You might have seen the sketch in Morecambe and Wise in which they do their own version of ‘Singing in the Rain’. Ernie is enjoying himself playing the Gene Kelly role, singing and dancing (and we’re reminded how good those two were at both, having started in music hall), while Eric is a hapless police officer who manages to stand under a drainpipe at the wrong moment and gets drenched, his protestations of ‘I’m wet through’ being completely ignored by his co-star who is, and wants to be, the focus of attention. I was once rather earnestly asked who I considered had influenced me most in terms of liturgy and preaching. I think the questioner was expecting me to say something appropriately dignified like ‘Augustine’ or ‘Lancelot Andrewes’ or ‘Austin Farrer’, or, of course, ‘Walter Frere’, all of whom with many others have certainly been extremely significant, but what I actually said was ‘Eric Morecambe’. Quite why I said this I can’t quite remember, and I was probably being a bit mischievous (never!), but I think it had something to do with timing, attention to detail, and rehearsal, all of which were key to the success of Morecambe and Wise – what seemed to be ad lib or spontaneous was in fact carefully rehearsed at Morecambe’s insistence. And it is in this way that the bystander, the police officer, actually and ironically becomes the focus of the sketch. Attention is drawn to him in a way that isn’t present in the original but plays on our sense of irony and in a way the dignity of the underdog, the apparent also-ran, in whom actually is to be seen something of ourselves – in this case our sense of the ridiculous, the puncturing of any pretension, and the need to laugh at ourselves in that respect. It occurred to me one day that in laughing at Eric Morecambe, I was actually laughing at myself, and that he was helping me to do it.
All this came to me, well, sort of, while I while I was reading this morning’s Gospel. The Gospels generally are full of bystanders, figures who make fleeting appearances and then disappear, never to be heard of again. Just think of the Passion narratives. They are sometimes, in fact often, unnamed. But that doesn’t mean they are unimportant. Here, the various relatives and co-workers of those Jesus calls to follow him seem just to stand there and watch as they abandon their nets and go with him. One of the antiphons for St Andrew dramatically changes key as the word ‘immediately’, or ‘straightway’ in old money, is sung, making the text speak of the necessary immediacy of the response of the growing band of disciples. No time for dithering – we need to get on with it. Yet these others stand and look on. You could forgive them were they to say ‘hey, hang on a minute, you can’t just take these people away with you, we’re working here’, but what we actually get is silence (and the silences are another key part of the Gospels – what isn’t said is as capable of pointing to the truth as what is spoken). We will never know what they did next, just carried on with their fishing most likely, but they are not irrelevant to the central focus – the call to discipleship. We do not exist for ourselves alone – we exist in a complex web of relationship with those dear to us, those who have influenced us for good, but also, and here’s the difficult bit, those who are not dear to us, those we would run a mile from, and those whose influence may have been detrimental to, even abusive of, our human dignity under God. This is the risk of being human in God’s created order, and this is the reason we give thanks for what is good and at the same time ask for forgiveness of our own failure to honour the dignity of others, for reconciliation and healing, and, in our fractured and imperilled world, justice, equality, responsibility and peace. Our lives are full of encounters with bystanders, positive and negative, in a way that can obscure the fact that in the face of each is the face of Christ. I think I learned that the hard way when, as a young priest, after a long conversation sitting on the churchyard wall with a man who had been released that day from prison after serving a sentence for violent behaviour, it became clear to me that he was about to hit me. In the end he didn’t, and I won’t here tell the rest of the story, but for reasons bound up in the mystery of God’s way with us, that encounter has stayed with me and become part of me, and although I was quite terrified at the time, I can now give thanks for it and I find myself wondering more what happened to him and praying that he’s found that peace to which I earlier referred. I suppose that means I’ve been reconciled to the memory of that day, and my fear has been turned into a greater confidence in God’s larger purpose. But 25 years later I have to keep working on it!
And what we do today in this Eucharist is itself a reminder of how the bystanders are often us. The Roman Canon of the Mass refers to ‘omnes circumadstantes’, literally ‘all those standing around’. It sounds a bit casual and uninterested, yet that is most definitely not what it is and is not what English translation might make it sound like. Those who stand around, though unnamed unlike the representative martyrs in the same prayer, you, me, anyone present both here and with us online, are given dignity by being placed at the very heart of the Eucharistic action, an indispensable part of what is happening, the people of God doing what they are called to do – worship and thanksgiving, with the distinct and equally essential implication, at the very least, of going and doing something about it, not as mere spectators but participants with all the senses of costly self-giving that the roots of that word imply.
And so, the bystanders, the onlookers, in today’s Gospel, are not insignificant. Mark is very careful to identify them and the relation they bear to those whom Jesus calls to follow him, even the so-called ‘hired men’. Everyone has a part in the picture painted for us, and we are in that picture too. Why be so specific unless all present are part of the new thing that God is doing in Christ Jesus the Lord? They may not know what it is yet, but the reality remains. We may not know what it is yet, not fully anyway. The incarnation, to which our attention begins to be drawn afresh liturgically as we approach Advent, is nothing unless it is all-enfolding, making insistent the call of the Lord to each of us, the possibility of having to lay aside in the wider service of the Kingdom whatever metaphorical nets we may be tending, confident that the Lord who calls is faithful.