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 hometown of Libya Hill, which was actually Asheville, North Carolina.
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 Asheville, North Carolina, who took great umbrage with Webber’s depiction of their town as narrow-minded, and identification of certain mean-spirited people, who were not very carefully disguised in the novel. Before long George Webber was a pariah in his hometown and the recipient of menacing letters, including a death threat.
Although the title is perhaps more memorable than Wolfe’s actual 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 ever-lasting but which are changing all the time … “
Our Gospel lesson from Mark brings that reality front and center in Jesus’ life. When our Lord returned to his hometown of Nazareth, he learned quickly the truth of George Webber’s observation:
“You can’t go back to your family,
back home to your childhood …
back home 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, Jesus came with his own 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 … a spiritual place where Jesus had most certainly been many times throughout his life. 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. Mark then tells us that after Jesus had spoken the people were instantly offended by what Jesus said. They asked:
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 a great achievement. Later this month, if the United States Women’s Gymnastic Team does fantastic in Tokyo, then I have no doubt that Simone Biles will rightfully be honored in her hometown of Spring, Texas.
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; and we are not impressed by you.
So, the Nazareth crowd puts Jesus in his place. Regardless of the reasons, scripture tells us that Jesus could do no powerful work in Nazareth. In several villages nearby, as we heard in last week’s Gospel, Jesus was able to raise Jairus’s dead daughter and restore a woman who had been bleeding for 12 years. Nazareth, however, is different.
I have always found this Nazareth Syndrome fascinating. Why were they so antagonistic toward Jesus? Maybe there is something to that old adage … “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, some among us are not comfortable with others who are different from us … whether the differences are rooted in age, gender, 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.
The Nazareth Syndrome … how hard it is to open ourselves up 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. They – quite literally – missed the greatest Gift God has ever given to the world.
The Nazareth rejection makes the second part of our Gospel lesson so encouraging. Despite the rejection Jesus feels from his own hometown, he does not shrink down or run from his neighbors. Instead, 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 to them in Nazareth! “Take nothing with you,” Jesus says, “but invite others into our mission and into 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.
Today is also the July 4th
On this Independence Day, 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 two by two and challenges us to do great things. May God bless us and continue to bless this nation that we love.
The Rev. Joani Peacock, Editor for Emmanuel Voices: A Parish Blog