Homily, Heliotropism
Third Sunday after the Epiphany, 2023
Good Shepherd Episcopal Church
Tequesta, FL

The Rev. Derek M Larson, TSSF

Today’s Lectionary Readings:

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Heliotropism. I am fascinated by heliotropism. Heliotropism is the scientific name that describes how it is that many flowers and plants literally reorient themselves to take in the sun. The flowers move themselves. Sunflowers are especially famous for this. Before they have those big, beautiful, yellow faces when they are just budding, every day in the early hours of the morning they naturally point themselves east to greet the sun. And as the sun rises in the sky, the bud of the flower every so slowly moves to follow the sun until at nightfall they are facing the complete opposite direction—west, so that they might bid the sun goodnight. And then slowly in the dark hours they reorient themselves again to the east so that they will be ready to greet the sun again at dawn.

Isn’t that incredible? A miraculous force of nature hiding in the very essence of a flower. Somehow on some deep level—beyond any synapses firing in a brain—they know that it is the sun that gives them life. And so they keep themselves always oriented to its light. Heliotropism. 

This morning, I think heliotropism has something to teach us about our gospel reading. 

In the first half of it we see Jesus living along the edge of the sea of Galilee. And Matthew connects his presence there to an ancient promise from the Hebrew Scriptures about the same location, “Land of Zebulun, Land of Naphtali, the people who have sat in darkness have seen a great light and for those who sat in the region and the shadow of death, light has dawned.”

In the second half we see Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John all leave their fishing nets and boats to follow Jesus as his first disciples. The dawning of Jesus’ ministry.

And right there in the middle of the passage between these two sections is a summary of what Jesus was preaching: “Repent! Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

Now if you’re like me, you might just have a slight aversion to the word ‘repent.’ Maybe you don’t, but if you’re like me you might. It’s not a very positive or pleasant word, is it? In our society it carries with it quite a lot of baggage. And while we might agree that in some contexts it’s a necessary word, repentance is part of our faith tradition, I’m not sure how many of us would summarize Jesus’ whole message with the word ‘repent’. 

For many of us the word ‘repent’ often calls to mind angry street preachers wearing sandwich board signs, yelling into megaphones, condemning and warning of the coming of judgement and hell. 

For many of us, the word ‘repent’ often calls to mind feelings of shame, regret, embarrassment, and pain about our past. 

And those images are essentially what the English word, ‘repent’ is meant to connote. It comes from the Latin penetire and poena which mean ‘regret’ and ‘legal punishment.’ ‘Repent’ is not meant to be a positive or constructive word… But, interestingly, ‘repent’ is not actually the word used in this passage. 

Unlike the English and Latin forms of the word, the original Greek word means something else. You may have heard it before. Metanoia. It means change. Reorient. Transform. The word metanoia doesn’t carry with it those images of regret and punishment. It simply means to change one’s mind. To change one’s perspective. To reorient oneself to something different.

While the word repent focuses on the shame of the past, the word metanoia focuses on hope for the future. 

While the word repent calls to mind angry street preachers speaking about the coming of hell, the word metanoia, in Jesus’ mouth, speaks about the coming of heaven. (“The kingdom of heaven has come near.”) You see the difference? 

Your past may or may not be full of shame and regret, but Jesus’ message is not to condemn your past but to give you a future. You may or may not deserve judgment and punishment, but Jesus’ message is to offer you consolation. 

“Change! Reorient yourself! For the kingdom of heaven is near.”

And that’s just what these four disciples did. While today’s passage offers no information about their past sin, on the heels of Isaiah’s poem about a light dawning, the disciples reorient themselves towards the message and invitation of Jesus. They drop everything, change what they’re looking at, and follow him. Sound familiar?

Heliotropism! Do you see the connection? Just as sunflowers orient themselves to follow the life-giving power of the sun across the sky, these four disciples have reoriented themselves to follow the life-giving power of Jesus.

This is the biblical notion of what we call repentance. Not to fill ourselves with shame and regret but to orient ourselves towards what gives us life. 

Now don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean to say repentance in this light is easy. What looks so effortless and natural to the sunflowers can be for us quite laborious. We so easily get attached to facing one thing, and it can be hard to let go and orient ourselves to something different. We’ll see that over the next few weeks as we dive into Jesus’ sermon on the mount. 

But I am trying to highlight for you a vision of repentance that does not steep you in shame, but permeates you with grace. Because Jesus’ message is not meant to bring you down, but to lift you up. To set you back into the natural rhythm of turning your gaze towards God.

The flowers know they are following the sun because they can feel within them life. We know we are following God’s son because we will be able to feel within ourselves life. So if you come to church or feel in your prayers shame and regret, I invite you to reorient your gaze to the light of Jesus and find new life. Amen.