Thank you to Carrie for permission to share some of her story. Other insights are shared from Mark Scott, and one resource I used to find scriptures about motherhood is here.
St. Jude’s Cathedral – English-Speaking Service
Sunday, May 14th 2017
1 Peter 2.2-10, John 14:1-14
You might be surprised to see me up here this morning. “It’s Mother’s Day,” you’re thinking; “shouldn’t you have the day off?” Well, I can understand why you might think that, but I actually kinda volunteered to preach this morning. All my life I’ve heard Mother’s Day sermons that talk about how great mothers are, but those sermons were all given by men. They were deeply appreciative of and respectful toward mothers, but they had an outside perspective. As a priest and a mother myself, I thought it might be interesting to give a theological perspective on Mother’s Day that is also an insider’s perspective. I’m going to focus particularly on the passages in the Bible where God talks about himself as being like a mother, and connect that with our experience of our mothers and our experience as mothers, to find out what that important relationship can tell us about God.
Everyone knows that we call God our Father. God the Father is what we call the first person of the Trinity, and that’s how Jesus taught us to pray. All through the Bible, God has chosen to refer to himself with male pronouns. But if you think about it, God the Father isn’t actually male. God the Father doesn’t have a body; he’s spirit. He doesn’t have male body parts; he doesn’t have gender. Jesus is male, but the Father and the Holy Spirit are not intrinsically male, and the indivisible Godhead himself isn’t physically male.
This is important because men aren’t automatically more like God than women are. Genesis 1:27 talks about how both men and women are created in God’s image: “God created man [and in Hebrew that’s the generic word for humanity, not specifically men] in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” All of humanity, men and women, reflect the image of God. All people, the more we become who we were created to be, the more we become ourselves, the more we reflect God’s image. When we reflect God’s image, that means that just in who we are, from day to day, we’re telling others something about what God is like.
Motherhood is one specific way, and a very powerful way, that God tells us what he is like. I encountered that very powerfully when I became a mother. You know, I’m not a particularly loving person naturally. I’m not just being falsely modest; it’s really true. I wanted to be a mother initially, almost as a thing for myself. It was an experience I wanted to have. Then Jared and I journeyed down a long and difficult road to becoming parents, as many of us have done. I finally had a successful pregnancy and a positive birth experience, which I’m incredibly grateful for. But when Naomi actually turned up in my life – when she was actually born – nothing could have prepared me for how much I loved her. I didn’t even know it was possible to love someone as intensely and completely as I loved her. I knew, that for the rest of my life, I was going to be committed to her thriving, and invested in her success as a human being. I knew that we were going to have a completely unequal relationship, that there was no way she would ever be able to pay me back for how much I would give to her, and that I was completely okay with that. I held that intention with complete conviction, even though I knew I would mess it up in every possible way. And I also knew, immediately and beyond a shadow of a doubt, that what I was feeling towards this baby was just a tiny hint of how God felt about me.
I go back to that moment quite often. Not because I’m some great mother, but because that knowledge completely revolutionized how I understood God’s relationship to me. God is not this threatening, distant presence on high, waiting for us to mess up so he can reject us. His countenance toward us is not fundamentally characterized by anger or disapproval. His parenthood, his motherhood and his fatherhood, are something completely different. I’m going to take four different images God gives us of himself as a mother that take us through the stages of motherhood.
- God labors with us as a laboring mother. Isaiah 42 is a prophecy about Jesus coming, in which God will work a new salvation. In Isaiah 42:14, God says, “For a long time I have held my peace; I have kept still and restrained myself; now I will cry out like a woman in labor; I will gasp and pant.” Then God goes on to describe how he will go out powerfully onto the earth and guide the blind, making straight places for them to walk. This was of the many ways Isaiah talked about Jesus’ coming.
A good friend and mentor of mine who is also a priest and a mother talks about her first labor, which was incredibly difficult. She was in the stage of labor that we call transition for seven hours. I’m not going to describe what that means, but it was pretty bad. She talks about how, after she had been in this state of intense and nearly continual pain for hours, she had a vision of Jesus on the cross. And she knew in a new way, through that pain, what Jesus had done for all of us.
When Jesus was hanging on the cross, and the soldiers pierced his side, Scripture says blood and water came out. There’s a scientific reason for that, because of what happens to the heart tissue when a person dies. But I also had a pastor once who mentioned that blood and water are also the fluids associated with birth. Every mother, when they give birth, is risking her life. Birth is relatively safe now because of modern medicine, but no matter how you gave birth, whether by Cesarian or naturally or with medical assistance, you risked your life so that a new person could have life. Some of us had births difficult enough to know that fact intimately. Jesus did exactly that, not just risking his life, but giving it completely, so that we could have new life, to bring us into his family.
- God adopted us into his family. Not all of us become parents through labor; some of us adopted our children from others. I want to acknowledge, too, those mothers who gave up children for adoption, and commend you for your sacrifice.
Adoption, in a way, is an even more powerful picture of God than parenthood by birth, because it’s not even a metaphor. God actually adopted us into his family. Romans 8 talks all about how those who believe are the adopted children of God, that we have received the Spirit of adoption, and that the Holy Spirit witnesses to our spirit that we are children of God and heirs with God.
Adoption is so powerful because it takes a child who is not your flesh and blood, and by the power of love, says, “you are my flesh and blood.” Not just “you are legally,” or “you might as well be,” but you are my flesh and blood now. Adoption has that power. Hebrews 2:12-15 talks about how being God’s children makes Jesus our brother, and that since we have that flesh and blood family relationship now, we share completely in the victory over evil that Jesus won. I could go on and on about that; I’m only scratching the surface of the wonderful theology of adoption in the Bible.
- God nurses us like a nursing mother. Our reading from 2 Peter opens with Peter exhorting the Christians he was writing to, “long for pure spiritual milk” like newborn infants. In the larger context, we can tell that Peter here is talking about the word of the Lord, the good news about Jesus.
If you’ve been around a newborn infant, milk is the thing that they want! But they don’t just want the stuff; they want the source. An infant needs to be held, be connected, to be close to her mama’s or daddy’s heartbeat. A baby’s need to be fed is wrapped up together with their need for connection.
Sometimes it’s easy to feel distant from the Bible, to read it with a clinical or detached eye. But reading the word isn’t just about the content, getting factual truth about God, or instructions about how to live, into your brain. Reading the word connects you to God and feeds your spirit, like we talked about last week, and we can discipline ourselves to come to the word expecting that. David gives us an example of that in Psalm 131:2: “But 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.”
And God wants to treat us with that tenderness. One of my favorite passages is Isaiah 49:15, where Israel is so convinced that God has forgotten them, but God responds, “Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget. Yet I will not forget you.” Not all moms breastfeed, but those who have, know that there is a physical connection with your baby that continues. If you’re far away from your baby, your body will tell you when your baby needs to nurse! It is very hard for a nursing mother to ignore her child. God says, even these may forget. It’s unlikely, but possible. But it’s not possible for me.
- God also nurtures us and raises us up as a nurturing mother. Nurturing and raising children is a task shared by both parents, and there are many descriptions of God as a loving father, but I’ll continue to focus on the mothering passages this morning. In particular, God compares himself in several places to mother animals in nature. In Hosea 13:8 he describes himself as having the ferocity of a mother bear robbed of her cubs. In Deuteronomy 32:12 he describes himself as a mother eagle, that kicks its young out of the nest to teach them how to fly, but then when one isn’t ready, spreads out its wings underneath and catches them, guiding him until he’s ready.
Maybe the most famous example is when Jesus himself arrives in Jerusalem (Matthew 23:37 and Luke 13:34), interacts with the stubborn hearts of the Pharisees, and says “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it. How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!” This one catches my attention because God is like a wise mother who is frustrated at her child’s rebellion, but does not force her nurture on her children.
My fellow mom-priest I told you about before has observed to me that as soon as kids can walk, they start running away from you, faster and faster. A lot of moms react to this by trying to hold their kids closer, and the kids just run farther away. That tension between setting kids free and protecting them is an incredibly difficult balance, and it seems almost impossible. When I meet parents who seem to be doing this well, I pay close attention! But in this way, God is like the very wisest mother. His desire to tenderly care for us is so much greater than our willingness to accept it! But like I talked about last week, he respects our dignity. He enables us to choose him in the most surprising and gracious ways, but he doesn’t manipulate us.
He offers for us to come home to him, and he is impossibly patient to wait for us. In John 14 we heard about how he is preparing rooms for us. But he’s not just waiting at our destination; he’s also the way home. He’s the way, the truth, and the life.
Mother’s Day is a wonderful chance to express our thankfulness to our mothers. But it’s not a happy day for all of us. It can be painful for those who have lost their mother, especially recently. It can be difficult for those who don’t have a good relationship with their mother. It can be hurtful to those of us women who have never had the chance to be mothers, or to those who have never wanted to have children. For those of us who have lost children, or had children run away or cut off from us, it can be very hard. Or even for those of us who are blessed with happy families, it’s not really a respite from the day-to-day life in the trenches of small children, which we feel like we’ll never escape, even as others keep telling us to enjoy it! Our relationship with our mothers, and our relationships as mothers with our children, are so deeply personal that I can’t describe a universal experience. But it is a chance to touch that deepest part of us, that part that longs to be cared for, guided, nurtured, nourished, and unconditionally loved, and say, yes. God is like that. God is so like that, that the best image we have of motherhood, extrapolated by our imagination, can only begin to touch how God tenderly, persistently, fiercely, wisely loves us. As mothers, we embody that to our children, and the mothers and mentors in our lives help us understand God in that way.
I’ll leave you with this passage from the last chapter of Isaiah, which looks forward to our final homecoming. One day Jesus will return and establish the new Jerusalem here on earth, and those of us who belong to him will finally get to just be with him. Here’s Isaiah 66:12-13: “For thus says the Lord: ‘Behold, I will extend peace to her [Jerusalem] like a river, and the glory of the nations like an overflowing stream; and you shall nurse, you shall be carried upon her hip, and bounced upon her knees. As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.”