The Sixth Sunday of Pentecost [Proper 9], July 4/5, 2015
Washington Memorial Chapel, Valley Forge, PA + The Rev. Roy Almquist
You Can’t Go Home Again is a great American novel by Thomas Wolfe, published in 1940. The novel tells the story of George Webber, a novice author, who writes a book that turns out to be filled with references to his home town of Libya Hill.
The book was an unqualified success and quickly focused national attention on the author’s hometown. This became a great source of discomfort for the people of Libya Hill, who took umbrage over Webber’s depiction of their town as narrow-minded and identification of certain mean-spirited people, who were not very disguised in the novel. Before long George Webber was a pariah in his home town and the recipient of menacing letters and even a death threat.
Although the title is perhaps more memorable than Wolfe’s novel, one central statement has timeless clarity. George Webber, the fictional author, states with regret:
You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood … back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame … back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time …
Our Gospel lesson for today brings that reality front and center in Jesus’ life. When Our Lord returned to his home town of Nazareth he learned quite quickly the truth of George Webber’s observation: You can’t go back to your family, back home to your childhood … back … to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame. Jesus would quickly discover that there are no more severe critics than those who have known you since you were a child.
We know from Mark’s account that Jesus’ visit to Nazareth was not a low profile event. First of all he came with his entourage of disciples and fellow-travelers. Some scholars suggest that Jesus may have traveled with as many as fifty people. This was not to be a little slip-in, slip-out kind of visit. His reputation had spread throughout the region of Judea, Samaria, and Galilee. Stories abounded concerning the clarity of his teaching and the extraordinary power he demonstrated through his ability to heal the sick, feed the hungry, and cast out demons!
Mark tells us that when Jesus arrived in Nazareth, he went directly to the synagogue … the place where he had most certainly been the model bar mitzvah boy. Once there, he would no doubt have been called to the bema, the raised platform where the Torah is unrolled during worship. Mark tells us that Jesus was given the honor of reading the assigned Torah portion. Unlike Luke’s Gospel [Luke 4: 16-30] that relates Jesus’ reading and commentary, Mark simply tells us that after Jesus had spoken the people were instantly offended by what Jesus said:
Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us? [Mark 6: 2-3]
Some might say that what Jesus experienced was a crisis of the familiar. I would call this … The Nazareth Syndrome. We are used to seeing stories of celebrities afforded glorious receptions when they return home after an achievement. If the United States National Women’s Soccer team defeats Japan this Sunday evening, I have no doubt that Carli Lloyd, one of the team captains and an offensive leader, will be so honored in Delran, NJ, her home town.
But Welcome Home bunting is not always what awaits the return of a famous citizen. Among small-minded people there is often a desire to put this guy in his place … this kid from town, who thinks he has become so all-fire important, is just a carpenter to us! We know who he is … he is the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon … we know his sisters. Interestingly. Significantly, they do not mention Joseph, which means that for many in Nazareth the legitimacy of Jesus’ birth was still in question. Clearly they were of a mind to say: We know where you came from, Jesus; we are not impressed by you.
So the Nazareth crowd puts Jesus in his place. We can only speculate on why they were so resistant to Him. Some have suggested that among insecure people … people who live in fear of being shamed … it is hard to honor one person without feeling that such recognition somehow reduces or belittles me. Perhaps because they had a low self-image they had difficulty imagining that anyone from their village could achieve any degree of excellence and importance.
Regardless the reasons, Jesus could do no powerful work in Nazareth. In several villages nearby he was able to raise an apparently dead child and restore a woman who had been bleeding for many years. Nazareth, however, is different. In his hometown Jesus was incapable of giving witness to the in breaking of God’s Kingdom … the people did not want his healing, they were not willing to listen to what he said.
I have always found this Nazareth Syndrome fascinating. Why were they so antagonistic toward Jesus? Maybe there is something to that old cliché … “familiarity breeds contempt.” We do not expect that greatness will come from ordinary people and places. We also know, whether we like to acknowledge it or not, we are not comfortable with those who are different from us … whether the differences are rooted in age, racial identity, occupation, economic status, or sexual orientation. We often clam up and turn in on ourselves. When we are challenged to deal with something new and outside our comfort zone, we often dig in our heels like those folks in Nazareth.
As most of you are aware, I am a Lutheran minister serving an Episcopal Church. In order to remain in good standing, I need to have membership in a Lutheran church and so we have remained a part of the West Chester congregation. Well, a low-level controversy is simmering at our congregation, concerning whether same-gender marriage ceremonies should be performed in the sanctuary. Prior to the recent Supreme Court ruling, I had a conversation with an old friend from that congregation about people who are threatening to leave the church if such permission is granted.
I asked my friend if these folks are heavily into Bible study … have they been exploring the texts that some find challenging? No, he told me, they are not into Bible study. Well, then, I asked, have they spoken to any gay or lesbian people, as to why this is an important issue for them? He answered, No, I don’t think so. I think they have simply made up their minds on this subject.
The Nazareth Syndrome … How hard it is to open ourselves to things we do not understand! Jesus came to Nazareth and was deemed different from them. And so, rather than make a course correction or revise their thinking, the people of Nazareth turned their back on Jesus.
The Nazareth rejection makes the second part of our Gospel lesson so encouraging. Jesus does not bemoan the rebuff from his neighbors, but he sends his disciples out on a mission in groups of two, requiring them to rely completely on the grace and hospitality of strangers … the very thing that was not afforded them in Nazareth! Take nothing with you, Jesus says, but invite others into our mission and our common life. Despite the Nazareth Syndrome, Jesus is convinced that … human community can be built on simplicity, trust, generosity, and a desire to be interdependent.
On this Independence Day weekend, let us remember those who stood together and pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor in order to build a more perfect union and something they were convinced could outlive them. Let us celebrate independence from the idea that we somehow have to go it alone … that rugged individualism is the highest good. Let us draw inspiration from Our Lord who is still sending out disciples and challenges us to do great things. May God bless us and continue to bless this nation that we love. AMEN.