Sunday, May 10, 2015

Sermon: Celebrating our Mothering God

The Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade

Reading 1:  Genesis 1:24-27  (Male and  female – made in the image of God)
            Last week the Confirmation students did a Bible study looking at the various names and descriptions of God.  Some of them were familiar – God as king, lord, shepherd, and, of course, God as the Son, Jesus Christ.  But we also read some passages that surprised us because we rarely, if ever, hear them read in church or Sunday School.  These readings described God as a mother bear, a mother eagle, and a mother giving birth. This took some mental adjusting, but, really, it shouldn’t surprise us that these images exist. 
            Because right in the first chapter of Genesis we have a passage that clues us into the fact that God is more than a male pronoun.  Genesis 1:27 reads: 
So God created humankind in God’s image,
   in the image of God they were created;
   male and female God created them.
So if both genders are created in the image of God, this must mean God is both genders as well. We are a reflection of who God is, men and women.  So why do we only refer to God as “he”?
            It didn’t used to be this way.  The earliest humans imaged the Divine as The Great Mother, often equating God to Mother Earth herself.  With her bountiful body providing all that living creatures needed, she was depicted in primitive statuary as having wide hips and ample bosoms.
            This began to change, however, as human beings began to expand in population, spread out across the earth, and develop different cultures.  The Divine was no longer limited to one Earth Mother.  Instead, there developed a panoply of gods and goddesses, each having their own sphere of influence over the processes and aspects of life.  Ancient peoples told stories about these gods and goddesses to help explain how the world came into existence, what parts of the world they influenced, and how best to gain their favor.
            Another changed occurred about 4000 years ago when one of those ancient people’s named Abraham received a revelation that there was but one God.  And this God was imaged and “languaged” primarily as male.  This God has many names, including Elohim, El Shaddai, and Jehovah.  But what primarily set this God apart was the maleness of this sky God in contrast to the female mother god of earth, as well as the pantheon of mini-gods and goddesses. 
            Yet the holy writings of the Hebrew people, as they came to be known, do contain some passages that expand upon the notion of God as having both male and female within God’s self.  These are the passages we will explore as we continue our readings.

   Reading 2:  Deuteronomy 32:11-18 (God as mother eagle, mother giving birth and nursing mother)
As I mentioned earlier, the notion of the Judeo-Christian God as being exclusively male took hold about 4000 years ago, and has become so firmly ensconced in our thinking, our language, and our liturgy, that it is jarring to think of God as having so-called female attributes.  In fact, so strong has the notion of God as male been cemented into our thinking, that for nearly all of those 4000 years, it was inconceivable even for females to be rabbis, priests or pastors within Judaism and Christianity.  Women simply were not believed to be made of the same stuff as God.  They were believed to be inferior to males.  So how could they be given positions of leadership?
As Donald Gelpi observes, “[W]e become what we worship, since we worship what we value ultimately and absolutely. [Donald L. Gelpi, Divine Mother: A Trinitarian Theology of the Holy Spirit (Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1984), 140.] It follows that if our images and metaphors for God continue to be male-dominated, we will continue to worship the male as divine.  Which sounds pretty good if you are a male.  But for females, this kind of thinking becomes exclusionary, even oppressive, to the point where it can be abused and used to relegate women to a status of second-class citizens.
In the last 200 years, however, more and more people have advocated for a reorientation of our religious language, images, rituals, symbols, and practices to be expanded to include women and all of Creation into the sacredness of God.  And we have the images to draw from right here in the Bible.  Take this passage from Deuteronomy, for instance.  Just in these eight verses we have images of God as a mother eagle with her young in the nest, God as a nursing mother, and God as having given birth to the Hebrew people. 

This is not to say that God’s power and majesty is necessarily softened.  A mother eagle, for instance, has sharp talons and beak and will use them to make sure her eaglets are fed.  And notice this passage in verse 18:  “You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you;  you forgot the God who gave you birth.”  This is not a soft and flowery image you might find on a Mother’s Day card – mother as a rock.  But isn’t it much more realistic?  How many of us remember times when our mother was like a rock – steady and secure, solid in her discipline, providing us a firm foundation for our upbringing. 
But, of course, the gentle and comforting aspects of mothers exist as well.  And we see God described using these images in our Third Reading, Psalm 131 (God as comforting mother).

1O Lord, my heart is not lifted up, my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me.
2But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; my soul is like the weaned child that is with me.
3O Israel, hope in the Lord from this time on and forevermore.

 Reading 4:  Hosea 13:1-8a (God as a mother bear)
“I will fall upon them like a bear robbed of her cubs.” (v. 8a)  What happens if a mother bear’s cubs are threatened or taken away?  She gets angry!  She comes after you with claws ready and teeth bared!
And God is angry in this passage.  But who is God angry with?  She is angry with her own children.  This passage is a complaint of God against the people who have sinned.  God says:
Yet I have been the Lord your God
   ever since the land of Egypt;
you know no God but me, and besides me there is no saviour.
5 It was I who fed you in the wilderness, in the land of drought.
When I fed them, they were satisfied;
   they were satisfied, and their heart was proud;
   therefore they forgot me.
The people worshiped other gods.  They forgot who God raised them to be.  And they sinned in ways that were abhorrent to God.  So God comes after her own cubs with claws ready and teeth bared, enraged at their behavior.  But this rage is borne out of a fierce love that is so deep and so devastated by the way the children are behaving.  This is not the way she raised them.
This brings to mind an image many of us saw during the riots in Baltimore a couple weeks ago where a mother grabbed her wayward son and lashed out at him for participating in the looting and mayhem.  Again, this is not the sweet and soft video you’ll see in an online Mother’s Day card.  But it reminds us that sometimes mothers must be as tough as a mother bear.  
#BaltimoreMom, Toya Graham, April 29, 2015

 The woman’s name is Toya Graham and she is a single mother of five girls and one son.  “That’s my only son,” she said in an interview later about the video.  “At the end of the day, I don’t want him to be a Freddie Gray.” [CNN: “Mother of the year goes viral”]. In other words, when a mother’s own children are going down a path that is going to lead to their own destruction, you have to do whatever it takes to bring them back.  “Is he perfect?  No,” she said.  “But he’s my son.”
Of course we must also acknowledge that no mother is perfect either.  For example, if your mother was absent, abusive, unavailable, mentally unstable, addicted, or neglectful, then the metaphor of God as mother may not be helpful for you. Mothers can at times be smothering, nagging, distracted, overworked, and simply exhausted. Thus, we have to be careful the image of God as mother not put too many expectations on mothers and romanticize the state of motherhood, just as the old model did for fatherhood. 
Nevertheless, especially for the mother metaphor, as theologian Sallie McFague reminds us, “there simply is no other imagery available to us that has this power for expressing the interdependence and interrelatedness of all life with its ground. All of us, female and male, have the womb as our first home, all of us are born from the bodies of our mothers, all of us are fed by our mothers.” [Sallie McFague, Models of God : Theology for an Ecological, Nuclear Age (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987), 106].  It is this relational aspect of God that even Jesus himself invokes in the passage we will read next from the Gospel of Matthew. 
Reading 4:  Matthew 23:29-37
Many years ago in a previous congregation I served, we did a service like this one where we used inclusive language for God, including female pronouns and feminine imagery.  The women’s group in the congregation worked for several weeks on Bible stories about women of faith and how liberating it can be to think of God beyond gender.  So we put together the liturgy and designed a worship service that was expansive and inclusive. 
But there was one gentleman in the congregation who, as soon as he opened the bulletin to peruse the service for the day, got up, handed it back to the usher and said he would not be staying for the service.  In fact, the man, who happened to be a lawyer, wrote a very pointed letter to the head of congregation’s Mutual Ministry committee filled with accusations of “shabby scholarship . . . distorting to vulnerable intellects,” and suggesting that I, as a pastor, be disciplined by the church council and made to leave the church.  Fortunately, the church leadership was supportive of what we had tried to do in the liturgy.  I sent a letter to him thanking him for his letter and letting him know that we would be planning more forums to be able to discuss the issues he had raised, and invited him to attend.  The senior pastor went to visit the man to try to convince him to return to the congregation, but he would not.  The man left the church and presumably found a congregation that stayed well within the boundaries of traditional patriarchal language.
While this response is not surprising, it does raise a point to consider.  If we strive to have our language in worship and preaching be more balanced by speaking of the so-called female traits of God and using inclusive language, we may run the risk of excluding those who are left out of this by their gender, namely males. And yet if we choose to remain with traditional patriarchal and paternalistic models of God, we implicitly endorse the oppressive nature of religious language that women have endured for millennia, and which has enabled the rampant abuse of females and the natural world. How do we walk this fine line?
 The theologian Sallie McFague states the problem this way: “The current resistance to inclusive or unbiased language…both at the social and religious level, indicates that people know instinctively that a revolution in language means a revolution in one’s world" [Ibid. 9]  Speaking from personal experience, this could explain the swift and negative reaction of that former parishioner when he was introduced to inclusive and feminine-oriented language in my preaching and the liturgical language of the service. How do we navigate this kind of tension?
The words of Jesus can be helpful here.  In this passage from Matthew, he compares himself to a mother hen trying to protect her brood. 
If Jesus, as the Son of God, can imagine himself and speak of himself using female imagery, doesn’t that give us permission to do likewise?  And, in fact, Jesus used many images that encourage us to conduct further “thought experiments,” as McFague calls them, and imagine even more metaphors for God. He describes himself as a vine, bread, living water, the gate, and the light.  He describes the Kingdom of God using images of a woman baking bread, and a woman sweeping her house looking for a lost coin.  Perhaps we could even speak of the “Queendom of God”!
So if Jesus himself gives us alternatives to the transcendent, hierarchical, father “sky god” of patriarchy, this gives us implicit permission, as his followers, to conceive of, articulate, and worship the Divine in a way that takes the feminine into account to at least an equal extent as males. This is not to say that the Divine is, in fact, a human construct. In many ways the mystery of God remains beyond the scope of human expression. The point we’re trying to make is that, in our human attempts to articulate a limited understanding of God, we not limit them even further to a strictly patriarchal construct. Neither do we seek to obliterate masculine imagery and concepts for describing God. Instead we are urging for a more expansive way to speak about and image God to include the feminine.
I’ll never forget the time I was leading a Bible study about these feminine images for God and one of the women in the study was at first shocked, and then profoundly moved by these verses about God as a mother.  She had been abused by her father and by a boyfriend, and her faith had been badly damaged thinking that it must have been God’s will as Father for this to happen to her.  It was very difficult for her to love a God who had not only authorized her suffering, but, had perhaps been the source of it. 
But when she encountered these biblical images of God as the mother eagle and mother bear, and Jesus as the mother hen, this was faith-saving for her.  She knew how powerful a mother hens wings are when they beat off an enemy trying to get at her chicks.  She loved the idea of God as a mother ferociously protecting her, and infusing her with power to protect her own children. 
You see, our words, our stories and our images shape how we see God, and how God shapes us.  If we use just one image, we are limiting our ability to communicate to people the kind of love God has for us. But when we open up our preaching and prayers, our hymns and liturgy to more expansive and inclusive images and words for God, we can listen to and learn from a multitude of stories and images spoken by voices previously unheard.  And we invite those stories and images to open our minds, change our hearts, bring us to our knees in repentance, and creatively resist evil with all our strength.
Thanks be to our Mothering God for this strong, powerful love.  May our Mothering Christ and Mothering Spirit, together as the Triune God, open her arms to you, bless you and send you into the world marked by a Mother’s divine love.   Amen.
[Hymn sung after the sermon:  "Mothering God You Gave Me Birth", text: Jean Janzen, based on writings of Julian of Norwich; tune: Carolyn Jennings]

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