Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’
The House That Love Built- Luke 2:1-14
I was a student at Wake Forest University when I first encountered a Moravian Love Feast. It sounds like it should be a big spectacle, doesn't it? With a name like Love Feast, there has to be a whole lot going on. Tables full of food, maybe even fireworks. Turns out that it's not actually a spectacle, though, or it doesn't have to be. The first one I attended was in the small chapel that the divinity students used for our weekly services. A third- year student, who was from the Moravian tradition and would soon graduate, invited us to participate in a simple and warm Love Feast. In a cozy worship space, she introduced us to one of the most beloved rituals of her tradition.
For anyone who has been in Christian community for a while, the Love Feast may seem familiar. It is a simple meal where the sharing of two food items connects the people gathered, reminding them of the holy connections between all of us and all of creation. It's not bread and wine (or grape juice) like communion. No, this simple meal is a special soft, sweet roll, and creamed coffee. The servers, called dieners, wear big white aprons and maybe even little doilies on their heads, and give all the people present for the service a sweet bun and coffee. Everyone waits to eat together, like we often do for communion. A short grace is said, “Come, Lord Jesus, our guest to be, and bless these gifts bestowed by Thee. Amen.” And, the congregation then shares the simple meal, eating together and serving one another as a sign of unity and fellowship as the body of Christ.
As the congregation eats and drinks, the choir sings beautiful songs. With songs guiding their prayers, the people gathered may share stories of their faith with their neighbors. They may also take that time to make amends. Others may eat in silence and some will even join the choir in song. It is a quiet and reverential meal, a meal meant to remind those present of the love God intends for them and of the love that we are called to show one another. As one writer described it, “A Lovefeast seeks to remove social barriers and strengthen the spirit of unity and goodwill among all people.” The bread and the cup, songs, testimonies, and amends, serving others and being served, drawing all people back together and back towards God. They often hold such a service near Christmas. What a great way to make space to welcome the Christ child into our lives once again. And, it's a pretty delicious way to be church.
I once read somewhere that Bethlehem means "house of bread." I wish I could remember where I first read it because I would like to give them credit for helping me make such a powerful connection between the love feast, with its sharing of soft, warm rolls, and the town of Jesus' birth. I was reminded of this meaning of Bethlehem this week as I read one Peter Gomes' Christmas sermons. In discussing the meaning of "house of bread," he also noted that Bethlehem, while not a particularly wealthy town, was a town with a rich history and great potential. The town was located in the midst of a fertile region, and, when the people's work met the rich soil, they could produce a bountiful harvest.
It was also a town with a valued history among the Jewish people. There was a monument there to Rachel, a mother to their people. It was the town where Naomi brought Ruth, and where Ruth met Boaz, and they all lived out their remaining days. It was also the town where David, King of Israel and ancestor of Joseph, was born. Gomes noted that even the prophet Micah saw great potential in this small town. In Micah 5:2, it says, "But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days." Bethlehem, the house of bread, where great things can rise from good ingredients and hard work. Bethlehem, where a brave teenager and her compassionate fiancé, with hard work, faith in God, and care for each other, helped change the world.
This little family might not look like much, just like the Love Feast probably doesn’t look like much of a feast. I mean, how you could you look at a roll and coffee and call it a feast. Their start didn't seem all that auspicious. They were traveling far from home, when Mary was likely uncomfortably pregnant. There was no room in the main part of the house where they were staying for them to rest, so they stayed in the lower part with the animals. This is where Mary would eventually birth, surrounded by animals and all their accompanying smells and sounds. She wrapped her little son, whom they called Jesus, in several pieces of cloth and laid him down in the manger, because it was the closest thing they could find to a bed. Despite what that hymn away in a manger says, I bet the baby cried. That's what babies do. And, Joseph probably worried. Dads do that a lot; moms, too. But, they had each other. And, they tended to one another. This start didn't seem all that great. But, let's not forget that they, were in Bethlehem, the house of bread, a place of great potential, where even the most ordinary ingredients... a little yeast, a little flour, a sprinkle of mercy, a dollop of justice... can come together to make amazing things.
If someone told you that God was getting ready to come into the world in a brand new way, wouldn't you expect something spectacular? Something completely out of the ordinary? And, yet, that's not quite what we got. We got a young couple, forced to travel by government bureaucracy, crammed into the last available space in a building, making due with whatever simple things they can find in order to bring their child into the world. And, while we do have some fancy angels, they don't go visit royalty and invite them to the baby's bedside. They go invite ordinary, common, probably poor shepherds to be the first witnesses to this brand new Holy presence in the world. Despite the fancy word for it, incarnation, it turns out that God's presence doesn't require the most elegant ingredients. It simply requires hard work, creativity, and a willingness to knead the bread that has risen.
Remember the Moravian rolls that I told you about at the beginning of the sermon? Tasha and I made some of those Moravian buns for you today. Neither of us makes bread very regularly. Neither of us had ever tried to make something involving yeast. But, inspired by memories of close community and good work shared, I thought it would be good to bring you a gift, even if we had to learn something new in order to bring you all that gift. It seemed to me like a good example of the incarnation. Using a time-honored recipe, learn something new, being willing to work. In invite you, as you go out in the world today, nibbling on this simple bun, to consider the ways you can help God come into our world again. The raw ingredients are here. We just have to be willing to work with God to bring the harvest into the world. Jesus will be with us, working by our side, kneading the dough and turning on the oven. Incarnation can happen again. And, we can be a part of it.
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following resources when writing this sermon:
Do you want to try to make your own Moravian love buns? Here's a recipe and a background on the ritual: https://www.churchpublishing.org/contentassets/1bbd168dd74b45669ee0ea943df7aa4c/love-feast-sample-chapter.pdf
Here's some more background on the Love Feast: http://chaplain.wfu.edu/worshipmeditation-opportunities/moravian-christmas-lovefeast/
Peter Gomes, "The House of Bread," Sermons: Biblical Wisdom For Daily Living (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1998).
A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
and faithfulness the belt around his loins.
The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.
On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.
Stumps and Shoots: Isaiah 11:1-10
The prophets who's work is recorded in the book of Isaiah were pretty sure that God saw a positive future in store for the people of Israel. Given all of the desolation that their community had faced at the hands of brutal neighboring empires, such a hopeful vision for the future might have seemed foolish. But, the prophet knew that his people had not been completely destroyed. He knew that God was still with them. He knew that new life was possible. He just needed to convince everybody else of that, with God's help of course. Knowing that people often need signs to know that they are on the right path, Isaiah gave his community some signs to look for so that they would know that God was doing something life-giving and powerful in their lives. Today's reading from Isaiah is one of those poetic descriptions of the holy signs of God's kindom sprouting forth around them.
First, Isaiah said that we should be paying attention to the places where new life has grown out of something that has seemed dead or broken. He used the metaphor of a new shoot growing out of a dead stump. This is a familiar image for many of us who have tried to cut down a stubborn tree in our yards. There's a locust sapling that I've cut down at least three times and it keeps coming back. I've never removed it's roots, so it just keeps pushing out new shoots, making new life despite my best efforts to stop it. In Isaiah, this shoot is a servant/leader who would rise up out of a wounded and destroyed nation. One scholar I read this week said that this leader would come to embody the best of Israel's religious traditions, ruling in wisdom and with great understanding, listening to the counsel of thoughtful confidants under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, all the while delighting in following God's will. We will know that this leader is the leader that has been prophesied because this leader will be guided by God to treat the poor and the meek fairly. This leader has no patience for evil and the wicked will have no place in the kindom. For a people who have watched all of their leaders marched away into exile and replaced by tyrants, it would have seemed almost like a miracle to have such a generous leader return to them.
In this new kindom God is creating, kindness will be the rule of law. Compassion will guide our dealings. Transformation will draw us closer to God's own intention. I don't know if you noticed, but for the second time in just a few weeks, a powerful scene of predator and prey living together in safety is used to represent this compassionate, tranformational view of the reign of God. For people who lived much closer to the real, dangerous, unromantic natural world than we do, this vision of these animals living together would have been the kind of ridiculous that only God can pull off. Wolves and lambs, leopards and goats, calves and lions... and a child is safe among all of them. Only God can do that. It is only through the power of divine transformation that the predators will learn to live differently so that they do not have to endanger the animals that are usually prey. Only God can help the animals that use poison for protection understand that they no longer need to defend themselves this way.
Isaiah says that the future that we are looking for, working for, is a future of life flowing from brokenness, compassion transforming brutality, and power tending to the vulnerable. In this future, peace is God's endgame. When the nations (that's us) we see any of these signs, we know that we are witnessing God's work for a new world. And, we will have a part in building that new world. You see, while many early Christians, and possibly Jesus himself, understood Jesus to be the servant/leader referenced in Isaiah's prophecy (which is why we read this story in Advent), there is also a long history of reading the account of the servant/leader as a call to communal, national leadership. All of creation will be invited to transform into the compassionate, safe, and holy vision represented in this piece of prophecy. I think we need both of the readings, the one where Jesus models servant/leadership and the one where we, communally, practice it. Because this work of building a peaceable kindom is not done yet. Part of our calling in waiting and working for the birth of Christ in our world, is that we participate in building the holy territory described in Isaiah. And to do that, we need to learn to recognize the ways God's kindom is sprouting around us and support these pieces of new growth.
I see glimpses of the reign of God that Isaiah was talking about when I observe the work that the Family Violence Project does in our community. If there was ever evidence of new life growing from broken places, it is within the sphere of their advocacy and outreach. They have people available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, as lifelines for those who are seeking to sprout a new life. They provide advocates for those are navigating the court system... people who live out the work of the servant/leader by standing on the side of the oppressed and helping them recover their voice. They offer tips for safety planning, helping vulnerable folks stay as safe as possible until they can get out of the dangerous situations they are in. They also help with shelter, making sure that people in the midst of crisis and people who are taking the next step into their new lives have support.
As you heard from Nan, they help create a more compassionate and safe world through their education programs. They have school-based programs teaching children about healthy relationships. They also come to community groups, like our church, to educate the public about domestic violence. They empower law enforcement and healthcare providers to use best practices for serving people in domestic violence situations. They even provide services to batterers, helping the lions, wolves, and bears learn to live in a way that doesn't hurt or destroy the others in their own little corner of God's holy mountain. They work to teach the snake that it doesn’t need poison to survive. When I see the work of the Family Violence Project, I see a reflection of the servant/leader, lived out in community, showing us the power of advocacy and support to help us all get just a bit closer to the kindom of love, compassion, and justice that Isaiah, and Jesus, thought were possible.
When we support their work, we are supporting that stubborn, green shoot that keeps coming back to life. Of course, this isn't the only way we work towards the kindom together. But, it's a strong one. I pray that their work can inspire all of us to take that next step towards compassion and justice. They are living evidence of the power of new life to bloom in broken places. On this Sunday of peace, may we recommit ourselves to nurturing these places of life and building a just peace together.
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following resources while writing this sermon:
Sermon Brainwave Podcast: https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=818
Karoline Lewis: https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4764
Michael J. Chan: Https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3117
For more information about the Family Violence Project: http://www.familyviolenceproject.org/domestic-abuse-services/
Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour of light; let us live honourably as in the day, not in revelling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarrelling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.
Stay Awake. Keep Watch.
The Apostle Paul thought Jesus would be coming back any minute. He wanted to make sure that he was prepared, and that other followers of Jesus were prepared, for this divine eventuality. When he wrote to various Christian communities, he often wrote to them about how to prepare themselves for Christ's return. The preparation was not simply watching, quietly, and not moving. No, preparation was about doing something... it was about living differently... it was about marking time according to God's counting, not Caesar's. Remember, Jesus changes people, or, better still, allows people to change themselves. How we wait for God's new revelation in the world matters because it is how we practice being transformed by Jesus and it is how Jesus transforms the world through us while we wait. When Paul wrote this letter to the Roman church, he wanted to help them wait better because he believed that right at that very moment was the precise moment for them to awaken from the sleep that was their lives before they knew Jesus. I think now might also be a moment for us in our modern church to waken. Christ is coming. We must also prepare.
This letter is probably one of the last letters Paul wrote. He was not writing to a church he had helped found. He was writing to Christians that he had never met, hoping they would help support him on an upcoming mission to Spain. They do have some acquaintances in common, particularly Prisca and Aquila, whom he describes as colleagues working for Jesus Christ and whom he said risked their own safety to preserve his life. They were Jewish Christians who had been exiled, with all other Jews, from the city of Rome by emperor Claudius in the year 49 CE. Nero, who followed Claudius, reversed this edict, and some, like Prisca and Aquila, chose to return. We should also remember that about eight years prior to the Jewish exile from Rome, there had also been severe anti-Jewish riots in the Roman-Egyptian city of Alexandria. Many Jews were murdered. The ones who lived were cordoned off into one quarter of the city. According to scholars, there was already a tendency towards anti-Judaism among elite Roman citizens. That bias was trickling into Christian communities as Jews were forced to leave, and churches began to be predominantly Gentile. Once Jews began to return, there was bound to be tension. Paul addressed that tension in his letter to the Romans.
What, you may ask, does this history of ethnic tension have to do with preparing for the return of Christ? A couple of scholars I read this week think quite a lot. While Paul was definitely concerned with helping individuals live lives according to their faith, he was also concerned with creating communities of faith.Paul understood that salvation was not simply for individuals but for all people. He paid great attention to how members of communities of faith engaged with one another across social and ethnic difference. He saw the diversity of the Roman church as evidence of God's work in the worl. To see Jews and Gentiles, enslaved and free, poor and wealthy, all worshiping together, was an amazing testimony to God's hope for the world in Christ. In Christ, social distinctions that the culture understood to be tools for dividing people would be crossed, evidence of the power of the Gospel to bring people together. Paul believed that when you see a diverse community of people living and worshiping and praying and serving together, you see people who have been transformed by the Gospel. As one scholar put it, this is salvation lived out socially, the Gospel practiced in community.
Because Jesus' work reset the world, re-ordered our relationships and priorities, the life we live while we prepare for yet another divine entry into this world must reflect the new priorities of Christ. In the portions of the letter leading up to today's reading, Paul outlined several activities that stand out as behavioral testimonies to the call of Jesus Christ. He called this "presenting your bodies as a living sacrifice" and also behaving in a way that was not "conformed to this world" but instead is transformed by Christ's renewal. Many, if not most of these exhortations are related to how a Christian is called to treat other people. Beginning in chapter 12, Paul wrote do not think of yourself as better than other people simply because you have different gifts, or are of a specific ethnicity, or because you have more money. Honor those who have different gifts than you. Let your love of one another be genuine. Don't show off in order to embarrass others. Share what you have with others who do not have enough. Be hospitable to strangers. He goes on to compel other Christians to bless the ones who persecute them. Imagine hearing that after you've been run out of your home city because of your ethnicity. Imagine hearing that after you've supported running some people out of the city because of their ethnicity.
Paul holds up empathy as a primary characteristic of a Christian community. He says that you will know that people follow Christ because, in their community, when people mourn, others join them in their mourning. When people rejoice, others join in their joy. People of high social class will gladly associate themselves with people of lower class. Christians work hard to live in peace and not to indulge in revenge, but, instead commit to listening, dialogue, and honesty. Christians will also take on the difficult and holy task of repaying evil with good. When helping Christians figure out how to live well with one another, he calls upon Jewish scripture, citing the 10 Commandments as models for empathy and compassion. He said that these commandments showed the centrality of love to God's instruction. Paul said, "Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law." How does Paul believe a Christian prepares for Jesus? Live in love. Act in love. Worship in love. This is how you can be transformed by Christ. This is how you then transform the world around you.
Knowing that Paul's exhortation to love is the lead up to today's reading certainly enlivens the call to stay awake because salvation is near to this very moment. All of the love we live out becomes our preparation for God's next step in the world. Right now, in our modern word, it seems like we are once again at a moment when we need to stay awake and prepare. Paul's description of this holy moment in today's reading is both apt and lovely. He said that this moment is like the time in the early morning when the night is finally shifting into the day. You can see the new day creeping it's way in because the sky is shifting from a fertile, haunting black but is not quite yet the brilliant blue of a clear day. This current moment somewhere in between the previous night and the new day, kind of purpley-bluish-not-quite-pink, filled with holy potential. So, we wait, and we prepare for what is coming. In today's reading, at times like these, Paul counsels us to avoid behaviors that draw us away from one another and away from God- we don't party to distract ourselves from our responsibilities, we don't hide away in unfulfilling, disrespectful relationships, we don't numb ourselves with excess, or compete with one another in jealousy. No, we lay that all that aside for love. He says to clothe ourselves in Christ so that when we look around, all we can see is his presence in the faces that surround us. We put on God's love like armor and wield God's love like a tool for building the Gospel. We live and work in that love. And, we wait. The new day is coming.
This Sunday is the first Sunday in the season of Advent, a kind of New Year's Day for the church. It is our regular reminder that God is not yet through with us and our world. It reminds us that God once radically changed the world through Jesus and God is still changing the world with us everyday. Advent asks us to remember what it means to wait, not passively, but actively, preparing the way to God's next radical entry into our lives. There is great hope in this kind of waiting, a hope that draws us forward into God's possibilities... a hope that invites to into prayerful, thoughtful action. I invite to you to consider how you personally, and this church communally, is called again to act in Christ's love. Because Jesus is coming again. How will we prepare his way?
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following resources when writing this sermon:
On the Epistle to the Romans:
This is a lovely and helpful read about Advent by Diana Butler Bass: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2016/11/25/forget-red-and-green-make-it-a-blue-holiday-instead/?postshare=5071480174858728&tid=ss_tw
Some more infromation about anti-jewish riots in Ancient Alexandria:http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/judaica/ejud_0002_0001_0_00765.html
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.