Over A Cliff

Scripture can be found here

In 1940 Thomas Wolfe published a novel about a young writer named George Webber, who, in his first published work, writes extensively about the place he grew up, the fictional town of Libya Hill. The problem is, the people in his hometown don’t like what he has written—they see it as a distorted version of the place they love, and so they start sending Webber nasty mail. Death threats. It’s almost as if they’d like to throw him off a cliff.

The title of Wolfe’s novel? “You Can’t Go Home Again,” and despite the fact that I’ve never actually read it myself, that title has been running through my mind ever since I started considering this passage from Luke’s gospel in my planning last fall.

Why is it, I wonder, that this folk wisdom speaks to us? Well, some of us, anyway? I have some guesses. 

When we grow up in a place, it is filled with people who “knew us when…” back when we still had a recognizable, local accent. Or, before we got a lot of fancy education, and became the world’s foremost expert on the spruce bud worm. Or, when our major accomplishment was delivering their newspaper on time, or maybe holding the local girl’s softball strikeout record—as a batter. The people who watch us grow up know us as little people who are still figuring it out, who don’t know yet how to be responsible adults in the world, and for whom having to apologize for passing notes in class is the most humiliating thing that has ever happened to us.  We go back to the place of our origins with the illusion that our growth and maturity and adult accomplishments mean something and find it’s relatively easy for Mr. Whipple to make us feel like a goofy kid again, just by ruffling our hair. It’s unnerving.

With family, in particular, we can also feel the tension between who they expect us to be and who we experience ourselves as. We go home feeling sort of grown up and find we’re still the “baby” of the family, or the kid brother, no matter what we feel like inside. Old rivalries with siblings simmer and come to life again, especially if we haven’t had a chance to get to know and respect one another as adults.

And if we come home with a really specific view of ourselves and our role in the world… say, like Jesus, standing up in the synagogue to lay what feels like some shocking news on our old friends and neighbors… it can be a setup for real trouble.

But, you know, Jesus starts it. Last week we heard him reading those beautiful, inspiring words from the prophet Isaiah… Good news for the poor, release for the captives, recovery of health and wholeness, and freedom for the oppressed… and the people whose newspapers he delivered thought it was pretty great, to begin with. “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” “Joseph’s boy has done well for himself,” they murmured, nodding and smiling.

And then, as the passage continues, Jesus’ words take on a puzzling, combative tone.

“So… you’re gonna tell me, physician heal thyself, right? And you’re going to want me to do all the same things I did in Capernaum, isn’t that so? Because a prophet’s never welcome in their hometown, right?”

And then Jesus’ tells two stories from the Hebrew scriptures that amount to a prophet bringing blessings, not to their kin, or to people of Israel, but to people outside the covenant. Elijah blesses the widow at Zarephath, and Elisha heals the Syrian general Naaman.

In other words, what if the blessings aren’t for you, hometown folk… for us… at all? What if, instead, God’s plan is for the blessings to go through us, and to others? What if we are not receptacles for blessings, but conduits, like the pipes bringing warmth to the whole house, rather than keeping all the heat in the furnace itself?

It doesn’t go well. In fact, the word the text gives us to describe the response of Jesus’ Sunday School teacher and Mr. Gower, who gave him his first job at the drugstore, is “rage.” The people who watched Jesus grow up were filled with this kind of white-hot anger, and so they hustled him right out of town and drove him to the crest of the hill, where they had every intention of throwing him off the cliff. 

But they don’t do it. It’s not clear why. Something either cools the anger of the crowd… or someone looks at Jesus and sees, for a moment, the little kid with the missing two front teeth… or someone in the crowd says a word that manages to douse the rage with some cool, refreshing calm. It just doesn’t tell us. All we get is,

“But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way” (4:30).

The bottom line for us is, we are Jesus’ followers. Occasionally, we follow him right into the heat of an argument that makes people want to throw us off a cliff. I wonder: did someone from Nazareth decide, in that moment, that they were willing to go over a cliff with Jesus? And did they stand in front of him, and offer themselves to that angry bunch?

Early in 2018 I found myself doing something I often do with TV shows: watching something for the first time that everyone else was just about finished with. Just as the last season was drawing to a close, I decided to watch all of the show “Scandal,” about Olivia Pope, a Washington D.C. “fixer” whose job, along with that of her loyal associates, is to help clients get out of bad situations they find themselves in. Early on in the first season Olivia and one of her team, Abby, have an enormous fight, because Abby feels Olivia did the wrong thing… helped the wrong person. Helped a pretty bad person. Abby says to Olivia, “I would follow you over a cliff,” but, she adds, that loyalty is premised upon Olivia being the good guy, the “white hat” in any given situation. Throughout the series, the team’s loyalty is tested time and again, and, time and time again, someone says, “Over a cliff?” And everyone responds, “Over a cliff.”

Olivia Pope and Associates don’t, in fact, always wear the white hat. But Jesus does. We see Jesus challenging the status quo, even in such a delicate and emotional situation as preaching in his hometown, and we have to admit, his sermon makes sense. God doesn’t bless us so that we can hoard the blessings. God blesses us to be a blessing, to be that conduit, that non-frozen heating pipe that can bring warmth… renewal… Good News… recovery… to the whole house, the whole community, the whole fractured and frazzled world. And from time to time, that may put us in the position of having to decide whether we will go over a cliff with Jesus, whether we will let his gospel imperative of inclusive Good News draw us into some uncomfortable places.

The world seems to be pushing back, hard, against the kind of inclusive welcome Jesus invites us to be a part of. Good news to the poor… release to the captives… recovery to the ailing… liberation from oppression. Jesus spells it all out at the beginning, so that there are no misunderstandings. These are the places we are called to live out our faith—this faith which is about doing as well as believing. We are called to go over that cliff with Jesus. He asks us to give him our hearts, as he has given us his, and to follow him, wherever he leads us. 

Thanks be to God. Amen.