A sweet smell

I was invited to preach at Derby Cathedral today, Passion Sunday.  This is the sermon that I preached.  The readings for the Eucharist were Isaiah 43.16-21; Philippians 3.4b-14 and John 12.1-8.

It’s lovely being back in the East Midlands.  I grew up in Leicester, so this is a bit like coming home but hillier! When I was a lad and we used to be going into town on the bus, we’d get to a point in the journey, just near the city centre, on Oxford Street, when noses would start twitching.  There was something in the air, not an unpleasant, but a strong smell.  It was sweet, very sweet, and it was minty. Then, all of a sudden, it became clear as to what it was, as on the side of one of the buildings by the road appeared the symbol of a polar bear standing on a mint.  It was the Fox’s Glacier Mint factory.  Those of my friends who worked there during the summer holidays used to tell us, a bit like in the pie factory in our village, that you were allowed to eat as much as you wanted, and you didn’t want to for very long!


Making mints in Leicester

But the smell of the sweet factory pervaded the streets of the city.

There’s a bit of a scene at the dinner table.  Jesus was in the home of his friends, his bolt hole whenever he was in the Jerusalem area.  He was with Mary, Martha and Lazarus.  It was great to be with them because not so long before he’d been there as the two women had been overwhelmed with grief.  Their brother was dead but Jesus had raised him from the dead and restored him to the heart of his family.  The smell of death had emanated from that tomb but now the house was filled with a different smell.

Everything was running true to form – Martha was in the kitchen and busily bringing the food to the table for their guests and Mary was at Jesus’ feet.  It was like deja vu – Jesus had been there before when a row had broken out between the sisters.  Martha had had it with Mary, like Cinders she was doing all the work whilst her sister was sitting at the feet of Jesus listening to him talking.  It was an extravagant gesture of devotion, but it had been Martha, slaving over the stove, who’d paid the price.

But now Mary was not listening but breaking open a jar of perfume, and not just any perfume, it was the most costly and as soon as the others in the room smelt it they knew what it was – it smelt of money.  She’d spent more than three days wages on this gesture, money that some thought could’ve been better spent, so no wonder Judas leapt from his place to complain.  But she pours out the costly ointment and holds nothing back.  She pours it over his feet and with a sensuality which was as shocking as her spending, wipes the feet of Jesus with her long, loosed hair.

And John tells us

‘The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.’

There’s a bad smell around.  It seems all pervasive; it feels like there’s no escaping it, no getting away from it.  It’s a smell that’s not just here but, it seems, it feels like, everywhere, at the moment.

We smell it on College Green outside the Houses of Parliament.  We smelt it in Christchurch New Zealand. We smell it at the Mexican border.  We smell it now in Brunei.  It’s the unpleasant, vile smell of hatred.  Too much is being landed at the door of Brexit but whatever your own views on leave or remain, you can’t deny that this so far failed process has unleashed a bad smell.  I smell the hatred of the other, the smell of fear of the other, the smell of phobias, Islamophobia, transphobia, homophobia, it’s the smell of Antisemitism, of racism, the smell of a knife raised to kill a stranger, the other caught in the way of violence.

There was a member of the congregation at Southwark Cathedral, a writer, sadly now dead, who in one of his books on social justice wrote something so simple yet so powerful

‘To the other you are the other.’

If we fear the other, then there’s someone else fearing us; if you fear the other then there’s someone fearing you.

The prophet Isaiah in our First Reading is looking forward to the new possibilities in God.  And the prophet says to us that all this will happen

‘so that they might declare my praise.’

So that we might declare God’s praise, so that we might fill the world with another fragrance, the fragrance of love, so that that fragrance born of praise, born of love, might counter that evil smell that’s so apparent around us.


‘that we might fill the world with another fragrance’

Today we call Passion Sunday because today we turn our attention away from the wilderness in which we’ve been spending time with Jesus and turn instead towards the cross.  Next Sunday we’ll be holding our Palm Crosses and hosanna-ing with the rest of the crowd as we see Jesus arrive as Prince of Peace.

He’ll be met with violence and hatred and that fear of the other with which we’re so familiar at the moment and he will meet it all with love, because the fragrance of God is stronger than the fragrance of the evil one, love is stronger than hate, light is stronger than darkness, life is stronger than death.  This is the truth that we know, this is the truth that we share, this is the truth that Paul proclaims to the Philippians when he says to them in our Second Reading

‘I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death.’

His death brought peace and light and love and life and ‘the darkness could not overcome it’ as St John says as he begins his gospel.

My friends, we’re living through challenging times and Brexit is only part of it.  All those places I mentioned before, Christchurch, a community shattered by the brutal killing of so many Muslims at prayer; the Mexican border where a wall will be built to exclude and not include; Brunei where gay people and straight people who’ve committed adultery will be stoned; and College Green where hatred of the other in our society is being whipped up in the moral vacuum that Brexit has allowed to be created; all these places and more, need to be challenged by Christians and people of faith and people of good will, standing together and speaking the truth and breaking the jar and pouring the costly and extravagant oil of love.

And how costly, how extravagant?  Well we’ll see what the cost actually is.  On the day we perversely call Good Friday we’ll see the costliness of love, and we won’t smell death but we will smell life.  God spends all for you, for me, for us, for the world, God expends God’s own self as the nails are driven home and the spear pierces the side and blood and water flow.  The poet Madeleine L’Engle describes it so simply and profoundly in her poem ‘Love Letter’

I take hammer and nails
And tack my message on two crossed pieces of wood

And the message that we read on the crossed wood is, ‘I love you’.  And that, my sisters, my brothers, is the message of this Eucharist.  We can smell bread baking and wine fermenting – this is God preparing a meal, this is God preparing a meal of God’s own self, that will cost everything and give everything.

And you and I do not need to break a flask and pour out the oil, all we need to do is come forward with our hunger and our thirst and our empty hands and then go out, smelling of God.  Let this house be filled with divine fragrance and let it spread out of these doors into a world desperate for something better, as we leave with the fragrance of God lingering about us, to make sweet what is sour in the world.

Sweet Jesus,
fill the world
with the fragrance
of your love.

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