"Worship as a Patchwork Quilt"

May 4, 1997 message
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland  USA
based upon Psalm 98

Let me begin by saying that I am no quilter. However, I do enjoy watching as our quilters work away, and talking with them. Often they know more about what’s happening in this congregation than I do. These needle and thread ministers are not just sewing together a blanket, they are quilting a church.

I like the image of a quilt. It’s an appropriate one to bring up this day after our District’s Disaster Response Auction, when these common masterpieces were auctioned off to help sew back together communities hit by disaster. The quilting goes on even after the blanket is sold. The gift keeps on giving.

I like this image. I’ve used it before to describe the church, a patchwork collection of characters who are sewn together by the love of God in Christ, with the Holy Spirit being the continuous thread which is quilted through us all. The quilting goes on even after the church gives of itself to the world God sent his Son to save. The gift keeps on giving.

This morning I want to apply this image to what we do every Sunday morning when we gather to worship God. As I see it, worship is like a patchwork quilt. There are various fabrics which make up this time. You could say that every week we cut pieces and stitch them together to make a blanket. Sometimes I cut the pieces. Often, however, others have cut them, and I try to see the patterns that are emerging and patch them together. There are days when the emerging design is obvious, and other days when it is not. Sort of like life.

As I said, I am no quilter. God is, sewing the Holy Spirit through us. There are moments in worship when we feel the prick of the needle, when we see our sin and recognize how we, consciously or unconsciously, are working to unravel what God is creating. We, even but for a moment, grasp how that inner bent toward wrong is a part of the very fabric of our human nature. Without God our life comes apart at the seams. In the act of worship, there is time for confession, for recognizing, turning away from, releasing our sin, and turning toward and receiving God’s forgiving and living power. Sometimes that’s a specific patch, planned into the service. Other times it just happens as the Holy Spirit is sewn through us.

Speaking of "just happening," Humor fits that category. Now, you won’t find it listed in any worship manual, but without a sense of humor worship can become too self-important. This is one area I struggle to bring into our time together. I’m not very good at it. My sermons can get pretty lofty or dry or heavy. Humor is not just telling a joke. Fred Craddock, a great preacher, once said that a joke can pose real problems for a sermon, because in order to tell it, a preacher must stop the sermon, tell the joke, then restart the sermon. Furthermore, folks remember the joke more than the sermon, right? For instance:

There was a nice lady, a minister's widow, who was a little old fashioned. When planning a week's vacation at a campground, she wanted to make sure of the accommodations first. Uppermost in her mind were bathroom facilities, but she couldn't bring herself to write "toilet" in a letter. After considerable deliberation, she settled on "bathroom commode," but when she wrote that down, it still sounded too forward, so, after the first page of her letter, she referred to the bathroom commode as "BC." "Does the cabin where I will be staying have its own 'BC'? If not, where is the 'BC' located?" is what she actually wrote.

The campground owner took the first page of the letter and the lady's check and gave it to his secretary. He put the remainder of the letter on the desk of one of his staff without noticing that the staffer would have no way of knowing what "BC" meant. He then left for the day.

The staff member arrived, found the letter, and was baffled by the euphemism, "BC." Hearing that the lady was the widow of a Baptist preacher, he figured she must be asking about the local Baptist Church. "‘BC’ must stand for 'Baptist Church,'" he thought. So, he sat down and wrote:

                    Dear Madam:

In response to your question, I take pleasure in informing you that the BC is located nine miles north of the campground and is capable of seating 250 people at one time. I admit it is quite a distance away if you are in the habit of going regularly, but no doubt you will be pleased to know that a great number of people take their lunches along and make a day of it. They usually arrive early and stay late.

The last time my wife and I went was six years ago, and it was so crowded we had to stand up the whole time we were there. It may interest you to know that right now there is a supper planned to raise money to buy more seats. They are going to hold it in the basement of the 'BC.'

I would like to say that it pains me very much not to be able to go more regularly, but it is surely no lack of desire on my part. As we grow older, it seems to be more of an effort, particularly in cold weather.

If you decide to come down to our campground, perhaps I could go with you the first time, sit with you, and introduce you to all the folks. Remember, this is a friendly community."

Now, does anyone remember where I was going with this message? No. But that was fun, wasn’t it. I’ve actually been searching for an opportunity to tell that joke. Humor is so important because it helps us to look beyond ourselves, at least "good" humor does. "Bad" humor is not merely the type that uses "bad" words. "Bad" humor can leave us centered upon ourselves, laughing at others, rather than with them. In "good" humor we are able to laugh at ourselves, and in so doing, we become open to what God can do in our lives.

I can associate with that widow, for there are things I’d rather leave to euphemism, things I’d rather assume folks know what I’m talking about. "In-house" language is much easier to use than "out-house" talk. By this I mean, in worship we use all sorts of theological language, terms which those just coming in from the outside must learn in order to understand what’s going on. There are words we use in church that rarely or never are spoken outside these walls. Part of our task in worship is not to shut the door, like the disciples did after the resurrection, and keep the outside out. While we must continue using the language of Zion, we need to open the door and use some "out-house" language, so to speak, otherwise visitors may assume we’re saying one thing when we mean another.

For instance, this patch we call "tithes and offerings." We know, I hope, that our giving is not what gets us anywhere with God. We don’t put our money in the plate wishing that God will now love us more because of it, that it will earn us eternal credit. There is a sense to which it does, but our giving is really more like a cup that is continually filled with water. God pours his blessings in us, so much so (as we come to realize it) that our cup runs over and over. We can’t help but pass it along, to share that water with others, whether it is in the form of our finances or our relationships. Evangelism and Stewardship (two in-house terms, by the way), are alike in this sense. We pass on good news. We share our blessing. This is how we respond to what God has been doing in our lives.

Worship is really our response to God. Anytime we turn toward this One who is at work in our world and in us is a moment of worship, whether it happens in this room or outside these walls. How can we bring these joys that happen out in our world inside this quilt? They belong here. We need to let our joys be known, to release them, that they might multiply like the loaves and fishes Jesus shared on the hillside.

Praise is an in-house word we don’t use all that often outside. It is both a particular patch and a part of the entire quilt. Like "good," or should we say "God’s" humor, Praise moves us beyond ourselves. In praise, whether we are boisterous like our Pentecostal brothers and sisters, or silent like our Quaker Friends, in praise we become open to the eternal. How greatly we need to see beyond ourselves. We get lost when all we can see is our own ragged patch, our own frayed ends, the holes in our being. Praise is like our response to the whole quilt. When we are able to stand back and see the beauty, which is often only seen from a distance, observing where the faults in the fabric become a part of the design, then our joys become complete. Praise, like evangelism and stewardship, is an overflowing cup. It overflows onto everything. Forgive me for mixing metaphors: cups and quilts. As I’ve said before, no one image is fully able to convey the whole truth, except on that future day when the image we behold will be the very face of God. For now, we see his quilt, his handiwork.

"O sing to the Lord a new song," the Psalmist calls out. Parts of the song are old, like a patchwork quilt, pieces taken from various fabrics which once clothed us. We share an old, old story, patches of various lives woven together into a new quilt, a new song. Every week, every day is a new song, a new quilt. "Behold, I make all things new," Jesus said.

"O sing to the Lord a new song." The next words in that old Psalm are important. Basically, they say that it is God who has accomplished everything that needs to be accomplished. It is ultimately God who is quilting things together, which is good news. I talked with Marian Bollinger over the phone this week. She dropped everything to spent the past few weeks with her daughter, Joann, who has been suffering illness. One of the things I needed to say to her was that while she is so very important to us, leading the Alleluia choir, teaching Sunday School, running the children’s part of our Mothers Together program - while she is a vital part of our fellowship (just like everyone here) - but she isn’t indispensable, that is, everything doesn’t rest upon her shoulders. That’s true for us all. Our world doesn’t rest upon our shoulders. We bear responsibility for it, yes. But God is the Master of the Universe. He has done marvelous things. Our God reigns.

Praise is simply the recognition of that fact. Like the stones which couldn’t keep quiet had Jesus managed to silence his disciples on that first Palm Sunday, praise is a flood that cannot really be stopped. It happens. God calls and all of creation, ourselves included, respond. "Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth," the Psalmist cried out. Such praise can be loud and messy. Guitars and trumpets alongside voices - this we can comprehend. But the roar of the ocean resounding, flood waters clapping, hills singing out - these are like patches on a much bigger quilt than we can imagine. It’s all here, though, whenever we gather for worship in Jesus’ name.

Takes your breath away, doesn’t it? The best quilts do. Let’s continue to worship by singing a song our hymnal has freed up from "Christmas." "Joy to the world, the Lord has come." Let’s sing it like we mean it - lift up the fabric God is quilting. Furthermore, let’s ignore what it says in the bulletin and stand. We can’t do this sitting down.

1997Peter L. Haynes

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