God the Mother
a sermon based on John 15:9-17
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on May 10, 2015
by Rev. Scott Elliott
Since this is Mother’s Day and the sixth Sunday of Eastertide, I have– as you may have guessed– six mother jokes:
A young boy asked his father, “Dad, do you know the difference between a pack of cookies and a pack of elephants?” The dad answered “No.” Which caused his son to exclaim “Boy am I happy Mom does the grocery shopping!”
Do know what the mother rope said to her child? “Don’t be knotty.”
Do you know why computers are so smart? They listen to their motherboard.
Do you know why a monster’s mother knit him three socks? She heard he grew another foot!
A mother was once overheard telling her son “I’m warning you. If you fall out of that tree and break both your legs, don’t come running to me!”
Do you know why mother kangaroos hate rainy days? Because their kids have to play inside! 1.
As much as I love and appreciate mothers and Mothers’ Day I typically do not preach sermons about secular holidays. I tend to mention them in the pastoral prayers, but don’t focus on them in sermons. I am not alone in this regard, a number of preachers tend to let the Lectionary and church calendar have more sway over messages in worship than Hallmark or other dictates in the culture.
But what holds even more sway than the Lectionary and church calendar are what I like to think of as Holy Hints or Divine whispers in my day to day life. And I’ve had (I think) such hints and whispers to tie this sermon into Mother’s Day.
I tend to write my sermons ten or more days ahead of time so I actually start thinking about them a couple of weeks in advance. Basically I choose a Lectionary text and then pray and meditate on it. Before I left for my vacation I did this with our text for the day.
I already mentioned in the May newsletter that I read on vacation Scott Peck’s reference in The Road Less Traveled to parental and spousal love being the best most humans can hope for. Also while on vacation in a Seattle thrift store I stumbled across a copy of Marcus Borg’s book Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time. Since all of my copies of that awesome book have wandered out of my library, I bought the copy–and naturally read it again in Seattle and I was taken in by Borg’s words on female images of God, they leaped off the pages, most especially that God is mother and womb-like.
Then this week as I began in earnest my work on this sermon a very dear friend of mine from seminary whose a mom missing her children while on duty as a Navy Chaplain sent me a homily she wrote on another topic using the Marcus Borg womb stuff I just referred to.
Of course in Seattle I was also blessed being around our amazing children for whom we sacrificed a lot to make sure that their mother was able to stay home and raise them and even home school them. So Nancy’s great mom vibrations filled my vacation too. Plus I also got to see my own mother in Seattle.
So I heard all this mom and parental and God as mother and womb stuff as hinting and whispering to me. I felt called to link it up to a talk about Jesus’ call in our lesson to love each other as more than just some academic ideal, but as an already existing reality that is part and parcel of who and what we understand God to be, and who and what we need to understand we as Christians –followers of Christ– are meant to be. That is, the hints and whispers suggested we are to be like a good and loving mom toward each other – and everyone else.
See even though we tend to think of God as male and grew up calling God male pronouns and even probably still refer to God as “Father,” the truth is much of what and who we understand God to be is better imagined with female metaphors, especially the prototypical image of a mom in our culture. God’s love is more like a warm smothering momma hug from June Cleaver’s than a thoughtful lesson and kind rebuke by father Ward. God’s love is more Maria in Sound of Music, than Captain Von Trapp.
It’s not that men should not be, or cannot be, as nurturing as women role models. It’s that our cultural ideals of good nurturing and protection are usually played out in our idealist role model of the good mom. And that role model actually fits the Gospel model of love that Jesus taught and left us, and constantly calls us to, like in the lesson today. A model that conflicts, of course, with the angry apocalyptic violently punishing God we also hear about.
The Marcus Borg book I read on vacation, in essence, notes that there are two opposing types of god images that we are called to be like in the Bible and in faith communities. 2 One image requires us to ever strive to be pure, so we can get closer to a perfect god and be more loved by that god by following purity rules emphasized in faith community cultures. In this model we are told to imagine that God is so perfect God cannot be in the presence of that which is ritually impure. So, defective people, those of other faiths, strangers, rule breakers, sinners, the physically deformed, sick or the otherwise perceived as unclean, are rejected. The blemished are understood as polluting the purity of the community and offending the purity of God, so they are cast out. We see this model still very active today in some forms of Christianity, right?
The other image of God is completely different! It requires us to strive to be compassionate because it imagines God as compassionate– and unconditionally so. Purity is not the driving force, compassionate love is. In the Gospel of Luke (6:36) we are told to be compassionate as God is compassionate. 3. And that is exactly what Jesus in the Gospels was up to–and the early church as well.
Last we talked about this in the context of the story where the early church intentionally sought out and welcomed a eunuch, someone Biblical laws declare impure and unworthy to be at worship and to even give offerings. To be compassionate as God is compassionate, as Christ is compassionate, meant to the early church to continue Jesus’ ministry of breaking down barriers–even Biblical purity barriers. The eunuch is let in just as he is.
And we learned that in Acts they didn’t just provide compassion to the once Biblically impure, compassion was also provided to enemies like Saul a persecutor and Cornelius a Roman solider.
We are to be compassionate as God is compassionate. We are to have compassion. “Com” . . . “Passion.” The word “passion comes from the Latin word that means ‘to feel’ and the prefix com– means ‘with.’” 4.. So compassion means “to feel with.” When we “feel with” others we are being compassionate, what Webster’s dictionary calls “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.” 5 When it comes to Divine compassion that desire to alleviate distress of others includes “being moved by that suffering to do something about it.” 6. So we don’t just say “Awww I feel for this or that person’s distress!” We actually are also moved to do something about it!
We discussed this a few weeks ago when we talked about the Holocaust. In the darkness of that hellish awfulness God was there feeling with the victims, cosmically and in humanity, calling out in anguish for it to be stopped. God was compassionate, is compassionate, feeling with the victims. God mourns when we mourn, cries when we cry, is in pain when we are in pain.
We look to the Holocaust horrors now and the God within us calls to us still, we feel with victims; we want to do something. And even now a broad spectrum of compassion is available for us to continue to do something about it. Things like learning about other faiths; stopping anti-Semitic speech or jokes; supporting civil rights for the oppressed; even voting for politicians and laws that actively seek to prevent or halt genocide . . . the list goes on. The point is God’s compassion in us for victims must lead to action of compassionate acts. We are God’s hands and feet and voice in the world.
The Holocaust is just one example, we do not just feel for victims of such things on large and small scales, but we are moved to surround and protect them and stop the pain, injuries and the threat of them. Which, if we think about it, fits the famous female mothering image Jesus himself used when He compassionately said to the people of Jerusalem,
How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings . . . (Mat 23:37 NRS)
God’s compassion, and our compassion through God, calls us to gather those in need of protection under our individual and our collective wings.
In Hebrew and Aramaic (Jesus’ native language) the words for compassion, “to feel with” have their roots in the words for “womb.” 7. God’s compassion is like the deep connection most mothers develop with their children while they are in the womb. God as Creator conceives, carries us and births us. But also as Paul notes, we live and move and have our being in God. So it is also like we are in the womb of God, and God feels with us because like a fetus we are a very part of God, surrounded and nurtured and mattering, and what happens to us, in a very real womb-like way happens to God. We are connected to God like a child to a mom.
And despite our being raised to think of God as a male and that the Bible somehow insists we must think that, there are Bible images of God as mother and womb and female. Creation begins in Genesis with God’s “ruah” a feminine word for spirit in Hebrew, birthing the world. Other places in the Bible pick up on the mother and womb image of God. In Isaiah 42 (14) God says “I will cry out like a woman in labor, I will gasp I will pant.” In Isaiah 49 (15), God refers to herself when people fear she has forgotten them saying “Can a woman forget her nursing child or show no compassion for the child of her womb?” As we heard at the start of the service the Psalmist (Psalm 22: 9) refers to God as a midwife “it was you who took me from the womb; you kept me safe on my mother’s breast.”
And it is not just God as the womb and birthing Mom image we hear in the Bible, in Hosea 13 (8) God claims to be “like a bear robbed of her cubs.”
And in Luke (13: 20-21) we can hear Jesus comparing God to mom at work in the kitchen when he says: “ To what should I compare the kingdom of God? It is like the yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” 8
And the wise-mom is also a Biblical image of God The Hebrew word for wisdom is the feminine word “hokmah,” in Greek it is the feminine word sophia. 9. The female image of God as Wisdom appears in many Bible passages. For example, God is the feminine “wisdom” in Proverbs 8
Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise from her voice? On the heights, beside the way at the crossroads she takes her stand; beside the gates in front of the town, at the entrance of the portals she cries out: “To you O people, I call, and my cry is to all that live.”
The author of Proverbs is unmistakably referring to wise aspects of God as a female. She’s a smart God. A wise mom or grandmother image fits our ancient ancestors’ experiences of God. They fit Jesus’ image of God too. He expressly connects God’s wisdom to mothers when he declares in Luke (7:35) that “wisdom is vindicated by all her children.”
Now don’t hear me wrong, I am not saying mothers are God. But I am saying that God has long been considered mom-like and womb like and to have prototypical female characteristics.
The love of God is warm like a womb, caring like a mid-wife, protective like a hen, fierce like a she-bear, nurturing like a baker, wise like a mother. God, you see, loves us like an ideal mom, even more so. Somehow she keeps us in her divine womb and feels with us all our life long. God has compassion like a good mom for all her children– which is all of humanity.
And you know what? All of us – male and female– are to have that same type of compassion. In Jesus’ words from our reading we are to “love each other just as [He has] loved [us].
First John (2:6) says we are to walk as Jesus walked. Daily we try to walk closer to Jesus’ walk as we walk closer to Jesus. That’s our plea, to let that be our reality. A result of that closer walk with Jesus is we are to become good and loving, mom-like. That’s a great and holy thing to remember this Mother’s Day . . .and every day.
1. I got these jokes at this website (I have modified a few of them)
2. Borg, Marcus Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, p.46-68.
3. Ibid at p 46; p 62 at ft 1
4. Ibid at p 47
6. Borg at p 47
8.I got the mother, bear, hen and woman baker ideas from a book called The Divine Feminine by Virginia Mollenkott (New York: Crossroad (1983); see also, Trible, Phyllis, The God of Rhetoric and Sexuality
9. Bruns, Edgar, God as Woman, Woman as God, New York: Paulist Press(1973), 36-37.
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