For those who are familiar with Evensong, the song of Mary, the Magnificat, from our Gospel reading will be well known (Luke 1:46-55). Whether this is something that is deeply ingrained in you or not, the Magnificat is a powerful statement. It turns the world upside down. Favour is given to a young woman of low status and this will elevate her ranking for generations to come. The proud are scattered, the powerful brought down and leveled. The hungry receive the good things and the rich are sent away with nothing. Promises of justice and righteousness are brought to fulfillment. It was a shocking, radical, even revolutionary statement 2,000 years ago and it is just as challenging today. It is meant to be words of hope for the oppressed and those suffering most, and stands in a long tradition of such prophetic assurance. But when we remember that this is the gospel with a dedication at the beginning to a now unknown Roman official called Theophilus, a name that means ‘Lover of God’, then it might surprise us that he was so bold. Incidentally, the Latin version of that name, Theophilus, is Amadeus, Mozart’s middle name.
So we have a gospel which is written in the form of a report for an official with the name of ‘Lover of God’. That implies that Luke thought he would be open to being challenged, or at least should be, so Luke may have felt that he was pushing against an unlocked door, so dared to challenge and confront with the full force of what this gospel means. Beautiful musical settings of the Magnificat at Evensong can dull its full force, make it sound like a detox session for the stressed. It is that, but like the best detox sessions, it brings uncomfortable truths which we need to take seriously if we are going to get our spiritual lives in balance which will in turn get our emotional, physical, political and social lives in balance. Those who want their religion free of these things have picked the wrong faith and that is Luke’s assumption in addressing his gospel to the Lover of God. As we approach Christmas we are approaching a festival which says the complete opposite of God being remote and detached. He comes among us in the child in the manger and is worshipped and adored by shepherds. He comes into the complex political turmoil of first century life, rolls up his sleeves and gets involved.
I have been particularly aware this year of people who are not in an easy place this Christmas. I am shocked by the growing numbers sleeping rough on our streets, in doorways all around this city centre, even in the cathedral precincts. Talking with some of them they tell stories of experiencing violence where they were before and so have come away in search of a quieter spot and some sleep in shop doorways because of the CCTV there makes them feel safer. Talking to the manager of Garden House on Friday, he told me about the struggles many have with official forms and the bureaucracy of accessing official help. Volunteers at Garden House are spending hours on computers to help them (one had spent 4 hours trying to sort out the issues) – and so much state help is now only accessible online. Not everyone can navigate this, or even access it. And this kind of help involves specialist skills, which most of us just don’t have.
So when I hear people saying that something needs to be done about homelessness and churches should open their doors, I wonder if they really have a clue what ‘something’ really means. When those on the streets are escaping violence in other places, then ‘opening doors’ requires a lot of care and other measures putting in place. The Winter Night Shelter doesn’t just open doors, there is a lot of other planning and preparation behind the scenes. If we open doors we have a duty of care to people who are vulnerable, not least from who else might be there. That takes more resources than just turning a key.
Another difficult place that has come into the spotlight is mental illness. This has caught quite a lot of media attention recently, with campaigns that it’s OK not to be OK. Being open to this and aware of the struggles behind the smiles can become an easy slogan. But if we really take it seriously then we need to abandon the fantasy that everyone presents in an airbrushed manner. We know we don’t, so why would anyone else. Be alert to what might lie behind how we are. I had a couple of reminders of this over the past week. One with someone whose behaviour would be easy to judge but I suspect more behind it and another where it has driven that person out of their home to live rough in a chaotic way. A media which says something should be done, needs to realize that that something might just be for them to join up the dots to pause before encouraging dog whistle judgements. Mental illness is a very broad brush.
These two brief examples both often come with the label ‘something should be done’. There is no magic wand we can wave, or can be waved by someone else, to remove or cure or sort out these things. There are government policies which could help or may have knock on consequences which exacerbate the problems some experience, but they are not the sole cause, certainly not of homelessness. Some take to the streets because they can’t cope where they are and that can lead to a chaotic episode, distressing for others, but is not easily blamed on faceless ‘others’. Playing the ‘blame game’ is actually a search for an easy option to make a complex situation, which can be too difficult to comprehend, easier which in turn makes it easier to ignore. ‘It’s simple: that lot in power are to blame.’ Well, they may or may not be helping, even making it worse or better, but we have to go deeper.
The Magnificat sets an agenda of compassion and bias. It says that everyone matters and so those who usually benefit, at the expense of others, will in its vision find that the tables are turned because the balance needs redress. But just replacing one group or person on the top with another from the bottom, doesn’t actually deal with the root problems. A Brazilian educator of the 1970s, Paulo Freire, wrote a book called ‘The pedagogy of the oppressed’. It is a work of educational philosophy which highlights how education can replicate the conditions of oppression and setting people free is a much more complex process than mere revolution. Those who suffer have a nasty habit of turning into oppressors when they come to power and it is important to break the cycle. So while it comes out of a Marxist context, it is by no means without its criticisms. Regime change on its own does not cure the problem.
Luke opens his gospel with an exploration of what it means for ‘something to be done’. It is addressed to someone he calls ‘Lover of God’. The God he presents is not one who remains aloof or distant, but comes close. He does not wave a magic wand from a distance but gets stuck into the complexities, present in a deeply connected way. ‘Something being done’ is then real. For all ‘Lovers of God’, the Song of Mary is a radical reminder to put in the effort to effect change. In doing that it brings hope for us all.
Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Advent 4, Sunday 23rd December 2018