March 18, 2013


Smell Sign

Sermon for Year C, The Fifth Sunday of Lent
By The Rev. Torey Lightcap
March 17, 2013
St. Thomas Episcopal Church

Let me ask you some questions to get your nose going, okay?

First: what does Christmas smell like?
To me, the smell of Christmas
  Is the smell of sweet rolls … pine … Scotch tape … plums … pie … cinnamon.

What about the Spring? What does springtime smell like?
To me, in my collection of memories,
  Spring smells like grass … chocolate … cleaning products, like window spray.

What are the smells of Summer?
  To me, it’s hot dogs … peanuts … lawnmower gasoline … watering hoses.

What does the Home where you grew up smell like in your mind?
  To me, that home smells like spaghetti sauce in a crockpot … fresh laundry …
    Overly chlorinated water … gun oil … and oddly enough, new carpet.

Every smell is pegged to a memory, or more likely a set of memories.
The more memories there are to reinforce it, the more strongly we can recall it.
Although one harsh memory can forever burn itself into us.

And on that count, since we are approaching the end of Lent,
  And a season of contemplating our mortality,
  I have to ask you this question too:
    What is the smell of death?
As someone who has spent some time in hospitals with dying people,
  I can tell you that a distinct smell arises from a person who is slowly, actively dying.
It’s a kind of sour burning you can taste on the back of your mouth,
  An intrusive and unwelcome smell.
In other deaths that take less time, there are still many smells to contend with:
  The antiseptic smell of hospitals, bad coffee, the cologne of undertakers at 3 a.m.,
    The well-oiled ambulance spilling exhaust, the rubbery tubes used by EMTs … gauze.
When the priest comes, he brings his own smells:
  Holy oil from a stock applied to the head of your deceased loved one,
    Sometimes the hands and the feet also.
Death has its smells.
And I don’t think I have to say this, but I will:
  A dead body has its own particular smells.

I do not say these things in order to turn you off.
I say them because this reading from John
  Is all about what happens in the nose when someone is dead.

Jesus’ friend Lazarus died.
Died for several days as you may recall.
Was in the tomb for four days by the time Jesus showed up:
  Dead long enough that Lazarus’ own sister Martha –
    Martha, you remember, like Martha Stewart, the Domestic Goddess
      Who had no time to sit and listen to Jesus like her sister Mary did –
    Martha warned Jesus that if he raised Lazarus the smell would be horrific.
(So I guess you could say Jesus raised a stink.)
But at any rate, raise him, he did –
  Prefiguring his own resurrection, yes.
And leading us to ponder the power and providence of God,
  That even this could happen.

Now the scene shifts to inside their house,
  And I think it only fair to imagine that the smell of death still hangs heavy on the air.
Lazarus is probably still gobsmacked from having died and been raised up,
  Pondering his good fortune in having Jesus for a friend:
  The one guy in all of history who could pull off bringing him back to life.
At dinner, in the house, the stench of a recently dead man.

Now comes the smell of anointing, and perfume, filling up the house.
In this almost inexplicable act of devotion and sorrow,
  Mary wipes Jesus’ feet with her own hair,
  Spreading the smell of one desiring to anoint Jesus’ body before its funeral.

What Mary cannot know at this moment
  Is that her grief, and the smell that it conveys in this perfume,
  Is actually the gateway to the single most important moment of history,
    Where all time converges and hangs,
    And the bedraggled and crucified Body of the Christ
      Emerges from its temporary earthly tomb, resurrected.
The grief-stricken perfume of anointing which she means to mark Jesus’ death
  Is nothing less than the perfume of life
    That cuts across the smell of death in the house
    Until, finally, there is no more death.

It’s an odd moment, a weird-family-dynamic moment,
  A moment complicated by personal histories and unseen arguments
  That only people who are siblings can really understand between themselves,
    And even then ...

Yet it’s also a small and beautiful moment,
  Heavy with scent and symbol,
  Effusive and intrusive aromas, competing fragrances.

Celebrating the raising of Lazarus.
Anticipating the raising of Jesus.
No tomb can hold them.

Do you know, my dear sisters and brothers,
  What happens in just one week?
It is Palm Sunday. Already, I know.
Palm Sunday, when we welcome Jesus into Jerusalem with great pomp
  And then almost before we know it,
    We are completely caught up with the crowd
      Yelling for Barabbas to be released
    And for Jesus’ blood to be spilled:
      Longing for a scapegoat upon which to heap all our sins.
There is a strong sense, in that service,
  That we are somehow to blame –
    We who were not alive then.
Perhaps we like to think we might’ve done better,
  Warned him off or at least been more loyal than Jesus’ scattered disciples and deniers.
The arc of history and everything we know about mob psychology suggest
  That we need to remain humble.

Soon enough all the smells of Holy Week will be upon us:
  The palms, the oil, the candles, the wine, the bread, the water, the incense and the lilies.
But not quite yet.

For now we are in the house with Lazarus,
  Seated between a man who died and a man who will die,
  With the bouquet of the perfume of life heavy in our noses.

We are about to walk a perilous journey.
As we walk it, then,
  Let us remember, as Paul reminds us in Romans, that nothing in all of creation –
    Hardship, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, sword …
    Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers …
      Things present, things to come, powers or height or depth …
    Not even the ugly specter of our own grisly desire for a scapegoat …
  That there is nothing that will be able to separate us
    From the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

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