We called him Stinky George. He was a homeless man, unemployed and often sick. He would occasionally show up at church. He like the air conditioning and the pot-luck lunches.
On this particular Sunday he sat down right in front of me, I scooted down a bit. When the children came in from Sunday School my son passed right behind Stinky George. “Dad, something smells,” he said in a loud four-year old’s voice. “Randy,” I whispered, “come sit down.” “Something stinks! What is it?” he continued. “Let’s just scoot down here” I whispered. “Do you smell it too?” he asked. “Yes.” “Well, what is it?”
If I had been honest, really honest, I would have said, “Randy, that is the smell of homelessness and poverty. That is the smell of hunger and loneliness. That is the smell of alcoholism and illness. That is the smell of one who has no place to bather and in many ways no reason to bathe. Randy, that is the smell of death.”
In George, the smell of death seemed more real than the fragrance of life. So most of us stayed away, afraid that the stink would get on us. What we did not know, did not want to know or admit, is that it was already within us. George was just more honest about it. If we really looked at our lives, we would have seen the reality of death. It was there in our divorces and broken relationships, in our wounds and betrayals, in our fears, in our anger and resentment, in our addictions, in our sorrow and despair, in our excessive busyness and preoccupation with success, in things done and left undone. Death wraps around us like strips of cloth, grave clothes and it stinks.
We want to avoid it. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died,” Martha and Mary say. But Jesus wasn’t there, at least not in the way they wanted. He wasn’t there for a purpose; so that they and we might believe. Believe what? The fragrance of life is greater than the stench of death. That is the choice before us every time we meet death whether it is in us, in others, or in the world. Do we trust the smell of death more than the fragrance of life?
It seems those gathered at the tomb trust the stench more than the fragrance. “Take away the stone,” Jesus says. His words echo Ezekiel’s prophecy that God will open our graves, bring us up from those graves, put his spirit within us, and we shall live. All this happens in Jesus, the one who is resurrection and life. Martha protests. Death has filled her nostrils. “Lord already there’s a stench because he has been dead four days.” We too have said that. “He’s beyond help. It’s his own fault. Leave him alone. She’s always been like that; she’ll never change. It’s hopeless. It will always be like this. No matter what I do, how hard I try, nothing happens.” Our words may be different but the meaning is the same. Those are words of death, words that say we trust the stench of death more than the fragrance of life.
Jesus does not deny that death stinks. It does. It always has. Instead Jesus asks us to release the life, the fragrance, that is wrapped in death. “Unbind him, and let him go,” Jesus commands. To unbind another or let ourselves be unbound means we must trust the perfume of life more than the stink of death. They did that for Lazarus. With each strip of cloth they removed, death trembled, knowing its days were numbered. The unbinding of Lazarus was a death sentence for death. That sentence was carried out in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, the Christ
Every day we smell death, and every day we have the opportunity, by the grace of God, to change and be changed, to unbind and be unbound, to let go and be let go.
I sometimes wonder what happened to Stinky George. More often I wonder what would have happened if I had followed Jesus’ words rather than my nose. What would have happened if I had invited George to lunch one day? What if I had helped George find an AA meeting, and the social services that could have provided medical care, a place to live, and food to eat. What if I had said, “George, tell me the stories you are always telling but that I have never listened to. I want to know you and your life.” What if I had done something to bring forth the fragrance of life in George. What might I have unbound in George and, more to the point, what might George have unbound in me?
(reflection by Michael K. Marsh)