You Can’t Go Home Again – Or Can You?

A Letter to Pittsburgh Presbytery from
Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge
General Minister
November 21, 2019


Thomas Wolfe’s final novel, published posthumously, is entitled You Can’t Go Home Again. It explores the disconnect and rejection the protagonist feels from his home town due to new perspectives he has gained on life while living abroad. When we leave home, we change, and so perhaps does the home we left. We can’t come back home and expect that things will pick up just where they left off. Just ask Jesus, who found that those who knew him growing up turned against him with a vengeance when he returned home to launch his Messianic ministry. (Luke 4:16-30)

As we approach Thanksgiving, the quintessential “family reunion” holiday, I hear of people choosing to stay away from their siblings, parents, or other family members, for fear of the bitter personal and political clashes they’d face. Thanksgiving with our family is complicated enough already for so many of us – add to this all the table-talk topics that arise in our currently politically-charged climate. Maybe it’s Colin Kaepernick or climate change, or whether our president is serving us well and his impeachment inquiry is a necessity or a sham. It may well be better simply to avoid the family table than to go to a place where things could be said and done that deepen our alienation from each other.

Later in his ministry Jesus counsels his disciples about how to prepare for hostile questioning. Jesus is talking about what to do when brought to trial by authorities, which may seem like something different from encountering opposition closer to home. But is it really all that different? Part of the problem, when encountering views different from our own among those closest to us, is that we are challenging authority in our home territory. “Home authority” might reside in the person of our elders or siblings, or among the institutions and traditions in which we were raised.

Jesus’ direction to his followers facing hostile questioning by authorities is, frankly, stunning. “So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance.” (Luke 21:14-15) Don’t stock up rehearsed arguments honed in preparation for facing our questioners. In other words, followers of Jesus go into hostile territory unarmed, both physically and argumentatively. Jesus promises that when we enter a place where we are being taken to task for our commitments, we will be given in the moment the answer we need to offer our interrogators. If we can trust Jesus to give us words of grace and wisdom as we encounter institutional opposition, perhaps we can do the same for engaging friends and family members who find fault with us.

We Presbyterians are well-practiced at preparing convincing arguments to support our positions in face of dissenting opinions, whether by citing our Book of Order, Book of Confessions, or even the Bible itself. Winning arguments is how we advance our church’s social and theological agendas. Jesus’ counsel not to prepare ourselves in advance is utterly counter-cultural to us. Embedded in Jesus’ advice, “Make up your minds not to prepare your defense…” is the insight that people – even people of good faith – need to exercise great intention to avoid entering conflicted places with pre-determined arguments.

What does this mean for us in a time of roiling social and political upheaval, especially when the chasms that separate us run right through the heart of our families and friendship circles? Simply avoiding the family table may be better than going there armed to the hilt. But perhaps there is a better way still – go ahead and sit at the table, and leave all the prepared arguments behind. This is, after all, the way we are invited to sit at the Lord’s Table. Why couldn’t it also shape how we gather at our family’s Thanksgiving table?

Jesus goes on to say that by enduring in this way in the face of opposition, we will “gain our souls.” The corollary is that when we separate ourselves from those with whom we disagree, or engage them only to fight them, we lose our souls. Jesus isn’t talking here about whether we’ll go to heaven or hell, but about whether we will be people who live up to and into what we are created to be. That is, are we true to the divine image that God has planted within us, of the Triune God in which the persons of the Godhead live in perfect fellowship with each other? To put it another way, does Jesus’ prayer, “That they may be one, as we are one,” impact how we live with our families and friends, and not just how the church lives? (John 17:22-23)

Yours in family bonds,

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