Matthew 4: 12-23

Epiphany 3A

January 26, 2020

Lincoln Street UMC, Portland, Oregon

Elizabeth Winslea

I had a complicated relationship with my father. He was loving and generous beyond compare. And as a youth, in his eyes, I was absolutely certain I was clever and capable and there was little I couldn’t accomplish. He was the one who from birth instilled in me a strong sense of self, a gift for which I remain grateful.

He was also a man who could make me shrink in fear. There were many moments throughout my life under his roof where his anger seemed to burst out of a placid exterior. The bang of the front hall closet would tell me what sort of mood he had arrived home in and whether or not it was safe to come downstairs.

The telephone was a huge plague in our house. As a doctor, he was often on call and as my sisters and I became teenagers, rules over how to answer the phone, whether to answer the phone, and how long  one was allowed to be on the phone - the land line - were stated hotly and enforced with an unpredictable fierceness.

And yet, while there were many times that I wasn’t sure if I’d get hot Dad, I knew from him an underlying sweetness and affection.

Like many of our relationships with parents - my relationship with Dad was complicated.

My dad’s dad had died while my father was in college. He was older and had been diagnosed with leukemia. There was no question of his living to meet his grandchildren. I knew my grandmother and between her and my dad I gleaned stories about this man - my dad’s dad.

As I aged and gained perspective on the tall tales about him, I began to be able to hear between the lines, that and my dad maybe got a little more honest about his past. But as I matured in my understanding of the world, I also matured in my understanding of Dad. And I remember the day when the lens clicked into place and I realized - my dad was abused by his father. I’m not sure about physical abuse (although I know it was in the house), but I know for sure my dad was emotionally abused by his father. Talk about an ah-ha moment for me. That ah-ha shifted into place an understanding that made sense of so much of my dad’s behavior.

My confusion, hurt and anger that I felt about our complicated relationship got reshaped. And I realized in that moment that for me, what I had to do was rethink - think back, rethink, and make sense anew. In other words, I repented. Maybe if you were in my shoes that would not have been what you needed, but it is what I needed.

Scholars have debated up one wall and down the other about that word - repent. “Repent,” says Jesus, “for the reign of God is near at hand.” Repent - that loaded word that has long been associated with the conservative church - loaded up with recrimination, sin, guilt, as well as a good dollop of social shame included.

“Repent,” Jesus says. In Matthew, this is how Jesus begins his public ministry. Repent.

So scholars have paid close attention to this word - that command that shapes Jesus’ first public proclamation. And there is great debate over it. What in the world did he mean? We don’t know what his exact Hebrew or Aramaic words were - recorded for us in Greek, we translate to English, Jesus declaring, “Repent.”

In Hebrew scriptures the word that gets translated as repent is tied to military language - and it means turn around. And that’s the understanding from which we base much of our usage. Turn around from your ways of wrong. Leave behind your lives of sin. And that would fit here in Matthew - it certainly meshes up with the preaching of John the Baptist.

But the Greek word here that gets translated as repent is metanoia.

Meta - means again or after. Noia - means to think. Metanoia - at its most basic level means to think again, rethink, think after the fact.

Later in life, my father was in a serious car accident that resulted in significant traumatic brain injury. That was followed a year later by at least one serious stroke. And as he struggled to maintain cognitive control over his life, well let’s just say I had many more opportunities to repent. He would hurt me with his words - out of the blue in a completely ordinary conversation. And I would be challenged again and again to rethink, to reframe.

Take a moment to think over your own lives. Who is there - past or present - what relationship caused you to repent? Once? Who are those people whom because of, with whom, for whom, that you have repented over and over again?

And who are those for whom you aren’t yet ready to repent?

This week I have been thinking a bit about non-violent communication - or NVC.

NVC begins, as one person wrote, “with the assumption that all people are ‘compassionate by nature, and that violent strategies - verbal or physical - are learned behaviors taught and supported by the prevailing culture.’

“NVC invites its practitioners first to consider another’s humanity when communicating with them. It challenges us not to be guarded against others when entering into disagreements with them, and reminds us that the person in front of us is just that: a person, a whole person with fears, hopes, and anxieties. Instead of responding out of our own fears and anxieties, we are to hold the other person in our hearts as a fellow human being deserving of compassion.”[1]

It’s a beautiful practice, isn’t it? But what about those with whom we are so angry or by whom we have been so injured? What about those who see this world, this life so completely differently? Them too? Really?

Non-violent communication doesn’t let us make enemies of another. “Other” them and then demonize them. Non-violent communication doesn’t let us . . . and neither does Jesus. If we’re going to be in a position to encounter God - and be transformed by that encounter - then Jesus says we are invited to rethink. Rethink all those ways in which we oversimplify the one we have identified as enemy.

Only when we let go of the shackles of this kind of thinking are we free to experience the reign of God among us.

When we repent, we rethink and we rehear and we reorder our lives. When heard like that it makes complete sense that Jesus begins his ministry with this invitation.

Because God’s reign is near. As near as the next person in line at the grocery. And God’s reign, we know creates complete upheaval in the world and the world’s expectations - if Jesus’ parables and teachings aren’t enough, just wait a few weeks until Easter when an instrument of execution becomes an avenue for a people to know radical new life. Like that even makes sense!

When we repent we have the opportunity to hear God’s invitation in a new way.

When we repent we find the breath of fresh air that helps us step into an old relationship in a new way. When we repent we discover courage to take down all those protective barriers that we thought were safe-guarding our hearts and instead were simply preventing us from seeing ourselves in the other we’d so like to demonize.

It’s unsettling, terrifying, upsetting, but it can also be the door into God’s presence, turning the world upside down.

We are a gentle angry people. We can be both. We can hold that the injustice we see is wrong but not hardened our hearts against loving the other. We can see and speak out against injustice, but rather than going after it with fists held high, we can accept the invitation to rethink, reframe, change our hearts and minds. So that what gets created in our awareness is created in the gentle loving spirit of our Creator.

We are a gentle loving people, who know what it means to meet the other with justice in one hand and compassion in the other. We can repent. Again and again. [sing Holly Near song]

Thank God.

Amen.

This sermon was written by Elizabeth Winslea and delivered on January 26, 2020, at Lincoln Street United Methodist Church. It is published here with the permission of the author. Please link back to this post and credit the author if you reprint or use any portion of it.


[1]  T. Denis Anderson, Christian Century, https://www.christiancentury.org/article/living-word/january-22-third-sunday-after-epiphany