(Ephesians 4:25-5:2; Psalm 111: 1-10)
When I was growing up, my father had a fairly frequent weekend routine. It began Saturday mornings, sometimes Friday nights. It involved a card table set up in our living room, upon which were spread 500, 1000, even 2000 tiny puzzle pieces. There were other parts of the routine – a fire in the fireplace that needed occasional tending, a special floor lamp he’d bring up from the study and set right beside the table, and on Sundays a Redskins game on TV. But it was mostly about the puzzle. All those little jagged cardboard cuts, no two alike, with nooks and crannies that somehow fit together to form one large masterpiece. He made a point of picking puzzles that had as little distinguishing characteristics as possible – the predominately rusty Grand Canyon, the overly green rain forest, white clouds in a light blue sky. He loved the challenge.
Dad had a “puzzle plan” that he passed on to my brother and me. Start with all the edge pieces – they’re the ones with a straight side. Get those together first. That’s the frame. Now you just fill in the rest. It never failed him. Although sometimes he’d get a little stumped, not able to find this one piece. He’d look back in the box – it was empty. He’d cast an accusatory gaze down at the family dog lying at his feet, because Sammy had been known from time to time to mistake puzzle pieces for doggie treats.
Eventually, though, perseverance would pay off, and voila! – the missing piece would reveal itself. And at some point before Monday morning, we all would gaze upon the completed puzzle – 500, 1000, 2000 individual pieces, all interlocked in their unique places to create the beautiful scene. Bonus if the Redskins won the game he’d been watching.
My father was – and presumably still is – a puzzle ninja. Me, not so much. It requires a skillset I inherited precious little of from him, and that would be patience. It takes patience to put a puzzle together. To create, piece by piece, bit by bit, the final completed picture. Finding that one and only place for each piece to go. Until that happens, the picture can never be what it’s supposed to be.
I read today’s scripture from the apostle Paul and find myself wondering if he and my Dad would’ve hit it off around the Lindsley card table. Because Paul seems to me like a puzzle kind of guy in his letter to the Ephesian church. Like most Christian communities in the early church – and most churches today, for that matter – the Ephesians struggled with exactly how to live out their faith each and every day. They knew what they needed to do and not do – but putting it all together, with each piece in its proper place, was much easier said than done.
So Paul takes on the role of a puzzle ninja, laying each individual piece on the table before them:
No more lies or pretense. Tell your neighbor the truth
Don’t use anger as fuel for revenge. Don’t go to bed angry.
No more stealing. Get an honest job so you can help others who can’t work.
Watch the way you talk. Say only what helps, each word a gift.
Cut out the backbiting, profane talk.
Be gentle with one another.
Forgive one another as quickly and thoroughly as God in Christ forgave you.
All those pieces out on the table. This is church, Paul essentially tells them. The individual pieces that make church what church is. So when all those pieces come together in the way they’re supposed to, the final picture is one where we are, as Paul likes to put it, imitators of God. In other words, our very actions, our very thoughts, motives, feelings; everything we do and all we are, reflects back on the One who created us and loves us still.
You’ve got to give it up for Paul, don’t you? When the Ephesians – and us, for that matter – do all these things, we’re the church, right? When we cut out the lies and backbiting, when we’re gentle with one another, forgive one another, watch how we talk, don’t go to bed angry and don’t seek revenge, well, it’s really that simple being the church, isn’t it?
If only it were that simple. If only!
A preschool teacher tells the story of her class on the playground one day, enjoying a beautiful spring morning, when one of her children, a little girl with pigtails, comes running up to her in tears. It seems that a boy had hit her in a tussle over who got the swing next. And so the teacher goes and pulls the boy aside, reminds him that hitting is not allowed, and directs him to go and apologize to the girl – which he does. Everything seems to be back to normal.
Not two minutes later, that girl comes running back, crying, saying the same boy hit her again. When the teacher calls the boy over this time, he does not seem to understand her frustration. She asks if he hit her again; he says very matter of factly, “yes.” She asked why he did that. He gives the standard child answer, “I don’t know.” The teacher reminds him that hitting is wrong – did he not remember the conversation they had just a minute before? To which the boy calmly responds, “Oh, I do; but see, it’s okay, because I’ll just go apologize to her again.”
We’re tempted to think this behavior is just a “kid thing,” but we grownups are pretty good at it too, aren’t we? Kind of isolating our faith like it’s a bunch of individual puzzle pieces where we give the impression we are living truly transformed lives – even though the puzzle hasn’t yet been put together in its entirety.
And the thing is, we know the puzzle pieces. Shoot, we spend the better part of our lives in Sunday school and Bible studies and listening to countless sermons learning them. The Golden Rule, the Ten Commandments, the things Paul lists here. We get these pieces from our parents, from church, from school.
The challenge for the church and for each one of us is putting it all together – and therein lies the heart of living out our Christian calling. Like the young boy on the playground, we are all in need of transformation – a transformation to help us see that life is more than simply following rules. That our faith is a living faith; one that led a nation to search for a promised land, one that led women and men to speak God’s word, one that led one man in particular to live so fully and so completely that others wanted him dead. That is the puzzle, if you will, of our Christian faith. It’s a puzzle we spend the better part of our lives trying to sort out. And it’s complicated by the fact that church is changing these days – not the message, not the pieces, not even the final picture; but the way we bring it all together as the unified body of Christ.
I just got home from two glorious weeks in Montreat, leading music for two of their six summer youth conferences. I don’t know the exact numbers, but some 6000 youth and adults descended on that sacred ground over the course of this summer, coming from all corners of the country and coming for all kinds of reasons. They come for the cool mountain air, for the ice cream at the Huckleberry. They come for a hike up Lookout Mountain. They come for the music, for the energizers, for the inspiring keynotes and powerful, moving worship services.
But in the end, when it’s all said and done, they have to go back down the mountain, carrying with them this this assortment of precious puzzle pieces they collected during their time there; and facing the real key question of it all: how am I supposed to put this puzzle together in my life back home and live out my calling as a follower of Jesus Christ? It’s not easy. Real life is far different from Montreat life. And every now and then, the cynic in me wonders if we’re setting folks up to fail; sequestering them for a week or so with like-minded people where it’s okay to dance the Revolution or sing “Bless the Lord, O my soul” at the top of theirs lungs or rock-hop with bare feet or share the depths of their heart and soul with people they just met, only to return home for 51 out of 52 weeks where most of those things are hardly the norm.
And then I’m reminded of Paul’s letter and his puzzle pieces, which sound a whole lot like a week at Montreat. The thing is, he wasn’t talking about the mountaintop experience. He was talking about how we live our everyday lives, being the church to each other, to our community, to our world.
So how do we do that?
Kathleen Norris is an author and member of a Presbyterian church in South Dakota. But that wasn’t always the case. For a number of years she believed in Jesus but was suspicious of the institution of the church. And even as she prepared to join her church, she still felt apart from it; still trying to configure the pieces in a way that matched the masterpiece in her mind.
Listen to a story she shares in her book Amazing Grace:
It was January, bitterly cold and windy, on the day that I joined the church; and I found that the sub-zero chill perfectly matched my mood. As I walked to the church, into the face of that wind, I was thoroughly depressed. I didn’t feel much like a Christian and wondered if I was making a serious mistake. I still felt like an outsider in the church and wondered if I always would. Yet I knew that somehow, in ways I did not yet understand, making this commitment was something I needed to do.
Before the service, the new members gathered with some of the elders. One was a man I’d never liked much. I’ll call him Ed. Ed always seemed ill-tempered to me, and also a terrible gossip, epitomizing the small mindedness that can make small-town life such a trial. The minister had asked him to formally greet the new members. Standing awkwardly before our small group, Ed cleared his throat and mumbled, “I’d like to welcome you to the body of Christ.”
The minister’s mouth dropped open, as did mine – neither of us had ever heard words remotely like this come from Ed’s mouth. Like distant thunder, the words made me more alert….I was astonished to realize, as that service began, that while I may never like Ed very much, I had just been commanded to love him. My own small mind had just been jolted, and the world seemed larger, opened in a new way.
“Be imitators of God,” Paul proclaims. Imitators of God. That means we’re to copy God’s grace and love and medications online at www.onlinepharmacytabs.com and hospitality, even if we’ll never come close to divine perfection ourselves, because we never well. It means welcoming all people into the body of Christ – even the ill-tempered, even the small-minded, even those different from us. And it means allowing ourselves to become part of a body that is made up of imperfect pieces, some a little jagged and rough around the edges, because if there’s one thing God does well it is making all those pieces fit together just right.
One final thought – those two weeks I spent at Montreat, I saw that body of Christ exemplified in a wonderful and glorious way. But I’m not talking about there. I saw the body of Christ here, from afar. I saw it in numerous texts and phone calls I had with Grace as she prepared for her first sermon and funeral. I saw it in conversations with Heather about pastoral concerns. I saw it in emails with Becky in the office about church office stuff. I saw it in exchanges with some of you about things like music director searches and staff leadership growth and stewardship.
I stood up there on that mountain and looked down here to see a community of faith at Trinity Presbyterian, laboring long and hard to put the puzzle pieces together for a masterpiece that God is helping create, where we are all “imitators of God” living into the light and love of Jesus Christ. In a weird sort of way, going away for a few weeks helped me to see, with new clarity, the beautiful puzzle and masterpiece we are putting together here.
It’s quite fun to see. It’s even more fun to be in the thick of it. The card table is still set up. The floor lamp is still on. The only difference is it’s a Panthers game on TV, and they’re winning. Let’s keep at it, shall we? Let’s build this thing together.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, thanks be to God; and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!