Rev. Dr. Paul Moore
May 13, 2018
Easter 7, Mother’s Day
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Happy Mother’s Day to all you mothers, potential mothers, grandmothers, and those who have cared for others in ways we normally call mothering.
Stereotypes: We all have them. We feed the birds every morning at my house. I swear I have half the quail in the neighborhood that come by for breakfast every day. The quail are doing what quail do during the Spring, they are pairing up, and we’ve seen a couple of broods of tiny, fluffy striped balls with legs, eyes and beaks already. Pairing up means setting boundaries. Cock birds chase one another around, presumably protecting the integrity of their bloodlines. How the cock birds know which hens belong with them and which don’t is beyond me, because they all look the same to me.
“Oh, they all look the same to me.” It is used with people as well. If you haven’t said it you’ve thought it, and if you’ve never thought it it’s because you’ve never ventured beyond your own kind. Each cultural grouping has its own internal markings for individuality, and when you don’t know what to look for—they all look the same. From these “outsider” points of view we come up with stereotypes. Stereotypes are initially useful in naming certain generally pervasive differences between cultural groups, but when it comes to individuals it bedevils our efforts at relationships, because when you get close you begin to see the differences that bely the stereotypes. Each person is their own person and must be treated as such.
We have stereotypes about God. They come from what we have been taught, from pictures we have seen, and from the language of our worshipping community. There are many, for instance:
God is an old man with an incredibly long beard sitting on a cloud up in the sky. For some people God’s face is usually stuck in a beneficent smile that overlooks our picadilloes, and for others his face is stuck in a frown as he casts thunderbolts earthward.
God is the fuzzy feeling I get in Church when we pray or sing, or the sermon is especially poignant.
God is the elusive content of a series of affirmations I make when I recite the Creed.
I find it interesting that these stereotypes have changed over the centuries of the life of the Church. According to those stereotypes the language about God changes. It’s as if each age gets a glimpse of part of God and talks about God from their corner of history. For instance, in some places in the early Church God was decidedly male—and clearly misogynist. He would probably only let men into heaven, so, if you were a woman you had two options. You could consign yourself to your fate, or you could cross-dress and act like a man, hoping the Almighty wouldn’t notice on the day of judgment.
What is useful about these shifting images of God is the ways they challenge our stereotypes. The shock value brings us closer, and we begin to distinguish the differences between our preconceived ideas and what might be a bit closer to the actual reality. For example, there are many times in our tradition when God has been described using imagery that we often associate with mothering.
On this Mother’s Day, I want to talk a bit about the mothering side of God. Truth be told, mothering images of God are really quite common in our tradition. The Scriptures, especially the Old Testament, are full of them. Here are but a few:
God is likened to a mother bird that protects her young with her wings.
“Keep me as the apple of your eye; hide me in the shadow of your wings.” (Psa. 17:8) “… I will take refuge in the shadow of your wings until the disaster has passed.” (Psa. 57:1) He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge …” (Psa. 91:4)
Jesus picks up these images when he laments over Jerusalem:
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” (Matthew 23:37; Luke 13:34)
God is likened to a human mother.
“For a long time I [God] have kept silent, I have been quiet and held myself back. But now, like a woman in childbirth, I cry out, I gasp and pant.” (Isa. 42:14) “As a mother comforts her child, so will I [God] comfort you; and you will be comforted over Jerusalem.” (Isa. 66:13) “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I [God] will not forget you!” (Isa. 49:15)
St. Paul uses mothering images to talk about pastoral work, the human side of God’s work in peoples’ lives:
“Nor did we seek glory from men, either from you or from others, when we might have made demands as apostles of Christ. But we were gentle among you, just as a nursing mother cherishes her children. (I Thess. 1:6-7).
Christian writers have used mothering images frequently. Modern feminist theologians write eloquently about God as mother, but let’s go way, way back before anybody even thought about feminism. Let’s go back into the first centuries of the Church. In the fifth century, Augustine of Hippo talks about the two parents of the Christian, God the Father and Mother Church. The Virgin Mary is the mother of the Church, the mother of all Christians, and in his description of her he picks up on earlier writers’ themes. Mary becomes the way God gives birth to the Church just as Mary gave birth to the Son of God. Earlier yet, in the second century Clement of Alexandria described us Christians as nursing at the bosom of God the Father.
Moving into the high Medieval Church, medieval mystic Meister Eckhart described God’s activity: “What does God do all day long? God gives birth. From all eternity God lies on a maternity bed giving birth.”
Julian of Norwich summarizes it all: “As truly as God is our Father, so truly God is our Mother.”
There are many, many more, of course, but these will suffice to help us see that God mothers us in ways that remind us of our own mothers. If God is Father, then God is also Mother, and to talk about God in mothering terms is to stride confidently down through the center of our tradition, and so, we celebrate Mother’s Day in Church.
Whenever we use human images of God, either masculine or feminine, I am deeply aware of the brokenness of humanity. For some of us, our parents were our first introduction to the nature of the divine. Our mothers as well as our fathers demonstrated what true self-giving love is like, our mothers in ways that perhaps our fathers did not. If that is your story, then give thanks for your first introduction to theology! I give thanks to God that this is my story.
But I know that for some, speaking of God as Father or Mother, respectively, can be painful, because our own parents treated us in ways that were far from the ideal. The pain they inflicted overflows into our concepts of God under those images and we recoil rather than approach. Some of us struggle with the language of the Church because of that, and some have abandoned the faith altogether. Theology got off to a bad start. Part of Mother’s Day is a lament for inadequate mothers who failed to mother us in a way that showed us self-giving love.Truth be told, however, none of our human parents were truly adequate, for they all had their shortcomings. Whether or not our parents were godly introductions to God’s character, all of us must ultimately transcend those introductions. Thankfully, we usually have help. Our bio-parents or step-parents with all their pain and glory, were not the only ones who mothered us. For some of us it was a grandmother, an aunt, or just a good friend who stepped into the gap for us. We knew others whose mothers were more divinely mothering than our own. Slowly, by the divine mothering through many sources we came to see something of what God’s self-giving love is like, and we give thanks.
Today we give thanks to God for mothers, in all their glory and brokenness, in all their love and shortcomings, they are our first introductions to the mothering side of God, without which we would be in danger of falling into stereotypes of God that are incomplete. Their nurturing care was and is God’s nurturing care, funneled through a specially designed human agent, for our good and for the good of the world.
Thank you, mothers everywhere, whether you are men or women.