I’m pretty new here, so there’s stuff you don’t know about me yet. For instance, I call myself a Christian mystic. That means I’m open to some fairly far out ideas, including things many Christians call heresy, like my blending with other faith traditions and with science. Christ himself was killed for not recanting the heresy Temple leadership heard in his radical new covenant. Heresy doesn’t frighten me.
Given the recent actions of Fundamentalists, I’m all about overturning tables. At the same time, mystics are deeply fascinated with numbers. Numeric pattern suggests a mystery to explore. So, let’s explore a paradox this morning. Here it is.
1 + 2 + 3 + 4 > 10. If you do the arithmetic, that cannot be true. Yet it is true. How? Not by being mathematically true. By seeing the whole as greater than the sum of parts. By seeing one covenant, two commandments, three loves, and four agreements. But why are they greater than ten, as in the commandments given to Moses?
As Christians, we often speak about the New Covenant that Yeshua makes with those who follow his teaching. This morning, our communion cup symbolizes this new covenant in the blood of our savior. Just what makes this covenant new, though? History tells that what Christ tried to foster as a reformation of Judaism was so radical it triggered the formation of a new faith tradition that for two millennia we have called Christianity.
My own initiation to this covenant came from my Grandma Carter. She’s who first spoke to me about the man Jesus. Grandma Carter lived his example as well as anyone I have ever known. She arranged for a neighbor to drive a brother and me to a nearby church for Sunday School. I was powerfully impressed by how deeply she loved her God. She would fit perfectly among all of you.
Grandma died when I was about 12, bringing such a grief that I landed in a Pentecostal church. There, I was immersed in the charismatic, fundamentalist experience. I knew firsthand the joyful touch of the Holy Spirit and the experience of sacred voltage in my body, of speaking in tongues.
Grandma very much wanted me to preach one day. Grandma, here I am. God willing, you hear this and smile.
Our scripture today from Matthew is possibly the most significant moral instruction given by Christ in all the Gospels. Matthew’s gospel has Jesus give this teaching after being tested by Sadducees in their constant effort to trap Jesus in theological gotcha.
A lawyer steps forward to ask Jesus this question,
“Teacher which commandment in the law was the greatest?”
One of the things I’ve learned from Pastor Meighan about scripture is that the small details often tell the big story. Tellingly, it’s a lawyer who goes fishing for heresy in how Christ may put one of the Ten Commandments above the rest. It’s a practitioner of legalities who spools out rhetorical rope with which he hopes Jesus will hang himself.
But Jesus responds as if to say, “Oh, you did not go there! You did not just try that!” Our Redeemer is not so readily lured into a lawyer’s trap. When he answers the question, he elevates all the commandments at once in a synthesis where each of the commandments is a special case of a greater, more encompassing imperative.
If you closely read the Ten Commandments, they express two big ideas. The first several commandments characterize our relationship with God. No gods before me. No graven images. Remember the sabbath. No taking God’s name in vain. The remainder counsel us in our relationships with other human beings, including our own inner selves.
Rather than legalistically debate hair-splitting between ten particular cases, Jesus distills all the commandments into the essential and encompassing mandates that define these two ideas. Put God first, above all else and all others. Love others second, as much as you love yourself. Once he has the ten expressed as just two, the greatest of the pair becomes obvious.
This answer sidesteps the trap. But the dynamic in this scripture is more subtle and profound than it appears on the surface. It is the pivot of his ministry, the fulcrum on which the new covenant turns.
This “simplified” list actually turns out to be more challenging to follow than the original commandments. The originals were pretty straightforward in terms of how they were to be kept, most of which amounted to not doing specific things. Things like killing, sleeping around, lying, and cursing with God’s name. Not hard stuff to figure out.
These two new commandments call us to consider and apply broader principles in life’s situations to know righteous action. This approach requires a developed understanding of who God is and what God wants of us. It demands seeing a big picture, rather than squinting over line items of regulations. It’s much more challenging than it sounds at first.
For certain, life in any civilization comes with rules. Even Jesus told us to “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s.” We need to operate within society, even if only because there is no other way to transform it. Especially a society that fixates on the Rule of Law.
Christ wasn’t criticizing the utility of rules. In fact, he defined plenty of rules. He was telling us that making obedience to rules the central organizing principle of life is a limited and limiting vision of righteousness. Jesus calls us to a more evolved, nuanced concept of righteousness. One that replaces the Rule of Law with the Rule of Love.
The Way of Jesus needs thoughtful meditation and prayerful dialogue with God to travel it. The Way takes a listening heart, real humility, moral discernment as well as moral courage. These are things no law can capture or codify. You can’t deconstruct them into comprehensive, enumerated lists of dos and don’ts.
That is the shift at the center of Christ’s ministry, a call to evolve toward a higher understanding of righteousness than is possible through legalities alone. An understanding rooted in love and common regard.
We see on the news how the law today allows some very shady, questionable, and downright awful things to be done and then defended by virtue of their legality. But, what is legal is not necessarily moral or ethical. After all, we now live at a time when torture is advocated as a necessary and legal practice and when Jeff Sessions tells us to obey the government, even when it tears children from their parents at the border, because Romans 13 says so!
Whatever happened to welcoming the alien in our midst? Whatever happened to “whatever you do to the least of these” or “suffer the children?”
Especially now, we must rise above the strictures and failings of law, which alone is wholly inadequate to produce God’s Beloved Community. Human failing offers too much naked ambition for any law to cover entirely.
Jesus calls us to a new standard for assessing moral conduct, one that transcends law, aspiring instead to be led by the personal incorporation of Christ’s love into our whole being. Every thought. Every deed. Every word.
This covenant requires bold change. A lot of folks don’t bother. A lot of the bad reputation that tarnishes Christianity today results from people who don’t convert themselves to Christianity but rather convert Christianity to themselves.
Jesus invites us to join him in His new covenant, a covenant that birthed a new church and a new way to walk our walk home. This new covenant starts with loving God wholly but by no means does it end there.
The second commandment of Jesus calls us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. When I think about this commandment, I’m reminded of George Bernard Shaw, who wrote, “Do not do unto others as you expect they should do unto you. Their tastes may not be the same.”
That admonition makes an important point; too often we don’t love ourselves very much or very well. What can it mean to love our neighbor as ourselves if we don’t much love ourselves?
As if to answer, Buddha wrote, “Searching all directions with your awareness, you find no one dearer than yourself. In the same way, others are dear to themselves. So, you should not hurt others if you love yourself.”
Or as RuPaul says, “If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else? Now can I get an ‘Amen’ up in here?”
Applying this thinking to the second commandment of Jesus, you quickly see that we are commanded to love not only our neighbor, but ourselves as well. Two commandments call on us to practice three loves: God, neighbor, and self. All the Ten Commandments wrapped up in three loves.
The national UCC has undertaken a two-year initiative called The 3 Great Loves. The initiative calls for the church to honor Love of Neighbor, Love of Children, and Love of Creation. These are indeed important areas of concern that arise from Christ’s two commandments.
Love of self is itself a love of creation. You are as much part of God’s Creation as everything within the cosmos, including our unlikely Earth and the life living on her. We can easily find many loves in these two commandments. That’s their beauty.
Make sure to love yourself. Pray for yourself. Ask others to pray for you. See to your needs: physical, mental, and spiritual. We are called to care for others, which makes it necessary to also care for ourselves. Caretakers who don’t care for themselves cannot long care for others. Create time to refill your cup. Honor your boundaries and require others to do so also. Remember, loving yourself is also loving God and God’s creation.
While the gospels describe the kind of humanity we should aspire to reach, they don’t offer a lot of practical advice about how to reach it. This is where Christians have opportunity to consider and invite wisdom from other cultures and their traditions. Especially when there’s a mystic about to urge you.
One source of such wisdom I have found valuable is a book inspired by ancient Toltec culture, written by Don Miguel Luiz, titled “The Four Agreements.” Raise your hand if you know it. His primary idea is that our actions are informed by underlying agreements we make with the situations of life that greet us. Not all these agreements we make are good for us, our community, or our world. Agreements that women deserve less pay than men, for instance. Or that skin color tells you anything about the intelligence, talents, or character of other people.
Luiz identified four agreements essential to spiritual growth. These agreements can apply to any way of life, including our journey on the Way of Jesus.
About the First Agreement: Always be impeccable with your Word, Ruiz writes, “Your word is the power that you have to create. Your word is the gift that comes directly from God.” Be especially mindful what you place after the words “I am…” Check in with yourself. Are you impeccable with your word to God, your neighbor or yourself?
Of the Second Agreement: Take nothing personally, he writes, “When you take things personally, then you feel offended, and your reaction is to defend your beliefs and create conflicts.” Ask yourself. Do you find it easy amid difficulty to fault God or your neighbor? Are you too fast or too slow to blame yourself? Are you spiritually thin-skinned?
But it’s the combination of the Second and Third Agreement: Make no assumptions that he calls out as a particular woe, saying, “The whole war of control between humans is about making assumptions and taking things personally. Our whole dream of hell is based on that.”
The Fourth Agreement: Always do your best reminds us that anything worthy is worth our best, recognizing that many factors determine what our best will be. Be at peace with whatever that is but give nothing less.
Ask yourself. Do you do your best with God? With your neighbor? How about yourself?
How can we apply these four agreements to the three loves described in the two commandments of Jesus? In my own meditations, I pray about and contemplate these agreements as I imagine ways to express these loves with them.
For example, part of loving God with all you are includes a practice of complete honesty in prayer. Demonstrate trust in God by being completely open about your desires. Ask and you shall receive, right? It’s not that God is unaware of your wishes and needs, but that God desires you to engage fully in child-like faith. Take your burdens to God without self-judgment, fear, or shame. Don’t assume you know what God will think of your prayers or how God will answer them. Don’t mistake “Wait, my child” for “No.”
No matter what comes, don’t take it personally. Abide in faith that God loves you perfectly in any case and ultimately brings all things that work for your greatest good. Do your best to walk the way of Christ as you understand it in the moment, knowing human imperfections will keep you from walking it as Jesus did. When you falter, and all of us do, keep walking without self-recrimination. Don’t be shackled to your past.
Likewise, keep your word with yourself. Keep the commitments you make to your wellbeing. Make no assumptions that limit your capacity to love and change and grow. Your love of God should inspire you toward your finest humanity, expressed as service to others in need of God’s care and grace.
If this requires inner change, approach change with a desire to grow beyond who you used to be. Shrug off the impulse for self-condemnation or absorbing criticism from social media. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Be compassionate to yourself when you fall short. Start over and over if need be, each time doing your best. Christians should always champion redemption and new chances. Especially for ourselves.
You can also do these things to love your neighbor as yourself. Being impeccable with the word you give others is loving those others. Not taking perceived slights personally is a practice of grace. We are forgiven as much as we forgive. Don’t assume that people don’t struggle simply because you can’t see any signs of it.
“Practice the pause” in moments of challenge to seek for the most loving response. Turn your impatience to compassion, assuming nothing about what may be bringing out the worst in others caught in their difficult moments.
For all of these loves, spend time imaging how the four agreements suggest ways to live all these loves more abundantly. Create meaningful practices, rituals, affirmations, and habits that remind you to inhabit the three loves from Christ’s two commandments. Seek out ways to reinforce loving behavior toward God, yourself, and everyone you encounter. Dream outside the limited lines of law, which is too often used to draw prisons and shackles and to codify what is inhumane and unjust.
That is our covenant. Demonstrating the loves of Christ throughout our daily walk, looking for the face of our friend in every face we meet, including our own. On this covenant all the law and the prophets hang. On Earth as it is in Heaven. Amen.