03/02/22 (Ash Wednesday) “Wash Your Hands”

Psalm 51:1-17

We learned a lot of things during the pandemic. We learned how to use technology in new ways. We learned way more than wanted about how diseases are transmitted. We learned how interconnected our world is and how much we rely on other people, especially people we never gave a second thought to until they were described as “front-line” or “essential” workers. We also learned how to wash our hands.

Now, we’ve all been washing our hands for a long time. But all of a sudden, hand-washing became both a survival mechanism and an art form. I remember seeing a video about how to wash your hands—scrubbing both the palms and the backs of our hands, and in-between our fingers. We were instructed to wash our hands for 20 seconds, using most of that time to create lots of lather, because it’s actually the suds that clear away the virus from our hands, not rinsing them off. Clean hands went from being a mundane hygiene task to being a life-saving intervention.

But, we’re not the first to pay attention to the state of our hands. Scripture is concerned about clean hands as well. Aaron and his sons were instructed to wash their hands and feet before approaching the altar—an instruction that was binding on all future generations of priests. Hand-washing was part of the cleansing rituals of the Israelites. Jesus and his disciples got in trouble with the Pharisees for not following the hand-washing rules.

Early on, clean hands became a symbol of a clean heart. David sang, “The Lord rewarded me according to my righteousness; according to the cleanness of my hands he recompensed me.” Job laments his visitor’s suspicion that Job’s own wrongdoing had caused his suffering. Job observed that even washing himself with soap and cleansing his hands with lye wouldn’t change the mind of his erst-while friend. Later, Job affirms that “the righteous hold to their way, and they that have clean hands grow stronger and stronger.” Another visitor assures Job that, if he repents, God “will deliver even those who are guilty; they will escape because of the cleanness of your hands.”

The Psalms are full of references to clean hands, and we find them in the New Testament as well. Always, clean hands and clean hearts go hand in hand. So do unclean hands and unclean hearts. Scripture mourns the hands that are soiled by guilt, bribes and evil devices, and all manner of false things. Job pleads with God to consider whether any spot has clung to his hands. Unclean hands equal unclean hearts.

Why such a close connection between clean hands and clean hearts? I think it’s because what we carry in our hearts we carry out with our hands. What we harbor in our hearts is largely invisible to the outside world, but the actions of our hands are visible to all. Jesus said that “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” He might as well have said, that “out of the abundance of the heart, the hands act.”

Our hands reach out to welcome the stranger or they push the outsider away. Our hands work to make the world more like the kingdom of God, or they work to protect the status quo (when itls working well for us). Our hands reach into our wallets or write out a check, and we put our money to work in ways that either help or hurt. Jesus said about money, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” That is equally true of our hands. Where we put our hands to work points to the place where our heart and our true loyalties lie.

We know this, of course. But, we’re not very good at spiritual hand-washing. Remember when hand sanitizer was like liquid gold, and people who saw a way to make a quick buck began selling counterfeit bottles of it? People used those products, thinking their hands would be clean, but they weren’t. Sometimes we try less than effective ways of spiritually cleaning our hands, too. We offer a halfhearted apology. We make the smallest donation possible to ease our consciences. We don’t tell jokes that demean other people, but we snicker at them.

Sometimes we just tell ourselves that removing the visible soil on our hands will remove the invisible soil in our hearts. In Shakespeare’s play MacBeth, MacBeth murders King Duncan. Lady MacBeth advises her guilt-stricken husband to simply wash his hands, getting rid of the blood and the guilt. Later, she’ll become obsessed with washing her own hands, still not realizing how ineffective this is. Pilate tried the same trick. Just before sentencing Jesus to death, Pilate took some water and washed his hands saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood.”

We make these little stabs at spiritual hand-washing, but we stop short of the real cleansing that’s needed, because it’s inconvenient or would require some real change in our lives. But, superficial cleansing doesn’t work. Ignoring the soiled places in our hearts doesn’t work. Only clean hearts make for clean hands.

Where do we find the cleansing that we need? How can we have the clean hearts and clean hands we desire? The first step is to ponder the depths of our own sinfulness and to identify the stains on our spirits. Then, we take them to Jesus, and we ask him for the cleansing that comes with true repentance and a renewed reliance on the grace of God. We ask to be bathed in the one cleansing agent that can purge us and wash us: the cleansing blood of Jesus. “What can take away my sin? Nothing but the blood of Jesus. What can make me whole again? Nothing but the blood of Jesus. O precious is the flow that makes me bright as snow, no other fount I know, nothing but the blood of Jesus.”

Lent is the time we set aside specifically for the self-reflection that leads to repentance. It’s a time when we often choose a new spiritual discipline that will help us dig deeper than we are used to. If you haven’t chosen a Lenten discipline yet, I have this suggestion. We’ve been told that, when we wash our hands, we should spend twenty seconds lathering up and rinsing. It also takes about twenty seconds to say or sing a verse of most of our hymns. I’ve prepared a booklet of hymns for each day of Lent. It’s on the table in the narthex. During the next forty days, I invite you to use it each time you wash your hands to do some heart-washing as well. Sing or say each day’s hymn as a prayer—a prayer for greater self-knowledge, a prayer of repentance, a prayer of thanksgiving for the grace we are offered, a prayer for the forgiveness we need.

In the book of James we read, “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts.” Let us use this season of Lent to do just that. Wash your hands, and see the grimy places in your heart that need to be purified. Wash your hands, and ask Jesus to wash your heart with his forgiveness. Wash your hands, and invite God to wash your heart with God’s grace and God’s love. Wash your hands, and welcome the Holy Spirit to wash your heart with the power to be different. Wash your hands, and wash your heart in the cleansing blood of Jesus, whose death we remember, whose resurrection we rejoice in, and whose return we anticipate. Amen.

~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young