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The first time I tried sushi was almost fifteen years ago when a parishioner named Bill Smith took me to his favorite Japanese restaurant. Bill Smith has since gone to be with the Lord, but I’ll never forget that day he picked me up from the church and drove me across town to this little restaurant tucked away in a strip mall.
He knew the owner by name, and we took our seat up at the sushi bar counter. Like a golf commentator whispering play-by-play, Bill explained to me what the chef was doing, the types of raw fish and vibrant ingredients, the art and skill of the chef’s technique.
To my surprise, I loved it at first bite. Bill and I would eat sushi together many more times, and I started bringing guests of my own. Eventually, my Monday Sabbath routine included reading a good book over sushi at the restaurant. When that restaurant unfortunately closed, I found another and continued my Sabbath ritual.
When my family and I moved to northwest Iowa, this was one of my concerns: where will I find good sushi? I was able to hunt down a couple sushi restaurants in larger towns, but they are a good hour’s drive or more. Then one day my wife, Tammy, brought home frozen sushi from the supermarket. “I thought you might be interested to try this,” she said. Frozen sushi? My first thought was Bill Smith would be aghast! But I tried it and, surprisingly, it wasn’t bad.
So I’ve started eating it as part of my Monday Sabbath ritual. Sitting at the counter in my kitchen, a book in one hand and chopsticks in the other, I feast on thawed Philadelphia and spicy tuna roles. I’m still a little embarrassed to admit to this, but if I’m going to enjoy sushi, this is my best option where I live now. And for some people in northwest Iowa, this supermarket version will be the only way they get introduced to sushi.
It hit me the other day that this may be a fitting (although imperfect) metaphor for the church’s relationship to the kingdom of God. The church is a representation of God’s reign, a covenant community of people gathered and sustained by God’s Word and sacraments. But in so many ways the church falls short of that which it represents, with its checkered history and its many flaws and failures. Similar to store-bought frozen sushi, it can seem like an embarrassing imitation of the real thing. And yet the local church, with all of its imperfections and limitations, is still God’s chosen instrument for making God’s kingdom visible and carrying out God’s mission in the world. And it may be the only taste of the good news of God’s reconciling love in Christ that some people get.
It reminds me of an illustration Philip Yancey uses at the end of his pithy little book The Church: Why Bother? He actually borrows it from the great preacher Earl Palmer. Palmer was responding to critics who dismissed the church for its hypocrisy and its inability to measure up to the New Testament’s high standards.
“When the Milpitas High School orchestra attempts Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the result is appalling,” said Palmer. “I wouldn’t be surprised if the performance made old Ludwig roll over in his grave despite his deafness. You might ask, ‘Why bother?’ Why inflict on those poor kids the terrible burden of trying to render what the immortal Beethoven had in mind? Not even the great Chicago Symphony Orchestra can attain that perfection.”
Palmer’s answer: “The Milpitas High School orchestra will give some people in that audience their only encounter with Beethoven’s great Ninth Symphony. Far from perfection, it is nevertheless the only way they will hear Beethoven’s message.”
Kind of like my supermarket frozen sushi.
Even so, come Lord Jesus!
Brian Keepers is the lead pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Orange City, IA.