“That is Why I Came Out”
by Robert Hamerton-Kelly
February 5, 2006
Scriptures: 1 Corinthians 9:16-23; Mark 1: 29-39
“Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also; for that is why I came out.” –Matthew 7:24
Our Gospel passage for today is another summary, like the one we dealt with last time. Then Mark was summarizing the Gospel as the announcement of the Kingdom of God and telling us, by means of the story of the calling of the first disciples that the proper response to the Gospel is to follow Jesus. They followed and this is what they experienced in those first few days with him. He taught in the synagogue in Capernaum, Peter’s hometown, exorcised a demon, and then healed the sick. The result was that the infirm seeking healing mobbed Peter’s house, and far into the night Jesus worked to heal. Imagine him surrounded by the sick touching them, curing them and comforting them. The weary disciples at last slept, but it seems that Jesus slept little and early in the morning slipped away “to a lonely place and there he prayed.”
I want simply to go through this passage commenting as we go, and so will be ad libbing to you rather than reading this text, which is for our on-line congregation chiefly.
Notice first back in the previous story that Mark tells us that people marveled at his teaching because it had a special authority. The sign of that authority is that the words functioned as deeds, that is, we are not told anything he said, but only that he commanded a demon to depart. So the teaching to which the story refers is not some theory, insight or moral command but the action of driving away the demon. Jesus’ words are powerfully active. He speaks and things happen, like the God of Genesis who spoke and the universe came into being, and we human beings with it. Is it any wonder then that Jesus’ word cleanses and heals.
In a time when medical services were even harder to get than for many in our country today, we easily understand why an effective healer like Jesus would be mobbed. He responded to this need because he is compassionate, but he slipped away because he had a more important task to perform than healing and exorcism, namely preaching, and if he lingered in the places where he had healed his reputation as a healer would have brought more and more people in need and he would have been bogged down and prevented from carrying out his primary purpose, which was to preach.
This is a humbling thought for us preachers, and I fear that we do not take it as solemnly these days as we should. Too many of us are sloppy, self-promoting or simply confusing as we claim to carry on the activity that Jesus considered most important, more important even than medical care that restores the body. (The reason for that order of priorities is clear, of course. The body will in any case eventually be beyond healing and then the things of the soul are the only important things). Jesus “came out” to nurture the soul by his preaching, not primarily to heal. Some scholars think that he healed only to attract an audience for his preaching, much like the traditional medical missionaries did, and continue to do.
Thus we might answer the questions that arise: Why did he come out? to spread the message of the Kingdom’ presence and to tell us to repent and believe. Where did he “come out” from? The answer to this question is a more complicated matter. Literally he came from the obscurity of his private life in Nazareth into the public eye. Theologically he came out from the Holy Trinity as the human face of God turned towards the world of men and women, figuratively he came out from the religious center in Jerusalem.
This last “coming out” is indicated by the name that the demon gives Jesus in the synagogue, “the Holy One of God.” That is a title of the High Priest whose home base is the temple and its sacrificial system, the great paraphenalium of organized religion. So Mark tells us that, in sociological terms, Jesus has left the sacred center of worldly authority, and with him that center itself has moved. The “High Priest” is now a traveling preacher, and wherever he happens to be, there is the center of God’ Presence.
His authority comes from a place outside the world of the Temple, sacrifice and sacred violence; is new and powerful and not stale and power hungry. Jesus gives power, religion seeks it; Jesus heals and sets free, religion makes us sick and imprisons us in a web of illusory rewards and punishments. Now “the Holy one of God” is no longer in the temple but on the dusty roads of Galilee, walking from town to town giving good news of liberation from the holy terror in the smoking pits of sacrifice and the icy arrogance of priests, high, low and in between.
It is surely significant that while the religious authorities of Jerusalem ignore him for the time being, the demons recognize him, that is, the traditional enemies of God recognize Him while the traditional friends of God do not recognize him.
So Jesus came out from religion. That is an enigmatic statement for most human beings. Most of us need to add “organized” to “religion” to make sense of it, as if disorganized religion were better than organized religion. No, religion as an anthropological impulse and structure is part of all religious activity, individual and group, organized and disorganized, and has by good theology to be disclosed and opposed. The most telling current disclosure of religion as sacrificial violence is the widespread raging of believers against their perceived enemies, and the latest, lethal stupidity concerns cartoons of the prophet Muhammad in European newspapers, about which thousands of people are demonstrating at the cost of some live and much wasted time. No decent human being can have anything but contempt for religion that fuels such dangerous and stupid violence. (The nihilistic cynicism of the organizers of this religious violence is shown by the fact that Islamist sources are now producing the most scurrilous cartoons of the prophet and attributing them to Western, Christian sources. It makes one long for decent crooks like the Mafia who want only your money and not your soul).
St. Mark knew, because Jesus taught him, that violence is endemic to religion. By his death at the hands of the religious authorities ( and here I include politicians under the rubric religious, because they steal power by myth and mendacity just like the priests) Jesus taught the world that religion is ever only disguised human sacrifice. The current willingness of many Christians to follows Bush to war because he is a “godly man” is one more current example of this religious vice. We call our dead soldiers “sacrifices” and we assimilate them to the figure of the crucified by saying that they “laid down their lives for their friends,” when in fact they are the human sacrifices offered by the religious to their idol Moloch, the eater of the flesh of children. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori (“It is sweet and honorable to die for your fatherland”), from the Latin poet Horatius, is only the lie father’s tells their children to soften them up for sacrifice, like Abraham must have said to Isaac, we presume, on the way to Mount Moriah (where, incidentally, God put a stop to human sacrifice by substituting a ram for a child).
Jesus came out from this religion, and that is why religion crucified him, as it will you or me if we come out too effectively. Perhaps only the Gay and Lesbian people today know the cost of coming out. Good folk humiliate you, religious institutions view you as vicious, disordered and depraved, and religious moralizing terrorizes you with threats of eternal pain. Jesus came out from all that, left it behind for a short sunny summer of freedom, until its slimy tentacles reached far enough to haul him back to religious reality and the Roman Cross. Here the two paws of the beast, the church and the state, close around Jesus and squeeze all that is new, all that is fresh, powerful and life-giving out of him. In the land of the dead no one living can be allowed because that would reveal the secret, that what they call life is really death and what they call death is really life, and their god, the great enforcer is really Moloch the child eater.
So in conclusion I return to a theme dear to my heart, namely, the outrageousness of Jesus. He came out of the box, to live outrageously. I wonder if he is laughing or crying now at the pomposity of the church and its absurd claims to authority and ever inerrancy, while the sewers of its corruption are bursting because of the overload of mendacity and hypocrisy they are compelled to bear. I lived for 40 years in the belly of the beast and now am free. My health is better than ever and a miasma of anxiety has dissipated. I will never again serve on a church committee, which I found to be particularly poisonous, and never represent organized religion.
By the same token I will never cease to proclaim Christ Jesus. Jesus of outrageous grace, Jesus who came out to proclaim liberation, Jesus is my religion and I will never cease to witness to the God who set me free.
One final story: Some years ago I needed to return from Jerusalem immediately for an emergency. It was the Sabbath and after much frustration I found that the only way to book a seat on the plane was to call New York and deal through the headquarters, there was no achieving anything on the Sabbath in Jerusalem. I went to dinner with a professor of the Hebrew University and his wife, who was director of the Israel Museum. When I confided my frustrations with Sabbath law to them, my host, quite openly at the table said,” That is why the rabbis adamantly refuse to have anything about Jesus, who is arguably the greatest Jew of all, taught in the schools. It would undermine their power hungry legalism and free people for a more rational existence.” Since it has never been demonstrated that piety improves people, and often been shown that it makes them sullen and violent, I suggest that we his disciples follow Jesus out of this world of violence and death.