02/12/23 – Choices – Elder Alan Willadsen


February 12, 2023
6th Sunday after Epiphany
Deuteronomy 30:15-20 / I Corinthians 3:1-9 / Matthew 5:21-37
Elder Alan Willadsen

One of the family stories we heard growing up was of Mom’s grandmother, Sophie Sours, and Dunc.  Dunc’s father had been murdered, he was my grandfather’s cousin, so Soph took him in.  The story went that Dunc took his date to her home in Peoria Heights, missed the last streetcar, and had to walk to the family house on the east bluff, near St. Francis Hospital.  Arriving home in the wee hours of the morning, Soph listened to Dunc’s excuse, put the brim of his straw hat around his shoulders, and said he should have been home sooner, “Because nothing good ever happens after midnight, Duncan.”

I’m sure that story helped inform how Mom raised us, as we had a curfew (at least I did) when I was in high school.  Mom was pretty strict about it because a) she was a professional worrier, b) she could not sleep until we were home, and c) we had only one car.  My senior year in high school my curfew was midnight if it wasn’t a school night.  The story of her grandmother & Dunc informed the way she reminded me “nothing good ever happens after midnight.”  I walked in awfully close to midnight one particular night, but definitely before the clock struck twelve.  Walking in with me was the girl I was dating at the time.  Mom couldn’t (or didn’t) say anything when I had to leave to take my girlfriend home.  I had observed the letter of the law.

In the excerpt from The Sermon on the Mount we just read, Jesus tells His audience God’s commands are about the spirit of the law—about God’s love for us, how we are to live, and God’s desire we be in healthy relationship with each other.  When the focus is on us, when we take a self-centered approach to obedience, we miss the point of the law, which is about how we are to live—truly live—in community.

Part of what Jesus is saying in this passage is, “You just don’t get it.  What is in your heart—the choices you make—are inconsistent with what my Father intended at Sinai.”  Rather than passing laws for every single contingency, or in reaction to exploitation of some loophole, He suggests we look at what’s behind the law.

Such an understanding of God’s intent helps us be obedient to the law, not a slave to it.  Part of the difference between the pharisees and Jesus was the former group’s emphasis on the letter of the law and their nitpicking interpretations, focusing on individual decisions rather than community impact.

A bitter, sour-faced church member once told the pastor they had not sinned.  Dumbfounded, the pastor asked, “What do you mean?”  The member replied, “I have not murdered, I have not committed adultery, I don’t lie, I don’t take what doesn’t belong to me, and I’m not concerned with what my neighbor has or with keeping up with them.  I haven’t sinned.”  The pastor, though tempted, did not ask the obvious question: “And how have you honored God in how you treated your neighbor?”

We might understand the difference between the Ten Commandments and Jesus’s interpretation in terms of our free will, our choice, to obey.  Consider our perspective of our own sense of what sin is.  If we consider not murdering someone synonymous with not sinning, we believe we have power and control.  On the other hand, if in love we reach out to those who have something against us, we do to others what God does to us.

Listen again to verses 23 and 24:  23 “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.”  Until this week, I had always mis-read or mis-heard these verses as “If you have something against your brother or sister.”

Jesus gets us to focus on the other rather than on ourself.  If your brother or sister has something against you . . . How would we know they have something against us?  Either we are clairvoyant, coming to terms with what they have against us, or we have to treat all people in a way they would not have anything against us.  We must be reconciled to them to proceed on the path to the kingdom of heaven.  It doesn’t say we are to forgive them, but we are to solicit their forgiveness and be reconciled to them.  But . . . what if they won’t be reconciled?

God’s “commandment never seeks to destroy life, but to foster, strengthen and heal it.”[1]  God’s “word is not an abstract doctrine, but the re-creation of the whole life of man.  The only right and proper way is quite literally to go with Jesus.”[2]  So, we are to follow God’s commands and Jesus’s model, right?  And where did that get Jesus?  It cost Him His life—and that is the cost of our faith, as well.

No one has done more to draw attention to Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount than then-candidate for president, Jimmy Carter, who admitted to having looked on a lot of women with lust.  In that same Playboy interview, he said, “I believe people should honor civil laws. If there’s a conflict between God’s law and civil law, we should honor God’s law. But we should be willing to accept civil punishment. Most of Christ’s original followers were killed because of their belief in Christ; they violated the civil law in following God’s law. Reinhold Niebuhr . . . says that the framework of law is a balancing of forces in a society.”[3]  In short, look to the spirit of God’s law.

Many years ago, I was reviewing an Illinois filing for a tax-exempt client.  Above the line where the client was to sign, the state had pre-printed the words, “I, a duly authorized officer of the organization, swear the information on this form is correct.”  The staff person who had prepared the return had crossed out the last clause.  When questioned about making a change to the form, he said, “The Bible says, ‘do not swear . . . All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’’”.  I told him the language was mandated by the state and any deviation from it was up to the client.  Jesus reminds us truth needs no further explanation.  Be honest with your “yes” and your “no.”  Don’t bear false witness.  Tell the truth.  “Truth is never accompanied by death but always by life.  Lies are never accompanied by spiritual vision but always by spiritual blindness.  Similarly, love and obedience always go together.”[4]

The author of Deuteronomy speaks of obedience and makes clear to us we get to make choices!  We choose loving obedience to the Lord’s commandments—or we choose to turn our hearts away from God.  Obedience or rejection—the choice is ours.  HOWEVER . . .the consequences to our individual choices for life and prosperity are borne by our community.  Right choices lead to strong, healthy community.  The results of obedience are life and becoming numerous in the land God promised.  “Choose life—if you and your offspring would live.”  When we choose death and adversity, we are lured away and certainly perish—individually. Life alone, apart from community, is like being dead.

The Psalmist affirms the benefits of choosing life and prosperity.  The 119th Psalm, from today’s lectionary, is the longest chapter in the Bible.  It is an acrostic Psalm.  Each eight-verse section starts with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet.  “This rigid order highlights the moral order of the law of God, which is the subject of the entire psalm. . .God’s gracious revelation [of the law] shows the surest and safest way through life’s twisted highways and byways.”[5]  The first four verses read:

1Happy are those whose way is blameless,
who walk in the law of the Lord.
Happy are those who keep his decrees,
who seek him with their whole heart,
who also do no wrong
but walk in his ways.
You have commanded your precepts
to be kept diligently.

Can we find any clearer statement of the benefits from choosing life?  Happiness and joy result when we follow the intent of God’s law.  Not ease or comfort, but deep, deep joy.

In writing to the church at Corinth, Paul emphasizes the consequences of poor choices, their normalcy, and the importance of working together.  Division in the Body of Christ is unacceptable.  It exists, but we cannot tolerate it.  Emphasizing differences results from and contributes to jealousy and quarreling.  When discussing our faith (no—wait—we’re Presbyterians) if we discuss our faith, or mention attending church, inevitably we are asked, “What are you?”  Saying we are “Presbyterian” seems analogous to the Corinthians who said, “I belong to Paul,” and another, “I belong to Apollos.”  We are Christians and they’ll know it by our love.

Paul uses an agrarian analogy to say we serve God, we work together, and we build up the kingdom of God.  To use a phrase familiar from the 1990s, “it takes a village” to be in community.  It is my hope this congregation will continue to work together, planting and watering, as we head into a change in leadership.

When we make poor choices, we sin against God and our brothers and sisters.  God reaches out to us continually, in this community, through today’s Gospel reading to inform our choices.  The Gospel is about transformation. Jesus transforms our understanding of the law, from being “I did or did not do that” to “have I chosen to honor all creation—including my neighbor.”

The author of Deuteronomy said making obedient choices is choosing life.  When we choose not to be angry, not to commit adultery, not to lie, we are choosing life. We live differently as a result of those choices.  God can change our hearts.  Only we can make the choice to obey.

To God be the glory.  Amen and Amen.




[1] Bonhoeffer, Dietrich.  The Cost of Discipleship.  Kindle version, loc 555.

[2] Bonhoeffer, Dietrich.  The Cost of Discipleship.  Kindle version, loc 866.

[3] Interview with “Playboy” Magazine | The American Presidency Project (ucsb.edu)

[4] Today in the Word, February 6, 2023.

[5] JSB, p. 119


© Alan Willadsen, Elder, 2023, All Rights Reserved
Westminster Presbyterian Church | 1420 W. Moss Ave. | Peoria, Illinois 61606
WestminsterPeoria.org  | 309.673.8501