I have met my enemy, and they were partly right
Preacher: The Very Revd Adrian Newman, Dean (2005-2011)
11 September 2005, 10:30 (Blessed Virgin Mary)
You know the summer must have ended, when people begin to talk about Christmas. I was asked this week to contribute to a magazine feature on ‘my perfect Christmas’. So maybe it’s official – summer is over. I said that my perfect Christmas would be to send everyone in the world a card with these terrific words on them – an old saying, but a good one: I have met my enemy, and they were partly right. Hold those words in your minds throughout what I have to say today, as the stage for the theatre of this sermon.
Today is our patronal festival, the day we remember the cathedral’s dedication to Mary, the mother of Jesus. Mary's story is told across a number of different passages in the Gospels. The focus of today’s lectionary reading is on her "song". The famous paean of praise we call the Magnificat. My Soul magnifies the Lord.
Whole books have been written on single phrases from the Magnificat but, maybe, the single most important thing to recognise in this remarkable piece of writing is that it emerges out of Mary's own experience. The words were familiar to the Jewish culture of her day, but on her lips they have real integrity. What she sings here, she has lived.
After all who was she? A young girl, probably no more than fourteen years old. Uneducated; raised in poverty; destined for anonymity. Marriage fodder in a tiny backwater of the ancient Near East. Girls like Mary travelled a singular road down a dead end track.
Everything in her limited experience of life, up to this point, would have been a put down. It would have reinforced an inevitable sense of her lack of worth and value. Wrong age; wrong gender; wrong nationality; wrong education; wrong background; wrong race; wrong tribe; wrong place; wrong time.
But God chose her. And in that moment, a theology of social inclusion was born. Women, yes; young people, yes; working class, yes; poor, yes; different race, yes; unmarried mother, yes. All the barriers are down. God has chosen Mary.
And this amazing song of hers is about a world turned upside down. It is not just sublime poetry, it is highly charged politics.
I came across this quote from Eric James in his book A time to Speak recently. He is writing about a musical setting of the Magnificat, Stanford in G.
Stanford in G is one of the most beautiful settings of the Magnificat there could be. I often used to think of Charles Villiers Stanford, seated at the organ of Trinity Cambridge. First as organist, then as Professor of Music. I have often wondered what picture of the Virgin Mary was in his mind when he composed his Magnificat in G.
Some think he had in mind an Old Master, Mary the Virgin, sitting at her spinning wheel, singing sweetly as she spun. Perhaps. But by itself that picture of the Virgin Mary and the Magnificat simply will not do.
Mary was the wife of a working carpenter. Her song is one of revolution in which she prophesies her son would cast down those in power, send the rich empty away and fill the hungry with good things. Any setting of the Magnificat which induces slumber and acquiescence is to be questioned. Choir, take note!
Thomas Hancock, one of the outstanding clergy of the Nineteenth Century wrote. "The Magnificat is the inspired summary of the tendency and direction of the future social history of human kind".
Well, I am no musician but the words ‘social revolution’ don't spring naturally to mind when I listen to the various settings of the Magnificat. Yet this song is a reflection on Mary’s life and God's intervention in society on behalf of people like her. The outsiders, the under-classes.
I read an article a couple of weeks ago arguing that we are becoming a nation obsessed with boundaries. A society increasingly built on exclusion. Fear of those who are different grows like topsy when our way of life is threatened. By 9/11, whose anniversary we remember today; by the London bombings; by significant numbers of asylum seekers; by gypsy and traveller communities; by anti-social behaviour on our streets.
So what do we do? - we tighten the boundaries. This is an understandable reaction but one that needs to be carefully considered before we exclude the very people God aims to include.
Repeatedly throughout the Bible we find this emphasis on including those in danger of being excluded. It arises historically and theologically from Israel's experience of exile and slavery in Egypt. They had experienced, traumatically and at first hand, what it meant to be a race and a nation of outsiders. To be excluded from society's bounty and the economic cake. So God told them to learn from this and not to repeat the mistake in their dealings with others. Which, of course, they did. And which, of course, they – and we – do.
For Christians, Jesus disturbed the comfortable and comforted the disturbed. He allowed open access to himself and to God. Women, children, lepers, prostitutes, sinners, the dispossessed, forgotten, despised and ignored flocked to him because the edges of his life and faith were open and permeable. They felt, for once, welcomed and included. He was, after all, his mother's son.
It is not a big leap of imagination or intelligence to see that the Church should be carrying on what this mother and child started. We should stand for including the excluded.
I am a strong believer that the name given to Churches provides a clear indication of the emphasis each church should have in its ministry.
I came here from St Martin's in Birmingham - St Martin was a soldier who, returning to his barracks one freezing night in Amiens, was confronted by a naked beggar at the city gates, and famously cut his cloak in two with his sword and gave half to the beggar. That night in a dream Christ came to him wearing the half cloak he had given to the beggar. "Thank you for clothing me" said Christ to Martin. He awoke from his dream, got up and was baptised that very day. The experience changed his life for ever.
Churches that bear Martin's name have a duty to reflect the life of their Patron Saint. For us in Birmingham, that meant making connections between the haves and the have- nots. Being cloak sharers at the cross roads of culture in Birmingham City Centre.
What about this Cathedral - dedicated to Mary? I believe it offers us a huge challenge. To make the gifts of God available to those who are naturally excluded from them.
This will influence and inform the sort of things we get involved with in our local community. Just recently I have been asked to involve the cathedral in a project addressing questions of social inclusion raised by the forthcoming regeneration of Rochester Riverside.
When big, shiny, new developments take place, funded by Thames Gateway money, how can we ensure that the benefits of this are shared with the whole community and don’t just become the privilege of a chosen few?
What an opportunity for the Cathedral. To be asked on behalf of the wider community to develop local ideas that strengthen social inclusion and cohesion. That is a Magnificat moment.
But making God's gifts available to those who are naturally excluded from them will also involve thinking hard about worship and liturgy. It is too easy for the way we do things in our churches and cathedrals to keep people away. Music and words can be powerful tools of exclusion. But they don't have to be and I welcome the emphasis coming out of reports like Mission Shaped Church, challenging us to find ways of expressing and interpreting our faith, which resonate with a world alienated from institutionalised religion.
This aspect of Mary's life, embodying and expressing God's desire to include the excluded can provide an abiding emphasis in the life of this Cathedral.
Exclusion is based on ignorance, stereotyping, presumption, pride, and a lack of willingness to listen or engage with those who are different from ourselves. Breaking down those barriers involves a lesson in humility. To meet, with an open mind, those who are different from us. To find some ground that is common to our humanity. To listen, to understand, to empathise, to walk in someone else’s skin, to allow our own position to be challenged and questioned. To allow God to turn our cosy understanding of the world’s order upside down. To say, and to mean it, those words that were not said by Mary, nor by Jesus, but might have been: I have met my enemy, and they were partly right.