Sunday, October 24, 2021
It’s the smell that you don’t forget. The smell of a house that’s been flooded. The smell of wet drywall, saturated carpet, of rotting food; the smell of dankness and mildew and still air. I know that you have smelled that smell. I’ll never forget the smell, walking into that house after Hurricane Harvey. I walked in and the smell jumped up and slapped me in the face.
What was once a home, a nest, a happy family hearth all you can see is destruction. The pile of things to throw away grows and grows as the pitiful handful of things you can save sits moldering in the front yard. I’ll never forget that smell, and once you’ve smelled it, neither will you. Hurricane Harvey’s smell left an imprint on my brain.
And it’s always the smells, isn’t it? The smells make you remember. The smell of your grandmother’s perfume, the smell of your favorite meal, the salty air on the Sewall. It’s always the smell. The same must have been for the people of ancient Jerusalem. The smell of fire, the smell of destruction, the smell of their city being ruined and destroyed by the Babylonians. That’s the context for our reading from the prophet Jeremiah. The Babylonians have destroyed their city, Jerusalem. The Babylonians carted off the gold and precious stones from the Temple. They destroyed fields and farms. They burned the city. Can you imagine the smell? The smell of rot, of burning? The smell of battle? I’m certain that Jeremiah, and Jeremiah’s people remembered that smell. I’m sure that for Jeremiah, and for his people, as they were being taken off to Babylon they could smell that smell. The smell of destruction was imprinted on their brains.
And yet, that’s such a great theological phrase, and yet, Jeremiah had reason to hope. In the midst of all this devastation, with the smoke of Jerusalem still in his nostrils Jeremiah speaks the word of the Lord. Think of what we just read this morning, think of it context of the destroyed city. Jeremiah speaks the word of the Lord and says “sing aloud with gladness…raise shouts…proclaim, give praise.” The audacity! Singing praises when your city has been destroyed? Giving praise when all you can smell is the smoldering ruins? Jeremiah must have sounded delusional.
But there is a difference between hope and delusion. Jeremiah has hope. Jeremiah goes on to say that the Lord will bring all the people back to Jerusalem. They will be restored, renewed. The city will be rebuilt. Even as they smell those terrible smells they can trust that the Lord God will make good on his promise to bring them back to Jerusalem with rejoicing, with praising, with shouts of joy. God promises a great ingathering – the blind and the lame, those with child and those in labor, a great company shall return. Jeremiah envisions this ingathering of people even as the stench of the ruined Jerusalem festers. It is not delusion, it is hope. Hoping is trust that God will do good things in the future even when the present is an absolute mess.
I know the feeling. In that flooded house from Hurricane Harvey, in the midst of all those smells, I saw something that gave me great hope. It was the family Book of Common Prayer. The pages had puffed up in the flood waters, the whole thing stank of the creek across the street. And yet it was undoubtedly a Book of Common Prayer. And somehow, in that instant, I had all the feelings that Jeremiah must have felt. The crushing sorrow of devastation, the terrible smells; but also the hope of a God who keeps his promises of goodness. And it happened, a great ingathering did occur. An ingathering of hope and healing after Hurricane Harvey. Episcopalians from all over Texas descended upon that house to begin the work of healing. I saw real estate agents and architects and musicians and lawyers come to that house, put up with those smells, and muck it out. That was a sign of hope, it was the downpayment on God’s guarantee of goodness. That smell to me will always be the smell of Hurricane Harvey, but it will also be the smell of hope. Hope for the future even when the present is a mess.
Envision this with me, envision with me Jeremiah’s great hope. A hope of this glorious company returning to the city of God. A hope of all people returning to give thanks, sing, and praise God Almighty. A great crowd returning to Jerusalem to rebuild and restore. Even in the midst of that devastation, and starvation, and slaughter, the burning ruins of Jerusalem are also the smell of hope.
This hope that Jeremiah has is the hope of Jesus. That great ingathering, that great crowd streaming back to the holy city – that’s precisely what Jesus has done. Jesus calls together the church, his disciples, to give thanks, to sing, to praise. We, as the church, are that great company returning to God even if the present is an absolute mess. And think of the people that Jeremiah sees in this great ingathering – it’s the blind and the lame. Precisely the same people that Jesus went after. The same ones that Jesus cared for. This is no conquering army, this is the great mess of humanity with the stench of life stuck in their noses, returning to give thanks to God. (https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-30-2/commentary-on-jeremiah-317-9-5)
The Church can take this for the lesson that it is. As Saint Augustine supposedly said, “the church is not a museum for the righteous, the church is a hospital for sinners.” And that’s what I see – I see this great company streaming to the Lord God and to Trinity Church not because we are perfect, or because our lives are great, but because we need Jesus and the Holy Spirit to help us put our lives back together. As Jerusalem was torn down and torched, with that stench hanging in the air, I know that some of you can still smell the agonies of your life. The smell of mistakes, of shame, of sin. Let those smells be a sign of hope to you, that Jesus is calling you to be part of this great ingathering. An ingathering of hope that whatever terrible destruction happened in your past does not have to dictate your future. Jesus will deliver. That is the promise made to Jeremiah, that is the promise made in Jesus Christ, that is the promise of the Church. God promises to make all things new (Revelation 21:5).
A great ingathering. That is partially what we are celebrating today. An ingathering of our commitments to Trinity Church for the next year. Truly, we have experienced devastation in these last eighteen months. A rollercoaster of an economy. Schools closing and opening. Supply chains are a mess; the political landscape is a mess; we’ve lived through one of the most contentious elections in United States history. It might not be a smell that we remember, but I’ll never forget those covid test swabs going up my nose. And yet, here we are. We are still gathering to give thanks, to sing, to praise God. And don’t you love that line in Jeremiah? Jeremiah makes it clear that those with child and women in labor will also be part of this great company returning to God. That’s a sign of hope! That there will be children, God promises that the next generations will pick up where we left off. A great ingathering.
That is what we are trying to live into here at Trinity Church. Though we have seen so much, though we have lived through so much, we trust that God will make good on his promises. We trust that Jesus is calling us, even now, to rejoice, give thanks, and sing.
And to make the final point, I believe that what Jeremiah saw, was a bright future. Jeremiah could feel in his bones that better things were ahead for the people of God. Sure, he still smelled the smells of devastation. But he could also see the bright future ahead. And from this pulpit, from where I stand as your rector, I see that same bright future. I see a church dedicated to worship, fellowship, and service. I see a church welcoming and including all people, even the blind, the lame, and the children. We have that bright future ahead of us because God has made it so. Even with the smell of uncertainty still hanging in the air, one thing is clear – God has promised good to us.
My friends, we have a bright future ahead of us. God is calling us together again and I think there is only thing we can do. Sing aloud with gladness, raise shouts, proclaim, and give praise to the Lord.