Have you ever noticed how much our culture talks about how we smell? There are commercials for products that make your clothes smell fresh even after wearing them (as illustrated by a woman taking a sweater out of her hamper, and viola, it’s still wearable!). There are commercials for products that will “pop” all those “unfresh” odors left in your living room, your den, your bathroom. Of course, there are commercials about deodorants and antiperspirants and foot sprays and mouthwashes and pretty smells for our hair and our bodies.
We can only imagine how fragrance was desired in the early church’s time—when there wasn’t running water, where there weren’t showers—you had to use rivers, or basins. Where clothes had to be washed by hand (maybe with the help of a rock). Where you lived in close proximity to all types of animals. What a cacophony of smells that must have been. No wonder, when bringing expensive gifts to the new king, two of the gifts the Magi brought were fragrance—frankincense and myrrh. No wonder, that when a woman at the table with Jesus wanted to do an extravagant thing—she poured perfume on his feet and wiped it with her hair.
We know that smell codes memory deep in our brains. So when we smell hot cocoa, or cinnamon or pine—it reminds us of Christmastide. The smell of salt air might bring up memories of summers at the beach. We may not even be able to identify the actual components—but there is a smell to babies, or to a loved one’s clothes, that can bring them to mind in an instant. Some suggest that if you are trying to sell your house, you bake a batch of cookies right before showing it so the aroma of baking—with its good connotations- carry into the experience the prospective buyers have.
I’m mentioning all of this to get us thinking about how fragrance works in our world. If you light a candle, if you put on perfume, if you wash with a scented soap or throw in a scented dryer sheet you throw up an aura of aroma into the surroundings. That is the image Ephesians uses at the end of our reading for today—“as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” I’m sure the writer had in mind the most common aroma of his day, the sacrifices of animals—(still burned on the altar in the temple in Jerusalem)—to make a fragrance supposedly pleasing to God.
In the same sentence of Ephesians we are called to be imitators of God, living in love. It is as if we are asked to think of what we leave behind ourselves and our deeds as a smell, be it fragrance or stench. What we do, how we interact with others, leaves something behind. Ephesians calls us to work on leaving a good smell behind—to allow the fragrance of Christ to be what people notice about us. And before I leave this part of the sermon I’ll pass along an interesting suggestion from the action portion of Seasons of the Spirit—to go to your spice cabinet and take out some of those containers—like clove, or cinnamon, or star anise, or nutmeg, or orange rinds, or cardamom, or fennel, or anything else you like, and grind it, or mix it, into a little pouch and carry it with you, and when you smell it—remember you are to live a life that is fragrant like Christ’s.
I found that as I worked with this text from Ephesians—I began to read it backwards—in other words, what I found as the overarching theme—the fragrant offering, was at the end. And if you started there, and read back, you had a better understanding about what might have seemed like a set of “how to live your life” rules. Let’s remember that Paul is insistent in his writings that we as Christians have been released from the constraints of “the law” (the idea that rules are the way that we get into God’s good standing). All that is done, finished, says Paul, we now live as a people under grace.
So the suggestions that are listed in the front part of our reading, may be things that help our lives be fragrant—but they are not the way to God’s heart. God has already chosen us, God has already forgiven us, God has already marked us in baptism and sealed us with the Holy Spirit. All of the things that are set down are ways in which we are to respond to what God has already done.
Listen to this quote from Martin Luther (you know, the one who is often lifted up as starting the Protestant Reformation). Luther, who also felt he was fighting against a regime of rules, reminds us that working on how we live our lives is not a “one and done” choice—but a continuous series of choices.
Luther says: “This life therefore is not righteousness, but growth in righteousness, not health, but healing, not being but becoming, not rest but exercise. We are not yet what we shall be, but we are growing toward it, the process is not yet finished, but it is going on, this is not the end, but it is the road. All does not yet gleam in glory, but all is being purified.”
So let’s take a quick look at some of the things Ephesians highlights as we journey towards being fragrant, like Christ. If we are to imitate Christ, to live in love—what might that look like? It’s possible that someone might quote a sentence from the later section of our reading as the culmination of all that is being said, “Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.”
(and in fact, this is the text that our Offertory anthem is based on—“Be kind to one another. Be kind and show compassion. Be kind and love each other, as Christ the Lord loves you.”)
Kindness certainly has a prominent place in how we can create a lasting impression on others. This isn’t just limited to Christians. Think of the recent film of “paying it forward” or of the campaign for doing “random acts of kindness.” Listen to poet Neryl McCallum’s take on kindness, found in her poem “Superpowers:”
“Kindness is a superpower,”
as we sat in her kitchen
aching with the ailments
of too much sadness and anger
and being taken for granted.
“If someone, anyone, is kind to you,
you can carry on.”
And we pledged to be kind to one other
and to remind one another
to be kind to ourselves.
It’s our version of an action prayer.
Yes, kindness is important. But sometimes I think we have been schooled that being Christian means tamping down too much of any emotion. If we only remember the concluding sentence about “putting away bitterness and wrath and anger” we might conclude that living in love needs to iron out all that is passionate in us. But that is not what Ephesians says. There is another sentence about anger earlier. We often quote only part of that sentence—“do not let the sun go down on your anger.” Although that may be a good rule to aspire to with the beloveds in your life—it doesn’t work when there are things we should be righteously angry about. And so we should remember the sentence about anger starts out with “Be angry but do not sin…”
The church has often had difficulty figuring out how to allow anger to be part of being a “good Christian.” As one commentator notes “anger [here] is not seen as a sin, rather as a legitimate response to certain circumstances. Pain and injustice exist, and people live with and are caught up in these things. Sometimes, the right response to a situation may well be anger that motivates acts of justice and reconciliation, but anger should not be motivation for further injustice.” (Seasons, p. 138)
I think there was a recent excellent example of righteous anger (and of a fragrant life of love for others). As you may know, Cori Bush is a freshman congressperson representing the 1st district in Missouri. She is a nurse, a pastor, and an activist (according to Wikipedia). From hearing her speak, I know that she has been houseless in her life, and she has been evicted from housing three different times.
So when the Congress left Washington recently for a six week break without passing an extension of the eviction moratorium that has been in place during the pandemic, Cori got her folding chair, her sleeping bag, and began to camp out on the steps of our Capitol, calling for President Biden to help those who were in danger of being evicted starting Aug. 1. She talked to anyone who would listen. She invited others to join her sit-in/stay-in. She was angry, saying that she knew what it was like to face eviction—and that she had been elected to make that voice known. She did not let the sun go down on her anger, because it was righteous anger—she was facing down injustice, by lifting up how we ALL should be living in love for others. Blessedly, for many, her voice was heard—and the Biden administration extended a limited freeze on evictions until early October.
Be angry, says Paul, but do not sin. You can be angry when there is injustice, when there is wrong, when there is inequality, when there is oppression. You can be angry, just channel that anger into a voice not violence. Work for the right don’t participate in more wrong. Fragrances come in different strengths. Sometimes you want to waft along the breeze. Sometimes you need to make a stink like a skunk to get your point across.
The other specifics in this passage--about laboring honestly (and sharing with those in need) and about watching what you say (so that you may give grace to those who hear)—build on the image of us being “members of one another.” This hearkens back to that central image of us as the body of Christ—each of us an individual member, a hand or a foot, a mouth or an eye.
It asks us to recognize that we are not living in our own personal bubbles—what we do, the choices we make, affect others—others that we are not just living alongside of, but are in the closest relationship possible—as members of the same body.
One last example, also from this week, from the world of the Olympics. Yes, of course, we root for those who represent our own country. Yes, we like winning. But those aren’t the only stories. They were running a semi-final heat in the 800 meters—Isaiah Jewett for the USA, and Nijel Amos for Botswana. During the final portion of the race they somehow collided and both sprawled on the track. They could have been angry. They could have yelled at each other, or made gestures, or sulked to the finish line. But they did not—they helped each other to their feet, they put their arms around each other and finished together, 54 seconds behind the winner.
I’ve enjoyed seeing our athletes compete. I’ve been proud when we’ve won gold or silver or bronze. But Jewett and Amos will be a lasting image for me of this Olympics—leaving a whiff of world cooperation and love that I hope might deepen and grow.
And I hope we, individually and collectively, can find ways to live lives of love that permeate their surroundings with a fragrant offering of kindness and justice, as we represent the body of Christ. May it be so, Alleluia, Amen.