Isaiah 66.7-13

Luke 13.34-35; James 1.16-18

Mama Mia: Feminine Dimensions of the Divine

Seventh Sunday of Easter

            A couple weeks ago we began with a lesson in New Testament Greek; in the interests of equal opportunity, we start this morning with a lesson in biblical Hebrew, and on this Mother’s Day we’re going to learn the Hebrew word for mother, which, as we’re about to discover, all of us already know, after a fashion. There are actually two versions of it: the first is “am,” [repeat], and the second is “amam” [repeat]. Now bear in mind that the Hebrew language is read, not left to right, but right to left, so if we have ever called our mothers “ma” or “mama,” then we’ve been saying the Hebrew word for mother, “am,” or “amam” all along, only backwards, which is appropriate for Hebrew.

            This morning’s sermon comes with an important disclaimer. I am acutely aware of the fact that a number of my immediate predecessors in this pulpit, as well as our occasional supply preachers, are women. This congregation has benefitted from their wisdom – I’ll say more about that wisdom in a few minutes – the wisdom of people like Lee Ireland, Kathy Peters, Toni Smith, Eileen Sypher, and just this past Tuesday I met another in this long and venerable line, Bonnie Scott, who was ordained here at the United Church and served us for a time. So in some ways my talking about the feminine dimensions of the divine to this congregation is like carrying coals to Newcastle. It could well be this morning I bring you nothing you don’t already know. So maybe – maybe this morning’s sermon is more for the speaker than for the hearers.

            For example, I’m confident everyone in this room understands that the Bible offers multiple images of God as mother as well as father. What is slightly surprising is that this occurs much more often in the Old Testament, that crusty old patriarchal male-dominated testament, than it does in the generally kinder and gentler New Testament. Probably the most detailed and articulate example is the passage from Isaiah that Deb read this morning, a vision of God with multiple maternal and feminine images:

“Before she was in labor she gave birth; before her pain came upon her she delivered a son… Shall I open the womb and not deliver? says the Lord; shall I, the one who delivers, shut the womb? Rejoice and be glad… that you may nurse and be satisfied from her consoling breast; that you may drink deeply with delight from her glorious bosom… You shall nurse and be carried on her arm and dandled on her knees. As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.”

How anyone can read this and not recognize the female in God I’m not sure I can fathom. Still, we don’t need to go to deep into the post-exilic prophets to understand the feminine dimension of the divine. The very opening chapters of Genesis make it abundantly clear that both God the father and God the mother are hard at work in bringing us to being and raising us, and that in both our masculinity and in our femininity we reflect the very being and nature of God: In Genesis 1 are the familiar words, “God created humanity in the divine image;” and what is that divine image?   “Male and female God created them.”

            A few years ago I came across a fun creation dialogue that shows God at his and her most parental self; it begins with a word every parent knows far too well:

“Don’t!”

“Don’t what?” Adam asked.

“Don’t eat the forbidden fruit,” God said.

“Forbidden fruit? We got forbidden fruit? Hey Eve – did you hear that? We got forbidden fruit!”

“Forbidden fruit? No way!”

“Yes way!”

“Where is it? Show me! What does it look like? What does it taste like? And what is that slimy thing slithering around the garden?”

“Don’t eat the fruit!” God said.

“Why not?”

“Because I said so!” God replied, beginning to wonder why she didn’t call it a day after the beasts of the field and the birds of the air. “I created you both, and I said stay away from the forbidden fruit!”

“Oooh kaaayyy…”

Of course, we all know a little while later God came back from hanging out the laundry and saw his two kids having an apple break and could not believe it.

“Didn’t I tell you not to eat the fruit?”

Adam said, sheepishly, “Uh, I forget; maybe; I guess so…”

“Then why did you? Eve??”

“I dunno.”

“She started it! The woman whom you gave me told me to eat it!”

“Did not!”

“Did too!”

“DID NOT!!”

And thus has it ever been.

            There are other passages in the Bible that reveal the feminine side of God as well. Earlier in Isaiah, God laments, “Like a woman in childbirth I cry out.” In Deuteronomy God chides the Hebrews, “You forgot the God who gave you birth.” And in Numbers, Moses asks God reproachfully, “Did I conceive these people? Did I give them birth?” Moses’ accusation is clear; “I didn’t conceive them or bear them; You did! You conceived these people, you gave them birth!” In the New Testament, we heard the words of James, “God gave us birth to be a kind of first fruits of creation.” And probably the most lasting maternal image from the gospels is Jesus saying to Jerusalem, “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings!”

            As we consider the feminine dimension of the divine on this Mother’s Day morning, we recognize of course, that Mother’s Day was never intended to be a particularly religious holiday. But there are some church connections to the day’s origins. The idea for Mother’s Day was first suggested by someone whose other work we know well, and in a churchly setting. It was in 1870, in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, that Julia Ward Howe, who wrote the words to “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory,” called for an assembly of women, specifically mothers, “to bewail and commemorate the dead… [and] take counsel with each other as to the means whereby the great human family can live in peace”. Beginning in Boston in 1872, Howe organized a series of demonstrations to publicly grieve and oppose the carnage of the Civil War. A contemporary of hers, Anna Reeves Jarvis, also active in the peace movement, called for a special day in which prayers for mothers and their children would be offered along with prayers for peace and non-violent solutions between peoples and nations. You might say that Julia Ward Howe and Anna Reeves Jarvis were the spiritual forbears of people like the mothers and fathers of Sandy Hook and Parkland who stand for peace and an end to violence because they were repulsed the deaths of innocent children. But it was Jarvis’ daughter Anna, who took up her own mother’s cause, which led directly to Woodrow Wilson’s establishing Mother’s Day as a national holiday.

            But even though today is Mother’s Day, it is important to recognize that the feminine expression of divinity extends beyond God’s maternal attributes. You may recall that back in March we read a passage from the Old Testament book of Proverbs and saw how the Hebrew notion of wisdom, an idea with a long and deep tradition, is personified. It’s funny – I know we don’t generally think of the Pattaconk as a fountain of deep theological perspicacity, but just a month ago I found myself in deep conversation with someone I had never met before on this very topic: that the presence of wisdom in Hebrew thought and history is a feminine presence. Listen again to a portion of Proverbs 8:

“Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice? On the heights, beside the way, at the crossroads she takes her stand… at the entrance of the portals she cries out:   Take my instruction instead of silver, and knowledge rather than choice gold; for wisdom is better than jewels, and all that you may desire cannot compare with her.”

Wisdom personified is woman. And even though we’re looking at the Hebrew expression of wisdom in Proverbs, you and I know her better by her Greek name, Sophia. And it is that wisdom, that feminine expression of God, that comprises one of the organizing principles of the universe, because she goes on to say, “The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of the [divine creative acts] of long ago.” Combine this with God’s partner in creation, the spirit that moved over the face of the waters – a spirit, in Hebrew, “ruach,” that is feminine in content and character – and it is clear that the totality of humanity, woman and man, male and female, are robustly represented and expressed, not only in the person of God, but in every facet of creation herself.

            I don’t often take my theology from Saturday Night Live, but back in the ancient days of giants like John Belushi and Gilda Radner, Chevy Chase and Jane Curtin, there was a skit that aired the night before Mother’s Day that has stayed with me ever since. It was either Gilda or Lorraine Newman who attempted to sing an old Mother’s Day chestnut that she had clearly forgotten the words to, so she made them up as she went along. She sang, “M is for the Many things she gave me; O is for the Other things she gave me; T is for the Things that she gave me; H is for the Host of things she gave me; E is for Everything she gave me; R is for the Rest of the things she gave me: put them all together, they spell MOTHER!” She may have gotten the words wrong, but she wasn’t far from the mark in suggesting that our mothers sure have given us a lot. In similar way, you and I understand that at the end of the day it is God, in whose image and likeness you and I have been fearfully and wonderfully made, who gives every good and perfect gift and who provides us with our every mortal and spiritual need.

            Let us pray.

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