Sing Happy Birthday Twice!

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23 – The 14th Sunday of Ordinary Time – for September 2, 2012

“…they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands…” (Mark 7:2)

A long, long time ago my little kid ears heard Mom warn, “Before you come to the table, don’t forget to clean up.”

After dashing to the bathroom and splashing tap water on my hands for two seconds, I was good to go!

*     *     *

My wife watches me prep chicken thighs for a recipe and wonders, “Will you be washing your hands afterwards?” Behind her gentle voice and slight smile, I discern her inner thoughts:  I don’t want to die from salmonella poisoning.

I mutter, “Of course.” After squeezing a dollop of soft soap into the middle of my palm, I wring my fowl-besmirched fingers under the water, demonstrating compliance and love.

*     *     *

I’ve had four knee arthroscopies, several colonoscopies, cortisone injections and surgery to repair seriously broken bones. Each time, as the physician leans over me—and in several cases just before anesthesia transports me to Slumberland’s zzzzipcode—I muse, “Hope an autoclave was used for all those sharp objects.”

*     *     *

Earlier this summer I guest-preached for a church awaiting the arrival of their new pastor. As I glanced through the bulletin before worship, a member of the congregation fussed with the communion elements. She nudged me and gestured toward the small bottle of hand sanitizer propped on the pulpit.

“You can clean your hands before touching the bread.”

I nodded.

She continued, “One of our members insisted it be done or he’d leave church.”

Another nod. I considered humming, They’ll Know We Are Christians By Our Love. [BTW, here’s a nice vid of this song…note the number of hands in the images!]

She continued, “He left a few years ago, but we still do it.”

Ah! From threats to tradition!

*     *     *

Shortly after starting work at hospice this year, a fellow employee demonstrated the proper way to wash hands:  lather with soap, use plenty of water and vigorously rub your hands together for as long as it takes to sing back-to-back versions of “Happy Birthday to You.” As a bonus for those of you unsure of the words for one of America’s favorite songs, I’ve included Marilyn Monroe’s memorable salute to President Kennedy on his forty-fifth birthday. No, no, don’t thank me. Just slop soap on your hands, turn on the tap and watch Ms. Monroe serenade the leader of the free world . . . twice.

After that, you’ll be . . . good to go!

*     *     *

A long, long time ago several Pharisees and scribes scrutinized Jesus’ disciples chow down with defiled hands (Mark 7:1ff). According to Jewish strictures, Jesus’ ragtag band of followers hadn’t properly washed their hands. Dirty disciples! Public defilers!

They were not good to go.

Jesus famously retorted, “There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile . . .”

We cheer Jesus! Nothing like knocking those hypocritical Pharisees and straight-laced scribes down a peg or two!

Really? What’d year zero Jesus know about bacteria, viruses, germs and other invisible-to-the-eye nasties? The Prince of Peace obviously hadn’t watched Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 documentary-like disaster flick, Contagion. I mean, come on Jesus, you gotta watch who you touch with defiled hands or the world will have a whole lot fewer Gwyneth Paltrows.

Would I want Jesus’ admonition guiding the surgeon who operated on my cranky knees? Earlier this year I chatted with a nurse responsible for sterilizing surgical instruments at a local hospital. Frankly, I hope conscientious people are using sophisticated autoclaves to “steam clean” the surgical tools used during a procedure. I’ve been struggling with carpal tunnel syndrome and have had several cortisone shots to relieve pain. Before the fourth injection in two years, I asked my doctor how safe cortisone was for the body. He rattled off statistics from studies indicating a higher risk from a “bad” needle causing an infection than from any problem cortisone might create. Please clean your hands . . . and your needles!

So I’m thinking . . . maybe sometimes I’ll just ignore what Jesus said back there in those pre-scientific times, back there when diseases were rampant and people thought God or the gods punished mortals with lightning strikes, leprosy or well . . . pick your poison!

And yet, while vigorously rubbing my hands together, humming Happy Birthday, I conjure anguished moments with folks encountered during my ministry. Sometimes I visited in an emergency room or living room . . . sometimes I listened to a friend share about their dysfunctional family* . . . sometimes I chatted with a church member in the supermarket aisles. Instead of a virus, they revealed a verb (or adjective or noun) that harmed them. How much we create dis-ease when we defile each other with hurtful, spiteful and cruel comments.

As much as I’m glad to live during a time of autoclaves and disinfectants, today’s struggles are no different from what Jesus’ first-century followers experienced. Hand sanitizers can’t fix a broken soul, renew a ruined dream, mend a crippling lie. But honest words and a humble way can reduce dis-ease.


*… “I have long thought that the phrase dysfunctional family is redundant. Family life tends to be messy.” I chuckled when I recently read those sentences in Dr. Ira Byock’s The Four Things That Matter Most.

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