The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 11B)
July 18, 2021
Almighty God, the fountain of all wisdom, who knowest our necessities before we ask and our ignorance in asking: Have compassion, we beseech thee, upon our infirmities, and those things which for our unworthiness we dare not, and for our blindness we cannot ask, mercifully give us for the worthiness of thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Last Saturday afternoon it was really humid and rainy (I think it was supposed to be the tail end of the hurricane), and we decided to watch the 1973 movie version of the off-Broadway musical Godspell. While I have known (and really liked) the music from the show for as long as I can remember (I was six in 1973), I don’t think I actually ever saw the film all the way through. Basically, I think, my movie-loving mother never took me to see it because it contained two elements of which she and my father were deeply sceptical: hippies and Jesus. That Jesus and the disciples are dressed like mimes and clowns, well, that didn’t help, either.
In any event, I did enjoy watching it and it was particularly fascinating to see as an adult and think theologically about how the film handles the Gospel story (which is much closer to that of Saint Mark than its credited source, Saint Matthew). Some of it works really well, especially the opening with John the Baptist, the calling of the disciples, and Jesus’ baptism. Indeed, if I can remember, I hope very much to preach again on Godspell when it comes time — either in Advent or on the Sunday after the Epiphany — for us to consider John the Baptist and baptism, and what it means to be called.
Other parts, however, work less well. For example, it turns out that it is actually very hard to act out the Gospel parables, and many of those vignettes turn out to be too silly or too boring. On a deeper level, however, reflecting especially on today’s Gospel, the very dramatic and beautiful setting of the central part of the film in an empty New York City, misses the mark. Godspell begins with John the Baptist walking across the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan — hippie John clearly lives in Brooklyn — and we are plunged into the frenzy and chaos of the City: wall to wall people, honking horns, people yelling at each other. As soon, however, as the disciples are gathered and baptised in Bethesda Fountain, the City empties, becomes deserted, no one else seems to exist and the story zeros in on Jesus’ connection with his small band of followers. Even as they are singing “Beautiful City,” the disciples march through a cityscape devoid of people, suggesting that the City’s beauty and importance lie in its built spaces, its towers, and not its culture and people. Not until after the crucifixion, in the final minute of the film do we meet anyone else. That is when the City fills again and becomes once more what we saw at the beginning of the film.
In sharp contrast, we have the city described by Saint Augustine, about which I spoke on the fourth of July. Writing in the immediate aftermath of the sack of Rome in 410, Augustine shows his faith not only in the idea of the city as an object, a thing to be marvelled, but as a real place teeming with people, people from diverse cultures, with myriad “customs, laws, and traditions” deeply engaged in the life of the Kingdom of God, actively doing the work of peacemaking to which they are called with their fellow travellers.(1) The pilgrim band is essential to the proper functioning of the City of God, and the Gospel needs the crowds, needs the people, and we see this especially clearly in today’s passage from Saint Mark.
When last we met Jesus in Mark’s account, he had sent out the disciples “two by two” full of “authority over unclean spirits” (6:7) and we learnt only a little about what they got up to while they were on their mission. Mark tells us only that “they cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them” (6:13). We are not given even a glimpse of the disciples in action, and we learn nothing about what Jesus did in those days and .... weeks(?). (We don’t know.) Instead, he interrupts the flow of the narrative with the story of the arrest and death of John the Baptist, and returns us, just now, to the moment when the disciples are, once again, “gathered around Jesus, [telling] him all that they had done and taught.”
Jesus sees that they are weary from their travels and “said to them, ’Come away by yourselves to a lonely place, and rest a while.’ For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.” Where they have gathered seems to be some busy place, perhaps a town square or crossroads, and they were not alone. They were clearly drawing attention, perhaps as Jesus did everywhere he went. Hence Jesus’ suggestion that they find a more private place (perhaps something like that isolated junk yard under the railroad tracks on Ward’s Island where Godspell’s Jesus takes his friends). They set out by boat, imagining it harder for the crowd to follow, but there was a problem: “many saw them going, and knew them, and they ran there on foot from all the towns, and got there ahead of them.” Jesus can not escape the crowds, can not escape the people who are drawn to him and to his teachings, who are astounded by the authority he possesses over the forces of the cosmos, who have seen and benefited from his power to heal. No matter what Mark says in his Gospel about keeping Jesus’ works a secret, the cat is out of the bag, as it has been from the beginning.
In this episode, Jesus’ plans seem to have been foiled. He wanted a quiet time to catch up with his friends and both give them a chance to rest and for him hear of their adventures: whom did they heal? what did they teach? were they received in people’s houses? did they have to “shake off the dust on their feet as a testimony against” those who did not? We will never know precisely. But did this frustrate Jesus? Many of us, I am sure, would have found this a frustrating situation and been annoyed by all those people. I would have; but not Jesus.
“As he went ashore he saw a great throng, and he had compassion on them.” Rather than take their presence as a problem, Jesus looked on them with love and empathy. He did not see them as flies to be brushed away. Rather he understood that “they were like sheep without a shepherd,” that they needed him, “and he began to teach them many things.” He even ensured that they were all nourished that night, not only with his words, but with food in abundance.
And this sort of thing happens over and over in Mark’s Gospel. We saw the crowd that followed Jesus to Jairus’ house and how Jesus was not remotely upset by their presence. He even stopped to heal the woman who touched the hem of his garment, despite the disciples annoyance that an insignificant person, an unclean person, was slowing Jesus down. Jesus might, from time to time, seek the solitude of the place apart. He sometimes even found it. Never, however, did he dismiss the people who wanted to be with him, who needed him, who loved him. Never did he miss the chance to preach and teach the crowd and sustain them. The crowded, beautiful cities and towns, and those who constituted their populous, were essential elements of Jesus’ ministry.
In the City of God, each and every one of us has a place. We form essential parts of the teeming body of people, cooperating with God in the working out of the Kingdom. The author of the letter to the Ephesians offers us a poetic vision of what this means:
So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built into it for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.
When we go out into the city, we are never alone. We are never strangers. We have found a place and a home in the Pilgrim City and where we encounter Our Lord daily, and he never walks away. In fact, we ourselves constitute the city and the city is nothing without us, its citizens. It is just an empty shell. In that City we meet Our Lord in the faces of all those in the crowd, also wayfaring here, and together we cooperate with God and each other to help to raise up the beautiful city, the City of God.
Andrew Charles Blume✠
William White, Bishop, 17 July 2021
© 2021 Andrew Charles Blume1.Saint Augustine,The City of God: Books XVII-XXII, trans. By Gerald G. Walsh, SJ and Daniel J. Honan, The Fathers of the Church (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press 1954), 228.