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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.
Yes! Amen and amen. Maranatha! Thank you, brother.
This is a kinda wise.
Ok, title sucked me in, I was wondering where this was going. Can we work to eliminate frozen sushi, and those ineffective churches? I am fortunate to live in a great fresh sushi area here in the northwest, and coincidentally belong to what we believe to be a very effective church, not perfect, but we keep working on it.
Well said … and here I live in Pasadena surrounded by great sushi … all the best to you, frozen or otherwise.
So true Brian~missing you and missing Bill. Maybe, just maybe I’ll pick up some frozen White Castles~they are awful that way and the next time I have sushi, it will be in honor of you two.
Thanks, Brian, for your suggestion of the church being an imperfect metaphor or foretaste for the Kingdom of God. I think Yancey’s book title question hits the nail on the head for many? “The church, why bother?” Do you really think the church measures up to any significant degree to God’s kingdom? Would you bother eating sushi that was substandard? Or would you switch over to a good steak, or lamb chops, or a delicious dish of spaghetti? I think most businesses in our culture are run better with more efficiency than most churches. But, yes, as John V suggested you hit good ones here and there. But a foretaste of God’s kingdom? As Daniel J M… suggested, your article is “kinda wise.” Thanks again, Brian.
That’s the beauty of the imperfect church and its imperfect people. The church is the exclamation point on the message Christ wanted to emphasize. As I see it those judging and expecting perfection from the church will only be met with disappointment; just as the Pharisees were when Jesus spoke about lost sheep, coins and a lost son. The message of God’s kingdom being one of Grace, welcoming in all the imperfect. If like the lost son we will humble ourselves and seek to return… the Father is already on His way to welcome us home. Yep the church is were imperfect sushi can be found! But we know one day the imperfect will pass and we will see the church in All its perfection! Not frozen… real sushi… blessings pastor Brian!