On this starry night I bring you a story from Beit Sephor, the Shepherds Fields, a little village on the outskirts of Bethlehem.
This Palestinian village in the West Bank is home to thousands of Christian and Muslim men and women. Thirty years ago the leaders of the village were talking and thinking and planning for freedom. They were imagining how they might join in the resistance movement against the Israeli military occupying their homeland. They read the reflections of Martin Luther King. They knew of Gandhi, of Tutu and Jesus. They knew that peaceful resistance against violence is a powerful weapon.
The people of Beit Sephor had also heard about a tea party organized in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. They determined to engage in a tax revolt, refusing to pay the taxes and fees assessed by the Israeli occupation for property, electricity, water and all the other high cost, second rate services provided by the government.[i]
In preparing their strategy they knew they had to find ways to feed their children. They planted Victory Gardens. They built chicken coops. But providing milk was a problem. They were dependent on Israeli suppliers for their children’s milk and that could be cut off in a heartbeat if the Israeli Army decided to do so. They needed milk independence.
Beit Sephor is a village made of stone, in a country made of stone. The people who live there are city dwellers. Its been a long time since anyone grazed herds. A group of intellectuals did some research, bought 18 cows from a kibbutz, hired a consultant and started a dairy cooperative.[ii] The milk was very good. Their children were happy.
One day, one of the cows did something strange. She started jumping around, and then she lay down in the hay. They were perplexed and concerned. A crowd gathered, and someone called the village physician. They realized she was about to give birth. The modern people of this village had never seen a live birth – they were awed. There was great joy, “As if a childless family had their firstborn child.” Something unexpected, powerful and mysterious had happened among them. They were filled with love for their newborn calf. Now they had 19 beautiful cows in their herd.
As the resistance movement took root, some Palestinian people resisted with weapons. The Boston Tea Party was not the only path to independence. The Israeli government responded to the armed uprising with enormous force. As the fighting started Bethlehem was surrounded by the army, invaded by tanks. Manger Square became a battle ground. People were trapped in the Church of the Nativity. People were shot going to church.
Nearby, Beit Sephor was put under curfew by the Israeli Army. The military arrested people, seized property, threatened children to try to break them, to get them to pay taxes. Many many people suffered while holding on to their peaceful resistance.
It didn’t take long for the Army to hear about the cows. A band of green helmeted soldiers accompanied by the Miltary commander entered the farm with cameras and took a mug shot of every cow. The commander issued the order: You have 24 hours to shut down the farm or I will send in bulldozers and knock it down. “Why?” demanded their caretaker. “Those cows are a direct threat to National Security of the State of Israel.” Well really! Why would 19 cows be a threat to the most powerful military in the Middle East? The people of Beit Sephor were not about to surrender their cows. They divided the herd, and began moving them in the night from place to place.
The army began to search. And Search. They sent jeep loads of soldiers. They sent helicopters. They paid informants. They used every high tech surveillance device they had. The more the defiance and the resistance of the people of Beit Sephor succeeded, the more determined the Israeli Army became to hunt down the fugitive bovines. Operation Cow went on for months.
In the end, the Army got the cows, but not before the ordinary people of Beit Sephor had been reminded of the power of hope in the darkness, the power of loving, fearless non-violent action in the face of overwhelming force. They were indeed transformed by the possibility that the Rulers of this World might not be invincible.
Two thousand years ago Beit Sephor was not yet a village. It was simply a rocky hillside on the outskirts of the tiny collection of buildings called Bethlehem. Two thousand years ago Beit Sephor was a place where shepherds kept sheep and goats. Then as now, people lived in the town and went out to their fields and orchards to plant, and prune and harvest, returning at night to their families and their warm safe stone homes. But its never been safe to leave animals on their own in the night so a few men have the job of living rough, and staying out in the cold all night, obliged by their bosses to beat off both wolves and robbers.
Two thousand years ago the cities were occupied by a foreign army and controlled by a corrupt collaborationist king, and religious authorities who didn’t want to make trouble for anyone, least of all themselves. Two thousand years ago a tax census was ordered so that the occupying government could squeeze more out of the local population. All of the people suffered under the occupation. Some of them resisted with swords, some resisted with words.
Two thousand years ago a small group of nobodies were huddled on the cold ground, on a cold desert night, and they heard something like singing. They saw something like seraphim and cherubim. They heard something like a great announcement. They were awed. Two thousand years ago, a small group of nobodies were astonished that they were the first to hear that Something Unexpected, powerful and mysterious, had happened among them.
Two thousand years ago a small group of rough men did the unthinkable. They left the job and went to see for themselves if this announcement was true. They found what they were looking for, what they were hoping for, and their lives were transformed.
Two thousand years later, on this cold dark night, here we are on the edge of world, in a place where not much unexpected, or powerful or mysterious happens. Or does it? If we have eyes to see, perhaps we can see that tender vulnerability of a new life can stir up in us the courage to give everything we have to protect that child. If we have ears to hear, perhaps we can hear the stories of our ancestors that we do not have to settle for the world the way it is. A better life for all people is possible.
This starry night you and I are invited again to see with the eyes of our heart that the Rulers of this World are not invincible. This starry night families who grieve, parents who struggle to feed their kids, people who work in lonely and dangerous places are reminded that we are not alone in our yearning for real peace, real justice, real joy. God is with us, in vulnerability and yearning for liberation. God is with us in courageous acts of love.
This cold starry night we gather together, and hold up our lights in the darkness because we have seen, we have heard that the Reign God’s Righteousness is arrived. God’s power to renew and redeem of the world is moving among us. We who have waited in the darkness have seen the birth of God’s Shalom. Come let us rejoice. AMEN.
[i] Popular Resistance in Palestine: A Story of Hope and Empowerment , Mazin B. Quimsiyeh (Pluto Press 2011)