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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising, Michigan

Questioning Traditions and Law-REMIX - 08/29/2021

I know there are mixed feelings about the movie Escanaba in da Moonlight. People seem to love or hate it in the U.P. – not much in between. I happen to be one of those who loves it. I find the characters completely lovable and it’s full of little nuggets of universal truths.

One of my favorite scenes is when Remnar, the little brother realizes his brother Rueben is doing things differently and opening day of deer camp was not going to be traditionally ordered.

Remnar has a fit. He tells his brother there is a reason he gets his buck on opening day each year … a series of reasons actually, what he wears, what he eats, right down the very words that come out of his mouth, and all done in a very particular order. That’s why he gets the buck. And Rueben’s got a lot of nerve messing with all this. Remnar sums himself and most everyone else in the world up when he declares, “I am a creature with habits!”

We are creatures with a powerful instinct to put order to things, then make rules and laws to preserve that order. We can derive a lot of confidence and courage in our rituals and patterns, even to the point of them becoming superstitions, like the lucky golf socks or a hunting cap. 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 the busy tourist season – things like driving on the correct side of the road, in the proper lane, stopping at stops signs and yielding at yield signs, minding speed limits. These are good things, and we sure wish everyone would embrace them with equal passion.

There are lots of other rules or guidelines in place that I think we can all agree are a good and worth observing – especially for the sake of safety, public health, community well-being.

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.

I think I’ve mentioned before a strange Easter tradition in our house. When it comes time to eat the Easter eggs, each person at the table picks one and then you have an “egg war” with someone. You smash your eggs together and if the shell on your egg cracks, you can eat it. If not, you must have an “egg war” with someone else. To make this tradition even stranger, somewhere over last 30-plus years, Larry lost his first “egg war” and decided that if you were the last one at the table with an uncracked egg, you must smash it against your forehead. Then you could finally eat your Easter egg. It gave a whole new 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 brings around that Easter table makes maintaining that tradition worthwhile. The “egg wars” will continue.

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 do 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 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.

We keep these traditions, and we pass them on through the generations trusting that they will continue to be remembered.

Jesus is talking about some law and tradition important to those in his faith community today too. It starts 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 noticed that "some" of the disciples were eating without washing first. That means that "some" of the disciples had washed before eating.

In reality, 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. 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” was used to the detriment of people like the common Jews of Galilee by the wealthy and more powerful priestly class that had come down from Jerusalem to see what was up with this pot-stirring troublemaker of a rabbi named Jesus.

Jesus takes control of the conversation right away and turns the question 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.”

You may have noticed we skipped over some verses in this reading. In the text that we didn’t read, Jesus challenges the Pharisees and scribes on another human-made law. 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) The Corban was getting between people and their ability to uphold one of the Ten Commandments.

Jesus is highlighting precisely what Deuteronomy reminds us today about what it means to obey God’s Law. "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 a capital "L." What Jesus is teaching us here is that we creatures with our desire to bring about order with law, who enrich our lives with tradition, who even have a tendency to become superstitious “creatures with habits,” 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 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 do not condone killing or stealing, we expect people to honor their spouses and respect the neighbor’s household too. There are consequences when these laws are broken, and, we mustn’t forget, in Jesus, thanks be to God, is merciful and abundant forgiveness for this brokenness too.

I want us to think about God's Law in its entirety … the Spirit of all Ten Commandments as an interlocked and interdependent foundation for God-pleasing community. It is a gift, this Law. It 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, even convenience or superstitions of the individual above what is best for community.

Because when we hold true to this Law with a capital "L,” people do notice, and they do see the way it guides us, the way it influences our conduct in the world. And, like the people watching the Israelites make their way to the Promised Land, truly believes people also say about us, in some way: “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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