first entered our human experience in the fall of Adam and Eve, sin and with it death have been our greatest enemies. The conquering of sin and death has been humanity’s ultimate goal. Through the doing of good works, or through the practice of various rituals, we strive to impress upon the gods of our making, or upon the One True and Ever-living God, that we are in fact worthy of escape – worthy of being saved and delivered from death.
Paul knew this all too well as he describes his religious zeal and legal blamelessness. Oh, yes, he had reason to be confident in the flesh. But once he realized the fruitlessness of his own efforts, as good as he was, and once he realized that all his accomplishments are just rubbish – and note that here in the Greek Paul uses the word, not just for trash, but the word for excrement, that’s how he has come to regard his good works, it’s just a pile of human waste – once he comes to realize that that’s the true value of all his best efforts, he has nowhere to turn but to the grace and mercy and forgiveness of God. He writes: I want to know Christ, and the power of his resurrection, and the sharing of his sufferings, by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have obtained this, or have already reached the goal, Paul continues, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own…
And God in Christ has done the same for each of us, as well, in Holy Baptism. Look, the old Adam and old Eve in us, they don’t want to give up. They don’t want to surrender control. They don’t want to admit that we’re captive to sin and cannot free ourselves. Nor do they want to accept God’s word of forgiveness and grace, because that is also a surrendering of control.
And I’ve heard it in this community – in devotions at our Council meeting this week, and at our Bible Study on Wednesday – I’ve heard the resistance to hearing that
- God does what God does because that’s what God wants to do,
- that God saves us because God wants to,
- that God loves us because God wants to, whether we want to be saved and loved or not
- that it has absolutely nothing to do with our exercise of free will
I’ve heard, loud and clear, the resistance to God’s working in that way, and I’m telling you, straight up, it’s the stench of death! That’s the stench of the old Adam or old Eve in you, the stench of that old sin nature that, from the time of the fall, has wanted to be like God, wanted to be in control of our own destiny, wanted to have a say in that eternal destiny.
But don’t you see? This is why we baptize babies. This is why we believe that God comes and says “yes” to us before we can say either yes or no to God. We believe that the person has nothing to do with whether or not they’re saved. That’s God’s business, not ours!
So, forget the former things. Don’t consider the things of old. God is doing a new thing in Christ’s death and resurrection. It springs forth with the resurrected Christ. It springs forth from the grave. It springs forth with the promise of new life in Christ. It springs forth in the proclamation of forgiveness. It springs forth in the free gift of salvation. It springs forth like so much costly perfume, bursting forth in aromatic power, overcoming the stench of our desire to be in control, overshadowing the stench of sin, overwhelming the stench of death as Christ Jesus, by his dying and rising, overcomes sin and death once and for all!…
So, leave alone all those who show such extravagant love. Leave alone all those who pour out their extravagant giftedness for the sake of the crucified Lord. Be done with thinking you can, somehow or another, earn, or deserve, or win God’s love and acceptance. You have it already. That’s already done!
Instead, because Christ Jesus has already made you his own, turn your extravagant love outward in love of neighbor, in caring for the poor you will always have with you, for as they face injustice, and rejection, and death, so did our Lord in his Passion. So let’s pour out the fragrance of costly love and extravagant compassion on them, for when we’ve done it to them, we’ve done it to him. Amen.