A Sweet Perfume

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In today’s reading, we meet Jesus the day before Palm Sunday, when he will triumphantly enter Jerusalem. He is hanging out at the home of Lazarus, the man he brought back from the dead. Lazarus has two sisters, the famous Mary and Martha. Today, we hear that as Jesus was eating dinner at their house, Mary appeared with a jar of very expensive perfume, nard. She anoints Jesus’ feet with it, and then wipes his feet with her hair. The perfume is wildly expensive – the equivalent of a year’s wages. Judas is outraged. How could she waste so much money on this single gesture? That money could have alleviated the poverty of thousands of people. Doesn’t she understand anything about this faith?  

There has always been a struggle within the church about what to do with our wealth. It wasn’t much of a problem in the beginning when Christianity was an illegal religion. Most church services took place clandestinely, outside, or within private homes. Back then, collections were made to pay for priests, but also to distribute to widows, orphans and prisoners. The poorest among them. But, when Christianity became a legal religion, it was allowed to build churches, which cost money. From that point onward, the debate about what to do with church money has been a continuing issue. During the Middle Ages, the church was rich in land, which was the source of most revenue, so the Catholic church was always in conflict with local kings and merchants. In the 1960s, a novel, Shoes of the Fisherman[1], imagined what would happen if the Catholic church liquidated all of its assets to feed the poor.  

In our time, this debate has taken a different form. Christian congregations are shrinking across the board, including among evangelicals. [2] For the mainline churches that means that sanctuaries that used to house hundreds, even thousands, are now sparsely populated on Sunday mornings. I was in Montreal a few years ago, and I paid a visit to the Notre Dame Cathedral in old Montreal.  

I took the church tour, learning about all the statues and symbolism. It was summer, a time when on Sunday mornings the cathedral was packed for Mass.    

Three thousand people would attend. But the church is located in a part of town devoted to shops and offices, there are very few homes in the immediate neighbourhood, and there is little parking. So, I asked the tour guide how many people actually attend this church as members. She said around 30. The only reason the cathedral was still open was because of government support and the swell in tourists during the summer.  

Most churches today don’t have a high season like that. Most churches have been on steady decline in congregants since the 1960s. In Canada, the United Church closes a church a week. [3] Across all denominations, it is expected that 9,000 church buildings will close in the next ten years, which is one third of all that exist. [4] There comes a point when the congregation is down to 30 or less that there just are not enough people to sit on all the committees to run the place, so it is time to amalgamate or close down. The question becomes what should be done with the church’s greatest remaining asset, the church building? These buildings are sometimes in the middle of nowhere, especially in rural areas. But in cities like Toronto, they are often located on prime real estate. They can be sold for millions of dollars. But what should happen with that money? Our churches have become the expensive perfume. The question is what to do with it?  

Up until recently in the United church, what often happened was that congregations sold their properties to developers. This is how so many churches have become condos. But within the United Church, it became clear that we were missing an opportunity. Those sales to developers often happened quickly and without enough expertise to get a good deal. The last people to attend a church are rarely savvy real estate dealers, so many churches were sold too soon or for too little. There was also the question of what was the best way to use the money that came out of church sales? Should the building simply become condos, or would there be another way to fulfill our Christian mission with the building and its post-church revenues? Could the church building and its funds be used for Christian purposes? Could that expensive perfume be sold to help the poor?  

A few years ago, the United Church of Canada set up a corporation to help congregations decide what to do with their properties. It is called the UPRC, the United Property Resource Corporation. It helps churches decide what they can do with their building that will be consistent with their church mission to help the marginalized. Some churches have been able to turn their buildings into assisted living spaces for the elderly. The UPRC has declared that it will create 5000 affordable housing units across Canada, that will provide homes to 34,000 people.[5] More and more, churches are realizing that their buildings can help the poor and keep playing a role in church mission, even after the original congregation is gone.  

But all of this raises a thorny question: what if all the congregations go? Or, what if in ten years there are only a fraction of churches left? Currently, only about 23 percent of Canadians go to church at least once a month.[6] That number continues to drop. Are we wasting our time doing this? Sure, we enjoy it, but is the money we possess better spent on helping the poor? Is all this nard, an expensive perfume that would be better spent on helping those in need? In our case, should we sell the Green P parking lot across the road and give the money away? That is what Judas would ask us today.  

But note, it is Judas who asks the question. Judas, who John reminds us, will betray Christ. He does not appreciate who Jesus really is. If he did, he could never have sold him out. In today’s scripture reading, it is Judas who makes the rational calculation – we’re supposed to be helping the poor, so don’t waste money on worshipping or anointing Jesus. Just give it to the poor.  

But Judas gets it all wrong. Jesus points out that they will always have the poor with them, but they only have Jesus here, right now, in this house. Jesus points out that this does not have to be an either/or choice. He applauds Mary for anointing him. She gets who Jesus is, God in human form. The word “Christ” comes from the Greek word “Christos”, which means the anointed one. The one chosen by God. Mary truly understands who Jesus is. Sacred and human at the same time. She does not anoint Jesus with words, but with her whole being.  

She kneels down, rubs perfume on his dirty feet, then wipes them not with a cloth, but with her hair. It is a sensuous anointing, one full of respect, but done with her entire being, including her body.    

This is what Jesus came to teach us, that we are sacred in these bodies, and she gets that. Judas does not, and I think John struggles with it. He probably wished it was a man, one of the disciples who had formally designated Jesus as the Christ, the anointed one. But he can’t rewrite the story that much. Everyone knows it was a woman who anointed Jesus, who showed that he was the Christ.  

Our gospels are full of stories like these. Stories that do not quite make sense, even to the gospel writers. How could a woman be the one to anoint Jesus? Everyone knows that stained glass in churches portray this as a faith defined by the male apostles. Yet, here she is, doing what should be impossible. On Sunday mornings we gather to hear other seemingly impossible stories. Walking on water, multiplying fishes and loaves, raising a man from the dead. These miracles make no sense to our rational scientific way of thinking. Some, even within the church, have said we should just put away these stories and our belief in a higher sacred power. We should just celebrate community, and try to be good people.  

Of course, there are lots of places where people gather as community. Golf clubs, health clubs, book clubs, places like the Granite and Canadian clubs. As long as those spaces exist, perhaps the world won’t be missing much when the last churches close. Our money could be used to help the poor, and we few who are left could read our Bibles and sing in homes, like the early Christians. Perhaps our buildings will be our most lasting legacy.  

That’s one possibility. But it neglects something really important. Statistics Canada measures how many people in this country participate in formal volunteering. Candy stripers in hospitals, Big Brothers and Big Sisters, volunteer work for the United Way, all sorts of things. 79 percent of all Canadians do some kind of volunteering, including shovelling a neighbour’s walk.[7] When scholars have asked why people volunteer, they get multiple answers. Younger people often volunteer because they think it will help them get a job later on, or because their school requires some volunteer hours. Older adults, middle age people, volunteer to help others. What interesting in the statistics is that although lots of people volunteer, the people who put in the most hours tend to be religious folks.[8] People like you. Going to church is a very good predictor of whether someone will volunteer. Moreover, young people who grew up in church were more likely to volunteer later in their lives, even if they stopped going to church. [9]  

Why is this? I think it is because in church, we are soaking in love and compassion every week. It gets into our bones. We hear variations on the same message over and over again: we’re here to be loved, and to love; to be helped by God, and to help others. And that message translates into action. In fact, studies have found that people who volunteer to benefit others have few health problems than those who volunteer to for their own sake.[10] Giving your time to others has also been shown to have positive effects on mental health, and can even soften the blow when a spouse dies.[11] Volunteering, sharing that love, is good not just for the other person, but also for the person who provides the help. It is a win-win. Yet, secular people who do not attend this compassion school, do not volunteer as much as religious people do. If all our churches close, then society as a whole will suffer. It will lose a dedicated, key part of its population, the ones who volunteer their time to others.  

Judas has presented us with a false choice. We don’t need to choose between worship and helping the marginalized. We can and must do both. Money on its own does not encourage compassion. The poor will always be with us, the economy will make sure of that. We are invited to live in the moment we hear about in scripture today. To gather to hear the stories of Jesus, to invite Him to manifest among us, so his love, his anointment, can spread among us like a rich perfume. A fragrance which gets inside us, intoxicates us with God’s love. The love and compassion we encourage here is what inspires us to help others, at work, at home, on the street, and through formal church activities. All are good.  

Our challenge in this time is how to keep this message alive and help it inspire others. We are not meant to be a secret society that writes cheques to the needy. We are meant to be a beacon of hope for everyone who seeks sacred meaning in life. So, this church has decided not to sell our parking lot or to sell the church, but to invest in this life-giving message. Every week, we invite the community to join us for meditation, prayer, bible studies, hymn sings. Our spiritual message is beamed out to people who never come to this building. Today’s prayer will be shared on Facebook and Instagram. Our sermons and services are posted on YouTube every week. Many people who live in other cities even other countries watch them, often because you have shared them. Our challenge today is how to keep this message of love and compassion relevant for people today. We choose Mary’s perfume, to let Christ’s generosity and mystery spread far and wide, an intoxicating fragrance, so we can inspire new generations of people to feel the love, and to share it. Generosity and worship go hand in hand, like body and soul. So let us inhale deeply, and then open our hearts to others as we share the good news with the world.



[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Shoes_of_the_Fisherman [2] US: https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2021/july/mainline-protestant-evangelical-decline-survey-us-nones.html Canada: https://globalnews.ca/news/8471086/religion-decline-canada/ [3] https://globalnews.ca/news/8471086/religion-decline-canada/ [4] https://catholicherald.co.uk/one-third-of-canadas-churches-to-close-within-10-years/ [5] https://uprc.ca [6] https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/75-006-x/2021001/article/00010-eng.htm [7] Tara Hahmann , “Volunteering counts: Formal and informal contributions of Canadians in 2018,” Statistics Canada , April 23, 2021 [8] Mireille Vézina and Susan Crompton  “Volunteering in Canada “,Component of Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 11-008-X Canadian Social Trends , April 2012, p, 54. [9] John Wilson, “Volunteerism Research: A Review Essay “ Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly 41(2) , 2012, 176–212 [10] John Wilson, 200. [11] John Wilson, 198.