Sunday, April 19, 2015

Jesus Dreams of Fish

Jesus dreams of fish.  I wrote that sentence over a week ago, as I prepared for this sermon, on the third Sunday of the Easter season.  I expected a sermon to follow this single sentence, but nothing came.  Yet I still felt that I was on the right track.  It was a revelation, but not yet a sermon.  Jesus dreams of fish.  This seems like a strange statement, but the fish would eventually become one of the symbols of this new religion.  Yet in all my years, I had never once considered that Jesus must have really loved fish.  Now I know.  First, he called to fishermen to be his disciples; that’s where this Jesus movement started in the first cause.  Then he helps them catch an enormous load of fish to prove his uncanny spiritual powers; he directs them to a “great shoal of fish” in Luke’s gospel, a catch that is almost bursting their nets with the great bounty.  And here, in today’s gospel, also from Luke, the resurrected Jesus asks for a piece of broiled fish as he visits his disciples in Jerusalem.  Something is up, with the fish.
Jesus dreams of fish.  Of all the things Jesus could say or do in his resurrected body, this simple request for food is more than a little odd.  On one level, Luke is certainly trying to prove that Jesus is not a ghost:  “They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost… ’Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh as you see that I have.’”  To prove it he starts eating.  But I think that something deeper is happening with Jesus munching on a piece of broiled fish, in front of his terrified disciples. 
The gospel accounts of Jesus’s resurrection appearances often mention fear.  The breakthrough of Easter joy includes fear—fear of the Romans, fear of the future, even fear of Jesus himself in his new body that is the same one that died.  Rising from the dead is a little disturbing—that kind of thing just doesn’t happen in our world.  Except that the disciples and gospel writers claim that it did.  This is their testimony.   
I think I understand this resurrection fear when I think about our experience of spring.  New life is a little scary; it’s overwhelming.  What do you do with it all?  I’m not ready to leave my old life behind.  I don’t have to tell you that the winter behind us was brutal, and yet somehow we survived.  Though we haven’t had any really warm weather, we know it’s coming.  We can feel it, in our bones, and in our paths across this beautiful campus surrounded by nature.  With the advent of spring, there is so much energy all around us.  The earth herself is singing with new possibility.  The animals can feel the new energy, probably better than we do.  Spring is a season of beauty and passion, and it’s easy to get off track, especially if you’re a senior.  With the beauty around us, I want to tell the seniors not to count down the days until graduation, but I know they won’t listen.  You’ll be surprised with the sadness that will come with the end of the year.  I encourage you to instead linger in these moments together, and to look for something deeper.        
All of us are experiencing new life, even if you don’t call it resurrection.  But new life needs to be grounded…grounded in something tangible, like a piece of fish.  As I thought about my mantra for this sermon—that Jesus dreams of fish, I was reminded of the movie called Jiro Dreams of Sushi.  The movie is a documentary about an eighty-five year old sushi chef who is still working, still working on his craft.  Jiro has been working every day for the last seventy-five years, finding his way in the restaurant industry after being abandoned by his parents.  His life’s work started as a means of survival, an escape from abject poverty, but it eventually became a vocation that shaped his life.  And, yes, he regularly dreams of sushi.  He has visions of fish.  Though perfection is unattainable, he strives every day to find it. 
Jiro Ono is one of the most famous sushi chefs in the world.  His small restaurant in Tokyo has three stars in the Michelin guide to restaurants.  Famous chefs love the restaurant named Sukiyabashi Jiro, which has only ten seats, and a bathroom outside the premises.  Jiro is more than a chef; he is an artist, a perfectionist, a Zen genius.  He does the same thing every day, in how he gets to work in the morning, and in what he does at work, but he seeks incremental improvements with every dish he touches, every fish he handles.  I know that he and Jesus would get along, if Jesus ever made it to Tokyo.  People get nervous when they eat at Jiro’s, even the food writers.  The power of his simple craft is daunting, his presence is so commanding, and reservations are needed a month in advance to get one of the coveted ten seats in front of the master. 
In the many scenes of Jiro making sushi in the film, there is an enormous simplicity in his preparation.  There are many studies of his hands working on the fish.  Just hands and fish.   It is a clear act of love, hinting at the mystery of life.  These are the hands of a high priest; you start to sense the incantation to our highest power.  The images are hypnotic enough, but the music by Phillip Glass weaves a kind of magical spell over all the food.  We leave the world of food preparation and enter the realm of religion.  It takes you to a place beyond hunger, and above simple eating.
It is an accurate statement that people who eat sushi prepared by Jiro experience something like our holy communion.  Some of his patrons claim that they can hear music as they eat, especially those who simply eat what Jiro prepares for them—they don’t even place an order.  Each ingredient has an ideal moment of deliciousness.  The early Church experienced the resurrected Jesus while eating, and that’s where our sacrament of communion originated, from this ritual fellowship.  Eventually Jesus would be found by his followers in the sacred food, in the bread and wine.  In some cases, the early followers of Jesus would eat a whole meal.  This was called an agape meal, a meal of love, which was far above our experience of romantic love; the meal celebrated the love that came from God, even unto sacrifice.  Our earliest Eucharistic prayer, written by a man named Hippolytus in the second century, included bread, wine, olives, and cheese.  Olives symbolized the sweetness of religious faith, while cheese encouraged a belief that was solid.  As a priest, I have performed the rite of Hippolytus with students from the University of Virginia, when I was the chaplain there.  The food would circle more than once as symbols of God’s promise and love that were bringing us closer to each other, and closer to God.  We got to know Jesus in the breaking of bread, but also in the sublime olives and tasty cheese.  Jesus understood that what you put in your body has a religious dimension.  He understood this from his Jewish religion, but the sacred meals of Jesus would be offered to all people, from the closest Jewish disciples to the new followers throughout the world.  Christianity.  It really all started with food.  Jesus dreams of fish.    
You can’t help but ask yourself while watching Jiro Dreams of Sushi: Is there anything in my life that is like Jiro’s love and passion for sushi?  Spring is about passion, but it needs to be grounded in discipline.  Your passion needs order.  In every scene with Jiro, there are wisdom lessons packed in, like fish in a crate.  Watching Jiro and listening to his words makes you want to pay deeper attention to your own life, and how to live more intentionally.  Life goes by pretty fast—and faster the older you get.  Yet it slows down in the moments when you find your true passion.  A true passion doesn’t pass the time; it fills the time with meaning.  The quality that you generate enters into the great mystery of God.    
Being willing to make yourself uncomfortable is a part of this search for a vocation.  Jiro continually makes himself uncomfortable, and he certainly makes the lives of his workers and apprentices difficult.  Though he is an expert, a virtuoso with sushi, he approaches everything as a beginner.  Always, he is a beginner.  Jiro is always pushing himself out of his comfort zone.  You are on a search, a quest for your own life philosophy, and it won’t be easy to find your holy grail, your life’s work.  When you find it, it’s like falling in love.  That is the only comparison that is just. 
I was so inspired by the movie and this sermon that I ordered out from a local restaurant.  This was a mistake.  The magic spell was broken.  But the magic will certainly come back during this Easter season, and spring, and our precious holiday tomorrow.
Jesus dreams of fish.  Jiro dreams of sushi.  I dream of yellowtail rolls and whitefish.  Lots of whitefish. 
Where will your dreams take you?  This is the season of finding out. 
And eating out. 

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