New Revised Standard Version
The Bronze Basin
17 The Lord spoke to Moses: 18 You shall make a bronze basin with a bronze stand for washing. You shall put it between the tent of meeting and the altar, and you shall put water in it; 19 with the water[a] Aaron and his sons shall wash their hands and their feet. 20 When they go into the tent of meeting, or when they come near the altar to minister, to make an offering by fire to the Lord, they shall wash with water, so that they may not die. 21 They shall wash their hands and their feet, so that they may not die: it shall be a perpetual ordinance for them, for him and for his descendants throughout their generations.
This is the second week of our “Our New Normal” sermon series, where we are looking at how our lives have been changed during the Corona Pandemic. We are asking ourselves what messages God may have for us in these strange times, because we believe that God is still speaking to us today. Since God is still speaking to us, God can use anything in our world around us to teach us important lessons about our faith.
Last week, we talked about how wearing a mask in public may be one of the most important things that we can do to help keep others safe, that it is an act of humility and selflessness. I hope that in the last week as you have put your mask on, you thought of it as a way you are loving your neighbor as you love yourself.
Another way of loving both ourselves and our neighbors is focusing on cleanliness through washing and sanitizing public spaces, our homes, and maybe most importantly, our hands. Over the last six months, we have heard the CDC and the World Health Organization both say that one of the best ways to keep ourselves and our loved ones from getting sick with the Coronavirus is to thoroughly wash our hands with more frequency than normal.
What scientists and researchers found was that even with access to soap, water, and hand sanitizer, many in our country were neglecting the basics of handwashing. We needed a reminder for how seriously we should be taking the simple steps that make hand-washing effective.
Throughout the course of human history, handwashing has come in and out of fashion as various civilizations figured out its importance for cleanliness and avoiding illness and others lost or suppressed such knowledge. It never hurts to have a reminder of the importance of cleanliness, and I am thankful that so many people here in America have improved their sanitary habits over the last six months—but what might God have to say to us through this reminder to be more serious about cleaning our homes, our places of work, and most importantly, our hands?
If our scripture for this morning is any indication, God is solidly pro-handwashing. In it, God tells Moses to set up a handwashing station between the Israelites’ meeting tent and the altar they were building to Yahweh. This way, those who seek to make an offering can clean their hands and ready their hearts before going to make their sacrifice.
This may be the clearest example of an instruction from God to take handwashing seriously, but the importance of washing ones’ hands is found throughout scripture. The Old Testament has many examples of God’s commandment to stay clean, going so far as listing regulations about a person’s hygiene into the Jewish Purity Code. These Laws were used to protect God’s people from illness and disease, and they were followed very strictly by followers of Yahweh.
I’m always amazed when I read the Old Testament Kosher laws by how advanced they were for their time. In a world without any of our modern ways of keeping ourselves safe from illness, these laws were meant to keep the Hebrew people alive—and they did. Not only that, but these laws were meant to set the Hebrew people apart as followers of Yahweh. They were meant to be about more than just cleanliness, they were also meant to help the Hebrew people with their righteousness. Often there was a follow up to the instructions, have clean hands… and a pure heart!
Scripture often equates the cleanliness of one’s hands to the cleanliness of their hearts. Take for example James 4:8, which says: “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.”
Or Isaiah 1:16: “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil.”
In the book of Psalms, the Psalmist repeatedly asked God to see his clean heart, or to help heal his sinful heart. In Psalm 51, the Psalmist cries out to God, begging for forgiveness from sin. In the second verse, he asks God to: “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.” and a few verses later he asks, “Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me.”
Focusing on cleanliness is important, but in the Gospels Jesus criticized those who are solely focused on their outer cleanliness rather than their inner righteousness. In Luke chapter 11, Jesus is invited to dinner by some Pharisees who criticize his disciples dirty hands, and he uses that as a teachable moment saying, “Now, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and platters so they sparkle in the sun, but your insides are stuffed with greed & wickedness. Foolish people! Didn’t the one who made the outside also make the inside? Therefore, give to those in need from the core of who you are and then you will be clean all over. Turn both your pockets & your hearts inside out & give generously to the poor then your lives will be clean, not just your dishes and your hands.”
While I was preparing this morning’s sermon, I began to wonder whether God would be using this reminder to thoroughly wash our hands as a teachable moment for us as well—a reminder that we also need to pay attention to the purity of our hearts.
Pastor Jason Whitehead wrote recently for Presbyterian Today’s online magazine saying, “ “Precaution” is not a word we often associate with a bold and risky faith. Yet maybe we should. Precautions are preemptive acts of care, like wearing a mask out in public, agreeing to sit apart from one another, & refraining from large group gatherings. Precautions aren’t about what is being taken away or limiting us.
When seen as a spiritual practice, precautions take us beyond our heads & hearts in order to expand our awareness to the world around us. They require us to think and imagine with empathy, then adjust & act accordingly
Taking precautions means being a “care-full” presence in the world. In short, precaution as a spiritual practice might be the riskiest thing we could ever do. It means taking stock of how we react and respond, lamenting our struggles and celebrating our successes. It means that what we say and do matters to the world around us.
It means living into a relationship with the Spirit that moves in and around us, and allowing that relationship to shape the choices we make in response.”
What if we began using this new normal of washing or sanitizing our hands more often as a spiritual practice?
At the beginning of this pandemic, experts from the CDC suggested singing a song that was 30 seconds long while washing our hands so that we could be sure we were washing for long enough. So, next time you wash your hands, instead of singing Happy Birthday twice I invite you to reflect on what God is saying to you right now. Maybe you can take the time to check in with yourself and ask, “Am I living my life in a way that would please God? Am I taking my faith seriously? Am I loving my neighbor as myself?”
Or you can remember your baptism and the significance of being blessed by water. Whatever you decide to do, may it serve to draw you closer to God. May it serve to strengthen your faith. And may we all have clean hands and pure hearts this week… and forever. AMEN