Sermon Archives

Sunday, May 14, 2017
Mother's Day 2017
The Reverend Andrew Van Culin, Rector
Mothers, Women and God

Blessed be the God and father of our Lord Jesus Christ! 
For by his great mercy we have been born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.

I beg your indulgence today.

In the course of our Lectionary we seldom have the opportunity to explicitly explore the feminine aspect of God.  And so as today is Mothers’ Day, I would like to continue a conversation that is seldom adequately engaged:  the feminine nature of God and, more broadly, our language for God.

To begin, we must remember that all language about God – is provisional and, therefore, incomplete.  No one story, let alone one image, can capture the breadth and depth of the reality we name as God.  Explore, even briefly, the rich writings of Christian Scripture and theological tradition and we quickly realize that it is through the totality of the story, the totality of theological writings, that we begin to comprehend the nature of God; that we begin to comprehend the transcendent source of life that resides, mysteriously, within and beyond us all.

Meister Eckhart, a13th century German theologian and mystic, points to the insufficiency of our language when faced with the reality of God as he writes: “If you think you know something about God and describe it in words, the God you have described is not God.  God is greater than your terminology.  God is far greater than your language.  [God] is inexpressible.”

The Ten Commandments state this tension another way – “Thou shalt not make to thyself any graven image, nor the likeness of any thing that is in heaven above or in the earth beneath, or in the water under the earth; thou shalt not bow down to them, nor worship them.”

And yet, language and art are all that we have to communicate our experience of the Holy.  In the end, we must remember that our language and images are little more than sign posts, pointing us in the direction of God, a reality ultimately beyond words, and beyond image.  The words and images that we use are metaphors and symbols that struggle, at times more successfully than others, to convey the reality of God, a reality that far exceeds the limits of our language and experience.

As sign posts, our images of word and art find their sufficiency only insofar as they successfully directing us further into the heart of God’s mystery.  They are meant to be explored for meaning and engaged in order to broaden our experience.  We must remember, however, that they are never an end, for we must not confuse our language about God with the reality of God.

In fact, it is when we make our images and language the focal point, the end of the journey, when we so demand that our images be complete, that is when our language becomes wholly inadequate. As soon as we say that this aspect of God – whatever the image may be – as soon as we say that this aspect of God is God full-stop, we are wrong; we have turned the image pointing us toward into an idol replacing God.  And so, as complete and comprehensive and comfortable as the language and image of God the Father may be to us, it is incomplete – it is not wrong, it is just not complete. 

There is always more to be said about God, and so we claim that God is not only Father, but also:  the rock and the firm foundation, the True Bread and Good Shepherd, the Great I am and the Living Water; each a faithful image, but no more; an metaphorical image that points us onward as we seek to comprehend the incomprehensible; as we seek to comprehend the mystery of God whom we encounter throughout our lives.

So, what images does our tradition provide?

As we have already discussed, and embedded within our common religious language, there is the long tradition of masculine and monarchical imagery for God.  This is the language of Father and King, Bridegroom and Lord, language which we have heard and used all our lives to describe and explore God; language which provides us great comfort and that need no further discussion today.

It is worth noting, as well, that our tradition is equally comfortable with neuter images of God:  Look no further than Psalms where we are reminded that God is like “the rock of our salvation.”  One of the most ancient images of God found in the Old Testament is that of breath – God as the primal breath, the ‘ruah that gives life to all of creation.  And within the story of the Exodus, the Israelites experience God as a burning bush, a pillar of fire, and a cloud of smoke; each a non-gendered image from creation that conveys a profound reality about the divine mystery in creation.

Rich as this tradition is, modern Christianity has balked at any mention of God as woman, God as feminine.  Though less common and far less familiar, the tradition of using the feminine to explore and express the nature of God exists prominently in Christian tradition, both in Christian Scripture and theology.

Within the biblical tradition we actually find a breadth of feminine images for God.  There, of course, are images depicting God as a mothering animal.  Matthew speaks of God as a mother hen who has gathered her brood under her wing and the prophet Hosea likens God to the mother bear who fiercely protects her young cubs.

Such feminine biblical references, however, are not limited to the animal world.  Nehemiah, describes God as a seamstress making clothes to clothe Israel and the Psalmist sees God as the midwife attending a new birth.

In fact, uncomfortable as it may be for some among us, the most frequent and personal image of God as woman, as feminine, is that of God as Mother.  For Isaiah, it is God who “cries out – who gasps and pants – like a woman in labor” to bring new life to Israel.  It is God who, in angry response to Moses, claims to have given birth to Israel and to have suckled her, and it is God the mother who comforts Israel in her distress and nurses her and dandles Israel like a child on her knee.

Such images of the divine feminine are found in our theological tradition as well.  Perhaps most famously, there is Teresa of Avila, who, in the midst of the 16th century reformations, writes:  “God is happy to be our Father.  God is pleased to be our Mother. . . . As truly as God is our Father, so also is God our Mother.  God is both the power and goodness of father-hood and the wisdom and lovingness of motherhood. . . .  We know that all our mothers experience pain for us.  Jesus is our true Mother.  He nourishes us.  He alone loves and labors for us to the point of death . . . When we realize our sin, we are embarrassed.  We hide in shame.  But our courteous Mother does not want us to run away. . . .  We are feeble children until our gracious Mother brings us up to our Father’s joy.”

All of us have experienced some element of such mothering love.  At the very least, a mother has born us into this world, allowing her body to be transformed, suffering not only the discomfort of pregnancy, but the pain of labor.  As Teresa notes, this itself is a divine revelation – that is, that God, too, loves and labors for us.

But the fortunate among us, have experienced the gifts of mothering love beyond the realities of our birth.  The fortunate among us have known, too, a mother – perhaps our birth mother, perhaps an adopted, “second mom” whom we chose with our hearts – who has received us in our shame, embraced us in our sorrow, and nurtured us in our joy.  And that love, too, is a divine revelation.

Today’s Gospel lesson may be seen to point us in this direction as well as it celebrates one of the most ancient and common aspects of a mother’s care and love – preparation and hospitality and desire.  While we are likely more familiar with Jesus famous words, “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” it is what he says just before this that is of greater revelation and significant:  “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.  If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?  And if I go to prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.”

While it was Abram who offered the words of welcome, it was Sarai who prepared the bread of hospitality.  And while it was Elijah who promised endless flour and oil that would never run out, it was the humble mother who steadfastly prepared the bread for herself and her son, and this strange man Elijah.  And while it was Jesus who came to teach, it was Martha who prepared the place for him and his friends to gather.  And even in his death, it was Mary who came to Jesus to tend to his broken body.

This too, our mothers have shown us.  Each day and night, thousands of women within our community, and millions – yes millions – upon millions around the world, make preparations for their children’s lives, and not just their children, but their families as well.  Many of these tasks are among the most mundane of our common life – they prepare sustaining meals throughout the day, they tend to homes that provide comfort, rest, and security, they clean clothes and endless stuff that make for a healthy and happy life, and they shepherd their flock from home to school to playgrounds and back again. 

Now, by no means are these responsibilities merely “a mother’s work” but they are the real tasks that mothers the world over set themselves to, not out of passionate desire for the work itself, but out of passionate care for those whom they love.  And, as perhaps all mothers know, such work is neither easy nor glamorous, but is the daily work of love and care.

And if such work is a work of love, then it must be divine work as well.  And so, it should come as no surprise that Jesus takes up the task as well, for the work of Christ is not limited to the work of the cross, but the motherly work of preparing a place for you.

Feminine images of God are not as prolific as their masculine counterparts, but they are there, and we understand God less when we fail to explore and use them.  Today, we celebrate Mothers – our own mothers, biological and relational. 

Friends, for a moment, draw to your mind and to your heart, the women who have mothered you in your life. 

We celebrate those women in our lives who loved us into this world, and those who have nourished and loved us throughout our lives, those who have laughed at our silliness and cried at our suffering and undertaken the near endless tasks of preparing us for life. 

Friends, in them may we see God, as well. 

In the Name of the Holy and Life-giving God, Mother, Child, and Holy Spirit.  AMEN.