There’s No Going Back

Sunday, April 3, 2022
Pastor Jason Bryan-Wegner 

John 12:1-8

Good morning! It is so good to finally be here and I look forward to getting to know you as we begin this ministry together. I want to begin with a question this morning.

Have you ever been somewhere, maybe somewhere you’ve never been before, when suddenly a familiar smell wafts by and you are instantly transported to someone or somewhere else?

The smell of lilacs reminds me of my wife Erica because it is one of her favorite smells of spring.

Anytime I smell Indian curry it sends me straight back to Nepal where I studied abroad in college.

What are the scents that transport you to other people and times in your life? Perhaps this is one of your first times back at Augustana since the pandemic and the scent of the building generate feelings, reminding you of important moments of faith you’ve had in the past. Even as things are different here today than they were at the time, there is likely something deeply familiar. Right?

It’s not an accident that this connection between scent and memory exists. Neuroscience tells us that the olfactory nerve that registers smell travels very near the place in our brain where emotion and memory are stored. We can’t help but sense the past meeting the present when we smell certain things.

In our gospel reading this morning, we find a party going on. Just walking by and smelling the savory food and hearing the joyous conversation would have told you that something special was happening. Jesus had just raised Lazarus from the dead, and his family and friends got together to celebrate this gift of new life. Among all the festivities, I’m sure Mary was unaware of the science behind scent and memory when she opened her container of nard and poured it on Jesus’ feet. But I’m pretty sure she knew exactly what she was doing. In this scent-laced act of love and devotion, Mary unleashed a trove of memories and emotions that would have quickly changed the tone in the room.

Nard was not something that showed up at a party celebrating life. It didn’t have an aroma that brought warm, celebratory feelings. It was an oil used, as Jesus said, to anoint the dead. To call this oil a fragrance is generous. It stunk! It probably reminded the people of how Lazarus had smelled just days before when they laid his dead body in the tomb. And it likely would have transported people to other times in their lives where they gathered with loved ones and community, not to celebrate, but to grieve and mourn. So, what’s the point? Why would Mary seemingly interrupt a party that was celebrating life to remind the people again how close death remained?

Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t think people need a reminder of the general presence of death. Most of us are well-aware of its reality, as we’ve lived through it or are living through it with family members, or pets, or close friends. We see it’s devastation on the news in Ukraine, or in the million plus deaths that have resulted from COVID.  No, Mary wasn’t trying to point to something we already know so much about. Rather, Mary is pointing specifically to Jesus’ impending death – a future, and not a past event. An event that would show just how different his death would be, what height and depth of love Jesus would give for the world.

Mary’s act of devotion shows the kind of work Jesus still had to do, and what it looks like to follow him in that work. His teaching among throngs of people was over. The signs and miracles were complete. There was only one thing left. Mary’s anointing of Jesus reminds us that his death, as inexplicable as it is, will lead to abundant life not just for one, but for all, in his resurrection.

That the stench of death is not the final act, but a necessary one to bring about the kind of love that can embrace and change the whole world.  The “fragrance” of nard swirling in the nostrils of Jesus’ friends became a scent meant to create new memories. Memories that would sustain them through the pain of suffering to the hope of resurrection. It’s both and, death and resurrection – this is the way of Jesus. There’s no going back.

I’ve quickly learned of the faithful ways Augustana has held these two essentials of faith – both death and resurrection – together through its ministry and mission for 114 years. You’ve shown up for each other and the community in all circumstances. You’ve given witness to the power of Jesus to change lives. You’ve walked with people into deeper faith in a God who meets us wherever we are in life, and who calls us to the gracious and loving ways of Jesus. It is good to remember these “scents of faith”- the ways God has worked through us to bring life and hope in the past. Remembering the past helps create a kind of faith “muscle memory” to follow Jesus faithfully into the future.

Our past and our future are interwoven. God is continuing to call us to love and serve, to grow in faith, to commit to God’s vision of hope and redemption, as God always has. And at the same time, we know that things aren’t the same. The neighborhood has changed. People’s perceptions and attitude toward organized religion has changed. How people communicate with one another, especially in the last couple of years, have all changed. And yet…God continues to promise hope among doubt, vision amid uncertainty, comfort in our grief, and strength for each new day that lies ahead. We are being called into new relationships, you and I, us and the community around us, and new ways of being God’s people. It will take courage and openness and a good memory of the faith that God has already planted in us, to see God bringing life from death in new ways, in new people, among new generations, and new cultures around us.

Here’s the good news. God has been faithful and will continue to be. We can be confident that the Spirit of God will continue to lead us to new life. As we live into the future with God’s leading, we can expect that we will welcome new people with new perspectives who will help us experience new ways that God is bringing life among us.

One of the ways Augustana has faithfully responded over the decades to our neighbors is through extravagant generosity during Minnesota Food Share Month. We are in the last weeks of this annual campaign. These last couple of years have created greater food insecurity for people in our community than in the last decade. One in thirteen people in Minnesota, and 1 in 9 children regularly don’t have enough food. In a society that has so much, it seems wrong that anyone goes hungry, doesn’t it? Yet, kids and young adults don’t have enough nutrition to focus on school, seniors don’t have enough to afford both food and medication, parents sacrifice critical time raising their kids just to try to provide enough for them all to eat. As a community of Jesus’ followers, we can name this as a kind of death for the way our society works – for the suffering that persists, and by faith contribute to ways that bring wholeness and life to God’s beloved people.

To be about the life-giving work of Jesus, we are called to examine where suffering persists, and claim again the promise that Jesus leads us through death into new life. Jesus meets us where we are in our need, wherever we are. Death will always be a companion to life, but in faith, it is not the final word. Life, abundant life is the way. And the way of Jesus is through the cross. Only then does Jesus’ love for the world break the power of death and lead all to life. From here, there’s no going back. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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