THE PATCHWORK CHURCH
A sermon preached by
Rev. Dr. Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, California
Sunday, August 28, 2011
Text: Romans 12:1-8
A quilt is a remarkable thing. It can provide warmth, comfort, beauty. In recent times quilts have become a form of high art. There are exquisite quilts that sell for phenomenal prices. In earlier times, quilts served much more practical purposes. They were used as a primary source of bedding. They brightened otherwise dreary frontier cabins. They allowed a deft seamstress to use scraps of material that seemed to have no use in invaluable service to her poor yet thrifty family. Studies on quilts and quilting tell us that this practice also helped to create community as women gathered together to piece and quilt and share their lives. Quilts were tangible tokens of friendship and they were passed on to children and grandchildren as they struck out into the world and started their own families. There is a significant body of historical research, lore and literature, even a musical, about quilts and their importance.
When I visit my mother this week, the bed in which I sleep will be covered by a gorgeous quilt, made by her, in the Texas Star pattern. I also know that waiting to be quilted is a beautiful quilt top of blue that will one day be mine. These are treasures of a mother’s art and heart. As the ad says, they are priceless. But today I want to focus on a simpler, more humble specimen of the quilter’s art - the patchwork quilt. I brought a couple of these in to adorn the sanctuary today. The smaller one was given to me by a lovely lady named Millie Meyers when I worked as the chaplain at Orinda Senior Village. It may not be a grand quilt or great art, but I know the gentle loving-kindness that went in to every stitch. The other is a quilt assembled by my paternal grandmother and passed on to me by a cousin as a treasured memory of that remarkable woman.
Patchwork quilts are not the queens of the linen closet. They do not feature the intricate design of a Texas Star or Double Wedding Ring or Log Cabin quilt. They do not have the carefully coordinated color patterns of designer quilts that win prizes at state fair these days. They are humble, practical creatures. Still, they have ineffable worth.
My mother, my grandmothers, Millie, as well as some of us, have been deeply affected by poverty at one time or another. For folks of earlier generations, it may have been the poverty of frontier life or post Civil War disruption or the Great Depression or of a large family or immigrant status. Even we boomers have been affected by thrifty parents who saved or recycled everything, even as they moved into middle and upper middle class comfort. Thrifty people from the beginning of time have learned to make use of leftovers and scraps and bits of this and that in the most ingenious ways.
The patchwork quilt is one such creature. My grandmothers and Millie and, for many years, my mother, made their own clothes and clothes for their family as well. What to do with the fragments of fabric that were left? It was usually good, sturdy cotton that would last a long time. Those garments, so carefully crafted, had to last several seasons and then be passed down when outgrown. Well, some creative mind, undoubtedly female, the mother of invention herself, took all those scraps, and out of the sheer necessity of keeping her babies warm, stitched them into the first patchwork quilt and what a wonder it was! A crazy quilt, flashing contrasting colors and competing patterns, crying chaos and threatening anarchy. And, oh the warmth it gave and the comfort it provided and the corners it brightened! For all its simple, unadorned practicality, when my grandmother’s quilt was hung as part of a display at Lakeshore Avenue Baptist Church, it glowed, when viewed from a distance, with an iridescence that took me quite by surprise.
This morning’s text is one of two in which the apostle Paul talks about the widely varying “parts,” the distinct elements, that go into making up the Body of Christ, the church. As Tom Wright translates it, Romans 12 says, “As in one body we have many limbs and organs, you see, but none of the parts of the body have the same function, so we, many as we are, are one body in the Messiah, and individually we belong to one another.” In the first letter to the church at Corinth, Paul uses the twelfth chapter to speak in comparative detail about the parts of the human body and the Body of Christ. In each case, he uses this imagery to appeal to the church to understand both its diversity and its unity. The church is a body, regardless of the functions, traits, whims and desires of its various parts, that is bonded together by love and grace. The chapter of Romans we read this morning concludes with a section on mutual love. The twelfth chapter of 1st Corinthians is the prologue to Paul’s great hymn to love. He spends that whole twelfth chapter talking about the importance of the different gifts the Spirit has given to the life of the church, gifts over which they had been arguing - “You don’t really have the Spirit if you don’t speak in tongues, prophesy, heal the sick, work miracles, give the most.” You fill in the blank. He closes this discourse on the gifts of the Spirit as parts of the body with these words, “…strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way,” at which point he launches into his love song. “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” (1st Corinthians 12:31-13:1.)
In the twelfth chapter of the letter to the Romans, some commentators say that Paul leaves behind his theologizing to argue for practical application of what he has taught in the preceding chapters. “I appeal to you brothers and sisters...to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.” He has argued over and over again in the preceding chapters that the old ways - the law as tyranny, the ancient rituals, the demand for blood sacrifice - were no longer relevant to Christians. Now he takes the old sacrificial image and twists it into something new. The need for sacrifice is not to assuage the demands of a bloodthirsty god; sacrifice has become a joyful giving of our living selves in service to God who has gifted us with gifts beyond our imagining. This self-giving is not an arcane religious ritual, it becomes the story of our lives. It does not take place in the rarefied air of some temple’s inner chambers, but in our daily lives as we encounter our neighbors and strangers and enemies, as we do business and keep house and raise children and create community and care for creation and play. We give ourselves to God because in this relationship we are blessed and become a blessing to the world. There is no coercion here. This so-called sacrifice is the natural consequence of the transformation we have experienced in our encounter with the living God in the person of Jesus Christ and through the power of the Spirit.
The third verse of this chapter has always been among my favorites. It is a challenging and liberating invitation, especially for those of us who have been burdened with bizarre expectations of perfection. “For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think...” To me this is the definition of humility, to see and accept myself as I am, with my strengths and limitations, with my gifts and liabilities, with my passions and uncertainties. It’s not about abasing myself or devaluing myself. It’s a word about balance. Tom Wright, again, puts it this way, “Rather, think soberly, in line with faith, the true standard which God has marked out for each of you.” Nor do I hear the word “soberly” as an invitation to grimness and death of joy. It is an invitation to pay careful attention to myself and how I am in the world, how I interact in compassion with others and shoulder my responsibilities.
Because it’s not all about me. My little scrap of fabric, no matter how durable or colorful or unique, can’t make a quilt by itself. It won’t cover a sleeping child or keep my partner warm or shimmer in the setting sun. I can’t make this or any congregation the Body of Christ by myself either, even if I’ve gone to seminary and practiced asceticism and given away all my treasure. The quilt requires the other scraps and the skilled hands of quilters; the body requires all its parts, functioning in concert, sewn together and empowered by God’s Holy Spirit. Not all the scraps occupy the same square - a quilt sewed together as 2 inch squares a hundred squares deep would be ridiculously impractical, plus only one square would show on each end, so where would its beauty be? Not all the parts have the same function. We’d hear nothing if we were only feet; we would see nothing if we were only backbones; we would know nothing if we were only shoulder blades. Each part, linked together in amazing coordination, creates a body and makes it function. If we need to adjust for an occasional broken or malfunctioning or even missing part, we can, but it still takes all of us to make the thing work.
But we’re not just miscellaneous scraps thrown together nor are we parts randomly assembled. “..we, who are many are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.” The quilt is more than the sum of its scraps; oh, the warmth it can give and the comfort it can provide and the corners it can brighten when all the pieces are quilted together! The body is more than the sum of its parts, and the parts themselves are enriched, enlivened, empowered by being related to the whole. It makes us more than we ever imagined we could be – “members of one another.”
Paul also says that “We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us...” As I have lived in this community over the past five years, I have been constantly amazed by the wealth of gifts in our relatively small groups of people. Sometimes when I look at how different we are in the ways we hold our gifts and think about our gifts and apply our gifts, I wonder how this enterprise we call church has managed to hang together for as long as it has. Sometimes it seems like that crazy quilt, flashing contrasting colors and competing patterns, crying chaos and threatening anarchy. When Paul talks about some being prophets and some ministers and some teachers and some exhorters and some givers and some leaders and some practitioners of compassion, I wonder if he really understands the potentiality for conflict and strife among such a collection of powerfully gifted people? Who are we? How do we come together? When you look around today, when you think about the people who aren’t here, when you think about the future of the church, what gifts do you see being utilized? What gifts are missing that are really needed now? How can we organize ourselves and pull together to move our congregations into God’s bright and hopeful future? How do we make certain there’s a good and useful place for everyone? Do you have gifts your holding back on, waiting to see what happens? Do you have gifts that are not being used because you’re too busy doing something else you’d actually rather not be doing? Are you so busy worrying about what someone else is or isn’t doing that you’re neglecting your own gifts? These questions are not pointed at any individuals; they’re just a few to think about. I’m sure you can come up with others as you consider your place in the quilt or your part in the Body.
However disparate we may be in shape and pattern and color, there is also incredibly strong stitching here that makes of our scraps something warm, comfortable and beautiful. I suppose it’s the love that goes into every stitch that makes a patchwork quilt a work of wonder. In the end, I suppose it’s the love that flows in and out of every part that makes the patchwork church, the Body of Christ, a work of wonder. May God, the first Quilter, bless us and keep us in warmth, comfort and beauty as we journey together. Amen.