Jesus in America

The smash hit of the Broadway season, “The Book of Mormon,” opens with a musical number with the catchy phrase, “Did you know that Jesus lived here in the USA?  You can read all about it now in this nifty book, it’s free, no, you don’t have to pay.”  Later in the song we hear this helpful evangelistic assertion: “Eternal life is super-fun, and if you let us in we’ll show you how it can be done!”

Putting aside the musical’s breezy take on salvation and its critique of religion, as we celebrate the Fourth of July weekend, even if we don’t agree with the notion that Jesus lived here in the USA long ago, we might wonder whether or not Jesus lives here now, or whether or not he has anything at all to do with America. Does Jesus live in America?

Here in the cynical, socialist Northeast it’s fun to turn that question into a Broadway musical, so that we can mock its absurdity.  But there are other ways of addressing the question of whether or not Jesus lives in America.  In Texas, the state that boasts the largest cross in the western hemisphere, as though that were somehow a good or important thing, it’s a different story.  The Governor of Texas has another way of answering the question, “Does Jesus live in America?”  He begins by telling us that “we are in the midst of a historic crisis.  We have been besieged by financial debt, terrorism, and a multitude of natural disasters.  The youth of America are in grave peril economically, socially, and, most of all, morally.  There are threats emerging within our nation and beyond our borders beyond our power to solve.”  And so, the Governor and his supporters, borrowing from the prophet Joel, are calling for a “solemn assembly of prayer and fasting” to be held at a stadium in Houston later this summer.

Here is the most concise expression of their message on the website for the event:  “There is hope for America.  It lies in heaven, and we will find it on our knees.”  The guys on Broadway would have a field day with this.  It is only half a step away from declaring that Jesus lives in America, and at the rally in Houston, I can almost guarantee you that there will be a praise song of some sort sung that makes the point that Jesus does, in fact, live right here in the good old U. S. of A.

The organizers of the Texas gathering tell us that “our hope is in the One who might turn towards our nation in its time of great need – if we as a nation would turn to Him in repentance, prayer, and fasting.  The call of God to His people in times of great trouble is to gather together and call on Him with one voice, one heart….”  Biblically informed though this perspective may be, the trouble with it is that it mis-conceives our country, casting America in the role of a new Israel: unambiguously God’s anointed people.  This is a role that America simply cannot inhabit – we don’t fit the costume, especially since the original cast is still wearing it.  And the foolishness of this plan – as a plan for national renewal – is that it is doomed, since not even the Governor of Texas can bring about the repentance of this nation with one voice, one heart, earnest though his desire to do so may be.

But the Governor and his allies are not wrong about everything.  They pose this question, too:  “Who knows what can happen in our generation when we gather together to worship Jesus, fast and pray, and believe for great change in our nation.”

What the Governor is wrong about is who should be leading such prayers, and where they should be offered.  For his office does not qualify him for the job; in our country it more or less disqualifies him.   And converting a stadium into an arena of worship does not make it a church, since a church is first and foremost a community that can come together again and again to be nurtured and guided by God, not just whipped into a frenzy and released into the world.

Somewhere in between the Broadway jokes and the Texas swagger there is room for a lot of people who take religion seriously and who struggle with the question of whether or not Jesus lives in America.  Generations of people here at Saint Mark’s fall into that category, and when they agreed to a design for the main entrance to the church they carved over it words from today’s Gospel reading: “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”  The inscription was not originally part of the church when it was completed in 1851.  Those words were added when the great red doors were installed in 1923, long after the parish and the nation had endured the wearying Civil War, nearly a decade after the exhaustion of the First World War, and during the frenzied enthusiasm of the Jazz Age.  An invitation to rest in the cool darkness of this beautiful church must have been a very welcome thing to many.

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”  It’s been a long time since a yoke was used with any regularity in the streets of Philadelphia.  So when I hear Jesus talk about taking his yoke upon me, I feel as though he is asking me to do something unpleasant, demanding, and sweaty.  I feel almost certain that I want nothing to do with Jesus’ yoke or any other.  But if I cast my mind back to my days in Colonial Williamsburg, I remember that a yoke is not something onto which a great weight is piled, it is a kind of wooden apparatus that keeps two animals together, allowing them to work as a pair, to allow them to accomplish work together that they could not do on their own.  And Jesus’ invitation to take his yoke upon you is not an invitation to take something off his neck and put it around yours, it is an invitation to take up the empty side of his yoke and work alongside him, to be his partner in ministry, linked to him in such a way that you go where he goes, and you accomplish the work he accomplishes.  It is thus that Jesus makes himself in the world: when we see those who have yoked themselves to him and who make it clear than the work they do is not accomplished on their own, but by the grace, and strength, and guidance of the One to whom they have yoked themselves, whose yoke is easy, and whose burden is light.

One of the charming things about Mormons is their insistence on following the Biblical model and sending their young missionaries out by pairs: two by two, yoked together, as it were, as partners in their work.  But the yoke of Christ is not always so easy to see.  Many people see Christians doing good work but do not see the invisible yoke of Christ that enables us to do it.  If we could see it more easily, we might have an easier answer to the question, Does Jesus live in America.  Here is one way I would answer that question:

The other day I went with Mother Takacs over to City Camp at our mission parish at Saint James the Less.  We happened to be there during a time that all the kids from the neighborhood were gathered together playing Tag.  It was a big group of kids and they were having a great time careening around, tagging each other.  As will happen, two of the littler kids were running around and ran right into each other, knocking one of them to the ground.  After that momentary pause that a child takes to assess the situation, the boy on the ground began to cry, and so one of the camp counselors, Roberto, went over to help him.

Now Roberto, is a kid of maybe 17.  He is a big, burly kid with short dark hair and bright dark eyes, and the kind of scruffy facial hair that you can tell he wishes he was older than he is.  Roberto is a good carpenter and he oversaw the construction of beautiful raised beds for a garden that is being planted in the schoolyard. 

Roberto went over to the fallen boy and scooped him up in his arms and gently carried him outside the play area to the steps at the side of the schoolhouse, where he set him down.  The boy was pretty clearly not hurt in any serious way.  I don’t think there was even a scratch or a scrape, his injuries barely qualified as a boo-boo. 

As I watched, I saw Roberto lean down and take the boy’s head gently in his hands so he could look into his crying eyes and assess the situation.  Seeing that the child was really OK, Roberto did the only thing he could do to help: he sat down next to the boy and put his arm around him and just waited for his crying to stop, which it did soon enough for the boy to rejoin the games and get on with his fun.

If you want to know if Jesus lives in America, you don’t need to look any farther than Roberto.  For in the moment that he held that small boy’s head so carefully in his hands, offering the kind of small mercy and compassion on which a happy childhood depends, it was easy to see that Roberto was not working alone.  He is yoked to the One whose name is invoked at the beginning and end of every day at City Camp, just as it is invoked at the beginning and end of every day here at Saint Mark’s.

Maybe it is the case that religion is all a big joke, and that our careful attention to religious observance at a place like Saint Mark’s deserves to be satired and ridiculed, maybe even turned into a Broadway musical.

And maybe it is the case that God is waiting for a bunch of Texans to declare their unswerving faith at a rally in a stadium, bolstered by feel-good music and heart-felt appeals to the idea that America really is the new Israel, called on to repent and live into its role as God’s chosen nation.  Though I doubt it.

But I am certain that as long as there are people like Roberto – and like so many of you, who have also been willing to take up the yoke of Christ and work with him to do what he does, and accomplish the things only he can accomplish – I am certain that Jesus lives in America, and I pray he always will.


Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen

3 July 2011

Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on July 4, 2011 .