The Gospel Puzzle – Pastor Robert’s sermon for Sunday, May 19

Walk into Earl’s kitchen, a restaurant on the north side of Chicago, and from the door you will be greeted with a larger than life sized painting of blues singer Buddy Guy, crooning at you from fifty feet away. 
     The image is big and explosively bright. It’s only as you are led to your table that you realize that the picture of Buddy is actually made up of a composite of all his song titles arranged to form his image.
     “Photo mosaic” refers to the way small pictures are arranged in such a way that they form a larger image. Each tiny square contains a fully formed whole whether it’s your face or the title of a Buddy Guy song, a whole picture you could simply study and appreciate for its own characteristics. But when we step back, these individual segments create an entirely new scene.
     In our Acts scripture reading today, the Apostle Peter is reporting to the Jerusalem church about all the puzzle pieces that were recently brought together to form the larger and beautiful picture of God’s love for the world. Take even one piece away from the finished puzzle that Peter is describing and the picture makes little sense. Every piece of the puzzle is vitally important.
     The key to putting jigsaw puzzles together is in being patient. They take time, but there’s nothing like when you are down to just a few pieces out of the five kagillion puzzle pieces and those two remaining pieces are nowhere to be found. Maybe one fell off the table and got sucked up by the vacuum cleaner. Maybe another one got thrown away by mistake. Regardless of how those last few puzzle pieces got lost, it’s just doesn’t look right without all of the pieces beautifully connected together.
     I am very challenged when it comes to putting a jigsaw puzzle together. I’m the guy who if I see two puzzle pieces that look like they should go together, but I know they really don’t, I will stubbornly try to force them to fit. God bless you if you have the patience and the stamina to put together a jigsaw puzzle.
     Sometimes, we can lose patience in putting pieces together in making sense of how God is at work in our lives. We want to see the big picture of where God is leading us, but sometimes all we have are a few pieces put together and we have no idea how they will connect with the other ones.
     Maybe the problem is that we are looking at our faith all wrong. Maybe instead of seeing our faith as something that has been completed, we should just accept the fact that we are always going to be a work in progress. That’s not to say that our faith journey should just be a bunch of unconnected puzzle pieces. That would be no fun. But, if I’m thinking about this correctly, it just means that we should enjoy the process of seeing the pieces come together and not just be focused on the end result.
     If anything, the Apostle Peter is teaching us that God is the one who has the big picture in mind. We get to help build that larger picture by seeing how the pieces connect.
     Peter thought he knew what God’s big picture was. He thought that all of the pieces of the Gospel puzzle were all put together. How could anything be missing? 
     Jesus was that long awaited puzzle piece for the people of Israel. Jesus was the Messiah who had come to restore Israel. Those Jewish followers of Jesus had been given the Holy Spirit to empower them to share the good news of Jesus with all of the people of Israel. This was a beautiful, beautiful picture. What could possibly be missing from this puzzle of incredible good news?
     And this brings us back to our Acts scripture reading where Peter is telling them that he has found the missing piece. The missing piece is that…
     Drum roll please….
     The missing puzzle piece at least for Peter in that moment is that Jesus didn’t just come to save Israel. Jesus came to save the whole world including people outside of the Jewish faith, including people who never heard of words like Moses, or Ten Commandments, or Isaiah, or Abraham or Deuteronomy, or Noah, or Passover, or exodus.
     You don’t have to be Jewish in order to receive the good news of Jesus Christ. You can be a Gentile! You can even be a Roman centurion like Cornelius who Peter ended up baptizing because of a dream that God had given Peter. It was a dream that showed him that through Jesus, God’s grace is extended to everyone.
     Thank goodness that Peter was open to receiving that missing puzzle piece of God’s far reaching love for all people.
     This story of how Peter was willing to enter into what he knew to be a ritually unclean Gentile city and a ritually unclean Gentile household and offer these non-Jewish people the good news of Jesus Christ is a story about us. We wouldn’t be here in this church today without this story of full inclusion, this story of God’s all embracing love for all people.
     Our picture of God’s redeeming love for the world includes all people. That’s why our church’s welcome statement is so important. 
     Let’s recite it together since it’s been a while since the last time we spoke it together. It’s listed on the back of the bulletin as well as on the screen.
     Let’s say it together:
     We celebrate the diversity of the human community, and affirm and believe in the sacred worth of each person as a recipient of God’s love and grace. As disciples of Jesus Christ, we declare ourselves to be an open and inclusive congregation. We welcome all persons regardless of gender, race, national origin, physical or mental ability, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, marital status or economic condition.  
     Like Peter, God gives each one of us this missing puzzle piece that needs to be added to God’s full picture where everyone is invited to be part of God’s family. The Gospel puzzle is never fully complete unless all are welcome.
     We have modern day examples of people like Peter who were open to God’s full embrace of all people. 
     A couple of months ago, Jan Miller-Fox and her husband Dave shared with me the incredible story of twenty-four courageous Methodist ministers in Mississippi who back in 1963 spoke out against racial discrimination. I didn’t know about this story until they shared it with me. It’s a proud moment in our denomination’s history. Those twenty-four Methodist ministers signed a document that was published in support of racial integration and freedom from their pulpits to speak out against exclusion and discrimination. 
     It was a very radical thing for these ministers to do in Mississippi back in the early 60s especially since many of their own church members were against racial inclusion. And they paid the price.
     Death threats, slashed tires, crosses burned in their front lawns. Because of these threats, seventeen of the twenty-four Methodist ministers ended up leaving the state within eighteen months of signing that document. 
     These ministers were willing to take a stand because they knew that the full picture of God’s redeeming love for the world would never be complete without taking a stand for those who were being excluded simply because of the color of their skin. They knew, like the Apostle Peter, that there was a missing piece to the puzzle and they held that missing piece in their hands.
     Who knew that finishing a jigsaw puzzle could be so dangerous?
     It’s now been almost three months since the special General Conference of the United Methodist Church met in St. Louis to decide on whether the LGBTQ community should have full inclusion in our denomination. The conference voted to continue our denomination’s stance which has been in place for the past forty-seven years. This basically means that United Methodist clergy and churches are not permitted to participate in same sex weddings and that people who are LGBTQ are still no longer permitted to be considered as candidates for ministry. 
     I remember watching this special session of General Conference online and it was so painful to watch. So many hurtful things were said during speeches at the microphones. But even during ugly times like this in our denomination’s history, there can be incredible moments of courage and prophetic witness.
     One of those moments was when JJ Warren, an openly gay delegate from the Upper New York Conferences made an impassioned speech on the day the vote was taken. JJ is currently a senior at Sarah Lawrence College which is just outside of New York City and he feels called by God to be a minister in the United Methodist Church, but of course, he is not allowed because of our denomination’s stance. 
     Even though he is not permitted to become a pastor, JJ has led a very fruitful student ministry at Sarah Lawrence College which has one of the highest percentages of non-religious students of any college in the nation. 
     When I heard JJ give his speech on the floor of General Conference a couple of months ago in support of same sex weddings and the ordination of people in the LGBTQ community, there was no doubt in my mind that he would be an incredible pastor in our denomination. 
     Let’s watch JJ give his two minute speech two months ago at the special General Conference.  
All I can say is that I hope our denomination finds a way to not exclude people like JJ from serving in ministry through the United Methodist Church. God’s picture where all are welcome in God’s family is not complete without him.
     Like the Apostle Peter, we each hold the missing Gospel puzzle pieces in our hands. These pieces represent anyone who feels unwelcomed, who feels excluded, and who feels unworthy to be included in the circle of God’s redemptive love for the world.
     I love how the last verse of our scripture reading says that after Peter shared about how God was including the Gentiles, they praised God. 
     And every time we add a missing piece to the puzzle, may we do the same.
     The Gospel Puzzle
Sermon Discussion Questions
Acts 11:1-18
May 19, 2019
 Do you like putting jigsaw puzzles together? What is fun about jigsaw puzzles and what is “not so fun” about them?
In our scripture reading from Acts 11, the Apostle Peter shared an important missing puzzle piece about the gospel story with the other disciples who were gathered at the Jerusalem Church. This missing piece puzzle piece was that Jews AND non-Jews (Gentiles) were invited to become part of the church family. Peter shared with them the recent story of how a Roman centurion accepted Christ and the how the Holy Spirit came upon him and his family. The inclusion of the Gentiles into God’s family was a new thought for the early church to accept.
What does this missing piece of the Gospel puzzle where all are welcomed into God’s family mean to you? 
Our church has a welcome statement that reminds us of this important Gospel puzzle piece. Take time to read it:
We celebrate the diversity of the human community, and affirm and believe in the sacred worth of each person as a recipient of God’s love and grace. As disciples of Jesus Christ, we declare ourselves to be an open and inclusive congregation. We welcome all persons regardless of gender, race, national origin, physical or mental ability, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, marital status or economic condition.  
Pastor Robert shared two modern examples of how the church has struggled to remember this important Gospel puzzle piece of full inclusion for all people. He mentioned that twenty-four courageous Methodist ministers in Mississippi spoke out against racial segregation back in 1963. Many people in their congregations resisted their prophetic witness including people in their communities. Another example he gave is from our recent special General Conference of the UMC regarding their vote on issues related to the LGBTQ community. 
Can you think of other examples of groups or individuals who feel excluded from the church and God’s all inclusive love?
The last verse of our Acts scripture reading says that after the people of the Jerusalem Church heard Peter’s story about how the Holy Spirit came upon Cornelius and his gentile family, they praised God. Whenever people are included in God’s family rather than excluded, it leads to a joyous response because we celebrate God’s far-reaching love.
Think of someone with whom God may be calling you to share the good news of your faith and invite to church. Pray for opportunities to help complete the gospel puzzle by welcoming ALL people into the family of Christ.