My wife and I moved to Waco, TX just ten months ago. We bought a house in a neighborhood that’s coming back to life, and on my day off, I walked down the street to the World Cup Café for the Friday catfish special. On the way to the restaurant, I passed the Jubilee Theatre, where the marquee advertised auditions for the musical Godspell.
On a whim, I auditioned and got in. The show wrapped up the last weekend of April, and I played “Nick,” one of the troupe of performers following Jesus around. As a priest, it was wonderful to participate in a musical with such richly Christian themes, and it was delightful to have the sustained opportunity to reflect on what the musical was trying to say.
In short, I believe it was trying to ask one question: “Will the goats please stand up?”
The musical is based on St. Matthew’s Gospel, but there are no miracles. The script itself says Jesus’ Resurrection is optional, and you can really only make that work as part of the curtain call, anyway. Throughout, Jesus is calling together a community of brothers and sisters, teaching them about God and ultimately about themselves through the use of the parables.
All the familiar ones are there: leaving your gift before the altar, the sower, the prodigal son. At intermission, the cast calls the audience up on stage for drinks. They’re part of the community now, too.
When Act II arrives, it’s no longer fun and games. Jesus is suddenly serious and increasingly impatient with his disciples. He’s waiting for something to click with them. The Pharisees challenge him. He laments over Jerusalem at the Wailing Wall. He tells of the untrustworthy servant who is not ready when his Master arrives. And then, it really begins.
The woman is caught in adultery. “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”
The sheep and the goats. “Those who do this for the least of these brothers of mine have done it for me.” He casts the goats into outer darkness.
And then something really strange happens. One of the goats stands up and sings, “We Beseech Thee.” It’s a song acknowledging sin and begging for mercy.
Father, hear thy children’s call.
Humbly at thy feet we fall,
Prodigals confessing all.
We beseech thee, hear us.
We thy call have disobeyed,
Into paths of sin have strayed,
And repentance have delayed.
We beseech thee, hear us.
Come sing about love…
It’s then and only then that Jesus comes to center stage and sings, “Beautiful City.” It’s his way of acknowledging that the disciples are finally ready, are finally the community they need to be to build the city of man.
We can build a beautiful city.
Yes we can; yes we can.
We can build a beautiful city,
Not a city of angels,
But finally a city of man.
The show moves directly into the Last Supper and the Crucifixion/Finale. Jesus is carried off stage. A few of the cast start singing, “Long Live God” over and over. A few others bring in the refrain from Jesus’ first song, “Save the People.” In the 2012 revival, they add “Beautiful City” to the reprise. Finally, John the Baptist’s song “Prepare Ye” enters. It’s then, and only then, that a resurrection happens. The disciples have already committed to build the Beautiful City.
Why? Because the goats have stood up. Jesus’ message of repentance and renewal goes all the way down. He doesn’t give up until the condemned beg for mercy … and receive it.
And all of this makes me wonder (putting aside the absent theology of resurrection in the show) whether there isn’t something to these audacious goats. Is it good for us to see the Prayer of Humble Access as a kind of audacious claim on the God “whose property is always to have mercy?” Should we see the weekly confession as boldly approaching the throne of grace as one who belongs, not as one who must beg entry?
For despite the major things the musical gets wrong, I think it gets this one thing right. It is only those who continue to beg for mercy, who persevere in the face of judgment that have the temerity to start building the Beautiful City, “brick by brick, heart by heart,” as the song puts its. This is made the all the more poignant for me because the Jubilee Theatre, in which our production was staged, was Waco’s porn theater until about twenty years ago. That street corner was a hub for drugs and prostitution in this city. That all changed because some people stood up and begged for mercy for the “goats.” I live on that street because of the temerity those people showed almost forty years ago.
So, will the goats please stand up? The world needs us.
The featured image shows the cast on the Jubilee Theatre stage in Waco, TX. Photo credit: Misty Guy.