Sermon for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost/Lectionary 26/Proper 21, Year B; September 26-27, 2015
“Blessing of the Quilts” Weekend
Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29; Psalm 19:7-14; James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50
Wow! It is an amazing treat to come to worship on this particular weekend each year! I mean, when else do we see the place adorned so beautifully, feel the comfort of padding behind our backs, and sense—truly feel—the presence of God working through so many different hands during the past year?! Yes, it’s the Blessing of the Quilts at Our Saviour again, and we are here to celebrate!
Let us celebrate the hands that made these quilts—from those that cut the 12-inch squares of the donated fabric, to those that sewed them together, to the pins and batting, backing and tying, the hands that ironed, to the hands that typed announcements and schedules—Oh! How beautiful are the hands of those who bring good news! Thank you, Quilters, for your ministry to those most in need!
There was a women who worked tirelessly to help get the quilting ministry going strong in the early days of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Betty Lee Nyhus served as the executive director of the Women of the ELCA, as the director of the ELCA’s Stewardship and Giving, and on the board of directors of Lutheran World Relief. But what she was most proud of, with all those accomplishments, was the day she met another great woman of faith—Mother Teresa. And you know what Mother Teresa said to her? “You’re from the Lutheran women? Oh, please! Thank them for the quilts!” For you see, Lutherans, especially Lutheran women, had been making and sending quilts for over 50 years by then![i]
So yes, let us celebrate all the women (and men!) who made these quilts and all the many ones before them! But even more so, let us celebrate that these quilts are not just beautiful and comfortable, but that they are useful. As they have for so many years, since even before the Lutheran World Relief was first founded in 1945, these quilts will travel across the globe to those most in need.
LWR writes, “The ultimate purpose of a Quilt is to provide warmth, an essential need for people in every climate. … In addition to being a cozy, clean new bed cover, it can be a baby carrier, tied around a mother’s back; a market display, spread on the ground and piled with vegetables; a sunshade; and most importantly a constant reminder that someone, far away, cares a lot.”
There is, indeed, a transforming moment when a Quilt passes from our hands into another’s, and they embrace it. (– Kirk Betts, Former Chairman of the LWR Board of Directors, upon distributing LWR Quilts in Niger)[ii]
And no wonder there’s a transforming moment! For that is when love is shared. That is when you are standing, or sitting, on holy ground. It’s not holy because it is beautiful, as lovely as it is. It’s not holy even because it is useful, as practical as that may be. It is holy because God is there, in the hands of the volunteers who make the quilts, in the hands of those who receive them, in the very fabric in its completed form.
Did you hear how Jesus talked about ministries like our quilt ministry in our gospel lesson today? Yes, it’s back when he was teaching the disciples one day long ago. First of all, Jesus’ followers were distressed. “Someone else, (someone we don’t even know!), is healing people using YOUR NAME, Jesus! Can you believe it! Oh, don’t you worry. We put a quick stop to that!” It makes sense, doesn’t it? The reaction of those who worked in the trenches to some fly-by-night stepping in and getting the glory? But Jesus doesn’t see it that way. “You know, next time you come across someone doing good works using my name, don’t stop them. The truth is, when they use my name to help others, it may help them become better people. They’ll stop seeing me as the enemy and start to support us. And at least they won’t speak ill of us. Really, whoever is not against us—and you know how long that list is—is for us.”
And then Jesus gets to the quilts: “For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will be no means lose the reward.” See? Quilts.
What? You don’t see? Oh, yeah. I took a little license. But you know, LWR does water, too! And they don’t only give it to people who bear the name of Christ, but to anyone who needs it. But it’s not just the water or the quilts. It’s who is serving whom. We could translate these words of Jesus this way: “Listen up! Whoever puts a quilt on the back of one of the most desperate people out there is blessed by God!”
I took the license to translate the passage a little differently because we live in a different era. Remember that when this book was written, followers of Christ were few and far between. And not only were they few in number, but they weren’t all that well respected—they were the law-breakers, the ones who didn’t fit in. Most people were against them. Anyone who would show love to them, well, Jesus wants to show that those people were able to show love because God was working through them. It wasn’t natural to support Jesus. It wasn’t the norm to say, “Hey! I follow that guy, too!” Jesus and his band of disciples were the outcasts. And anyone who shows love to an outcast is showing love to God.
So indeed. Let us celebrate these quilts. Let us celebrate the quilters. Let us celebrate Lutheran World Relief. Let us celebrate how we have been given this opportunity to show God’s love to the world!
However, let’s not celebrate so much that we begin to forget who we are and whose we are.
If we keep listening to the words of Jesus they get a little weird. “Cut off your hand if you do something wrong! Cut off your foot if you trespass on the wrong places. Gouge out your eye if it looks the wrong way!” Huh? What is Jesus saying?
He’s saying, “Don’t forget who you are.” He’s reminding us to look more at our own faults than at the faults of others. It could be easy to pat ourselves on the back for this quilt ministry so long that we think this ministry is more important than Jesus himself or his church. It seems impossible, but it’s actually quite easy. It’s easy because there is still sin in the world, and we are still only human.
But thanks be to God we are not alone in this world! As we see in the letter from James, we are part of a community of love and support and accountability. We can confess our sins to one another and receive forgiveness. We can pray for one another and seek healing and wholeness. We can show the world we are Christians by our love.
And where does that love come from? Where do we get the power to make all these quilts? Where do we get the money to pay for these quilts? Where does LWR gets the resources it needs to show love to the world through these quilts? Where? From God, through Jesus and the Holy Spirit. In fact, all love and loving service, all good gifts, come from God.
No, we are not alone—whether we fail like we so often do, or whether we succeed like these quilts show us today—through it all God is with us. And through God’s power, we are given the chance to give a cup of water, hand off a quilt, or in any way help others, in Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.
n.b., this story is a 2013 blog post about a memorial gift to Augsburg College. No telling how long this link will remain active. I first heard the story of Mother Teresa meeting Mrs. Nyhus from a church member who had attended a Women of the ELCA event year before. Anyone with a better reference source, please let me know!
Here is the text of the article: From Homemaker to National Church Leader
Betty Lee, a homemaker for many years, later became Director of Stewardship for American Lutheran Church Women. When the Evangelical Lutheran Church was formed in 1988, Leroy and Betty Lee moved to Chicago. She was named the first Executive Director of Women of the ELCA. Later she was the ELCA Director of Stewardship and Mission Giving.
She also served on the board of directors for Lutheran World Relief (LWR). She traveled to Calcutta in 1987 to meet Mother Teresa, who wanted to thank LWR for a gift of 75,000 quilts. Leroy keeps a photo of Betty Lee’s meeting with Mother Teresa on his bookshelves. He thinks often of his love for her and of their shared Christian values, which included finding ways to be stewards of God’s many gifts.
Betty Lee relished a quote from Mother Teresa: “Rejoice that once more Christ is walking through the world in you and through you, going about doing good.”