And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown . . .” When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town . . . so that they might hurl him off the cliff.
I was born in Asheville, North Carolina, a small city that nevertheless serves as the most significant metropolis in the mountains of western North Carolina. It is to Washington, D.C. what Nazareth was to Jerusalem, an out-of-the-way place. Some provincial thinkers might ask about it, as the disciple Nathanael asked about Nazareth, “can anything good come from Asheville?”
One of my strongest childhood memories is a dinner one July evening in the mid-1950s on the veranda of my grandparents’ house. It was a perfect evening. The summer’s heat was dying, as it did every night in the mountains; Grandmother and Mom had prepared a magnificent meal of fresh corn on the cob, pork chops, turnip greens, cole slaw, and blueberry pie with homemade ice cream on top; and all of us sat still together at the end of the meal and watched the fireflies come out. My father sternly coached my brother and me to sit still until we were dismissed from the table, when we could run out into the yard and catch a firefly in our Mason jars. What a mystery it was, that a little bug, here and then there, would light up like a miniature flying lantern!
My uncle was in town this July evening, on leave from the Army. I knew in a nonverbal way, in the way that only children know, that he was the wayward sheep of the family, the prodigal son. No one had ever explained why. He was certainly kind to me. He told jokes. He slipped me candy whenever my mother wasn’t looking. But my grandparents were different when he visited–stiffer, more on guard, more in the lecture mode–and inevitably, after a day or two, an argument amongst them would break out, tears would be shed, and my uncle would abruptly leave.
The argument usually focused on my uncle’s way of living, which my grandparents disapproved of. But in a strange twist this night my uncle made my grandfather livid because of a past nearly three decades earlier–the 1920s. My uncle claimed that some man I didn’t know was the greatest person in my grandparents’ generation in Asheville. This unknown man was greater than the city’s adopted son William Jennings Bryan, or the roller-skating evangelist named Billy Sunday, and surely this young new evangelist named Billy Graham. By implication of course he was greater than my own grandparents.
Why adults could get so angry over such a stupid question I had no idea, especially with the prospects of a second piece of pie and all those fireflies in the yard. But my uncle said something like, “The rest of you are so dull, Father. Asheville finally produces a man the rest of the world can look up to, and your entire generation disowns him. You bring disgrace upon yourselves.”
I thought my grandfather would bust. This infamous man was a disgrace to the community, my grandfather said. The man had no business airing out people’s laundry in public and lying about it half the time. Making up lies. He never held a real job in his life and used his family for his own ends. Then my grandmother added that this man’s sins were the worst kind of sins, for they had a terrible influence on the young. My brother and I were listening carefully by then. Besides that, the man was a drinker, and besides being a drinker, he had moved to New York City, and as everyone knows, what good can come of New York City?
The argument ended as most family arguments around a dinner table do. Someone cut more pie. Someone else changed the subject. The principals seethed in silence for a while. The kids were let free to play and provide a diversion. I didn’t discover who this terrible man they argued about was until fifteen years later. No avid reader of novels who found out I was born in Asheville, North Carolina could pass up the opportunity to ask what I thought of a writer named Thomas Wolfe. Thomas Wolfe is a novelist who reputation has been on the decline for a while now and who is sometimes mistaken for the contemporary novelist Tom Wolfe. Thomas Wolfe’s most famous book, an expose of the Asheville society of my grandparents’ generation, was called Look Homeward, Angel. His most famous title–which may end up being what he is best remembered for–alludes to today’s gospel reading and Christ’s statement, “Truly, I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.” Thomas Wolfe’s last novel was titled You Can’t Go Home Again.
How quickly we identify with the outcast and the exile. We identify with Thomas Wolfe the brilliant novelist and not the dull, Babbitt-like citizens of Asheville. We identify with the prodigal son in the pig sty and not the virtuous elder brother who stayed at home. And how quickly we identify with the Christ who can’t go home again in today’s Gospel story. No one in this Cathedral hasn’t felt misunderstood by his or her family at least once, and certainly unappreciated by neighbors and teachers and schoolmates. All of us have also delighted in being away from home and not identified as “so-and-so”’s son or daughter and judged only for ourselves and not our relation to family or kinsfolk or hometown. We believe, with Mark Twain, that our genius can’t be discovered by our home town because people are so close to us that our genius is out of focus. Or with Emerson we say that our cousins can say nothing about us. And when most bitter, we say with Jonathan Swift, “When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in a confederacy against him.”
But let us be truthful. Might you not agree with me when I say we like to see ourselves as outsiders of genius, but we are not. We are not the prophet, and certainly not the savior. We are more the locals of Nazareth, the fault-finding citizens of Asheville. We are the neighbors of Joseph and Mary, the kinsfolk who work every day and go to church and do our fair share of gossiping. Aren’t we the same ones who get up, drive Jesus out of the town so that we might hurl him off the cliff?
I can not explain why we sin this way, why we imagine ourselves one way and live another way. We tend to find fault with the Jesus who lives next door instead of looking for something in him to praise. When the Jesus next door becomes part of our routine, we grow blind to him. We can be jealous of His success. If the Jesus next door is merely a carpenter’s son, we might be so prejudiced as to believe the divine can’t arise out of our social and economic inferior, or out of someone from a different race than ours. And all the while we are quick to see how others persecute us and don’t recognize our own worth.
What, then, can we do? How can we look up from the dinner table where we argue with each other over who is the greatest and instead see the fireflies burning in the yard, the little lanterns of light all around us? I can only say, my friends, pray unceasingly. Pray for grace. And let us act on our prayers. Let us pray for truth-telling and tell the truth, pray for the ability to praise and then sing praises, pray for new eyes to see with and turn everyone’s attention at the table to the fireflies in the yard, and pray for an end to our jealousies and prejudices and disappointments within our families.
And what may happen? A lot more than fireflies, my brothers and sisters, but visitations of grace. We may with Abraham have angels come into our tents, we might with Jacob wrestle an angel throughout the night, or have our brother Joseph restored to us, or lay in bed and hear a still small voice calling our name, or most blessedly, be walking on the road to Emmaus only to discover we walk side-by-side with the resurrected Jesus, the same man who was our next-door neighbor, the one we once wanted to push off the edge of a cliff . . . and whom we now call, Master, Savior.
In the name of the God among us, our very neighbor, Amen.