April 9, 2000 message
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA
based upon Psalm 51
"Go wash your hands. Itís time for supper." The call goes out well in advance of the meal. Of course, the children wait until the last possible moment to act. Then comes the mad rush to the bathroom where, all too quickly, the ritual is accomplished - stress placed on the "all too quickly" part. Are those hands really clean? Usually, most of the dirt has not gone down the drain, but rather remains on the towel. Has the new and improved anti-bacterial soap had a chance to attack those germs which await the opportunity to gain access to the body through the mouth? Good question.
Such is the routine every night in the Haynes household. Youíd think after days, weeks, months, even years of the same thing happening, over and over, that it would be ingrained in the brain to just do it without any reminder. So thinks my wife. I must confess, though, that even I forget every now and then to do my "getting the kids ready for supper" job, much to her chagrin. Sheíd probably take issue with the words "every now and then," believing my forgetfulness to be a bit more of a regular occurrence... At least we still eat together one meal a day as a family, which is not a given for most families in this frantic day and age.
"Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin." (Psalm 51:2) So sang the Psalmist long ago. The words seem both very foreign to us, and yet strangely contemporary. "Sin" is not really on our radar screen as a concept. And "what on earth is this "iniquity" stuff?" we ask. Only echoes from days gone by. Or so we believe, as we buy every disinfectant on the market to attack those pesky germs which threaten our health.
We are very conscious nowadays of all the harmful bacteria in our environment, realizing even more so than previous generations how dangerous the unseen world is. For instance, I have a container of antibacterial hand lotion in my car that I use between every visit, so I donít unwittingly pass germs from one person to the next. In the hospital, I check out the bathroom before and after each bedside I stop by, for the purpose of washing my hands. When someone is ill, you donít want to make things worse by passing some other sickness along, do you?
Yes, when we hear about new strains of bacteria that are resistant to many of our standby antibiotics, cleanliness takes on a whole new meaning. It is almost a matter of life and death, so serious is the unseen, microscopic world around us. This we are beginning to understand. On the other hand, though, we pay little attention to other kinds of "germs" that are just as dangerous to our health. "Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin."
"Go wash your hands. Itís time for supper." As Love Feast approaches, isnít that our standard line - the encouragement to prepare ourselves for communion? We may not quite put it in those exact words, but thatís the intent, isnít it? Of course, some of us hear those words and think that we have to be sinless and perfect before we come to the Lordís table. I can assure you, however, that sitting around the Haynesí table every night is not a collection of perfect, sinless persons. Far, far from it. And yet, when we ask the Lord to bless the food, arenít we (in a way) making the Haynesí table into the Lordís table?
If it were a matter of being pure and perfect, without a trace of sin, who could come and eat with our Lord? Nobody. The upper room would be an empty room. However, Jesus of Nazareth was not "into" empty rooms. He invited himself into even the homes of notorious sinners, like Zacchaeus - that hated tax collector. He welcomed a woman of the night around the table as she washed his feet with her tears, thus shocking the other guests in that dining room. In the infamous upper room, he dipped his bread in the same bowl of soup, at the same time, as the one who then left to betray him. No, Jesus preferred space made for sinners around the table, to an empty room. True way back then. True today.
"Go wash your hands. Itís time for supper." No, that doesnít mean "get perfect." It means "get ready." If we are so conscious of unseen bacteria in our world, why are we not as conscious of the other "unseen" stuff? When the Psalmist long ago wrote, "I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me," (51:5) those words were merely a recognition that unseen sin surrounds our days, even from the very beginning.
Of course, whole doctrines about the absolute depravity of everything human have been built upon those words, but thatís not really what God here reveals. Such is going beyond the evidence. Sex, for instance, the act of conception, is a gift from God. Birth is a wonderful miracle. In and of themselves, these human actions are not evil. They are a blessing. Did not God, in calling Abraham and Sarah so long ago to step out by faith, promise them that their procreation would, in fact, bless all the families of the world? (Genesis 12:1-3)
Having said that, however, it must be added that such blessings can be perverted into curses. Isnít that human nature? Not that we are a stinking pile of garbage from the day we are born, and even before that point. No. Rather, it is part of our human nature to turn what is good into what is not good. Is it in our genes, or is it the environment that causes it? Godís Word doesnít really speak in those terms. It goes deeper than microbiology. It extends further than psychology or sociology.
The modern tendency, though, to say that everything is good - depending upon which angle you look at it, is terribly naive. Such naivete when it comes to deadly bacteria, we would call plain foolishness. And yet we become strangely silent concerning sin, which is just as opportunistic as any germ.
My son, Tyler, has recently been remembering one of my sermons. That gets scary, doesnít it, when your children actually listen to you? In it, I spoke of sin as being centrifugal in nature. Recalling my teenage record player, I told of how, if you put an object on the turntable and turned it on, the object would fly off away from the center. Sin is like that. It is a force which pulls or throws us away from what is most important in life, away from the One who is our center, away from God. That centrifugal force is always there, just like the harmful bacteria.
Repentance turns us toward the center, and it is Godís power which then pulls those who are faced toward God closer to whatís really real, what is lasting, what is eternal. We believe that it is the power of God in Jesus Christ, his death for us upon the cross, and his rising on the third day, that draws us to abundant, eternal, real Life.
The call to repentance is like an invitation to the table. "Go wash your hands. Itís time for supper." Only, unlike my kids every evening, donít we need to pay more attention to what weíre doing? Just as Jesus gave us a model for prayer when he started out, "our Father which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name...," so the Psalmist gave us a model for preparing for supper when he began, "have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love..." (51:1)
I encourage you to make use of this Psalm, and others like it. Figuratively take it with you in your car as you travel from place to place. Go to it between visits. Take it seriously, for sin has deadly effects on our life. I donít say that self-righteously. I speak it as one who knows all too well what it does. The Psalmist speaks my language, if I am honest with myself and with my God.
"For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me." I know that my sin doesnít just affect "me." When I fall, it reaches beyond me. It touches others. When I sin against someone else, it is not just the two of us that are affected, though. It goes beyond even us. The ramifications build. One sin leads to another. Like ripples upon a pond, repercussions are felt in places I could not even imagine.
My sin, however, reaches far beyond me, beyond us. It touches God. Ultimately, my sin is against God. Not that the Master of the Universe is some prude of a Judge who turns up his nose at the stench of humanity. No, sin is a break in relationship. When I sin against my wife, whom I love and who loves me, it causes her pain. What then of the pain caused upon the One who created us and who loves us more than we ever dare imagine possible? "It is against you, you alone (O Lord) that I have sinned."
"You desire truth on the inside. Therefore teach me wisdom within." So then, Lord, like a washerwoman, take this filthy garment I wear on the inside and scrub it in the tub of your righteousness and grace... Amid the suds I hear the proverb: "Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight. In all your ways acknowledge (know) him, and he will make straight your paths. Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the LORD, and turn away from evil. It will be a healing for your flesh and a medicine (an antibiotic?) for your very bones." (Proverbs 3:5-8)
You have promised to forgive and forget. Be true to your word, O Lord. Not that I doubt what you have said. I am the one, we are the ones who fail to leave the dirt in the tub. Just as you help me not to continue on in the sin - help me, also, to stop kicking myself over what you have already washed away.
Yes, Lord, "Create in me a clean heart ..." breathe in me, in us, new life. Draw us closer to you. By your power, pull us toward your kingdom. Along the way, restore the sheer joy of your salvation, a joy that my spirit canít help but step into. Then and only then, O Lord, help me to turn toward others and share this joy.
This is the Psalmistís prayer. May it be our prayer, as well - our spiritual antibiotic.
(potential ending - if time, use what follows)
With our Love Feast service, we have been blessed with a marvelous ritual that includes the washing of each otherís feet. Our tendency in recent years has been to stress one side of this practice, the aspect of service. We are called to serve one another. We are called by Christ to go out into the world and figuratively wash the feet of those in need. We are called to be his servants. Such is our God-given purpose.
However, when we wash feet we are doing more than just serving one another. Through the hands of our sister or brother, we are being washed with the cleansing power of Christ. If we were perfect, if we had everything together, if all our relationships were in order, if everything were just fine and dandy before we ever entered the room, sat down, pulled off our shoes and socks or stockings, and stuck our feet into the water - we wouldnít need to be washed, would we? Heaven knows, though, that we need it. Like the disciple Peter, once we become aware of the unseen sin that threatens to tear us apart, we respond, "Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!" (John 13:9) Just let me jump in and get totally soaked. "Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin."
Of course, Jesus told Peter what he tells us, "once youíve been washed, itís just your feet that need it." Our forbearers heard that as, "your baptism began the process, feetwashing continues it."
Well, Love Feast is a little over a week and a half away, on Maundy Thursday. Brothers and sisters: "Go wash your hands. Itís time for supper."
©2000Peter L. Haynes
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