Smells Like A Saint – A sermon on All Saints Day

John 11:32-45
When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.” Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.

All Saints Day / John Stiles / 11-1-15 / First Lutheran Church

Dear friends in Christ: grace to you and peace, from God our First Love in Christ Jesus. Let all who hear say, ‘Come!’ Amen.

Girl pinching her nose --- Image by © Wavebreak Media Ltd./Corbis

Girl pinching her nose — Image by © Wavebreak Media Ltd./Corbis

Do you smell something? What does a saint ‘smell like?’ Though my grandpa George would probably chuckle at being called a saint, I count him as such.  I remember as a kid visiting grandpa and he always smelled like Vicks Vapor Rub and Wintergreen candies. And if you even gave so much as a little sniffle or sneeze, he’d slather a generous layer of Vicks on your neck ~ because it’s good for you! You couldn’t really win an argument with grandpa, but besides all that, I knew he loved me. A real saint in my book. So, what about you? What saintly smells do you remember, both good or bad, growing up?

I remember the smell of oatmeal on the stove where my wife stands cooking it up at 6AM on a Sunday. A weekly ritual that I have come to appreciate deeply.   This week, we’ll head to Staples for the leutefisk dinner with some friends from church. Now, there’s a smell that can go either way, depending on which side of the fjord you grew up! No, some smells are not pleasant at all, are they?  I recall the smell of urine at the nursing home when I go to visit someone there. What smells bring you back to important people or moments in life? Is it the smell of perfume or cologne that remind you of an ex-lover? Or maybe the smell of saliva on the back of your head in the 7th grade when you were teased? What does grief smell like to you?  What really stinks in your life?

You see, Jesus knows something about stenches. When he arrived on the scene, in today’s lesson, his friend Lazarus had already been dead four days and there was a stench. But Jesus had a keen sense of smell. He could smell betrayal on Judas, as he dipped his bread in the sauce and greeted him with a kiss later that night. He could smell the fear in the woman caught in the act of adultery, shamelessly at his mercy, waiting to be stoned to death. He could smell the stench of greed as he toppled the tables of the money-changers who were cheating the people of God right there in the synagogue.

Anytime you encounter a situation in life that just plain stinks… he’s there. Like a Cosmic EMT who’s used to the sight of blood, Jesus is unafraid to get in there and stabilize us – check our vital signs so we can get the care we need. That’s just the way God operates. He’s got the stomach for all the things that make us want to throw up. And he lives in us as a fragrant bouquet for those who call on him in faith.

Mother smelling flower held by her son (4-5) --- Image by © Jorn/Corbis

Mother smelling flower held by her son (4-5) — Image by © Jorn/Corbis

I know, today is All Saints Sunday – a time to remember with fondness, those ‘saints’ in our lives who have gone before us – those who have “the aroma of Christ” – that pleasing smell of love and mercy. And yet, in our grief, as we hear the tolling of the bell and recall the names of those who have died this past year – we also bring a part of us that hurts, that stinks, that mourns. Maybe you’ve grieved well and have moved on or maybe you’re still healing from the hurt.

Granger Westberg, in his book Good Grief, reminds us of how much we try to avoid grief and talk of death. Of how boys, especially, are taught not to cry – to be a man – and show no emotion. So why then, do you suppose, God made tear ducts? Why was it important for John to include this famous “shortest verse in the Bible?” John 11:35 Jesus wept? (I know, the NRSV translated it into four words, but you get the idea) According to Westberg, there are several stages that one can go through when faced with a loss: shock, physical distress, panic, hurt feelings, anger, resentment, depression, and eventually… hope. But the tears are a part of that process.

Tears are simply a cleansing of the soul for those who have loved and lost. We grieve at the death of a family member or friend. We grieve at having to ‘put down’ the family pet. We grieve at the loss of health, eyesight, hearing. We grieve when a child goes missing – as with the Jacob Wetterling case, that has been in the news again this week. Even sending your kids off to college – or through marriage can be a loss. Westberg writes: “A child is lost not through death but through marriage. He takes all his belongings from his room, and the house is lifeless. A house once filled with laughter and joy is now as quiet as a tomb.”

And Jesus knows something about tombs. He knows the stench of decaying flesh and preserving spices such as myrrh. He can tell you what people say at the tomb. They get angry: “Lord, where were you? Having a day off? If you’d been here, he would not have died. You restored sight to the blind, so where were you?” It’s a fair question of the grief-stricken. Of those who are caught short of breath and slapped in the face with barely an idea of what hit them.

Anyone who’s had a loved one die or had a good friend move away or who has gotten passed over for that promotion – knows what it’s like to say, “This just stinks! Where were you, Jesus? Don’t you care?”

That’s the thing with loss. It hurts. But Jesus didn’t answer the question. No, when it comes to the questions that rise from the depths of our grief – no pat answer will do. Instead, he gives them something much more. He says: “I am the resurrection and the life.” (John 11:25) He gives them what they need.

No one wants to die. We’d rather have God deliver us from that harsh reality. Maybe that’s why books and movies about near-death experiences give us a glimmer of hope. But even those testimonies are just about resuscitation – not resurrection. Lazarus would go on to die again after this story. The promise, “Behold, I make all things new!” (from Revelation 21) comes only after the old has passed away. There is no way to grow into something new without letting go of what’s dead and gone.

And we can let go because Jesus promises to be there with us. And what does he do? He just weeps. He weeps right where you are, right in the middle of your awful, stinky, mess – fully aware of the stench, and thanks be to God that he’s not going anywhere!

Pastor Heidi Neumark once said, “Jesus stands with us in the face of all that stinks.” (The Christian Century, 10/31/12). He stood with Mary and Martha as the stench of Lazarus’ rotting corpse seeped from that tomb. He stands with kids who are bullied and teased. He stands with those who got bad news from the doctor. He stands with those in the midst of divorce, whose lifelong vows have been shattered. He stands in our worship – where people come, fully knowing they don’t have it all together. And he weeps, and he cares.

And that’s good news for me and for you. Because something new is coming, and it’s because of this story right here. Renowned preacher, Fred Craddock had it right when he said, “This story isn’t just for Mary and Martha, ‘Oh, good for them, they got their brother back.’ No, when Jesus called Lazarus out of that tomb he knew that he was about to go strait into it.” From that moment on, John tells us, the chief priests and the scribes looked for an opportunity to kill him. And maybe some of his tears were echoes of his prayer: “Father, if it be thy will, let this cup pass from me!” Our very human, brother Jesus didn’t want to die. And yet, here he is: invited to his own tomb with the words: Come and see. “Where have you laid him?” “Come and see.” It’s a call to discipleship that John uses repeatedly. Nathaniel said it to Philip: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth? Who is this Jesus?” “Come and see!” The woman at the well was so moved by Jesus, she invited her neighbors, “Come and see a man who told me everything – can he be the Messiah?” And here, Jesus is being called with the same words… to his friend’s tomb – and ultimately, to his own.

~He comes to see us in our times of trial.
~He comes to see the destruction in Texas, where record flooding has claimed lives and destroyed livelihoods along the gulf coast.
~He comes to stand with the soldier being deployed to Syria, not knowing when or if he will come home.
~He comes alongside the young person who has no place to sleep, except for the couches of friends who open their homes to the homeless.
~He comes to weep with the young man who left his home church years ago because he was transgendered, and she didn’t know if she’d be welcome anymore.
~He comes alongside that person who was shunned by parents for dating someone who doesn’t believe in God.
~He comes to stand with you in the stench you alone can smell. And he’s not going anywhere.

In Rev. 21:4 we hear: “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” But notice how the very next verse describe the conditions: “7Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children.” In other words: Jesus can stand the stench: all the failures and rottenness of our sinful nature. All we have to do is believe it – and receive the inheritance of the saints in Christ. All things are being made new, making us more than conquerors. When you live grounded in that hope, the people around you smell Jesus – the sweet smell of victory.

As Horace Mann once said (that champion of the American public schools): “Be afraid to die before you have made some small victory for humanity.” That’s what a saint looks like – or smells like – it’s that smell of victory around you that makes all the difference. It’s fresh coffee from a friend at just the right moment, or baked bread on the table feeding someone in more ways than one, or the sun on the bedsheets taken in from the line, as a blessing at the day’s end. It’s oatmeal on the kitchen stove at 6AM on a Sunday. It’s the smell of the top of a newborn baby’s head as the waters of baptism are poured out. It’s Christ living in you and me, in those small victories, that draws others to want to breathe it in more deeply. Take a deep breath right now and remember: you are the aroma of Christ – you saintly sinners – you ambassadors of Christ. And you smell great to me!

Let us pray: O God, some days we can’t stand the stench of this life. Weep with us. Give us courage to grieve, not as those who have no hope… but as children of your promise, filled with the aroma of Christ, in whose name we pray: Amen.

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