I know I’m in trouble when even coming up with a title for the sermon seems like an impossible task! God who smells just didn’t seem right! Even Smelling God or the Smelling God didn’t work. Lauren Winner’s chapter title in Wearing God is simply “Smell.” How do we develop “smell” as an image for God? The word image seems to lead toward something that can be seen – and perhaps touched. But, smell?
It is elusive. As Winner says, “Smells are hard to describe. How do you describe the smell of an orange (without reference to something very similar, like the smell of a tangerine)?”
Perhaps, because smells are so hard to describe, the sense of smell has been denigrated. Smell is considered as a lesser sense. Aristotle lifted up the intellective senses of sight and hearing above the others of smell, taste and touch. Smell ranked somewhere in the middle. With the Enlightenment, there was even less of an emphasis on smell as people became interested in what data the senses gave that could be interpreted. How does one interpret a smell?
But smells are powerful. They connect us with our emotions, perhaps like no other of our senses. How many times have you heard someone speak of the smell of a loved one’s clothing – particularly after that loved one had died? I remembered, not clothing, but the smell of my grandfather’s car. The garage was in the basement of his house. The mustiness of that basement permeated the car. My grandmother gave me that car, about 20 years after granddaddy died. I owned the car for almost 20 years – and it still smelled of their basement when I sold it. Even though the mustiness wasn’t a pleasant smell, I hoped, when I owned the car and had it stored in other places, that odor would not fade away – because I thought of both of them every time I got into that car.
One of the possible sermon titles I had for today was Aromatherapy God. We may be children of the enlightenment, but somehow, in recent years, there has been a growing, renewed interest in the power of “smell.” Aroma is big business. You can buy scented candles, or plug in scent dispensers, or aerosol sprays. I admit to loving the chocolate scented candle my daughter bought me a few years ago. I also liked the “cinnamon bun” candle that even looked like the treat. There are candle scents to make you happy or ones to help you relax. Even baby products are marketed with an eye to particular smells as comforting. We are reclaiming a sense that was often overlooked – or even disparaged. I heard a news anchor speak of when she was a child who feared separation from her mother. “I kept her picture, sprayed with her perfume, with me,” she said. Winner tells of a nurse in Minnesota who developed a shirt that could be turned into a blanket. The mom would wear the shirt for a few days. Then the “blanket” was given to the child to ease separation anxiety.
Winner chose this image of God because the Biblical writers paid attention to the God who smells – in both senses of the term! God both emits a fragrance and God “inhales aromas and perceives scent.” We are probably familiar with the concept of sacrifices in the Hebrew Scriptures. The Bible speaks of God perceiving those sacrifices by smelling them. After the story of the flood we’re told that Noah “offered burnt offerings on the altar. And when the Lord smelled the pleasing odor, the Lord said in his heart, ‘I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.’”
The Hebrew testament also speaks of incense. One reference to the burning of the incense speaks of it as a “soothing odor.” The incense had an effect on God. Some scholars refer to it as aromatherapy for God. The scent would “calm God and change God’s mood,” Deborah Green says. The purpose of burning incense was to please God. Human beings and God could enjoy the scent together. Winner says, “It is in fact a ritual shorthand for God’s intimate and close connection with us.” It is a reminder that God, who created us, created us as sensory beings. And one of those senses is the sense of smell.
In the New Testament, we get another reference to the aroma that pleases God in the letter to the church in Ephesus. Paul writes of Jesus’ death as pleasing to God. “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us, and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” I find that a difficult statement because we focus on the “sacrificial gore” that seems to be implied. But, we could also hear it as Jesus’ willingness to “imitate God” by following God’s ways even to death. Maybe it was his steadfast faithfulness that was the sweet aroma that pleased God.
It always strikes me as a failure of the church when someone says, “I can’t come because I’m afraid I will get too emotional!” All I can think is, “This is the place where you should be. Your tears, your pain are ours to share with you so that we may minister to you. We are the body of Christ. As Paul said, “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.”
In recent years, protestant religious leaders have been looking back at the Reformation and started a critique of the protest movement that rejected so much of the wealth of tradition. In some ways, they say, we “threw the baby out with the bathwater!” Much of the Protestant tradition was focused on knowledge – what could be known, professed – and, maybe, even explained. So, gone were the rituals that invited a deeper contemplation of mystery. And gone were some of the traditions that connected more fully with our emotional selves.
Winner shared a story from, I’m guessing, an Episcopal priest.
A student of mine called me late one evening after worship. He was really excited on the other end and I had to ask him to slow down. So, he says, “Mother Kim, this strange thing happened to me today. After worship tonight, I was riding the train back to my apartment, when this woman sat down next to me. I had my earbuds in, so I wasn’t really paying her any attention, but she tapped me to get my attention. She said, ‘Son, you smell like church. You smell like church.’”
Now the Apostle Paul tells us in his letter to the Corinthians that those who know Christ have a particular smell. When we come to know God – come to trust and believe in the power of God’s love, there’s an aroma, a fragrance that lingers in the room even after we leave. To borrow from the words of the woman on the train, when we encounter God, we begin to “smell like church.” Or to borrow from Paul, “We smell like Christ.”
That evening on the phone with my student, I asked him what happened next. He said, “She started to cry. And she looked up at me and said, ‘Thank you. I haven’t been to church in a long time.’”
This Protestant tradition has no incense. Yet, there are smells that may connect us powerfully to faith. For me, the smell of candles just extinguished reminds me of Christmas candlelight services – and maybe Maundy Thursday services as well. They are the incense for me.
But maybe I need to pay closer attention to the smells around me – and see what they tell me about God’s presence with me, with us. Winner speaks of the smell of wine and wafer in her communion services. But she also has noticed the smell of a particular congregant’s hand lotion or another’s leather jacket and another’s perfume.
Even more importantly than the way worship or our worship space smells the question rises before us, are we living as a sweet offering to God? Are we, God’s people, an aroma in this world that points to the ways of God?
And that doesn’t mean perfuming our lives or the world in ways that block out the stench – the stench of despair, the stench of hopelessness, the stench of poverty, the stench of abuse. Winner, as she moved into this chapter on smell, spoke of the way that smell is used to separate people. Sociologists Gale Larson and Rod Watson said, “Odors, whether real or alleged, are often used as the basis for conferring a moral identity upon an individual or a group.” She wrote of a homeless man who was barred from using a public library because others found his odor offensive. “Perhaps if smelling is to be part of my relationship with God,” Winner writes, “I might start here: trying to unlearn whatever I have been taught about the relationship of smell to virtue, trying to notice how I let smell become a barrier between me and people who might be my friends.” Perhaps, the underside of our obsession with scents, odors and aromas in our society is that we use them to judge others when they don’t smell as we think they should. What God perceives to be sweet smelling may not be sweet to us. Winner says, “The possibility of my being a sweet-scented offering may turn precisely on my remembering that Jesus, the Fragrance of Life, was a sometimes homeless man whose body was not always perfumed by women bearing nard. He surely sometimes stank.”
We may not have a tradition of incense. But, I invite you, today, to bring this sense of smelling into your worship. I hope you smell that delightful baking aroma of chocolate chip cookies. I have a few containers with spices and coffee. I invite you to sniff them – and reflect. Offer a prayer to God, a prayer that arises from a particular smell. During the offertory you may come forward for anointing. I have some scented oils (and a plain oil.)
Smell God. Smell God in the myriad odors of our world – those that are sweet and those that point to the world’s brokenness. And let us strive to live as God’s aromatic people, offering ourselves in ways that please God as we strive to imitate Christ.