What’s That Smell?
Sermon for 5th Sunday of Lent – 15 March 2020 – Parish of Felixstowe
A Cyber Sermon from the Vicarage
Text: John 11v33-40
33When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ 35Jesus began to weep. 36So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’ 37But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’
38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39Jesus 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 for four days.’ 40Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’
God give you peace, my sisters and brothers.
Our Cathedral town of Bury St Edmunds (BTW why hasn’t Suffolk got a city – local MPs when things are back to normal this is the issue I want to see you fighting for). Our Cathedral town of Bury St Edmunds is a town of two smells.
Both of the smells are associated with activities at the heart of the town and bring income to Suffolk and take Suffolk to the rest of the nation. The two smells are seasonal; one follows the pattern of the farmer’s year and the other the anaerobic activities of yeast.
What are these smells?
There is the sickly-sweet smell of the sugar factory as it processes beet in to white gold and then there is the full rich yeasty smell of the Greene King brewery as it turns barley, hops and yeast into the nectar of the gods.
Guess which smell I prefer?
Bury St Edmund can be fairly described as a ‘smelly’ town.
Today’s reading from the Gospel is a smelly story;
Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, ‘Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.’ (John 11v33)
So much for the, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe’ that Martha had proclaimed just a few verses before! Yet, I suspect that many of us, if we were in her place, would have found ourselves doing the same thing. Holding on to a hope that is nothing more than dressed-up wishful thinking, we shout aloud our faith and then face the ‘reality’ of physical decay as we stand outside the closed tomb, or in our case the locked church in the middle of a locked-down community.
And then it is that our faith will be found or found out.
If the light really did shine on this dark place where death has reigned for four days – or fourteen days, or three weeks or three months, or more even – will there be a ‘smell’ at the end? And if there is to be a smell what sort of odour will waft around us? A stench or a sweet aroma?
It seems somehow appropriate that our nation and the church is sent into lockdown at the same time as we see Lazarus shut into his tomb. We are entering a time of congregational darkness which, if we do not work well in the tomb, may find that it becomes a time of death and stench.
And this question is not only for those who are unable to gather for worship today. British society, since the prosperity and growth of the Middle Class from the 1960’s, has given up on being a community. Believing the lie that we no longer need each other, we have become a nation (and dare I say a church) where it is a case of everyone for themselves. And so we prioritise ‘my’ rights over ‘our’ responsibilities and ‘my’ greed over the need of others.
This disease has done nothing other than to accelerate the deathly creep of self-importance and independence which we have allowed to grow and become normal. It seems as if we have abolished any duty of care for others and have made our national motto, ‘Blow you Jack! I’m alright.’
We are destined to spend time dying together, for fourteen days, or three weeks or three months, or more even. The question we must answer is, when we come out the other side, will we there be the stench of death or the sweet aroma of new life?
What we smell like will depend on the work that we do in the dark tomb. Looking at what is happening on Social Media and in the aisles of our shops we see evidence of both sorts of dark work. There are wonderful examples of love and care and sacrifice and there are cases of people hoarding food, flouting laws and theft of items such as NHS badges to gain even more privilege.
In the middle of this we need to hear a word from God.
A word of encouragement.
A word of explanation.
A word, even, of judgement so that we can place the burden of our selfishness on ‘them’ instead of owning that indeed ‘no man is an island’ and ‘any man’s death diminishes me’.
It seems as if God is also in lockdown.
We are literally ‘all in this together’ save the fact that we aren’t physically ‘together’. We are left alone even, we feel, by God. Frightened by the prospect of our own death, or worse the death of a loved one, we may as well be shut up with Lazarus in a cold dark tomb.
Our problem is that we have very little idea of what to do in the dark.
In the tomb there is no light to help us take the next step, it is all about feeling our way and learning to live with uncertainty.
In the tomb there is no light by which we can see what other people are doing, and so judge their actions to be ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and work out whether we should follow them, ignore them, or despise them.
In the tomb there is no light to show us the vulnerable at our feet, the ‘anawim‘ of God who have fallen in the dark and, unable to stand, need our outstretched hand.
Darkness is a fierce place. It is where all the monsters of society and of our inner selves come to prowl and lay waste and devour. Not for nothing does John record in his gospel:
And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. (John 3v19-20)
But ‘darkness’ and ‘evil’ are not synonyms.
Darkness can, and should, be a place of growth and new life. The seed germinates in the dark depths of the soil. The babe is nurtured and protected and grows in the darkness of the womb.
God does not leave us alone in the dark.
Before the Word spoke light into being God lived in the dark and it is from the dark that new life sprouts, and shoots, and blossoms.
It was out of the darkness, the ‘nothingness’, that the Godhead thrived and loved and chose to create.
Darkness is not evil or deadly, darkness is an opportunity to grow.
Some would even say that having a healthy relationship with darkness is the only way for any lasting growth. Carl Jung, Clement Freud’s student who explored the human psyche from a different perspective, has this to say about personal growth and working with our ‘Shadow’:
One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.
In the time ahead, be it for four days, or fourteen days, or three weeks or three months, or more even, we will stand face-to-face, as a nation, as a church, and as individuals, with our shadow side, and, because not all of us are friends with her, she may seem to be dark and demonic instead of fecund and welcoming. Our task is to choose to welcome the darkness, our shadow, and work with her to produce a sweet-smelling odour instead of a stench when we finally emerge from our locked-down tombs.
If we can use this time of lockdown as an opportunity to grow and work with God in the darkness we will emerge from the tomb into the bright light of the resurrection and these words will be said of our lives:
Many… had seen what Jesus did, [and] believed in him.
[This blog ‘What’s That Smell?’ is copyright © Andrew Dotchin 2020 and may be reproduced without charge on condition that the source is acknowledged]
Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. 3So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill.’ 4But when Jesus heard it, he said, ‘This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.’ 5Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, 6after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
7 Then after this he said to the disciples, ‘Let us go to Judea again.’ 8The disciples said to him, ‘Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?’ 9Jesus answered, ‘Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. 10But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.’ 11After saying this, he told them, ‘Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.’ 12The disciples said to him, ‘Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.’ 13Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. 14Then Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead.15For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.’ 16Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow-disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’
17 When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. 18Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, 19and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. 20When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’23Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ 24Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ 25Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live,26and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’27She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’
28 When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, ‘The Teacher is here and is calling for you.’ 29And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. 30Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 32When 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.’ 33When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ 35Jesus began to weep. 36So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’ 37But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’
38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39Jesus 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 for four days.’ 40Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ 41So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upwards and said, ‘Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42I 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.’ 43When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ 44The 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.’
45 Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.