January 8, 2012
He sits at the cardboard table in the living room, and attention is fully focused on the 1000 puzzle pieces spread out before him. Amazing little jagged cardboard cuts, no two alike, with nooks and crannies that fit together into one large masterpiece. He glances over at the picture on the cover – a beautiful vista from the Grand Canyon. How all of these pieces will come together to look like that, he has no idea. But that’s the whole point, isn’t it?
He has a routine he follows every time. First, he gets all the end pieces together to form the frame. Now comes the hard part – filling it in. He manages to get a few pieces together into a small mass, but is stumped with one spot. He canvasses the entire table, once, twice, but no luck. He looks back in the box – its empty. He casts an accusatory glare at the dog at his feet, whose been known to mistake puzzle pieces for doggie treats from time to time; but there is no guilt on his face.
Perseverance pays off eventually, and after a fourth look-over he finds the missing piece. The section comes together beautifully, as does the rest of the puzzle. And before nightfall he stands back to gaze upon his masterpiece – 1000 individual pieces, all formed together in their unique places to create the beautiful mountain scene.
My father loves puzzles. I, however, never inherited his stellar patience. I’ve never asked him why he took to puzzles the way that he did – but if I had to guess, I’d say it was because there’s great satisfaction in creating, piece by piece, bit by bit, the final completed picture. Each piece has one and only one place it can go. And in order for the picture to be complete, every one of those 100, or 500, or 1000, or even 2000 puzzle pieces needs to be in their proper place. Until that happens, the picture isn’t what it’s meant to be.
Now I don’t know if the apostle Paul was a puzzle guy. I mean, it wasn’t like the man had a bunch of free time on his hands – persecuting Christians as Saul, then trying to build them up following his conversion. But it seems to me that Paul is doing a little bit of “puzzling” in his letter to the church in Ephesus. It’s a congregation that Paul himself had established. Like most Christian communities in the early days of the church – and, in many ways, like Christians today – these churches struggled with living out the gospel message in their daily lives. 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 the Puzzle master, laying each individual piece out on the table before them:
- Put away falsehood and speak the truth
- Do not let the sun go down on your anger
- Do not make room for the devil – I like the way the Good News Bible puts it: Don’t give the devil a chance!
- Thieves must give up stealing
- Let no evil talk come out of your mouth, but only what is useful for building up
- Put away bitterness, wrath, anger, wrangling, slander; and be kind and tenderhearted to one another
- Forgive one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you
And then Paul does something kind of neat in the first verse of chapter five – he reveals to them what the finished picture will look like when all the puzzle pieces are put together. It’s kind of like laying all the pieces out on the table and then looking on the cover of the box to see what you’re shooting for, you know? For Paul and those early Christians, the end result is that the people in that church be imitators of God. That’s the phrase he uses – imitators of God: that their very actions, thoughts, motives, feelings and labors reflect back to the One who created them and loves them still.
You got to commend Paul for what he does here, don’t you? When the Ephesians – and us, for that matter – speak the truth, when we don’t give the Devil a chance, when we refrain from stealing or speaking evil or getting bitter or angry; when we build up others with our words or live out tenderheartedness; and surely when we forgive, it’s then when the pieces of the puzzle fall into their place and the beautiful picture is born – a community of people, bound together by Christ, imitating their God.
So – we’ve got the pieces and we’ve got the final picture. But is our work done? Are our labors as followers of Christ complete? Far from it! Far from it.
A preschool teacher tells the story of a little boy in her class one day. Her group was out on the playground, enjoying a beautiful spring morning, when one of the children in her class came running up in tears – it seems that a boy in the group had hit her in a tussle over who got the swing next. The teacher went and pulled the boy aside, told him that hitting was not allowed, and directed him to go and apologize to the girl – which he did. Everything seemed to be back to normal.
Not two minutes later, that girl came running back, crying, saying the same boy had hit her again. When the teacher called the boy over, he did not seem to understand her frustration. She asked if he had hit the girl again; he said very matter of factly, “yes.” She asked why he did that. He gave the standard child answer, “I don’t know.” The teacher reiterated that hitting was wrong – didn’t he remember their previous talk? To which the boy calmly responded, “Oh, yeah; but see, it’s okay, because I’ll just apologize to her later.”
He didn’t realize it, of course, but that little boy demonstrated the one of the greatest stumbling blocks in the Christian life with those puzzle pieces and the final masterpiece. The boy knew the piece – apologize when you hit someone. And he knew something about the finalized picture – in this case, getting along with your friends. What he didn’t realize was the tie between the two, and that apologies could not be used as an indefinite absolution for hitting. That was not the point of saying he was sorry. There was an element of transformation that needed to take place; where he would grow and learn from his experience, adding one more piece to the puzzle.
Our story of faith bears a striking resemblance to that boy’s struggle, don’t you think? We know the puzzle pieces – the Golden Rule, the Ten Commandments, the things Paul lists here. We get these pieces from our parents, from church, from school. At the same time, we know something about the end result of all of this – that final picture where we are imitators of God; where God’s will and ours are one and the same.
The challenge 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 die so that we might have life.
That’s the puzzle, if you will, of our Christian faith. It’s a puzzle we all spend the better part of our lives trying to sort out. It’s a puzzle that nine of you in particular started working on a few months ago, when your phone rang and the person on the other end asked if you’d consider having your name put in nomination to be a ruling elder of this church. And on this day, a day that we ordain and install Nancy, Jeff, Beth, Mike, Oren, Tom, Daniel, Catherine and Garrett, we lift you up in prayer as you help us figure out what masterpiece God is working on here at First Presbyterian Church. And if there’s anything I could tell you as you begin your time of service, tell all of us here, it’s that the masterpiece and the puzzle pieces needed to put it together can often surprise us beyond measure.
Kathleen Norris is an author and a 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 the church, she still felt apart from it; still trying to put the puzzle pieces together to form the masterpiece she had in her mind.
Listen to a story she tells us from 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. He 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 says. This means we are to copy God’s grace and love and hospitality, even if we’ll never come close to divine perfection, because we never well. This means welcoming all people into the body of Christ – even the ill-tempered, even the gossiper, even the small-minded. And it means allowing ourselves to become part of a body that is made up of imperfect components.
Which is why, as we begin another calendar year together, as we ordain and install our new ruling elders, I want to encourage us to take up the hobby of putting puzzles together. But not necessarily the cardboard pieces and boxes variety. Let’s work together on the puzzle God has given our church; working toward the masterpiece God has in store. Believe me, it’s a lot prettier than the Grand Canyon. Thanks be to God. AMEN.