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).
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.