God is a motherA sermon on Isaiah 66 July 3, 2022 by Sebastian Meadows-Helmer
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Last Sunday, we prayed the Lord’s Prayer in paraphrase,
using more inclusive language.
The traditional Lord’s prayer of course begins:
Our Father, who art in heaven,
But the version we used last Sunday began like this:Heavenly Father, Heavenly Mother
Holy and blessed is your true name.
For some this might seem odd, even heretical,
to change the words of Jesus.
Others might say, “well and good enough, I think envisioning God as only male,
as only a Father, is too limiting.”
Others might say that their experience of their own father was very distressing and they couldn’t imagine what a loving father is like,
but that they had a good mother,
and so picturing God as a heavenly mother is more helpful.
The Bible was written by and for men
so it’s no wonder that male images for God predominate in Scripture.
Actually, given that we think all Biblical authors were male,
it’s surprising there are any female images of God at all,
but in fact there are!
(Although to be honest they are mostly images assuming traditional gendered attributes; that is— that women are caring, compassionate and so on.
Before we begin discussing alternate images of God,
I want to make one qualification:
The second commandment, according to Exodus (20:4) states:
You shall not make for yourself an idol,
You shall not make a graven image of God and worship it.
Whenever we are talking about any image of God,
whether it is of Father or Mother,
We need to remember that it is only a picture, a metaphor,
something that evokes human experience.
Any metaphor, or image of God is never tied directly
and exclusively to God.
It is just a help for our feeble brains to imagine what God is like.
If we use any image of God to the exclusion of all others,
one could argue that this is idolatry.
If we hold one human image of God above all else
(putting God in a box), that is idolatry,
because we have made for ourself an image of God that we worship.
Our first reading today is taken from the last Chapter of Isaiah, Chapter 66.
The late chapters of Isaiah contain much progressive imagery and theology,
Lots of forward-thinking ideas,
that maybe even conflict with our traditional normative ways of thinking about God.
Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for her,
all you who love her;
11that you may nurse and be satisfied
from her consoling breast;
that you may drink deeply with delight
from her glorious bosom.
12For thus says the Lord:
13As a mother comforts her child,
so I will comfort you;
you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.
These are quite astonishing words actually:
that God will console God’s people like a mother who comforts her child.
(And there’s a little confusion here actually,
as the image of Jerusalem as mother merges with that of God as a mother.)
Breast milk will console a sick, tired or crying baby,
and so Jerusalem, or perhaps God, will also console with divine breast milk
those who are crying, those who are suffering, those who are in distress.
The Book of Isaiah has more feminine imagery for God than anywhere else in the Bible.
In chapter 42, God’s strength is described as that of a woman in labour.
In chapter 46, God’s compassion is compared to that of a mother’s.
In chapter 66, God acts as a midwife.
I think the image of God as a mother is perhaps one of the most compelling images of God in the Bible.
Most mothers’ sacrifice and dedication to their children is something amazing to behold,
something we often reflect on for example on Mother’s Day.
If a human mother can muster up the strength to love their child to extreme measures, how much more can God,
acting like a divine mother, love us to the utmost as well.
I think that imagining God as a woman or in feminine terms,
enriches our understanding and love for God in so many ways.
Luckily in the Bible, there are a few examples of this:
In Hosea, God is described as a Mother Bear, who is capable of extreme violence when her cubs are threatened. (Hosea 13:8)
In Deuteronomy, God is likened to a mother eagle,
who spreads her wings over her young and carries them on her wings into the air.
Even Jesus uses feminine imagery for God by describing God’s passion for the lost of this world; just like a woman looking for a lost coin (Luke 15:8-10).
But perhaps the most compelling passage which helps us understand that God is not just male is located in the first chapter of the Bible, in Genesis.
(Gen 1:27) So God created humankind in his image,
male and female he created them.”
So despite the fact that God is referred to here in the masculine,
If men and women are created in God’s image,
then God must include both genders in God’s essence,
or in other words, God is non-binary,
or perhaps bi-gendered.
So if we can imagine that feminine imagery for God is not only allowable, but is in fact, even despite the patriarchal prejudices of the Bible,
very much a part of Scripture,
What difference does that make for our faith lives?
For one, I think our perception of God is so much more enriched,
if we allow ourselves to envision God in a variety of pictures and images.
No one image of God can contain how complex and amazing God is.
I think on the flip side we lose a lot if we just think of God as an elderly white man with a flowing white beard.
A lot of sexism in the church results from an over-reliance on male imagery for God,
This is true for more conservative denominations,
as well as for more progressive ones like our own ELCIC.
If we keep repeating the male pronouns for God,
Every Sunday we pray, Our Father— who art in heaven,
What are we to expect?
Even my 9-year old daughter has realized how toxic it is…
“Why is God always referred to as a man. That’s no fair!”,She has exclaimed a few times.
I think we would be better off in church and society
if we used feminine imagery for God more often (for example in the debate over abortion).
It’s challenging for sure, but much needed and refreshing.
Thinking or imagining a God who gave us birth, of course is different,
But if we think of how Creation is like a mother giving birth…
where something comes into being where nothing was before,
it just makes sense.
I’d like to read to you Allison Woodward’s poem “God Our Mother”
a wonderful and challenging text that stretches our imagination of how the holy divine can be described using feminine experience and imagery.
I think this poem really conveys that the best and most respectful way to address God might well be by “Mother.”
To be a Mother is to suffer;To travail in the dark,stretched and torn,exposed in half-naked humiliation,subjected to indignitiesfor the sake of new life.
To be a Mother is to say,“This is my body, broken for you,”And, in the next instant, in response to the created’s primal hunger,“This is my body, take and eat.”
To be a Mother is to self-empty,To neither slumber nor sleep,so attuned You are to cries in the night—Offering the comfort of Yourself,and assurances of “I’m here.”
To be a Mother is to weepover the fighting and exclusions and woundsyour children inflict on one another;
To long for reconciliation and brotherly loveand—when all is said and done—To gather all parties, the offender and the offended,into the folds of your embraceand to whisper in their earsthat they are Beloved.
To be a mother is to be vulnerable—To be misunderstood,Railed against,BlamedFor the heartaches of the bewildered childrenwho don’t know where else to castthe angst they feelover their own existencein this perplexing universe
To be a mother is to hoist onto your hips those on whom your image is imprinted,bearing the burden of their weight,rejoicing in their returned affection,delighting in their wonder,bleeding in the presence of their pain.
To be a mother is to be accused of sentimentality one moment,And injustice the next.To be the Receiver of endless demands,Absorber of perpetual complaints,Reckoner of bottomless needs.
To be a mother is to be an artist;A keeper of memories past,Weaver of stories untold,Visionary of lives looming ahead.
To be a mother is to be the first voice listened to,And the first disregarded;To be a Mender of broken creations,And Comforter of the distraught childrenwhose hands wrought them.
To be a mother is to be a Touchstoneand the Source,Bestower of names,Influencer of identities;Life giver,Life shaper,Empath,Healer, andOriginal Love.
This week, I invite you in your prayers to see if you can address God as Mother, and see what that changes in your relationship with God.
Does it help or hinder?
At least give it a try.
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