Exodus 20:1-17  The Form of Freedom

March 11, 2012 The Third Sunday of Lent

In his book, Standing by Words, the poet Wendell Berry, makes the well-known argument that form without freedom is oppression, while freedom without form is chaos. One might think he is talking about literature and that would be true. He is criticizing writers of (so-called) free verse who reject any fixed form as too restrictive. They prefer to put the words wherever they wish without regard for a form. Ironically, without any fixed form one is actually enslaved to whatever comes next. This is self-indulgence disguised as art.

You might also think Berry is talking about politics, which is also true. We’ll say more about that later. What’s fascinating is that Berry is actually writing about marriage: form without freedom is oppression, freedom without form is self-indulgence disguised as self-expression. He argues that literature is most creative when working within the discipline of a form, likewise marriages flourish within a formal commitment, the most obvious being vows of love.

Now let’s talk about politics. Form without freedom is oppression. In what has become known as the Arab Spring, people are gaining the courage to overthrow their oppressors in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Syria is not far behind. Yet, we wait to see whether this freedom will take a new democratic form or dissolve into social chaos. As one person said: We have our freedom, but we don’t know what to do with it.

That sums up the challenge of the human condition: what to do with our freedom once we have it. The answer is the biblical story of human history from Genesis to Revelation.  Which now brings us to Exodus.

When God delivered the children of Israel from slavery under the brutal hand of a dictator, they set off on a long journey to toward the Promised Land. The journey was about much more than getting from A to B, Egypt to Canaan. It was about becoming a free covenantal community with God at the center of life. That is the same journey that all communities must take, whether a religious community or a newly formed state. Learning how to live into social freedom is a messy affair. It requires finding a purpose beyond simply being free to do whatever you please at any given moment.

College dormitories are laboratories for young men and women learning what to do with their freedom. Some crash wildly, on the way to finding how to live freely. When fueled by drugs and alcohol, some crashes end in tragedy, like the recent one at UVA. Others find a form for their freedom because they have been tutored in the structure of home. Either way, one of the primary lessons of college is how to live with individual freedom within a form. That lesson may not get you a job, but it will help you keep it. It’s the same lesson for a group of individuals seeking to be a community before God. Which brings us back to the children of Israel wandering in the wilderness.

The Ten Commandments are the form for freedom that shaped Israel from a disparate band of slaves, freed from shackles of oppression, into a covenant community with God at the center. In this way, law and liberation are profoundly entwined. Without law, in this case specifically Torah, liberation leads to anarchy. Without liberation – human freedom – law leads to oppression. The Ten Commandments are the gift of God given to shape the human community in ways that enhance respect for human dignity, prevent abuse, create gratitude, encourage honesty, the love of neighbor and sustain the worship of God.

In an effort to help us embrace these commandments in a fresh way, the writer Barbara Brown Taylor, call them “ten teachings for a whole life.”  I don’t know if that’s helpful or not but I do find it troubling that the ten commandments are frequently reduced to a symbol for a partisan political agenda, rather than a reminder of the task common to all politics: finding a social form for our freedom before God.


For generations, Presbyterian-Reformed worship followed the declaration of pardon by reciting the Ten Commandments. That sounds odd. It is still odd. It was way of affirming the connection between freedom in Christ and a disciplined form that displays it. “Yes!” we declare, “we are free from our sins through the generous mercy of God in Jesus Christ.” Yet, our freedom is given so that we will live the God-centered life embodied in the commandments: refusing murder and stealing, honoring our loved ones by honoring our parents, pledging not to dishonor our beloved partner by adultery, loving our neighbor by not coveting his possessions. It was a weekly reminder that we believe freedom means living before God in particular ways. Do you believe recovering this God-centered social orientation to life will help our children? I do. Might this orientation to life before God provide an alternative vision for a celebrity driven culture where sexual hook-ups are common but authentic love of neighbor hardly exists? I think so.

The ten teachings call us to respect life and honor relationships, to stop working one day a week in gratitude to God, enjoying the blessings of this mortal life. As one theologian put it, “The commandments are “a light unto our feet. They light our way and show us how we might live as a people who have already been freely given God’s grace in Jesus Christ.”

In the gospels we learn from Jesus what it means to live by the commandments, to love God with all one’s being, and in Jesus’ ministry we see what it means to love neighbor as oneself. It is not a choice between living by law or living by grace. The way of life in the commandments is contained it the gospel. There form and freedom are joined.

Into this life of freedom in Christ, our brother Greg Carr will be baptized today.