Freedom of the Law

Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd                                                                   Oct 4, 2020

Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20

In 1984, I visited churches in Romania during the repressive Nicolae Ceausescu regime. Ceausescu was known for his mass surveillance, severe repression and human rights abuses. I’ve never seen such fear in a people before or since. During the worship services, some people came late, slipping into the back pews. All heads turned, eyes wide with fear, and we knew that the surveillance team had arrived. We were warned not to say anything in our hotel rooms because they would be bugged. On the trains between towns, we were curtly investigated and my travelling partner’s sermons were confiscated. On one particularly eerie evening, we caught a late-night connection in Transylvania. No one was on the platform, but by the light of the full moon, we found the train and boarded. All was completely silent. We creaked open a door, expecting the car to be empty, but it was full of people looking straight ahead in the dim light and not saying a word. No one knew who would betray whom.

Five years later, anti-government protestors demonstrated and Ceausescu ordered military forces to open fire on them on December 17, 1989. Word spread that this massacre was ordered by Ceuasescu and people poured out into the streets, having had enough of his 25 years of terror. The military turned against him, arrested him and his wife and on Christmas Day, and after a brief trial, convicted and executed them. On the following day, Romania was in turmoil. One person told a reporter, “We finally have freedom, but we don’t know what to do with it.”

There are those in certain parts of the world who still long for freedom and there are others who don’t know what to do with the freedom they have. Today, our angel is taking on the name of freedom. What message is the angel of freedom giving us?  Freedom for some means personal freedom and yet individual liberty could mean suffering—even death—for others.

Freedom was a dream for the Hebrews enslaved in Egypt, but when they were finally set free, freedom was becoming a curse. At least they had food when they were enslaved. In their wilderness wanderings, they ran short of water and food. God provided both, but they still wandered in despair, not knowing if they would ever arrive in the promised land. They began to turn from God and turn against each other. Moses became their judge as the people came before him with their disputes. Eventually, Moses took the advice of his father-in-law and appointed leaders and judges over the people. But they needed more than judgeds. They still lacked a unified code of law to follow. This led Moses up the sacred mountain of Sinai to sit in silence, waiting before God. There, Moses received not just 10 commandments but scroll upon scroll of codes of conduct, instruction for building the ark of the covenant and for the dress and practice of the priests. Freedom without laws leads to confusion and conflict.

Humans seem to need laws and guidelines to keep our selfish natures in check and to allow that generous seed of love within each of us to blossom into communal care. The new restrictions placed upon Manitoba had to happen because there were too many people taking too many liberties that threatened the most vulnerable of our society. Freedom without communal responsibility is not freedom for all.

Some describe the 10 Commandments not as a list of “thou shalt nots” but as prescriptions of life that preserve God’s liberation. Because we find our strength and very being in our God, we are free not to need any other gods. Because we work hard 6 days of the week, we are free to rest. Because we can rest in God’s deep peace and contentment within ourselves, we are set free from envy and desire for that which harms.

Because we have received love in our lives, we want to pass it on to others—not the minimum we can get away with, but the maximum we’re capable of giving. Jesus has taught us to meet the law and go even further: “You have heard it said, ‘Thou shalt not murder,’ but I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement…You have heard it said, ‘Thou shall not commit adultery,’ but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

Our 10 Commandments, our provincial regulations, our laws are enforced to protect our freedom and try to ensure that even the most vulnerable receives enough care. But what if we didn’t live according to every dot and tiddle of the law—what if we lived extravagantly beyond what is expected of us?

Some people may ask why our church once again closed its doors to in-person worship when our new provincial restrictions still allow churches to be open. I Corinthians 10:23-24 gives us an answer: “All things are lawful, but not all things are beneficial. All things are lawful, but not all things build up. Do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other.” Our Council looked at the purpose behind the laws and we believe that the most beneficial approach that takes into account the most vulnerable in our midst is to go one step further than the regulations permit. Yes, we are sorely missing our social interactions, but curtailing freedom of gathering is, in the long term, protecting our freedom for all.

Jack Casey was a volunteer firefighter and ambulance attendant. A childhood experience was so formative that it shaped his ability to give far beyond expectations. When he was a little boy, he had to have some teeth extracted under general anesthesia. He was terrified, but a nurse stood beside his bed and told him, “Don’t worry. I’ll be here beside you the whole time.” When he woke up in the recovery room, he saw the nurse beside him and he exclaimed, “You’re still here. You did stay with me!”

Jack returned to that picture of the kindly nurse over and over throughout his life. It gave him the ability to stay with others regardless of the situation. One day, he was attended a man trapped in a pickup truck that had flipped upside down. Gasoline was dripping down while the saws were cutting furiously to get him out. The man was terrified of a spark igniting a fireball, but Jack said to him, “Don’t worry. I’m staying here with you until we get you out.” They were successful, but the man latter said to Jack, “You were crazy to stay with me—we both could have burned to death.” Jack replied, “I just couldn’t leave you.”

Jack didn’t have to stay with the man. First responders are expected to secure their own safety first. But he felt called to go one step further. Our commandments, laws and regulations are there to protect our collective freedom and basic rights. But if we take this one step further, we will understand that we have obligations for the welfare of the most vulnerable, including the earth.

At our Leadership Team Retreat a couple of weeks ago, Pat Stephenson offered some wisdom given to her by an Elder in Kenora, “A Western settler mindset says “I have rights” while an Indigenous mindset says, “I have obligations.” Instead of thinking that I am born with rights, I choose to think that I am born with obligations to serve past, present, and future generations, as well as the planet herself.” These wise words from the Elder offer us the path to lasting freedom.