You may listen to Father Mullen's sermon here.
Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land, the Lord has sworn by Jacob: Surely I will never forget any of their deeds. (Amos 8:4, 7)
The arrival in my apartment on the third floor of the Rectory of a mouse is not a wholly unusual occurrence; it has happened before. Evidence of the mouse’s activity a few weeks ago prompted a little inspection of potential sources of its culinary interest, and some foodstuffs stashed on top of the refrigerator were discarded or otherwise dealt with. Rectory mice can often be dealt with through a program of severe discouragement rather than outright extermination. It’s a big city, after all, and there are lots of other places to forage for food.
The mouse in question had left telltale evidence of its presence on top of the refrigerator, where it conducted its raids presumably under the cover of darkness, or at least in the absence, during the day, of me and the two Labrador Retrievers. After the super-refrigerator remediation program, the absence of such evidence strongly suggested that the mouse had been sufficiently discouraged and had moved on to greener pastures, so to speak.
So it came as a surprise to me the other day when from the sofa, with lights blaring, TV on, out of the corner of my eye I detected a momentary flash of murine movement. I looked again, and, sure enough, the mouse was brazenly promenading across the little kitchen floor. The dogs took no notice, so I shouted, and the mouse ran away. The dogs looked at me quizzically.
A minute or two passed, and I saw it again: the mouse quite casually making its way across the kitchen floor. I let another cry ring out, the mouse ran away, and the dogs again looked lazily up at me. And in a moment of theatricality, that is admittedly a bit much even for me, I stood up and addressed the room:
“What is the meaning of this?!” I demanded to know. “How can this mouse not only return to the scene of its earlier crimes, where it is now bound to be disappointed by the utter unavailability of any reward for its foragings, but, on top of that, how can this mouse have become so emboldened that it has now abandoned the safety of the cover of darkness? How can it think that I will ignore its incursion into my space, and pay no mind to its intention to take what is mine, from under my very nose?
“How can it violate the unspoken agreement that mice should slink in to do their dirty work while no one is looking? How can it be so bold as to parade around while the lights are lit, the lamps burning, the watch is not yet ended?
“How can this mouse – this dirty little creature whose presence I have tolerated, whose life I have spared by forgoing the most obvious course of extermination – how can this mouse make its person known in these precincts as though it belonged here, as though it had a right to be in my kitchen foraging for food, (even if it be only scraps, or whatever was once stored on top of the refrigerator) as though it was entitled, as though I would tolerate its presence while the lights are on? How can this be?!?”
The dogs looked up at me, unimpressed by my soliloquy, and supremely uninterested in the mouse.
Mice are, of course, by their nature poor. Not hunters, they can only gather; and what they gather invariably belongs to someone else. They are dependant on the leavings of others. Even within mouse society there are no rich mice (although there may well be fatter mice who are better at scavenging than others). There are no mouse millionaires, so to speak. Mice are socialists – depending on a daily re-distribution of wealth that they are only too happy to tend to themselves in the absence of appropriate legislation. Mice are poor.
And, true to the context of the moment in this American life, I was offended by the presence of the poor mouse in my space – a presence I could have tolerated if it had kept itself hidden, unseen, cloaked by darkness. But once the poor mouse became bold enough to assert itself in the glare of the kitchen lights, its presence became intolerable to me.
Let me put that a slightly different way: true to the context of the moment in this American life, I was offended by the presence of the poor.
The prophet said, “Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land, the Lord has sworn by Jacob: Surely I will never forget any of their deeds.”
At least 46 million Americans – which is frankly a number far too vast for me to comprehend – 46 million fellow citizens of this beautiful, resourceful, and abundant nation live in poverty. And how easy it has become to think of these poor people as mice whose mere right to be among is easily questioned, as if they chose poverty for themselves, as if at some point they stood before Door #1, Door #2, and Door #3 and were told to pick between industry and work, or privilege and wealth, or poverty and want, and they said, “Oh sure, I’ll take Door # 3. Why not? How bad could it be?”
Of course, when you have 46 million poor people (at least 46 million, that is), you begin to notice them, intolerable as this may seem. In our own city, about a quarter of the population lives in poverty – which is also hard to miss. And how likely we are to react with indigence in the presence of the poor, when they are not cloaked in darkness. As though they belong here, as though they have a right to be in our cities, our neighborhoods, our streets? As though they are entitled…?
Jesus said, “the poor you will always have with you.” And I suppose he knew whereof he spake. For all the evidence suggests that Jesus lived his life more like a mouse than a millionaire. He was always on the move, dependent on others for hospitality, always seen eating at other people’s tables (often in the company of unsavory people).
Maybe Jesus and his disciples even had to scavenge for food from time to time. Maybe that’s why the scribes and Pharisees took them to task for “plucking the heads” off the grain on the Sabbath. Maybe they were doing a little more than noshing, plucking more than a few heads of grain? Maybe they were doing a little Sabbath re-distribution of grain, when no one else was likely to be in the fields?
When I allow myself to imagine the very likely possibility that Jesus was really quite poor, I am quickly reminded of my indignation with the mouse who had the nerve to show himself openly in my sight. And I have to wonder: if Jesus is poor, how likely am I to welcome him into my life?
In the context of the present moment of this American life it would be easy to want to rant about the government’s treatment of the poor, to adopt a polemic stance of righteous indignation (which is fun to do from time to time) about the uncaring treatment of the poor. And I believe I would be justified in doing so. But my own tendency to treat poor people with the same attitudes that I addressed to the mouse in my house suggests that I am not ready to cloak myself in righteous indignation just yet.
My tendency to think of the girl who parks herself out on our doorstep for weeks at a time in just the same way, or to think the same of the familiar faces I see inhabiting the steps of First Baptist Church around the corner from here, prevents me from ranting too much about anyone else’s attitudes toward the poor.
And I give thanks that we have harnessed ourselves, here at Saint Mark’s, to the poor in several ways. We have made Saturday mornings here all about serving poor, hungry people in the Saturday Soup Bowl. And we have linked ourselves to a school that we founded that allows admission only to the children of needy families. Maybe we did this as much or more out of need as out of virtue. Maybe our best selves keep close to the poor because we cannot escape the Gospel insistence that we pay attention to the poor, that we find Christ among the poor, that God prefers the poor to the rich, and makes a readier pathway to his heart for the poor.
We happen to be living through an appalling moment in the context of this American life or ours, when our national, civic, corporate care and concern for the poor is at a very low ebb. And there are those who tell us that this is as it should be, that no forces conspire to keep poor people poor except their own moral failings, and the complicity of a soft government. But such lies must not be told in church. Whether you know the Bible well or not, you have heard it said before that you cannot serve two masters, for you will either hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon. You cannot serve God and money.
Very well, we say in the calculus of this American life, we know whom we will serve, and I guess we’ll see how it all works out in the end.
And so in this context we are told that caring for the poor makes us socialists. Another lie. Caring for the poor makes us Christians. That is a surety I promise you can take to the bank!
Very few of us want to be poor, or to spend our time among the poor. This is not unusual, and my sermon this morning will not end with the advice that you should sell everything you have, give your money to the poor, and follow me. But I am left remembering how prone I am to think of poor people in the same terms as I think of that poor mouse, whose life I have so far spared. See how confident I am that his life rests in my hands? I can give it to him, or I can take it away.
But the prophet was not talking about mice, and neither was Jesus. He was talking about people almost just like you and me, who also happen to be made in the image and likeness of God, though we mostly cannot see it, since we see them mostly as mice. Maybe the lives of the poor – at least some of them – also rest in our hands, in some ways. Maybe we have to remember that the ancient question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” was an evasion, not a sacred incantation.
And maybe I should stay at home in my kitchen, waiting for the mouse to come back, and greet him with a new soliloquy, saying something like this:
“Brother mouse, in days gone by I despised you, and wished to trample on you, and to bring about your ruin. I could see no way to share with you the embarrassing riches I enjoy, even though you require very, very little.
“In days gone by, Brother mouse, I believed I could serve two masters, and I charmed myself to believe that this was so. But I see now, Brother mouse, how foolish I was, how likely I am to choose to serve mammon in this American life of mine, since it is the way of this world.
“And I need you, Brother mouse. I need to practice on you, so that I may serve another master – the God of love. I need to learn to give you the little you need out of the plenty I have. Because I have not yet learned how to share it all with the poor people who are my neighbors, my brothers, my sisters, my friends – or at least they should be.
“So I am practicing on you, Brother mouse, learning to put up with you, and to tolerate you in your poverty. And I am praying that some day I will be ready to leave my kitchen, and live like a Christian in the rest of the world, with real people whose lives may depend on me, if only I would choose to share with them too.
“For the time being, Brother mouse, may I continue to practice on you?”
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
22 September 2013
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia