As we’ve honored Earth Day this week, it’s been strange for me to hold all the beauty of springtime – and to remember – that this beautiful earth is also a world straining in climate emergency, andthis beautiful earth is also one wrapped in pandemic. It’s hard to hold all that, together. We live in this beautiful world we are trying to repair and mend, AND, we live in a world of hurt. I’m reminded of a poem by Somali Poet Warshan Shire:
later that night
I held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world
where does it hurt?
As we hold all this – all this hurting, all this pain in our world – we enter into this morning’s scripture – along with the Apostle Peter – and we find ourselves once more behind closed doors– behind closed doors in the midst of a community looking for life. We learn that a woman named Tabitha has just died. Here is what we know about this Tabitha: First, Scripture tells us that she is a disciple. Now, we know that Jesus had many followers who were women – women were leaders in the Jesus movement, and Luke tells us that women financed Jesus’ ministry. This is the one time in the New Testament that the feminine form of the word disciple is used.Peter is a disciple; Tabitha is a disciple. And we also learn that Tabitha was “devoted to good works and acts of tender mercy” – not only that, we find out that Tabitha has been caring for and sustaining this community of widows in Joppa – she has been making clothes for them, providing them shelter and warmth.
Tabitha, the disciple, a woman of good works and tender mercy.
And so the community is crushed by her death. Clinging to a thin thread of hope, they hear that Peter is nearby, so they send to him: “Come, we have lost our Tabitha.” Peter comes, and the women take him behind closed doorsto an upper room, where they have prepared Tabitha’s body – washing her body, dressing her body – much as she has cared for and clothed theirs. And then they do this remarkable thing. They surround Peter, and they show him all the clothes that she has made for them – the tunics, the robes – “See these clothes she made for us. See these clothes she made for us.”
Peter is moved. And so he kneels down by Tabitha’s body, and he prays, and he says, “Tabitha, get up.”...... And she does. She breathes. She opens her eyes. Peter offers her his hand. Disciple to disciple. And she stands up. And he calls to the widows, and he shows Tabitha to them: Alive.
This is a resurrection story. Tabitha, who was dead, is now alive. So if we come behind closed doors to this resurrection story looking for life – there is an obvious place to look – the moment where Peter prays and says, “Tabitha, get up.” But I actually think there’s a glimpse of resurrection -- a glimpse of life – even earlier than that.
It’s in this moment, where the women surround Peter in this upper room – “See. See, these clothes she made for us.” This, to me, is the thread of life that runs through this text. Long before we enter into this moment, Tabitha has been bringing life into this community of widows in the clothes that she made for them – in her quiet acts of tender mercy. And here, in the deep hurt of their grieving, they bring all that life into the present moment, “See, these clothes she made for us.” Tabitha’s acts of tender mercy have brought these women to life, and then in their telling of it, and in their living of it, all over again, they bring her to life.
This community of women, the clothes that Tabitha made for them, and life flowing out of tender mercy – all this brings to mind some amazing women from my home state of Alabama – the Quilters of Gee’s Bend – maybe you’ve heard of them:
In a tight bend in the Alabama River, there’s a small community known as Gee’s Bend, and within Gee’s Bend there’s a community of women who quilt. They’ve been quilting for generations.
When they talk of the early days, they talk about how very hard it was, of the hurt and hardship of day-to-day living. They didn’t have much. Nettie Young says it plain: “We lived a hard life; we lived a starvation life.” They’d work all day for barely a wage, and then they would come home and take care of their family, get them fed, and then the women of Gee’s Bend would gather and take up a needle and thimble and “get to quilting.” They’d gather around at someone’s house, and quilt – and sing and pray and read Scripture and talk – quilting long into the night.
They didn’t have much, so they didn’t waste anything. They made their quilts out of worn jeans and corduroy, out of dresses that had worn thin, out of sacks and fabric they would find along the road. Loretta Pettway says, “We took what little we had and we made it into a quilt. I had a family. I had to keep them warm, so I did what I can do. I made what I know how to make.”
Creola Pettway describes her creative process – she says that she lays the quilt pieces out on a bed – moves them around – until a quilt comes into her head.
Essie Bendolph Pettway says that she remembers the quilts her mother and her grandmother made – of the bright colors of the quilts hanging a clothesline. She says, “Now, when I’m quilting I look for a color that will take your attention away from everything and have you amazed at it.” She loves her quilts, and when she’s done, she says she steps back and takes them in. She says, “ooh, and I get another breath of them.”
Maybe you’ve heard of the quilters of Gee’s Bend. Their quilts have now been displayed in art museums throughout the country. The De Young has added a roomful of Gee’s Bend Quilts to its permanent collection.
With these quilts, the women of Gee’s Bend have clothed their families, and kept them warm. AND, they have created works of art, works of beauty, works of love and tender mercy.
Essie Bendolph Pettway has said that she was surprised, at first, at all the attention. She says that she is proud that she’s made something that somebody thinks is good enough to hang on a wall. She says that she was “just trying to get the old clothes up off the floor, and out of the house, and put them in a quilt that could go on a bed and keep somebody warm.”
Maybe you’ve known something like that:
· Maybe, on a cold night, you’ve crawled under a quilt that someone has made to keep you warm.
· Maybe, sometime, your child has torn her jeans and you’ve taken up needle and thread to mend and to patch.
· Maybe, you’ve knitted prayer shawls to wrap someone in prayer during hard times, or when they have moved away from this congregation, to give them a remembrance of tender mercy they can carry with them.
· Maybe, in these days, you’ve been sewing masks – taking the stacks of fabric you have in the house, finding elastic or something like it – sewing masks that will help keep folks safe – as we help keep each other alive.
I know that several folks in our community have been doing just that.
Jeff and I have masks that Chris Francisco made for us. The deacons are checking with their flocks and seeing who needs a mask. And I hope you’ve seen the note in our Friday church email about how you can contribute fabric to support what May Lynne Lim and folks at the Tamalpais are doing.
May Lynne has written a beautiful piece for the Life Stories group describing what they’re doing at the Tamalpais, and I had the chance to talk with her this week. Early in the sheltering in place, about 4 weeks ago, they started to be worried that the staff at the Tamalpais would run out of face masks. So the residents there who could sew got together and set out to make 200 masks. You know good Presbyterians like to form a Task Force – May Lynne says they formed a “Mask Force.”
May Lynne made a sample mask out of spare quilting fabric she had around. She didn’t have all the supplies she needed so she got resourceful and used the twisty ties from the packaging on the Instapot that she got for Christmas. The mask design was approved, and the Tam Mask Force got to sewing. Some folks cut fabric, some sewed, some worked on getting donations of fabric, another others donated materials.
May Lynne’s story about this is amazing – by my count, the Tam Mask Force came to include at least 32 people – working together to sew these masks. They had a goal of 200. On Friday, May Lynn reported that they had made 313 – and now have a goal of 1,000.
Now, I don’t sew, but I have thought a lot about the quilters of Gee’s Bend over the years – and those quilts they’ve made to keep their families warm – those works of tender mercy – those works... of art. And I see that, too, as the women gather around Peter and say, of Tabitha, “See these clothes she made for us.” I see that in these masks that the Tam Mask Force is creating stitch by stitch – masks that will keep folks safe, and help save life – works of tender mercy – beautiful works of art.
Sometimes I picture God this way: She sits down at her quilting table, and, she moves around the scraps of our lives, and she sees there, something beautiful, something to be amazed at. And then, she calls out to us and invites us to the table, too. We gather there, all of us together, and we take up our needle and our thimble, and we get to quilting. And as we quilt, we sing, and we pray, and we tell our stories. We live our lives, and we quilt a quilt.
In our world, so full of hurt, we are collectively responsible for the whole quilt – together, charged with the mending of the world – in these days, working collectively to slow the pandemic. And yet, for each of us, in any given moment – our task is to work on the piece of the quilt that is set before us. Whatever is ours to do. Sew a mask. Call a neighbor who may be alone. Give to the food bank. Continue to work for an end to racism, even from behind closed doors. Share what we have. Our task is the piece of the quilt that is set before us. Just that. With each stitch, an act of tender mercy. And then the next. And then the next. Stitch by stitch.
Part of our job is to figure out what that looks like embodied in us – embodied in our lives. What is the next stitch in our piece of the quilt – the next act of tender mercy?
Right here, right now, what is the piece of this work that you are being called to quilt?
And, in this world of hurt, as we take up our needle and thimble, we remember that we are not alone at this quilting table. That may not be so clear to see, at first, as we sit each of us sheltering in our own home. But, we gather around this quilting table, in the company of God, and with each other, with the women of Gee’s Bend, with Tabitha and her community of women, with the Tam Mask Force, with all who would take up this work – we sing, we pray, we breathe, we sit in silence, we share our stories, we give thanks for good work to do and for the companionship of kindred spirits.
The hurt of the world is substantial, but so is our Spirit-enlivened Resurrection power to do good and to sustain each other. So too is the beauty of God’s creation and her love for us.
God gathers us at her table, and there, as we take up our needle and thimble and get to quilting:
· There, in our loving acts of tender mercy, God stitches and patches and mends the world.
· There, together with God, we create something that will have us amazed at it –
· There, together with God, we quilt a quilt that will keep the whole world warm.
© 2020 Scott Clark
Quoted in a blogpost by Omid Safi, in response to the 2015 Paris bombings -- https://onbeing.org/blog/where-does-it-hurt-o-city-of-light/ See Commentary Mitzi J. Smith, Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2814 Quotes from the women of Gee’s Bend are from interviews in the video that accompanied their national touring exhibit: The Quilts of Gee’s Bend. The story that follows is based, with permission, on May Lynne Lim’s story “Meet the Tam Mask Force,” and on conversation with May Lynne Lim.