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Clean Hands

The following was preached at New Dublin Presbyterian Church on December 9th as part of a narrative sermon series.

“Clean Hands”

Malachi 3:1–7

*****

            Rev. Wendell was running late. And he was tired. Not a good combination at anytime but especially a bad state of mind before visiting a nursing home to deliver home communion.

            He had hit the red light at every intersection while driving through the town of Talmage. Admittedly, this was only two stops. Still it delayed him even further and subsequently worsened his mood. Stopping for the second time, he leaned forward and gripped the steering wheel until his knuckles turned white. There was a drizzling rain coming down further dampening his spirits. Then he happened to glance to his right.

            There was a man standing on the corner, waving a worn, leather bound book in the air and shouting. Out of curiosity, he cracked his car window to listen:

            “Repent ye, repent ye! Prepare to meet thy God!”

            “Jesus,” muttered Rev. Wendell, “Another street preacher, carrying on like he was John the Baptist. Only this one has a family.”

            Indeed, there was a woman in a long, flower print dress with a baby in her arms. The child wore the same pattern. Rev. Wendell craned his neck to get a closer look. The flower print consisted of blue petals with yellow centers and the fabric had seen better days. At the very same moment that he focused in, the baby happened to look in his direction. They locked eyes. And she smiled. Now, Rev. Wendell had raised four children of his own, so he knew full well that, at that age, a smile meant that the baby had just passed gas. But be that as it may, her smile was like a double rainbow on a rainy day.

            “Jesus loves you, sir!”

            Suddenly, the father was at the window of the car, blocking his view. His face had the effect on Rev. Wendell of a cold bucket of ice water dumped down his shirt collar. He actually shuddered.

            “Yes, son, Jesus loves you too,” he offered grudgingly. Then the light changed. Now it was Rev. Wendell’s turn to smile. Freedom was in sight!

            “Here, sir, a Bible tract!” The young man thrust a small pamphlet through the car window, which Rev. Wendell took reflexively, without thinking, as he drove off. He went through the intersection, but as he crossed the railroad tracks, he glanced in his review mirror. The preacher was back to shouting and waving his Bible in the air.

*****

            The Pleasant Shade Senior Living Community consisted of a few brick buildings surrounded by a sea of asphalt. Pulling into the empty parking lot, Rev. Wendell wondered for the hundredth time why the developers felt that they would need so much parking. In his experience, such places were incredibly lonely. Other than the occasional friend or family member, people only came here to die.

            He parked near the main entrance and walked up the sidewalk, past a few withered mums left over from the fall. It was the second week of December yet the staff had apparently not gotten around to decorating for Christmas. Rev. Wendell gritted his teeth and walked through the doors.

            He was there to see a man named Malachi who was the oldest member of Talmage Presbyterian Church. Everybody knew him as Chi, although his deteriorating health kept him away from church and, as a consequence, the new members had never met him. When his name was mentioned during the prayer requests, their eyes would glaze over uncomprehendingly.

            This was unfortunate because, in his prime, Chi was energetic and full of life. When Rev. Wendell was a young pastor, he would swing by the church office and they’d shoot the breeze, one subject leading into the next, until several hours had flown by. Though his dementia was progressing steadily, Chi still enjoyed a good laugh.

            “Pastor, have I got a joke for you!”

            “Go ahead, friend.”

            “Alright! One day, the chauffer of the Vatican comes to pick up the Pope as per usual. Only this time, the Pope insists that he is going to drive! So what else could the chauffer do? Argue with the Pope? Of course not! He gets into the back seat and they take off. A little too fast. Way too fast! After only a couple of blocks, the blue lights are flashing in the rearview mirror. This poor cop pulls the car over, gets out, and comes to the driver’s window . . . and he sees the Pope, dressed in his robes and wearing his fancy Pope hat! Flabbergasted, the cop looks in the back seat and sees the chauffer dressed in his dark suit. He goes back to his squad car and radios the station. ‘Yessir, I’ve just pulled over the Pope for speeding, but I’m not going to give him a ticket. He has God riding in the back seat!”

            Chi cracked up, while Rev. Wendell laughed obligingly. He’d heard him tell this same joke several times before.

            “Don’t you get it, pastor? The cop figured that the Pope would only be willing to chauffer God Himself!”

            “Yes, Chi, I get it. Hey, I’ve brought you Communion.”

            Even after decades of parish ministry, Rev. Wendell was still surprised at the sudden transformation those words could invoke. The saying was like magic. White magic. Chi became very serious.

            “Pastor, I’m ready.”

            Rev. Wendell bowed his head and offered a prayer, much shorter than the one he used in church a few hours earlier. But he still hit all the high notes. He thanked God for all of His blessings and, most of all, for the gift of Jesus Christ. He asked the Holy Spirit to be present with them, so that this simple meal of bread and wine might be spiritually meaningful. Then, he coaxed Chi into reciting the Lord’s Prayer by going very slowly, trying to jog the old man’s memory:

            “Thy kingdom . . . come . . . thy will be . . . done . . . on earth, as it is in . . . heaven . . .”

            Finally, they got to the end. Rev. Wendell handed over a piece of unleavened bread.

            “The body of Christ, broken for you.”

            Then he filled one of his tiny glasses with grape juice and passed that over too.

            “The blood of Christ, shed for the forgiveness of sins.”

            For years now, Rev. Wendell had dutifully brought Communion to Chi the first Sunday of every month. It was always the same. They prayed. They ate. They drank. Then Rev. Wendell said the same thing he always said:

            “As often as we eat this bread and drink this cup, we proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes again.”

            “Pastor, do you think that Jesus is coming soon?”

            Rev. Wendell was caught off guard by this question. He hadn’t even sure that Chi was listening.

            “Well, Chi, it is a mystery . . .” As he spoke he fumbled absent-mindedly in his pockets, as if some kind of answer could be found in there, which caused the Bible tract to fall quiestly onto the floor in between the two men. As quick as Rev. Wendell had seen him move in years, Chi reached down and scooped it up.

            “What is this?” And by way of answering his own question, he began to read: “‘For the wage of sin is death. All whose names are not found in the Book of Life shall be thrown into the everlasting fire.’ Pastor, I’ve never heard you preach like this before!”

            “You see, Chi, that piece of paper you are holding tells only part of the story.”

            Chi looked at him blankly.

            “God’s judgment only makes sense in light of God’s love. And, if you were to read Paul’s entire letter to the Romans, rather than just a few verses, you would see that nothing can separate us from the love of God and that, in Jesus Christ, God is reconciling all things to Himself.”

            Chi remained silent for a few more heartbeats. Then he spoke:

            “Well, you know your Bible, pastor; here’s what I know,” he licked his lips before continuing, “When my granddaughter brought my great-granddaughter to meet me for the first time last week, she insisted that I hold out my hands. Then she squirted a huge glop of hand sanitizer on them and made me rub them dry!”

            “Sure, that makes sense, Chi. Good hygiene is important. You know what they say, ‘Cleanliness is next to godliness.’” Rev. Wendell laughed uneasily. Chi did not.

            “That may be, pastor. But here’s the thing: she said you have to have clean hands to hold the baby. She said you have to wash before you can touch something precious.”

            Rev. Wendell was looking at Chi, but in his mind’s eye, he saw the newborn baby of the street preacher and her sweet, sweet smile.

            “Pastor, do you think that God says the same thing to us?”

*****

            Those words were still rattling around Rev. Wendell’s mind as he drove away from the Pleasant Shade Senior Living Community. He came through town and, once again, was stopped at the red traffic light. The rain had really picked up by this point and was coming down so fast that the windshield wipers barely could keep the water at bay even on their highest speed. Rev. Wendell squinted into the deluge. He was glad to see that the street preacher and his family were no longer there.

            Since he was waiting at the red light, Rev. Wendell pulled out the Bible tract from his pocket. And, for this first time, he studied it closely. On the bottom, the street preacher had written his name and his phone number. He decided that, when he got back home, he’d give this man a call. After all, he had many clothes that his children had outgrown and were still in good repair. Maybe his family could use them. At the very least, Rev. Wendell decided to wish him a very, Merry Christmas. And the light changed to green.

           

Let us pray . . .

 

Concluding Prayer[1]

Gracious God, who approaches us with fire and soap this Advent, sear away our old grudges, our hurt hearts, and heal us. Soap away the hardness in our hearts, and wash clean even those attitudes that we think are virtuous, if they stand in the way of us approaching the manger. Give us clean hands to hold the baby. Amen.



[1] Scott Black Johnston, “Fire and Soap”

About Andrew Taylor-Troutman

I am a pastor and a preacher, a writer, a husband and a father. My professional and personal lives are deeply involved with story-telling: stories that are silly and poignant or profound and commonplace. Stories that are tear-jerkers and belly-shakers. Stories about my son, Sam, and the congregation I serve, New Dublin Presbyterian Church. Each in its own way, these personal narratives shed light on the great story that God is writing with humankind and all of creation.

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