A COMMUNITY OF RADICAL HOSPITALITY
Bethlehem: That Glad Night
A sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Robert D. Flanagan, at St Thomas Church Amenia, New York, on The Epiphany, January 6, 2019, Matthew 2:1-12.
“In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem.”
A few years ago, my wife Lanie and I traveled to Israel. One of the first things we did was go to Bethlehem. To be honest, our tour was not what I was expecting. We had hired a driver for the day, who took us to a number of the Christian sites around Jerusalem. When we arrived in Bethlehem, we switched to a local guide, who walked and talked fast.
The pace was dizzying. As we headed toward the Church of the Nativity, our guide pointed to the local Starbucks. Well, it wasn’t really Starbucks, rather it was Stars and Bucks, a local knockoff of the U.S. version. We hurried passed many shops and dodged local residents. We jaywalked across a busy street then suddenly arrived at the Church. As we entered it, we weaved through a crowd of tourists coming out a small entrance. Our guide slowed a bit once inside. He pointed to some reconstruction but kept us moving. He only stopped when we reached a large crowd of tourist gathered to the right of the main altar that was surrounded by many large ornate candle holders hanging from the ceiling. Our guide started to shout to other guides in the crowd. Although I didn’t speak their language, I sensed they were horse-trading.
He then said to me, “Don’t speak. You are an Armenian priest.” He led us through the crowd, yelling, “I have an Armenian priest.” I don’t look Armenian. I checked on Google. We cut the entire line. When the time came to open the crypt under the main altar to view the historic birthplace of Jesus, we went first. The tour guide quickly pointed around the small cavern. He said, “Look here and look here.” Two minutes later, he escorted us by an armed guard, climbing the stairs back into the main sanctuary.
My time in the Bethlehem wasn’t a particularly holy moment for me. Like many people, I felt bad about cutting the line and the Armenia priest bit. I also wanted to take in the birthplace of Jesus quietly. I wanted to say a prayer. Instead, I felt bewildered as we rushed through a chaotic space. I was disappointed and felt a bit empty inside. It wasn’t what I had hoped for.
In many respects, our spiritual lives can feel the same way. You come to church hoping for a special experience, but it doesn’t happen. When you close your eyes in prayer, you want to hear God’s voice, but a list of things-to-do distract you. You sit to read the Bible, but your phone starts to buzz or ring.
Your intentions are good. You desire to be with God in deep and meaningful ways, but too often your experiences do not match your desires. The stuff of life gets in the way, and you can feel bewildered and rushed. When your life becomes chaotic, you may feel disappointed and a bit empty, because God seems distant.
St. Thomas is now in a time of transition. Such periods can feel bewildering and chaotic, too. You may feel disappointed and a bit empty. You may be wondering why the transition needs to take so long. You may be concerned about who will be your next settled leader. You want to be patient. You want to trust that all will be well. But you want your spiritual routine to return to normal. You want to feel the order and regularity that comes with a settled pastor. I don’t blame you. You're Episcopalians, after all.
I’m reminded of a poem written by the sixteenth-century Spanish mystic John of the Cross. In it, he wrote, “On that glad night in secret, for no one saw me, nor did I look at anything with no other light or guide than the one that burned in my heart.” The poet goes on to tells us that in the darkness of the glad night, we meet God. When it is dark, we cannot rely on our senses. They have been stripped away. We can’t see. We must be led by our heart. We’re also not influenced by the wants and desires of others. In the glad night, we only have our desire. We only have our longing to draw near to God.
St. Thomas is now in that “glad night.” During it, you will discover and learn new things about yourself. By asking questions, reflecting, and praying, you will discover and learn. You will ask questions like, who are we, the people of St. Thomas? Where do we see ourselves in the next five years? What is God calling us to do? Where can we grow anew? How can we move closer to God? What is the light burning in our hearts?
When Jesus was born, Bethlehem was a small town on the outskirts of the city of Jerusalem. It was a place of transition between the urban busyness of the holy city and the desolation of the wilderness. In that place of transition, our Lord and Savior came into the world. Not in the center of things, but on the edge. Not in a place of order and regularity. He was instead born in a manger filled with animals. On the edge between and dark enough to be found. The Magi needed the dark to see the light of God shining in the night sky. That is a glad night.
Travel with me for a while in that glad night. Things may seem bewildering and chaotic. Even so, a light shines in you, calling you to draw near to God. Now is the time to hear God voice anew. Now is the time to feel God leading you. We are on a journey. It is as much about finding a new leader as it is discovering God’s call for your future.
John of the Cross. The Collected Works of John of the Cross. Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez trans. (Washington D.C.: ICS Publications, 1991), 51.