I am the person who lingers too long in the Creative Activities Building at the Minnesota State Fair admiring quilts—the design, details, themes and color combinations. I am there for a long time looking at the quilts and studying their texture. It is good the quilts are behind glass because I want to touch them! Every time I visit, I ask myself, ‘How is it that the quilters have made such beautiful work with their hands?’
Because I deeply appreciate the art of quilting, I was eager to visit the Minnesota Textile Center[i] here in Minneapolis last month to study a collection of quilts curated by Carolyn L. Mazloomi in response to the killing of George Floyd. Mazloomi is a historian, curator, lecturer and master quiltmaker. She is the founder of the Women of Color Quilter’s Network. The Network and the Textile Center documented their collaboration in a compelling book, We Are the Story: A Visual Response to Racism. The book includes photos of story quilts and artist statements from more than 80 quilters. In the opening essay, “Quiltmaking for Social Justice,” Mazloomi explained what motivated and called her and other quilters to this undertaking.
“As an artist and curator, I firmly believe art has the capacity to touch the spirit, engage, educate and heal in ways that words alone cannot.”
Through cloth, people can relate to history visually (story quilts), as opposed to reading about history, in ways that reach our hearts. We as human beings have a cradle-to-grave affair with cloth. Cloth is the first thing we are swathed in upon birth, and the last thing that touches the body upon our death. Most people are familiar with cloth. Telling a story, regardless of the subject, seems more palatable in cloth form.”
She concluded, “…I will let the artwork do the talking.” And, oh my, how the quilts talked! Through the work of their hands the quilters expressed the justice-seeking-love stirring in the hearts and it was a gift to the community. My heart was drawn into conversation with the quilters.
In the Gospel of Mark as we read about Jesus’ ministry to communities in and around Galilee we see Jesus and later the disciples engaged in a kind of quilting-making. Jesus the master quilter mended and expanded the social and theological fabric of each community he travelled through. The powerful teaching Jesus offered was what the people had been waiting for—the material they needed—to compose fuller and freer lives.
The author of the Gospel of Mark does not outline the content of Jesus’s teaching in his hometown synagogue. However, focusing on the message Jesus communicated at the beginning of his ministry suggests what he shared with his hometown. At the beginning of his ministry Jesus announced, “The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.” Everywhere Jesus traveled this announcement was the core of his teaching and ministry.
With this announcement, ‘the kingdom of God has come near,’ Jesus declared God had come into the world through him. God was not at a distance far from people but right in their midst! God came to the heart of the communities around Galilee as Jesus: recruited fishermen near the sea…and taught in synagogues; lifted Simon’s mother-in-law from her sick bed…and healed all who lined up in Simon’s front yard; and touched and healed the man who lived with leprosy.
Through Jesus God was really present in the community and accessible to the people such as: the resourceful group of friends who lowered a man through a roof into Jesus’ healing presence; the brave unnamed woman whose suffering ended the moment she touched Jesus’ clothes; a father who brought Jesus home to heal his daughter.
In the everyday places—the most familiar spaces—God was active through Jesus. Jesus moved among the people bringing color, texture, and depth to their stories. The carpenter turned master quilter offered material for making new lives and new communities.
When Jesus brought the message about the kingdom coming near to his hometown synagogue the people who listened were overwhelmed with a sense of wonder. Jesus tuned their ears to hear his call and Jesus sought to reshape their identities. They asked, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? Is not this the carpenter?”
As the teaching continued the sense of wonder in the crowd grew wider and deeper. This Jesus who they thought they knew placed big claims before them. His teaching inspired and unsettled their hearts all at once. They sensed their acceptance of the message of God-is-with-us would mean they and the world they knew would undergo extensive changes.
Facing expanded identities and upheaval, they reviewed Jesus’ background not necessarily to find a basis for disqualifying Jesus. They knew Jesus was one of them. AND Jesus was the one who caused stirring in their hearts like no one had before. They could not ignore the stirring in their hearts, but it was difficult to understand how Jesus of Nazareth could teach so powerfully. He brought them to the verge of believing God was present in a new way inviting them to become more fully themselves.
They could not reconcile their knowledge about Jesus’ background with the overwhelming sense of wonder in their hearts. The people in Jesus’ hometown shut down what their hearts confirmed and determined they would remain with the versions of themselves and of the world that was familiar to them. Jesus took the measure of the people in his hometown. He noted the stumbling blocks that prevented their faith from coming to a fuller maturity; he healed only a few people in his hometown and then continued ministry in nearby villages.
I wonder whether we are at a comparable junction as the people from Jesus’ hometown. At this moment many of our experiences are streaming together and I wonder how this confluence is affecting our ability to hold onto and to live ever-more deeply in our belief that God is with us.
How has the pandemic impacted our hearts and fooled around with our imagination of God-with-us? There have been more than 600,000 deaths from COVID-19 in the United States and the known global tally (of deaths from COVID-19) has surpassed 4 million.[ii] How has the greater willingness to acknowledge structural racism and systemic poverty shaped how we think about God with us and our communities? How has the surge in violent crime in the Twin Cities area—especially the critical injuries and deaths of our youngest neighbors from gun violence—affected how we are thinking about God-with-us?
I wonder whether we might lose hold of our belief that God is with us. And when I refer to God-with-us, I do not mean just us but God with all people. I wonder whether we are allowing our identities and our hopes to be shaped more by what we have recently experienced and what we are currently confronting than by our belief in God-with-us. We are seeking to reconcile this most fundamental beliefs we confess and carry in our hearts with all that we have come through. Our experiences could crowd out…could smother what we have held as true in our hearts. Our experiences could stir up the kind of fear that leads to hardening of our hearts and when this happens, we either withdraw from the world or we go out into the world with our defenses up and carrying that which causes us and others to stumble.
Now is our time to live into the expanded identities God offers to us and not be afraid of the commotion the Holy Spirit is surely causing. As we begin imagining our post pandemic lives, Stephanie Paulsell, Professor of the Practice of Christian Studies @ Harvard College, invites us to resist our,
“…desire to go back to the way things were. Because that way [was] marked by economic and social inequality that has made the burden of this virus fall hardest on the most disadvantaged, by a health-care system that [left] so many unprotected, [and] by the ridiculously low pay that people doing the most necessary jobs receive[d]. It’s not enough to want our old life back.”[iii]
Recommitting to carry the belief that God is with us will help us imagine and make a future for ourselves and all God’s people better than life we knew before and during the pandemic.
Perhaps the author of Mark puts these two scenes together in the sixth chapter so that we can see what happens to a people and community when hearts are open and what happens to a people and community when hearts are closed off. Down the road in another village, it was time for the twelve disciples to share the accumulated teaching in their hearts. Their travels with Jesus—listening to him teach and watching him clothe God’s people in new identities—prepared the disciples to assume their roles in ministry. Before Jesus sent them out in pairs to places unknown, he gave them the power to heal the people and to confront whatever opposition encountered.
Jesus instructed the 12 to take very few material items. He said, ‘Only take: a walking stick, the sandals on your feet and the clothes on your bodies. Do not to bring bread or money.’ The beliefs of their hearts and the power Jesus trusted in their hands was their only currency. He told them to take shelter in the homes of the people they met. Taking few material items with them, the disciples could anticipate their material needs would be met. They could expect to experience hospitality and generosity from the people they met. If they arrived in a community and were not welcomed, Jesus told them to briefly take the time to shake the dust from their shoes before moving to the next ministry engagement.
This belief that God is with us is a source of sacred and healthy esteem. We and the world God made are not so broken and so lost that God retreats from us and leaves us alone. No, God comes near to us with mercy, love, acceptance, and an eagerness to co-create and co-labor with us. The love that comes when God is near us is transformative to the extent, we allow it to be.
When it is difficult to hold in our hearts the belief that God is with us that is when we need most to be out in community and in the world. When we are out in the community living our belief that God has come near to us and all people, we are guided into experience where this belief is reflected back to us.
Amanda Weber and I hope Westminster will have the opportunity this fall to welcome Tesfa Wondemagegnehu to hear about his travels unfolding this summer. Tesfa is visiting sites of, “Black triumph and trauma.”[iv] He was already actively engaged in communities here in Minnesota but felt called to travel outside of Minnesota. He told a Star Tribune reporter, “I needed to know what it would look like for me to re-immerse myself in Black communities across the country; I want to know what my people, my siblings, my kinfolk are experiencing…and how I can be of even more direct help.”[v] I’m excited to hear more about Tesfa’s journey.
When it is difficult to hold in our hearts the belief that God is with us that is when we need most to be out in community and in the world. We commissioned 18 high school students from this community earlier in this service. The students will spend time in the MN Interfaith Power and Light garden, weeding and tending to the garden. As the high school students work in the garden they will discuss and prepare for a trip later in the week to one of the sites of the Line 3 pipeline construction in the northern part of the state. Our high school students will meet Indigenous water protectors and activists who have been protesting the pipeline construction—the students will experience firsthand how God is active and present in the world giving strength and power to people living in a community very different than ours.
When it is difficult to hold in our hearts the belief that God is with us that is when we need most to be out in the community and in the world. The opportunity to take our hearts into the world might look like Tesfa’s 7,000-mile journey or a trip to northern Minnesota like our high school students and there are always opportunities close to where we are. When we look, we will see places where we can share our hearts. At those places we can expect to be drawn to God and see the beautiful texture, depth and color God is bringing as God makes all communities new. May it be so. Thanks be to God.
[i] “An international juried exhibition featuring 63 quilts, Racism: In the Face of Hate We Resist shares stories of resistance and fortitude that have been integral to the survival of Black people in America.” https://textilecentermn.org/racism-virtualexhibition/
[ii] New York Times, Daniel Slotnik: “The world’s known coronavirus death toll passed four million on Thursday, a loss roughly equivalent to the population of Los Angeles, according to the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University.” https://www.nytimes.com/2021/07/08/world/covid-death-toll-four-million.html
[iii] Keeping Time
[iv] Road to Repair Star Tribune, Janine Turping Moore, July 4, 2021