I smell…sometimes. My wife Paige purchased special Christmas room deodorizers so that our home would smell like cinnamon, evergreen and sugar cookies instead of me. My hygiene is fair to middling and I have the normal digestive problems you would expect from a middle aged man who lives on a steady diet of pizza, beer, wings and Doritos. The smells unique to me are from my running. Even freshly laundered my running clothes emit a smell so noxious, they are relegated to the farthest corner of our basement. My shoes smell, too. When I was in third grade on an overnight at my best friend’s house, his mom placed my shoes in a ziploc bag to contain the odor and then placed that bag of shoes outside for the night. So, in my house at Christmas and really every day of the year, we have an ongoing battle to take what is smelly and try to make it less odorous. Because, Paige is like most people, she likes things that smell good and not bad.
Which is why my ears perked up when I heard in the fall, Pope Francis, the current leader of the Roman Catholic church, tell a gathering of Bishops to get out and start smelling like sheep. I don’t want to misrepresent what I know about sheep, but I have been on a few field trips to the country and one or two state fairs. I feel safe in saying that in nearly all instances, sheep smell worse than me. My hygeiene may be lacking but it far supasses that of sheep. Sheep smell because where they live, in barns, smells. Barns smell not only because wet hay is always rotting somewhere, but because animals are doing their business inside the barn itself.
Sheep smell and Pope Francis is telling his Bishops to get out there and smell, too. What Pope Francis knows is that it is in the smelliest places that we will find Jesus. Jesus started out in a place that stunk and he likely lived his entire life in a state of stinking. Mary and Joseph likely smelled. The shepherds surely smelled. The disciples that followed Jesus smelled. The people Jesus ate with smelled. The people Jesus was nailed to the cross next to, smelled. The adult Jesus likely smelled, too. He probably had just two outfits, maybe even one. He and his clothes were rarely washed, nor was their any deodorant or perfumed soap to make either smell good when they were. Slightly alarming for Pope Francis and me too, is that the people who wanted Jesus dead were some of the few people who didn’t smell in the first century. Wealthy temple priests, King Herod, and Pontius Pilate, were likely always dressed in fresh, bright white, clean linens.
Jesus was born to smelly parents, in a smelly barn and lived a smelly life for a reason. It is among smelly people that God wanted His mercy to be made known. Not because God has a thing for obnoxious odors, but because God has a thing for the least, the lost, the outcasts. In Jesus, God came to save everyone, good smelling people like most of you and those that good smelling people stay away from. In some sense, we are all the least, the lost and the outcasts. We all smell. It’s just that living in palaces or homes in Pickerington with plenty of room deodorizers makes us believe we don’t.
Jesus was born where it smelled and lived his life among those same odors. Jesus was born among the least, the lost and the outcasts. If we want to find Jesus, to share Jesus, to love like Jesus, we need to go to those places and people that the world stays away from. We are called like Jesus to leave our fresh Downy scent behind and serve the sweaty illegal, working in the sun for seven bucks an hour under the table, hedging our bushes and putting manure around our roses. For the walls that separate us in this world are what Jesus came to knock down. In baby Jesus, God reveals a heart for the smelly, for those the world hides away, revealing to us who believe, the place where our hearts needs to travel. In order for our hearts to get there, our hands and feet need to move first. We all need to smell like sheep.
Pastor Al Debelac, a friend of mine, who I admire greatly has spent nearly forty years in ministry smelling like sheep. He is retiring from parish ministry next week and preaching his last Christmas sermon at Redeemer Lutheran Church in Columbus, tonight. He, may be more than any other pastor I know, has carried out his ministry in smelly places where respectable people steer clear from.
In 1982, Pastor Al was serving his first call in an inner city church in Detroit. A family in his parish asked if he would visit their brother in the hospital. He was dying they told him, but they didn’t say of what. Al thought it odd that they had never mentioned this brother before. At the hospital, Al was discouraged from seeing their patient. He had a very dangerous and contagious disease that they had no name for yet, they said. Al insisted and they suited him up in cloth armor over his clerical shirt, shorts and sandal. A nurse him to a cordoned off space, sealed shut with taped paper on the walls and insisted on staying in the room with him.
The room smelled like stale, antiseptic hospital. The room smelled like sheep. The room smelled exactly like the sort of place a follower of Christ would find Jesus. Pastor Al said when he walked in he saw baby Jesus lying in a manger, in the terrified, tiny, thin black man lying on the freshly laundered sheets with oozing ulcers on his body and fungus growing from his mouth. The brother that no one talked about was grateful that his family had finally broken their silence and sent Pastor Al. Al stayed and talked to him for a while. When it was time to leave he ignored the objections of the watchful nurse, took off his mask and gloves, laid his hands on the splotchy skin of his head and prayed. And as he prayed, the man wept, and wept, Al said. The whole thing stunk. The whole thing stunk like Jesus. The whole thing smelled beautifully.
I smell sometimes and sometimes you smell, too. God’s grace endures our worse smells, loving us just as we are. Saved by grace, we are called to a life of ministry outside this clean, beautiful new sanctuary and into the smelly world. We are called to places people avoid and to be with those whom people turn from. In order to find Jesus, love Jesus and share Jesus we have to start smelling like baby Jesus lying in a manger. We have to start smelling like sheep. We have to start smelling like Christmas, beautiful. Amen