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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising, Michigan

Questioning Traditions And Law - August 30, 2015

We are creatures with a powerful instinct to put order to things then make rules and laws to preserve that order. We feel drawn to creating practices that help add meaning to our gatherings, our holidays and festivals and from that place our traditions are often born.

Many of these laws, rules, traditions are very important to us – they make our lives safer, smarter, richer. Our basic traffic laws are certainly helpful and seem especially important during this busy tourism season we're having – things like driving on the right side of the road, stopping at stops signs and yielding at yield signs, minding speed limits. Those are good things and we sure wish everyone would embrace them with equal passion.

There are lots other rules or guidelines in place that I think we can all agree are a good and worth observing.

Earlier this week I came back to the office from lunch and Russ Bernard was finishing up the task of mowing our lawn. So I went out to chat with him a little. Mostly I just wanted to thank him for doing that. I'd seen him out there several times before and that's a big lawn … mowing it is no small task. So anyway, as we were chatting, he was hooking the hose up to the blade cover on the lawn mower. Then he'd run the blades and the water from the hose would clean them off. Big hunks of grass and dirt came flying out. I'd never seen anyone cleaning a mower like this before. I thought it was a pretty cool feature. “It says you should do that for two full minutes in the book,” Russ commented to me. It extends the life of the equipment. I makes sense, it's a good rule to observe. Russ really enjoys cutting the law, he admitted to me when I thanked him, but he isn't particularly passionate about this clean up and maintenance part of whole deal. But he does it diligently anyway, as instructed because it supports his ability to continue doing the part of the job he does really like... tending to God's garden on this beautiful spot Eden occupies in creation and even eating an apple from the tree out front once in awhile. Russ' diligence about following the guidelines also benefits all of us. We have attractive grounds around our worship space, thanks to Russ and others.

Traditions can also be important. Someone once told me that if you can't remember where a tradition came from or why it came about, it should be thrown out. Well, I think the basic idea behind that is good, but I'm not sure every case is the same.

For instance, we have this very strange tradition in our house at Easter. When it comes time to eat the Easter eggs, each person at the table picks up a hard boiled egg and then you have to smash your egg into the someone else's egg. If the shell on your egg cracks, you can eat it. If not, you have to have an “egg war” with someone else. To make this tradition even stranger, somewhere along the line in the last 30 years, Larry lost his first “egg war” and decided that if you were the last one at the table with an uncracked egg, you could smash it against your forehead and then be free to go forth and eat your Easter egg. It gave a whole knew meaning to the term "egghead." Now, I have absolutely no idea where this tradition came from or why it came about. All I know is that it was passed on to me and we have passed it on to our children and, strange as it may seem, it is one of the highlights of our Easter festivities. So regardless of any meaning, the sheer joy it elicits around that family table makes maintaining that tradition worthwhile in my mind.

We have traditions here in the life of our faith community that we don't always know so much about or think about too What to we believe about the bread and wine we share at the Lord's Table? Why do we do infant baptisms? What if someone wasn't baptized as an infant? Can they still be baptized? These are good questions and many of us who have been part of a Lutheran or similar faith community don't really think about the “why” or “where” of these church traditions. But that doesn't mean we don't continue to hold them dear and practice them.

Perhaps it does mean, however, that we need to be more intentional about taking time to talk about these things. How we believe that we are taking the body and blood of Jesus into ourselves at the Lord's Table and that it nourishes and strengthens us when we leave here and go back to our lives in the secular world. Or that we celebrate infant baptism whole heartedly as a community of people committed to raising our children up in the Christian faith until they can take on the responsibility of stewarding their own faith practices. And that we also treasure baptism into the Christian faith at any other age because we love and want the best for our sisters and brothers everywhere. In fact we remember and reaffirm our own baptisms almost every Sunday and most certainly when our time on earth ends and we join the communion of saints in the fully revealed Kingdom of God, the completion of our baptisms.

So these traditions, I think I can say with much confidence, we keep and we pass on through the generations trusting that they will continue to be remembered.

So let's take a closer look what kinds of tradition or law Jesus is talking about in our story from Mark today. We start out with the challenge from the Pharisees who are questioning Jesus and his disciples about their understanding of tradition and whether they were following the law. There's a contradiction right in the beginning of this passage that we're supposed to notice. "The Pharisee's, and all the Jews," it tells us, "do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders." But just before that the gospel writer tells us the Pharisees and the scribes -- who had come down from Jerusalem -- noticed that "some" of the disciples were eating without washing first. That means that "some" of of the disciples had washed before eating. In actuality, this was a tradition that some Jews practiced and some did not. The only group of people the Old Testament laws said were required to perform this ritualistic washing of themselves and the things they used were the priests. It was a tradition that made sense for those fulfilling priestly duties of making sacrifice for the people, but for the people themselves, the elders did not say it was mandatory.

Instead, what had happened here was that law … with a lowercase "l" … had over time been elevated to the status of God's Law, ...with a capital "L." Here this “law” is used to the detriment of people like the poor peasantry of Galilee by the wealthy and more powerful priestly class that had come down from Jerusalem to see what was up this pot stirring, trouble maker of a rabbi named Jesus.

So Jesus challenged them right back on this bending of laws and traditions. Notice the generalizing language of the Pharisees -- "Why do your disciples ..." not some of Jesus' disciples, but all of them now, "not live according to the tradition of the elders?"  Jesus takes control of the conversation here and turns the question back around on the Pharisees and scribes. "Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

And in the text that we skip over, Jesus challenges them on another human-made law the temple elite have instituted. It's called Corban, which were offerings made to the temple instead of for the care of one's parents. So parents, probably widowed women in particular, were not being cared for by their children because this Corban offering was taking precedent. "You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother.'" (vs 9-10a)

Jesus is lifting up precisely what is meant in our directive from Deuteronomy this evening/morning. "You must neither add anything to what I command you nor take away anything from it, but keep the commandments of the Lord your God with which I am charging you."

This is the Law with the capital "L." What Jesus is teaching us here is that we creatures with our desire to bring about order with law and enrich our lives with tradition need to be mindful of where that law or tradition can run amok ... where our law with a lowercase "l" begins to be held above God's Law … where the laws humans create end up making way for evil to plant seeds in our hearts and come out of us in ways that separate us from God and are not life-giving for others.

God's Law, on which Jesus tells us hangs our two greatest commandments to love God with all our hearts, souls and minds, and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves, is actually a gift. It is obvious that some of the Ten Commandments, particularly the fifth through the tenth, are reflected in our civil laws of obedience and our cultural norms ... we expect people not to kill or steal, we expect people to honor their spouses regardless of whether they are part of any faith community.

But God's gift to us in the Law as a whole is what sets us apart in this beautiful and crazy world that sometimes calls us to put many other gods above our one true God, and place the prosperity and happiness of the individual above that of the community.

And that is what is meant in the end of our Deuteronomy lesson today ... When we hold true to this Law with a capital "L" above all else, people will notice and they will see the way it guides us to conduct ourselves in the world and they will say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!” For what other (people) has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is whenever we call?"


Pastor Ann Gonyea

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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising Michigan ~ An ELCA, Northern Great Lakes Synod Congregation
P.O. Box 360 ~ 1150 West M-28 ~ Munising, MI 49862 ~ 1-906-387-2520 ~

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