Bread that Nourishes and Stars that Shine – Isaiah 55:1-13; Psalm 65:1-13; Philippians 2:12-18
I’ve spent a lot of time traveling lately and, like many people, traveling brings challenges to my nutrition. As I rode along the highway to Columbus, OH, for Annual Conference, I regretted leaving in a flurry and forgetting the granola bars, trail mix, and fruit that I had left behind. My stomach ached with hunger. My fellow travelers decided that a pit stop was needed at a Maryland Welcome Center and we knew they had good bathrooms.
After making a welcome stop to a certain room, I gravitated to the vending machines. I looked at the Doritos and a yearning for nacho cheese began to express itself. MMM. Doritos. Yet at the same time, my mind fought my tummy and I reminded myself that A) Doritos’ empty calories would do little to satisfy my actual hunger, and B) starting out a 5 day trip on junk food would make me feel icky right away. I scanned the other vending machines and ended up with a nutrition bar that had both protein to fill me up and natural ingredients to keep away from that icky feeling.
There are foods that do and do not satisfy. Like the breadth of modern food and food-like substances, life itself is filled with things that do and do not satisfy. Our passage in Isaiah today highlights this when the LORD God calls out to the people, “if you are thirsty, here is something to drink. If you don’t have money, come here and buy what you need—there is no cost!” What is free isn’t just water but the good stuff, wine and milk, Israelite symbols of “abundance, enjoyment, and nourishment” (Kaiser, Jr. & Garrett, 2006, p. 1157).
The LORD asks, “Why do you spend your money on that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?” In other words, why are you eating Doritos when you can eat a nutritious meal filled with fruits and veggies and whole grains?
The Israelites had lost their focus, lost their definition of “good food.” They tried to fill up with junk food—idols, warhorses, and money—instead of eating God’s good bread, instead of worshipping YHWH in justice and righteousness. Isaiah doesn’t brings this up to shame them: this message is one of hope. God is offering a new start, a chance to repent and feast again on good food. God is calling them come back to abundant, satisfying food, to see once more what life is all about.
As many of you know, Nate and I commute by bike regularly throughout the city. If you are interested in biking in the city, several items are crucial to making it a safe ride: a helmet, of course, and lights. Bikes should have white lights in the front and red lights in the rear. I always set mine to blinking, to help make me visible to the cars behind me and coming towards me. Lights also help me to see late at night when it is dark. Lights guide both the rider and those around her.
The letter from Paul to the church in Philippi is a loving letter to a congregation. As the leader from whom they received the gospel message, Paul instructs the Philippians not to lose focus on what it really means to be God’s people together. Holding firmly to God’s Word and Christ’s example would help them to “shine like stars in the world” (2:15), guiding people to the gospel.
At Annual Conference, Nate and I are regularly asked about the state of Washington City Church of the Brethren, where it has come from and where it is going. Sometimes I describe it like this, “The ship is no longer sinking. We are no longer bailing out water and things seem to have stabilized.” This is progress, indeed.
And yet, I am not sure that there is a clear vision of what our purpose is. Are we just meant to be a magnet for Brethren blood in Washington, DC, a place to go if you happen to be Brethren and live in the general vicinity? Or, are we a living body committed to seeing the gospel change our lives, change our neighborhood, and change our city? Are we looking to extend light and grace to our neighborhood in Jesus’ name?
What is our purpose? I think our purpose lies in bread and stars. We are to feast on the bread that nourishes and to invite others to share in God’s table. We are to be like stars that shine in the sky, living out God’s Kingdom in our relationships together.
Bread that Nourishes – the Gospel as Invitation to the Table
We’ve had a slight ant problem this year at the Hosler household. Ants in the bathroom, ants in the kitchen. I don’t like killing insects but I do squish the ants on my bathroom floor or kitchen counter. I try to stop up their entry points and remove food sources.
Food sources are the main problem with ants because ants are great at spreading the good news. One ant is shouting on our street corner right now, “Little bits of cat food, on the floor, just inside! Follow me!” One ant goes on an expedition, makes a find, spreads the word, and many others follow to take part in the feast of stray cat food bits (our cat is a messy eater).
Like the ants, we have good news to share: there is bread that nourishes. The message of Jesus is about inviting people into God’s story, to come to the table, to take part in the feast. At times, people have spoken about the Christian life in terms of “do”s and “don’t”s. This misses the point: choosing God is not about deprivation. It is about a life that turns away from junk food and fills itself with “the richest of fare,” the things that are good and nourishing to the soul.
Jesus said that he came so that we might have life, and life to the fullest (John 10:10). So what is this feast, this bread that nourishes us to full life? Looking at today’s passages in the Hebrew Scriptures, bread that nourishes is made with three ingredients: reconciliation, thankfulness, and a big storyline.
Isaiah’s message implores the listener to “Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near, let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon” (Is. 55:6-7).
In Genesis, the creation of humanity is shortly followed by human rebellion against God, of humans sinning and damaging their relationship with God and then also with other humans. Yet God was determined not to keep things that way, opening up a relationship with the Israelites and then reconciling all of humanity to God through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Today’s psalm praises God, “When deeds of iniquity overwhelm us, you forgive our transgressions” (65:3).
As we invite people to the feast, we preach Christ crucified and raised; we preach a message of God becoming flesh to redeem and forgive and restore this messy and broken world. The key ingredient of “God’s good food” is our repentance and reconciliation. God beckons us to turn from hatred, turn from selfishness, turn from thanklessness—so that we might turn to love, turn to humility, turn to gratitude.
Gratitude: that brings us to the second ingredient. The bread that nourishes cannot rise without a liberal dose of thankfulness. Psalm 65 is a passage that illustrates the transformative power of thankfulness. Walter Brueggemann refers to it as a “psalm of reorientation” (Bouzard, 2014, citing Brueggemann, 1984).
Thankfulness is like a lens that opens our eyes to everything that is good around us. The psalmist, David, clearly has open eyes to see what God is doing. He can’t help but give thanks. David thanks God for the temple, for awesome deeds around the world and the hope that God provides, and for the ways God provides and cares for the earth.
It is easy to remain focused on our problems and others’ failings. Thankfulness helps us to move outside ourselves and recognize that all we have, we owe to God, the Creator and sustainer. Thankfulness is spiritual practice that brings us meaning, that nourishes us.
The final bread ingredient is found again in our Isaiah passage: a big storyline that has an innumerable cast of characters. God speaks of a plan of bringing all peoples to himself, of expanding God’s Kingdom to every ethnic group and tribe and tongue: “I will make an everlasting covenant with you, my faithful love promised to David. See, I have made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander for the peoples. See, you shall call nations that you do not know, and nations that do not know you shall run to you, because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, for He has glorified you” (55:4-5).
The Kingdom of God is not just about our own nourishment, about hiding in a corner with a scrap of food that we don’t want to share. There is plenty to go around and, if we don’t share it, the bread will rot like the manna hoarded in the desert in Exodus. Christ gives enough grace and love and hope that we cannot keep it to ourselves. The Kingdom of God is about inviting all peoples—from all walks of life, all incomes, all colors and genders and ages and orientations—to take part in the Holy Feast, to find reconciliation, cultivate thankfulness, and to be a part of God’s story that is bigger than ourselves.
As a church, part of our purpose is to feast on the bread that nourishes: to be reconciled to God, to give thanks, and to share the Good News that there is room at God’s table for all. The other part of our purpose is to be like stars that shine in the sky, living out God’s Kingdom in our relationships together.
Stars that Shine – Spreading Light through Our Relationships with Each Other
As I mentioned earlier, the Church of the Brethren’s Annual Conference took place last week. Delegates from churches across the denomination gathered together to make decisions as one big body, to elect leaders in different positions, to consider what our witness is on different issues of faith in practice. Annual Conference’s stated purpose is that “it exists to unite, strengthen, and equip the Church of the Brethren to follow Jesus.”
Several years ago, Annual Conference went from being something that benefits the body of Christ to a low point where the name of Jesus was put to shame by how some acted with each other. Since then, the church has been working intentionally to figure out how to engage with each other in ways that are peaceful and glorifying to God.
We’ve been utilizing round tables where we meet and discuss with others different from us. We’ve made teams of mediators available in order to help people process and have healthier conversations. It doesn’t always work perfectly, still, and there are ways to improve. Overall, we have learned two things: 1) the harsh reality that humans can slip into horrible ways of dealing with each other, especially when power and privilege are involved; and 2) God can give us the grace to help us reset and begin to transform our relationships.
When thinking of our passage in Philippians, Annual Conference came to mind because it is an exhortation to follow Jesus in holy community together. Paul says, “Work out the well-being, the health of your community, for God is at work within you.” The Message puts it this way: “Do everything readily and cheerfully—no bickering, no second-guessing allowed! Go out into the world uncorrupted, a breath of fresh air in this squalid and polluted society. Carry the light-giving Message into the night” (Phil. 2:14-15, the Message).
Relationships are a crucial part of God’s Kingdom. We are meant to engage with each other in ways that are holy, set apart from how the world interacts. We are called to put aside the actions which shroud us in darkness—power struggles, gossip, complaining, fighting, slander—and to “do all things without murmuring or arguing, so that [we] may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, in which [we] shine like stars in the world” (2:15-15, NRSV).
One commentator says that Paul wrote to the Philippians, not because they were already bickering and arguing, but because he knew that the risk was always there (Craddock, 1984). Our choices in community can lead to us be a thriving body or it can lead to a toxic, dark mess. When we focus on our own needs, our own wants, our own power or privilege or status or authority, we snuff out the light of Christ in our midst. When we are “of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind”, when we look to the interests of others, when we surrender power and privilege, the light of Christ shines brightly and the world can see that there truly is another way of living.
Our purpose as a congregation is to feast on the bread that nourishes—to live abundantly in the gospel of Jesus—and proclaim an open table to the world around us. Our purpose is also to be like stars that shine, demonstrating another way of living in the way that we engage one another, in the way that we care for each other, in the way that we serve one another, following in the example of Christ.
Sisters and brothers, as we move forward to a future vision of Washington City, let us remember our God-given purpose: to partake in the body of Christ, the bread of heaven that nourishes, to joyfully invite others to join us in the holy feast, to proclaim reconciliation, to give thanks, to draw people into God’s big story, and to engage each other as a holy community, so that our block, our neighborhood, our city, might all be transformed by the light of Christ. Let us seek the bread that nourishes and let us be as stars that shine in the world. AMEN.
Bouzard, W.C. (2014, July 13). Commentary on Psalm 65. Working Preacher. Retrieved from http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2078
Craddock, F.B. (1984). Philippians. Interpretation: A Bible commentary for teaching and preaching. Louisville: Westminster John Knox.
Kaiser, Jr., W.C. & Garrett, D. (2006). (Eds.). NIV Archaeological Study Bible: An Illustrated Walk Through Biblical History and Culture. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.