Saturday, February 10, 2007

Epiphany 6 - The Little Match Girl

According to the story by Hans Christian Anderson there was once a little girl who sold matches.  Do you know the story?  The little girl had no shoes, because she was so poor, and she was wearing only a little torn dress, even though it was the middle of winter, and in northern Europe, so her feet were red and blue, and her body was shaking with cold, but she didn?t dare go home because nobody had bought any of her matches all day, and with night falling she was sure her father would beat her when she got there.  And so she curled up in a laneway between two tall buildings and lit her matches, one by one, and as she lit each one she saw the most wonderful things, and the most wonderful thing of all that she saw - in fact the last thing she ever saw, was a vision of her grandma.

It?s a dreadful story, isn?t it?  The little girl goes happily with her grandma into a world where nobody is ever cold or hungry, there?s not a hint of suffering - yet in the morning when they find her little, curled-up body the people shake their heads and say, ?poor thing!  Look how she lit her matches one by one to try to keep warm?.   Most fairy stories have got happier endings than that, haven?t they? ? in fact fairy stories are mostly about a sudden reversal of fortune, like Cinderella for example who does get to go to the ball -  I?ve heard the idea that fairy stories originate as a sort of underground folk literature, the subversive story-telling of the poor, or a kind of alternative reality storytelling where the poor really do inherit the kingdom and the hungry get invited to the banquet. 

But not the little match girl, who never does get warm again in this earthly life.  For me, this is an especially disturbing story because it?s a truer one, we know that the world really is filled with little match girls and boys, we know the reality of children playing fantasy games as they die of cold or starvation, as they work long hours in sweatshops making joggers for middle-class Western men and women, as they die suddenly in the minefields of grown-up wars, or as they sniff petrol in some remote outback community or right here, on the streets of Perth.  And it?s a disturbing story because it catches us squarely in the age-old act of making excuses ? just look! she didn?t suffer, she died with a smile on her lips, she?s at peace now, in heaven with God and with grandma.

So Jesus comes along, today, he?s begun his ministry in the countryside and the fishing villages of Galilee, a world where poverty is just as real and as confronting as that, and he says, ?how lucky you are to be poor like that because you?re going to get the keys to the kingdom.  Your belly?s empty today?  Well laugh, because that means you?re going to be feasting!?  It?s the same sort of subversive, fairy-story kind of logic, daring to imagine and even believe in the possibility of the world that God intends, a world where everyone has enough.

We call this passage the Beatitudes, this list of paradoxes, the blessings and woes that we meet in both Luke and Matthew ? but there?s a difference, isn?t there?  In Matthew?s version Jesus goes up onto a mountain, the traditional place for divine revelation, and he teaches the people, ?blessed are the pure in heart ? blessed are the poor in spirit?.  It?s a spiritual kind of message, good news for Christians trying to get the inner and the outer self in synch.  But Luke?s version of the same sermon goes a bit differently, for a start Jesus teaches the people not from the moral high ground of the mountain but on the level ground - maybe because, for Luke, the main issue is about how the good news of God?s kingdom works out in the hurly burly of actual everyday life.  And the sermon Jesus preaches, the Sermon on the Plain, is not spiritual but literal, not ?blessed are the poor in spirit?, but ?blessed are the poor?, not ?blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness?, but ?blessed are you who are hungry, because you?re going to eat?.  It?s simple, it?s unambiguous, and it?s confronting because as we look around the world we live in we have to admit that it isn?t true.  Not yet, anyway.

And so the Church has wrestled with this one ever since Jesus said it.  On the one hand it has sometimes retreated to the spiritual version, Matthew?s version, and ignored the confronting reality of actual social suffering by saying to itself, ?oh, the poor are us, because we reject worldly things, we only want God, we?re hungry for God?.  On a more psychological level, as I suggested last week, there is a sense in which we experience all that is incomplete or broken in ourselves as the special arena of God?s grace.  And if we hear Jesus? Sermon on the Plain like that, then can include ourselves in the blessed group, not the woebegone group. 

But Luke doesn?t let us stay with that interpretation.  Not entirely.  Because we?ve been listening to Luke?s gospel for weeks on end now, right from the start when we heard Mary?s psalm of joy, the Magnificat, shouting as though it were already a done deal, ?God has lifted up the humble and thrown down the mighty, he has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away with nothing?.  Then Jesus sits down in the synagogue in Nazareth and calmly announces that he?s got good news to the poor.  Luke?s special twist, the theology of Luke, is to emphasise the radical reversal of fortune that Jesus was talking about, the topsy turvey kingdom of God where beggars and fools get the best seats.  God really does take sides, Luke assures us, God is on the side of the poor.  God has a soft spot, God has a preferential option for the poor - and why?  Because real, literal, poverty - hunger, homelessness, lack of education, living in a war zone, never having a chance because you grew up in an institution and the only school you ever went to was the school of hard knocks ? that?s the opposite of what God intends for human life.  God creates human life for flourishing and wholeness, and when some people are denied that, then God is on their side first and foremost.

It?s a wonderful gospel to hear, if you happen to be poor.  I don?t know if it?s a gospel that gets proclaimed often enough, but it?s the gospel of life for those who live on the edges.  For those of us who aren?t poor ? for those of us who have food and medical care and a roof over our heads ? it?s a challenging gospel even if we don?t actually consider ourselves part of the rich and powerful. 

Because the most important thing we need to notice about the Beatitudes in Luke?s gospel, is that it?s a set of instructions for disciples.  Did you hear that?  Jesus looks up at his disciples, and says, ?blessed are you who are poor because the kingdom of God is yours?.  It seems he?s telling would-be disciples - like us ? something important about what we?re letting ourselves in for.

And I think it?s this: discipleship isn?t just a set and forget thing, not just a label you put on yourself.  Discipleship implies movement from one way of living to another way, from an old set of priorities towards a new set.  It?s an active process.  We?re not called to some sort of little match girl theology where human need gets postponed until the afterlife, or until Jesus comes back, but to actually live in ways that restore human dignity.  As disciples we are called to see ourselves not only as a transformed community but as a community of transformation, part of the miracle where water gets changed into wine, where hungry folk are filled.

The gospel of life for disciples is the challenge to be a place of life, and a place of restoration for those who are on the edge.  As God?s people, as a parish, that?s the challenge ? how is our life together going to demonstrate the justice and the generosity of God?  How do we use our resources, how do we engage with the community around us in a way that builds hope and empowers those whose lives have too little of either?  It?s not a rhetorical question, it?s an actual question, because over the next few months as a parish we are going to have to think about the question that?s been put before us, about the sale of some of our land, and to weigh that up against the alternative uses.  We need to think about that in the context of Jesus? challenge in the Beatitudes.  Last week I told Parish Council that I believe we need to think about this all together as a parish, and I told them that in a couple of months I would ask them to facilitate a consultation where the whole parish as well as other community agencies would hear and consider a range of ideas.  We need to listen together to what God is telling us, I need to listen to you, and I think the yardstick for how we listen together is this challenge of Jesus to see ourselves as a place of blessing and transformation.

And in the process, we ourselves will be blessed.


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