October 7, 2017

The Freedom of Limits


Text: Exodus 20:20: “Moses said to the people,  ‘Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin.’”

My car was probably built by Lutherans. I say that for a  few reasons. First of all, it’s a Volvo, so it was built in Sweden. But actually my evidence goes much deeper than just where it was built.

It turns out there is some pretty deep theology in the owner’s manual that came with the car. I have to say, I’d never really paid a lot of attention to it since I bought the car used a couple of years ago. I guess I figured I pretty much knew how to make it work, at least to the extent I needed to make it work. I can make it go forward, I can make it go in reverse, I can stop it, and I can turn the radio on.

But the Swedish authors of my owner’s manual want me to engage with the idea of driving on a much deeper level. Here’s just a little language from the first few pages of my three-hundred-and-sixty-eight-page-long manual:

“A driver has a responsibility to do everything possible to ensure his or her own safety and the safety of passengers in the vehicle and others sharing the roadway. Avoiding distractions is part of this responsibility.

“Driver distraction results from driver activities that are not directly related to controlling the vehicle in the driving environment. Your car is, or can be, equipped with may feature-rich entertainment and communication systems.... You may also own other portable electronic devices for your own convenience. When used properly and safely, they enrich the driving experience. Improperly used, any of these could cause a distraction.”

Just a few pages later I get some very specific recommendations.

“The following suggestions are intended to help you cope with the ever-changing traffic environment: Never drink and drive. If you are taking any medication, consult your physician about its potential effects on your driving abilities. Take a driver-retraining course. Have your eyes checked regularly Keep your windshield and headlights clean. Take into account the traffic, road, and weather conditions, particularly with regard to stopping distance. never send text messages while driving.”

I guess I think this had to have been written by Lutherans because it’s not really a manual for the car. It’s really more a manual for the driver.

It turns out that buying the car did not somehow make me follow all of these rules. If you go outside and look at my windshield right now you’ll see it’s not that clean, and I need to replace the wipers, and I have not taken a driver retraining course in forty years. But no one has come in a blue-and-yellow uniform from Sweden to take my car back because of my failure to do these things. They’re very good ideas, and I should follow every one of them, but doing so turns out to be up to me. If I fail to do these things, the car is not going to do them for me.

The people of Israel have a story that has quite a few beginnings in it. First, there is the beginning of creation and the garden of Eden. But then we manage to show just what kind of creatures we are by failing to follow the one rule we are given; so we have to start over again, this time outside the garden. That goes well for a while, but not long after it, when the people just aren’t treating each other or the creation very well, God decides to hit the reset button, and Noah and his family and all the animals ride out that decision on a forty-day cruise in an ark.

After that, the story really gets started with the covenant between God and Abraham—a very new beginning. And the great-grandchildren of Abraham fall into squabbles with each other, so that one of them ends up in Egypt, and through a series of unfortunate events pretty much all of the Israelites end up there, too. And then you know what happens, things go very badly, and Moses appears on the scene, and leads the people out of Egypt and they begin their long journey home—another new beginning, and as it turns out, the last one for quite a while.

We’re at the beginning of that new beginning this morning. Moses now has to somehow make a community out of this throng of people who have only just yesterday been living under Egypt’s rules. And he receives the gift of a set of rules from God by which this newly liberated community is supposed to organize its life. They are, of course, the Ten Commandments.

This might have been pretty disappointing to many of those Israelites. After all, they’ve only just won their freedom. They’ve been liberated from living under a dictator. They’re free to be their own people. And what happens? They get a bunch of new rules.

But, of course, the rules can’t make them stop doing the things they’re not supposed to do. Human nature doesn’t get changed; instead, in this new set of rules it is accounted for and warned against.

Said in different words, the Ten Commandments are the owner’s manual we get for us—for our souls, for our lives as spiritual creatures in a material world.

So if God really does create us with free will, why do we get rules? If we’re so free, why aren’t we just left alone to figure this out for ourselves?

Some of you probably know that in the peculiar way of doing commencement at Harvard there is an old part of the ceremony in which all of the students from each of the divisions of the university stand up and are presented to the president by their dean. The dean of each school stands up and reads out the various degrees that the students have qualified for, and in reply, the president says a little sentence that is crafted for that particular school.

When the students from the law school are presented, the president confers their degrees and then says to them: “I affirm that you are ready to aid in the shaping and application of those wise restraints that make us free.”

That’s the paradox that the Ten Commandments are meant to help us manage. A freedom without any restraints at all, a freedom that had no bounds and no limits, wouldn’t be absolute freedom; it would be anarchy. It would be unfreedom. It would be just the opposite of what we imagine it would be.

We’re only truly free when we learn, and understand, and live within, the wise restraints that God has crafted for us, crafted out of a deep knowledge of how we are made and what makes us tick—because, of course, God made us in the first place.

Now, we know that we can ignore these rules. We can violate them. They do not impose limits on us; they are an owner’s manual, not a prison. We can surely forget the Sabbath. We can surely be less than respectful to our parents, and to all the people who have tried to help us on our way.

And if the desperately sad news of this week reminds us of nothing else, it has reminded us that we can still kill each other, and presume for ourselves the power over life and death.

God doesn’t change the basic deal we get. Free will is still the condition under which we are created. But God, in his mercy, gives us an owner’s manual—a guide designed to enrich the driving experience down the road of life, and to help us cope with the ever-changing traffic environment. We don’t have to follow those rules.

But when we don’t—like the tenants in that vineyard—what happens is that we actually become less human; we fall away from what it was we were designed to be, what God intended us to be, and become only partial people. That happens when we forget how true freedom works—by accepting the wise restraints designed to account for our weaknesses, and to remember in thankfulness the merciful God who has made them and given them to us to keep in our hearts. Amen.