“Scent and Memory”
by the Reverend Doctor Peter W. Allen
Preached at Camp Dudley Reunion
Westport, New York
August 26, 2012
II Corinthians 2:14-17
Good morning. Thanks to each one of you for being here this morning. I’m so glad and honored to be sharing this time with you and to be back here in the chapel after a year away. I love this place so much that I even love how it smells. And Camp Dudley’s got lots of smells…
The smell of wildflowers (and sometimes cow manure) as you drive along the Dudley road with the window down… The smell of paint as you walk by the basement of Witherbee where all the costumes and sets and props are kept… The powerful smell of Beckman Hall right before dinner, when it’s full of good food and also full of campers who’ve spent a whole day playing lacrosse and soccer… The musty smell of the pages as you open your hymnal for chapel or hymn sing… The acrid smell of gunpowder as you approach the rifle range on North Point… Even Swim Point and Cub Beach have their own distinctive smells, as do each of the institutes on campus. OK, so those smells are not the greatest, but they’re still Dudley smells and so they’re all right with me.
They say that, of all the senses, smell is most closely related to memory. But I think there’s more to it than that. I think certain smells have the power to transport us back in time to a place, a person, or an experience. And I think certain smells stick with us for a reason. I think they are embedded so deeply in our memories because of what was going on and what we were feeling when we first smelled them. So, it’s not just about the smells and the memories; it’s the emotions that accompany them…
When I smell frying bacon, I remember Saturday mornings in the wintertime’s of my childhood, and I feel the love and security of family… When I smell roses, I remember meaningful conversations with my dad in the side yard where he tended his flowers and I feel his presence… When I catch a whiff of a perfume similar to the one my mom used to wear, I experience the feeling of unconditional love all over again… When I smell freshly cut grass, I remember the satisfaction I felt as I earned my very first paycheck… When I smell a locker room, the awkwardness and intimidation I felt in Jr. High gym class come right back to me…
And, yesterday, when I stuck my head into Rensselaer cabin (where I spent my cub season), one sniff brought back the heartache of homesickness and the wonder of discovering what Camp Dudley was and is all about: the friendships, the fun, the growing self-awareness, and the other fellow first.
Of course, reunions like this one are all about memories. They’re about remembering that which we regret and remembering our greatest triumphs. They’re also about celebrating what yet might be as we continue to nurture the relationships and values that are most important to us.
In our reading for this morning from 2nd Corinthians, the author (the Apostle Paul) talks about the fragrance of a triumphal procession. He knows that his audience will immediately think of a commanding officer of the Roman army, entering the city after yet another victory, led by servants carrying incense. They might also imagine the smell of burnt offerings in the Temple in Jerusalem.
And he knows that his audience will associate these smells with military and religious power. The power to kill and control; the power to awe and impress.
But, as a follower of Jesus, Paul knows that Jesus puts no stock at all in military power or in the animal sacrifices and other impressive ceremonies that take place in the Temple. He knows that Jesus is a different kind of leader, one who goes to the lowliest of places and uses his power to feed the hungry, heal the brokenhearted, and bring hope to the hopeless. And he knows that it’s not good enough simply to remember these things for oneself.
So, Paul asks his audience to be the aroma of Christ. He asks them to be that holy smell, a fragrance that signals to those around them that a new day is coming, a new world is coming, a world where the poor and the lost have a pathway forward, a world where we know that we are in the presence of the divine.
The last time I checked the pharmacy aisle at the grocery store, there wasn’t a deodorant called “holiness” or “compassion” next to the Axe and the Old Spice.
But each of us emits a certain aura when we are in the presence of others, don’t we? And I think we have at least some control over the essence we give off.
Some of you know that I work in Mexico for a good portion of the year. My organization hosts volunteers who feed the hungry, build schools, and spend time with orphans and kids who live in a garbage dump. I was in Mexico all summer and just got home the other day. In fact, the smells of Mexico still linger in my nostrils.
I can still smell the coffee that our friend, Maria, always has warming on her wood stove – coffee that she never fails to give to me as I pass by her house. Hers is the scent of hospitality.
And I can still smell the hot, fresh tortillas from Arón and Matea’s kitchen. They are coffee farmers who can barely feed their own children, but always offer me a meal when I visit with them. Theirs is the scent of gratitude and of generosity.
And I can smell the stench of the Oaxaca city dump, where 27 families struggle to raise their children, support one another, and make a life for themselves by picking through the trash. This summer, we took the kids who live at the dump to a local park every week so that they could have a break from their grim and grimy surroundings. And each week, they impressed me so much with how joyful and caring they were despite their unbelievably foul and unhealthy living conditions.
So, this might sound strange, but the smell of trash has a new association for me: to me, it’s the scent of strength in the midst of adversity, and of hope in the midst of ugliness.
So, what about us? What scent do we give off? What do people smell when they come to our homes? Do we give off a scent of unselfish love and generosity? Maybe while we’re here at Camp we do. It’s easier here, where we’re surrounded by supportive friends. But what about when we go home to our everyday lives, our schools, our jobs, where people and conditions may be more challenging?
It’s hard to emit the fragrance of forgiveness, for example, when our world is filling our nostrils with the stench of war. It’s hard to give off the scent of generosity when all we can smell in the culture around us is the stink of unrelenting greed.
But this is where reunions like this one come in so very handy. It’s weekends like this one that remind us of what is most important in our lives. It was here in this chapel, it was during vespers on those magical Dudley evenings before bed, it was in the woods, under the Adirondack stars, that the best of my values were reinforced by Dudley leaders and staff.
And, so, as you remember your own Dudley and Kinya summers, I hope that you will remember, also, the kind of person you truly want to be. And (if you are a person of faith) the kind of person you believe our loving God is calling you to be.
Because, when you and I can do that, when we can remember who we truly are, who we were truly meant to be, everything about us will smell like the other fellow first. We will not be able to help giving off the sweetest scent of all, the fragrance of unselfish love for God and for those around us.