Thursday, February 20, 2014

Sermon: How "An Eye for An Eye, A Tooth for a Tooth" is Gospel

Hey friends!

So I just got done preaching in midday chapel at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia where I'm in my last semester. What follows is a rough manuscript of my sermon, which was on Leviticus 24: 10-23Matthew 7: 1-12. I'd love to hear what you think.


So this past Tuesday I wasn’t in the best of spirits… I was stricken with cabin fever after being pretty much constantly snowed in over the last weeks, I had a bad cold, a bit of a sore throat and to top it all off, I was absolutely terrified about what this week’s assignment process might hold in store for me. After debating whether to go to class that evening, I did what any logical sick person would do and decided the best course of action would be to get in my car, head to CVS, get a fresh supply of cough syrup, get some ice-cream for dinner and then tough it out, heading to class with a soothed throat, full belly and cheered spirits. I hadn’t driven my car in a few days and thus knew it would be pretty snowed in, but the proud rugged New Englander in me figured I could dig myself out with no problem. After about twenty minutes of shoveling and chopping what turned out to be mostly ice and not snow I thought I was all set. I smugly got behind the wheel, turned the key, put my car in reverse and didn’t move an inch. Keeping my cool of course… I’m a proud, rugged New Englander after all, I got out, chopped at the ice a bit more, threw a piece of cardboard I had in my trunk under one of my front tires, got back in my car, turned the key, put the car in reverse, and once again, didn’t move an inch. After repeating this a third and fourth time, I started to get angry, was no longer thinking, and did exactly what I knew you’re not supposed to do in these situations… I gunned the engine, simply dug myself deeper into the ice.

Exasperated, I gunned the engine again, and then a third time, all the while digging myself even further into the ice, feeling more and more angrily self righteous that I could get myself out of this situation, even to the point that when a neighbor eventually came out to help me, I initially refused. She continued to press me, and eventually I conceded to let her give me a push and put some branches from her old Christmas tree under my car tires for increased traction. Around this same time, another woman came out of the train station across the street, got in her four-wheel drive truck that was parked next to mine, and only to immediately get stuck in the ice as well. Now I got really pissed off… if this woman couldn’t get out with four wheel drive, what hope did I have? And well… I absolutely gave up. I figured forget getting my ice-cream dinner, and going to class… I’m just going to go home, lay sick in bed, and wait a couple days for the darn ice to melt. And knowing my luck this week, I started figuring I’d be assigned somewhere deep in that scary part of the country frequently called the Midwest.

So I gave up, I stormed home, barely thanking the woman who tried to help me and not even thinking to help the other woman get her truck out of the ice. I gave up and went home cold, exhausted and defeated. Yet, after getting in the door and walking up the stairs, I felt an utter surge of hope. I felt a surge of hope because none other than my amazing housemate Doug Hjelmstad was home. Now, I think all of us recognize that if there is anyone on this campus that could help get a car out of the ice, it would be that rock solid, harder than the granite of the White Mountains, rugged New Hampshirite himself, Doug Hjelmstad. So, I asked Doug for help, and of course he quickly went downstairs, quietly puts on his coat, got a pry-bar out of his toolbox and headed out to my car. I followed him, grabbing a dead potted plant on the way thinking the dirt in it might be somehow of use, and we got back to work. Except, while Doug was hacking away at the ice under my tires, I felt pretty useless and kind of embarrassed so I decided to help the woman in the truck who was also still sitting there, spinning her wheels, stuck in the ice. By now one of her friend’s had come to help too.

No matter how much we tried to push the truck or put dirt under the tires, this woman still couldn’t get out of the ice. But right as we were about to give up, Doug took a break from hacking away and comes over, turns some sort of knob on each of the woman’s front tires, the four-wheel drive engages and only a few seconds later, she was freed from the ice. I immediately made a joke about how Doug and I are seminarians and that we’ve been blessed, etc. The woman and her friend actually get kind of excited they’re hanging out with almost clergy, were sort of almost having this mini worship service in the middle of the street but then they insist to try at least try one more time to get my car out of the ice too. So now, probably two hours after I originally intended, I get behind the wheel, turn the key, put the car in reverse, and with Doug, the woman with the truck, and her friend pushing, I slowly backed my way out of the ice. I backed my way out of the ice, put the car in drive, and immediately felt joy. I immediately felt joy.

So, why do I tell this fairly long story? I tell it not to simply to talk about myself, although it may seem it since I’m so long winded. I tell it not to simply proclaim my main homie Doug Hjelmstad is a modern day ice messiah, although let’s admit it, he’s not far off. Most importantly, and this may surprise you…. I don’t tell this story to necessarily proclaim some sort of ethics for humankind… I’m not simply trying to illustrate how this “do unto others as you would have done unto you” business Jesus proclaims to us today in the gospel, which is given a pretty way to go about things, played out in some cute story about getting out of the ice. Rather, I tell this story to show how both Jesus’ reference to the Golden Rule and even the more difficult principle of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” in today’s Leviticus reading, aren’t just meant to be law, they’re not just meant to be rules God provides us to regulate human relationships on Earth or to scare us toward embracing the gospel. Sometimes, much like the difficult situation I had with my car a couple days ago, the Golden Rule and “an eye for an eye” work like gospel too. They’re gospel, because they remind us quite simply that our lives aren’t just about us in the end. They remind us, as MLK put it, that “we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” If you look in the Talmud, “an eye for an eye” is rarely interpreted literally, its rather taken as a limit on how much someone could be punished for a proven transgression. If we ask ourselves what an extremely difficult part of today’s Leviticus texts might tell us about God, we realize even the stoning of that dude is meant to indicate how God, the people of Israel and even foreigners are amazingly interconnected. Nor was Jesus coming up with anything really new when he proclaimed the Golden Rule… it’s sort of in Leviticus 19, and only a generation before Jesus, the great Jewish sage Hillel pretty much said the same thing in summing up the Torah, as have the great sages of most other religions, many centuries older than Christianity.

When my car pulled off that ice and I was freed to drive away, I felt joy, but I didn’t feel joy simply because I could now go get my cough syrup and ice-cream dinner. In the midst of a week that felt like it was all about me, worrying over everything I’ve and said wrote in recent months to hopefully stay in the Northeast, bumming about me getting all sick, I felt joy in being humbly reminded that I couldn’t do it on my own, no matter how much I spun my wheels, no matter how hard I tried. I felt joy. And I believe that our texts today and situations like I had on Tuesday can be gospel, not just law… my experience was a humble reminder that it wasn’t all about me, that my life was inescapably linked with God and neighbor, and in some sense then, that I could let go, falling into God’s loving arms of grace. And whether God meets us in bread and wine, the waters of baptism, words like the Golden Rule or even "an eye for an eye" proclaimed or in the face of neighbors known and unknown simply giving us a push, my sisters and brothers it is profoundly good news that your life is not all about you either. For it is through these means, including sometimes seemingly insignificant occurrences, that our gaze is drawn outward to what is truly important, freeing us from ourselves and turning us toward the amazing work of God in Christ. Amen.

Dustin is currently in his final year of a Masters of Divinity program at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, having recently completed a year as Vicar at the Lutheran Office for World Community and Saint Peter's Church in New York City. While seeking ordination in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, his focus is on the intersection between worship, service and justice in de-centralized faith communities unencumbered by a traditional church building. In his free time, Dustin likes playing frisbee, hiking and pretending to know how to sing.

No comments:

Post a Comment