The Rev. Dr. Richard L. Tolliver preached the following sermon at St. Edmunds Episcopal Church, Chicago, Illinois on The Feast of the Holy Nativity, December 24, 2001.


The Bethlehem Disconnect

Micah 5:2-5a


Our Biblical text this evening is taken from the Old Testament book written by the prophet Micah. Micah prophesies during the time of Jotham and Ahaz. Jotham reigned over Judah from 750 to 735 B.C.; Ahaz from 735 to 715 B.C. Micah prophesies against the numerous sins of the kingdom of Judah, insisting that God wants justice in society. He inspires hope by speaking of the coming Messiah and his kingdom of peace. Our text is Micah 5:2-5a. It reads as follows: But you Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times. Therefore Israel will be abandoned until the time when she who is in labor gives birth and the rest of his brothers return to join the Israelites. He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they will live securely, for then his greatness will reach to the ends of the earth. And he will be their peace.

Six years ago this very day, Bethlehem was in an uproar. Tens of thousands of people had poured into the city from all over the West Bank, Israel and the world. Manger Square was ablaze with the tri-colored flag of the Palestinian National Authority. Wall-sized banners of Yasser Arafat were draped over the walls. Armed Palestinian guards patrolled the parapet above the shoulder-to-shoulder jostling crowd.

Only the day before, Israel had formally turned over the city to the PNA as part of the peace process. Orthodox Jews had mounted a strenuous protest. Israeli soldiers met them outside of town to control the mob. But Palestinians, many of them Christians, were rejoicing. Some estimate that Palestinian Christians account for almost 40 percent of the population in Bethlehem. That Christmas Eve, they crammed into the ancient citys churches to worship.

At Redeemer Lutheran Church beneath its cone-shaped tower, the crowds came early. Candles were lit and people sat in expectant silence. Dignitaries were seated. The Lutheran Palestinian bishop from Jordan brought greetings. Suha Arafat, Yasser Arafats wife, and her entourage arrived. Gifts were exchanged, and the service began in English, German and Arabic. For Palestinians, it was a most poignant moment. For the first time in the citys history, it was a self-governing political entity. Gone were the Israelis, the Jordanians before them, the British, the Ottoman Turks and the Romans. Not since the birth of Jesus had this village been free.

All of this was on everyones mind when the pastors wife stood up to sing. She had obviously had no formal training in voice. The tone was mellow but wavering. The notes were hesitant, but the spirit firm. Tears coursed down the faces of all present who heard these words as though they had never heard them before: O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie! Above thy deep and dreamless sleep, the silent stars go by. Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light; the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight. The hopes and fearsof all the years!

Go back now 2,000 years and imagine a young couple arriving in this sleepy village, she about to give birth to a child and he worried about where theyre going to spend the night. Bethlehem is not holiday destination for Joseph and Mary. The city suffers under the burden of Roman occupation. Theyre there because they have to be there to fill out the long form of the Roman census.

We might dream of going to such a quaint out-of-the-way place because we want to get away from it all, not Joseph and Mary. Theyre forced to stay in Bethlehem at the behest of a powerful empire, and when they arrive they find what we might be looking for, which is just the opposite of what they need: a time of total disconnect.

You know the story. The village is way too crowded and every inn in town is overflowing. Theyll have to camp. What they need is a drink of the milk of human kindness; what they get is the vinegar of rejection, a door in their face, and an invitation to join the farm animals out back. Today, for many, such a place is not only not a problem but it is a vacationing goal. Its still. Its quiet. Its sleepy. No telephones ringing, no TVs playing, no Santas singing, no palm pilots plotting, no Christmas rush shopping, no e-mail answering, no partridge in a pear tree. Get-away-from-it all vacationers these days are increasingly willing and anxious to rough it. Busy executives are escaping to spots such as Aloha Man Garden in Anahola, Hawaii, where they can stay in one of a small collection of cottages scattered across seven acres of Hawaiian jungle. Such disconnect vacation packages are available all around the globe. We are desperate to disconnect, at lest for a small period of time, to recover our emotional and spiritual balance.

Today, if youre wanting to disconnect you can forget Bethlehem. Tom Hundley writes in the December 21, 2001 Chicago Tribune in a Letter from Bethlehem, that months of violence have scared away the tourists who once flocked to Manger Square. He says, The cave that is celebrated as the birthplace of Jesus was quiet as a tomb when I visited the other day. Inside the Church of the Nativity, which is built above the cave, there were no pilgrims, no tourists and none of the faithful, save one Syrian monk who spoke Italian. Benvenuto alla Terra Santa, he said. Welcome to the Holy Land, where 15 months of suicide bombings, targeted killings, roadside ambushes and other manifestations of Israeli-Palestinian discord have brought the once-lucrative tourist trade to a grinding halt.

The front page to todays Chicago Tribune includes the bold headlines, Israel bars Arafat from Bethlehem. Setting the scene for what could be a Christmas Eve showdown in Jesus birthplace, Israel took steps Sunday to prevent Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat from attending midnight Christmas mass in Bethlehem. Arafat, who has attended mass at Bethlehems Church of the Nativity since the city was turned over to his control in 1995, defiantly rejected Israels decision. Now 72, he repeated threats to walk the whole way if he had to. Arafat, whose headquarters normally is in the Gaza Strip, has been residing in Ramallah since his personal helicopter fleet was destroyed in an Israeli air raid last month. Bethlehem is only 12 miles from Ramallah, but the cities under his control are separated by Israeli-occupied parts of the West Bank, meaning that he has to ask permission to travel between them.

I believe that a strong message that was sent to the United States on September 11th of this year and in Bethlehem today is that it is imperative that the people of the world reconnect, not seek further opportunities to disconnect.

The attack on two major cities, destroying the twin-spired symbol of American financial power and striking at the center of our military power, laid bare our vulnerability. That a score of men, armed only with knives, could do this tells us that it can be done again. Indeed, it has been attempted again. Todays cover page of the New York Times states, The Justice Department announced today that laboratory tests confirmed that explosives packed with wires had been hidden in the sneakers of a 28-year-old man who was violently subdued by passengers and flight attendants aboard an American Airlines jet over the Atlantic. Investigators said they were not immediately able to establish any tie between the man and terrorist groups, including Osama bin Ladens Al Qaeda network, and that his motives remained a mystery.

The man, identified in court documents as Richard Colvin Reid, a British citizen who may be of Jamaican ancestry, was tackled and tied to his seat after he was seen lighting two matches and appearing to try to detonate the explosives during the flight from Paris to Miami.

The cover page of Tuesday, December 18ths Chicago Tribune includes the chilling headlines, Anthrax probe Turns to U.S. Lab. Listen to the articles first two paragraphs: For the first time, the White House said Monday that it is increasingly looking like the anthrax attacks on the mail were perpetrated with germs produced in this country. The possibility that the anthrax was made in the U.S. perhaps in a military lab, bring the months long and tortuous investigation back to the very lab that is busy analyzing contaminated letters for the FBI. There is nothing that has been concluded, but the evidence is increasingly looking like it was a domestic source, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said. The one thing that rings clear from each of these incidents is that anybody who thinks that he/she can develop a profile of a so-called terrorist is only fooling himself or herself. Writing in the January 6, 2002 edition of The Living Church, Dr. Abbas Hamdani states: No one described Timothy McVeigh as a Christian terrorist. He is one of many Muslims upset about the designation Muslim terrorists for those responsible for the evil that visited us on September 11th.

Is it possible that we have placed too much confidence in our technological, economic and military power, imagining that they could render us invulnerable? Has our proud way of life, with its affluence and waste, given us the illusion of having conquered nature and the vicissitudes of life? Is it possible that we can discover through these events our common lot with the whole of humanity, for the vast majority of whom everyday life is precarious? Is it possible that through these events we are being called to reconnect with the rest of the world?

Dr. William Graham, Albertson Professor of Middle Eastern Studies and Professor of the History of Religion at Harvard Divinity School, made the following statement during a panel discussion held at Harvard Divinity School on September 19, 2001: After all, around the world, and in most of the so-called Third World, people are dying like this in any given week, in the same numbers or in larger numbers in equally horrible ways but perhaps not so vividly or at the hand of such a small number of people. In any case, this sudden shock to our world, which has been a world in the last century largely unvisited by suffering at home, seems to me to be something that the rest of the world does have to live with, and has had to live with. We, in some way, have been remarkably immune.

The December 20, 2001 Chicago Tribune includes an article titled, Poll blames U.S. Policy for September 11th Attack. Opinion leaders from around the world believe that Americas own policies caused the September 11 attacks and are pleased that the U.S. now feels a sense of vulnerability, according to a survey recently released. The survey of 275 political, media, cultural, business and government leaders from 24 countries also found little support outside the U.S. for extending the fighting in Afghanistan to Iraq and Somalia, even if it is proved these countries have backed terrorism. The survey said 70 percent of those interviewed in other countries believed it was good that the U.S. now feels vulnerable after the attacks. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said that this finding, didnt surprise her adding, Its a very high price to pay for consciousness. Its time to reconnect, my brothers and sisters in Christ.

Back to Mary and Joseph. The irony is that it is precisely in this Bethlehem disconnect, in this place of discomfort and loneliness, far from the madding crowd, far from the mainstream of Judean life, where they know no one, have no help, and can only pull themselves up by their own sandal straps, it is in this disconnected place that God and humanity are finally reconnected. Scripture says, And the Word became flesh and lived among us (John 1:14).

Bethlehem reminds us that just to get away and disconnect is not enough. The point is that detachment is important, but only insofar as it leads to reattachment. The Bethlehem incarnation is a reattachment that reminds us of the fundamental disconnect that had existed between God and humanity. In the Incarnation God boldly steps front and center into the human experience. There is no event in human society that carries with it so much promise as the Bethlehem Incarnation or reattachment.

Now is the time to reattach. If, in the major disconnect of this hectic season, you find attachment to God through Jesus the Christ, the babe of Bethlehem, you have found the meaning of Christmas.

Finally, the Bethlehem reconnection to the world through the birth of Jesus Christ reminds us that it is not within our power to make ourselves, our nation or those we love most secure. Perhaps we have sometimes forgotten that simple truth of the faith, forgotten how fragile and delicate a flower is our life and our civilization. If so, the recent actual and attempted attacks have been a terrible way of reminding us of truths we should have known.

On October 22, 1939, at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Oxford, C.S. Lewis preached at evensong. To anxious undergraduates, many of whom would soon face death, and all of whom must have wondered what they were doing studying mathematics or metaphysics at a time when their nation was in mortal peril. Lewis said: If we had foolish unchristian hopes about human culture, they are now shattered. If we thought we were building up a heaven on earth, if we looked for something that would turn the present world from a place of pilgrimage into a permanent city satisfying the soul of man, we are disillusioned, and not a moment too soon. The threat of war and the possibility of imminent death only magnify what is the permanent condition of human life, and great though the beauty and joy of life often is, there is no security to be found here.

Every time we have some national tragedy such as a school shooting we trot out the therapists and counselors who advise us on how to help our children feel secure, so that, I guess, even as children they may live a contented, bourgeois existence. Perhaps Christians need to say something different to their children this Christmas. My child, the world is always a dangerous and threatening place where death surrounds us. When I brought you for baptism I acknowledged that I could not possibly guarantee your future. I handed you over to the God who loves you and with whom you are safe in both life and death. There is no security to be found elsewhere, certainly not from me or those like me. Live with courage, therefore, and, if it must be, do not be afraid to die in service of what is good and just. ITS TIME TO RECONNECT TO GOD! AMEN.



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