In a world that is torn and hurting, we will consider how we can participate in the mending of the world. Guest preacher Rev. Scott Clark explores the story from Acts of Tabitha and the community of women whom she clothed and stories of the quilters of Gee’s Bend, and we will look for good news in acts of tender mercy.
Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, ‘Please come to us without delay.’ So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them. Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, ‘Tabitha, get up.’ Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord.
This has been a hard couple of weeks. It has been a hard couple of weeks, in a hard season, in a hard year.
Ruby Sales – one of the matriarchs of the civil rights movement – suggests that sometimes the best place to start a conversation is simply to ask, “Where does it hurt?” That certainly gets to the heart of the matter, but if we think of all the hurt in the world right now, I wouldn’t even know where to start –
As we ask Ruby Sales’ question – “Where does it 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 – all this loss and death – we turn – as we often do to this morning’s Scripture and look for a word of life. We stand in our world of hurt and loss, and we enter into this Scripture – this story of Tabitha and her community – and we stand with this community of women in their world of hurt and loss.
We enter into this story – along with the Apostle Peter – in the midst of things. We learn that a woman named Tabitha has just died. And here is what we know of this Tabitha: Firs, 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 that the feminine form of disciple is used. Peter is a disciple; Tabitha is a disciple. And we also learn that she 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 – and 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 to the 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 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 – in the midst of all their hurt and grieving – 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 that life into the present moment, “See, these clothes she made for us.”. Tabitha’s acts of tender mercy bringing these women to life, and then in their telling of it, and living of it, 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 grandmother made – of the bright clors 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 – you can see them now in the exhibit “Revelations: Art from the African American South.”
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 is surprised at all the attention they’re getting. She says that she is proud that she’s made something that someone 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:
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. 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. Just that. With each stitch, an act of tender mercy. And then the next. And then the next.
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 table. As we continue with steady acts of tender mercy, stitch upon stitch, we also take up practices that sustain us – that make us resilient for the living of this day – what Wendy Farley has called “practices for the mending of the world.” As we gather around this 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 all who would take up this work – we sing, we pray, we breathe, we cultivate 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 capacity and our power to do good and to sustain each other.
God gathers us at her table, and there, as we take up our needle and thimble and get to quilting:
Copyright 2017, Scott Clark. Reprinted with permission.
 Interview of Ruby Sales, by Krista Tippett for the On Being Podcast (Sept. 15, 2016). Transcript at https://onbeing.org/programs/ruby-sales-where-does-it-hurt/
 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/
 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.