Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23 â€“ The 14th Sunday of Ordinary Time â€“ for September 2, 2012
â€œâ€¦they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled handsâ€¦â€ (Mark 7:2)
A long, long time ago my little kid ears heard Mom warn, â€œBefore you come to the table, donâ€™t forget to clean up.â€
After dashing to the bathroom and splashing tap water on my hands for two seconds, I was good to go!
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My wife watches me prep chicken thighs for a recipe and wonders, â€œWill you be washing your hands afterwards?â€ Behind her gentle voice and slight smile, I discern her inner thoughts:Â I donâ€™t want to die from salmonella poisoning.
I mutter, â€œOf course.â€ 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.
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Iâ€™ve had four knee arthroscopies, several colonoscopies, cortisone injections and surgery to repair seriously broken bones. Each time, as the physician leans over meâ€”and in several cases just before anesthesia transports me to Slumberlandâ€™s zzzzipcodeâ€”I muse, â€œHope an autoclave was used for all those sharp objects.â€
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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.
â€œYou can clean your hands before touching the bread.â€
She continued, â€œOne of our members insisted it be done or heâ€™d leave church.â€
Another nod. I considered humming, Theyâ€™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, â€œHe left a few years ago, but we still do it.â€
Ah! From threats to tradition!
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Shortly after starting work at hospice this year, a fellow employee demonstrated the proper way to wash hands:Â 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 â€œHappy Birthday to You.â€ As a bonus for those of you unsure of the words for one of Americaâ€™s favorite songs, Iâ€™ve included Marilyn Monroeâ€™s memorable salute to President Kennedy on his forty-fifth birthday. No, no, donâ€™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, youâ€™ll be . . . good to go!
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A long, long time ago several Pharisees and scribes scrutinized Jesusâ€™ disciples chow down with defiled hands (Mark 7:1ff). According to Jewish strictures, Jesusâ€™ ragtag band of followers hadnâ€™t properly washed their hands. Dirty disciples! Public defilers!
They were not good to go.
Jesus famously retorted, â€œThere is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile . . .â€
We cheer Jesus! Nothing like knocking those hypocritical Pharisees and straight-laced scribes down a peg or two!
Really? Whatâ€™d year zero Jesus know about bacteria, viruses, germs and other invisible-to-the-eye nasties? The Prince of Peace obviously hadnâ€™t watched Steven Soderberghâ€™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 Jesusâ€™ 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 â€œsteam cleanâ€ the surgical tools used during a procedure. Iâ€™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 â€œbadâ€ needle causing an infection than from any problem cortisone might create. Please clean your hands . . . and your needles!
So Iâ€™m thinking . . . maybe sometimes Iâ€™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 Iâ€™m glad to live during a time of autoclaves and disinfectants, todayâ€™s struggles are no different from what Jesusâ€™ first-century followers experienced. Hand sanitizers canâ€™t fix a broken soul, renew a ruined dream, mend a crippling lie. But honest words and a humble way can reduce dis-ease.
*… â€œI have long thought that the phrase dysfunctional family is redundant. Family life tends to be messy.â€ I chuckled when I recently read those sentences in Dr. Ira Byockâ€™s The Four Things That Matter Most.