Resurrection and Justification Eastertide 2018
"A Mother's Dream"
Rev. Paul Mitchell
Vashon United Methodist Church
May 13, 2018
Isaiah 42:5-10, 14-16 Luke 13:34-35
Isaiah 42:5-10, 14-16 Luke 13:34-35
Ann Reeves Jarvis, a Methodist preacher’s kid, was a social activist. Born in 1832, she experienced firsthand how the devastating effects of the Civil War fell disproportionately on the poor. Eight of her thirteen children died before they reached adulthood. These losses inspired Jarvis to take action to help her community combat childhood diseases and unsanitary conditions. According to some accounts, she was a peace activist, and refused to take sides in the war. After she died in 1903, her daughter Anna Jarvis started a “Mother's Memorial Day” in their Methodist congregation around 1905 to observe and preserve her mother’s passions and her memory. It was a mother's dream to heal and protect her children. And she saw all children as her children.
There are some problems with making Mother's Day, especially the kind of Hallmark greeting card version of Mother's Day, the central feature of our worship on Mother's Day. Instead, on the second Sunday of May, in church at least, let us focus on the Mother of us all – the Mother that we all share, the Mother that we share with all of creation – the Mothering God. Our images of God shape the ways we imagine each other. This week it was announced by our United Methodist bishops that a constitutional amendment to our Book of Discipline, declaring that women should be fully included in the life and order of the church was… rejected. I suspect this was in part because the theological “whereas” stated:
“As the Holy Scripture reveals, both men and women are made in the image of God and, therefore, men and women are of equal value in the eyes of God. The United Methodist Church recognizes it is contrary to Scripture and to logic to say that God is male or female, as maleness and femaleness are characteristics of human bodies and cultures, not characteristics of the divine.”
…. Words are important, and they can enhance or obscure our search for compassion and justice….
Metaphors and imagery evoke truth. But, we've lost out on the rich metaphor and imagery of the Bible and our Christian tradition when we only think of God as Father. Think of the range of imagery that informs our understanding of the divine.
Mother, Father, Rock, Fount, Eagle, Son, Brother, Vine, Wind, Breath, Spirit.
All of these are equally valid metaphors about the nature and the identity of God…, who is beyond our capacity to fully know and to name. Thus, the Hebrew tradition of an unpronounceable personal name for God. Some scholars even believe that that unpronounceable name, which we Christians are allowed to try to pronounce something like YHWH, is a feminine word in Hebrew. It's a metaphor, and so when we use a metaphor, I'm not suggesting we should say God is like a mother, but that mothers are like God in some specific, particular way, and when we're talking about God, it's the ideal case of the mother.
In the beginning, there's an image of the Wind/Breath/Spirit brooding over the surface of the waters. Brooding. It's also the word that the Bible uses to describe God as a mother worrying about her children. This image of God as the Womb of creation recurs again and again throughout the Psalms and the Prophets. It’s like a mother brooding over her newborn child. One of those prophets, Hosea, attributes to God the ferocity of a mother bear. He says, quoting God,
“I will fall upon them like a bear robbed of her cubs and will tear open the covering of their heart.” …
The ferocity of a mother bear. That's how deeply God cares for us and for creation, just like a mother bear. Somewhat contemporaneous to Hosea was Isaiah, probably our best known prophetic voice. There are several divine speeches in Isaiah in which God describes God's self as a mother. In the one we heard today God says,
“For a long time, I've 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.”
The labor of bringing peace and justice to the world, of sight to the blind, of illumining the world with light of love, is just like God giving birth…. We are called to be midwives in the project of bringing about the Kin-dom, of the Shalom of God's dream for creation.
The Gospel Luke draws deeply on these images – images and metaphors from the Prophet Isaiah. Luke values women more highly than any of the other Gospels, often depicting them as exemplars of faithfulness and responsibility…, of unique leadership within the early church. Luke depicted the motherly aspect of Christ when Jesus reflected upon the apostasy – the wandering and standing away – of God's children in Jerusalem.
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it. How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings? And you were not willing.”
Jesus the mother hen.
These images of God as Mother don't end, of course, with the Bible. The Holy Spirit has moved theologians and Prophets and mystics to understand God as Mother again and again throughout history. Clement of Alexandria, one of the earliest theological leaders of Christianity, who lived from 150 to 215, described the Eucharist – that is communion – as milk from the breast – of God – which he understood as Christ. Communion is milk from the breast of God. Hildegard of Bingen – whose writings inspired our closing hymn today – also wrote of her visions of the Mothering God.
So what are some of the qualities of God that can be found in this metaphor of God as Mother?
Long-suffering, abiding patience. Any mother here who knows that? Long suffering abiding patience. This is forgiveness at its deepest level, isn't it?
What about life-giving, giving out of the very stuff of yourself. It doesn't matter if you're the birth mother or not. You, as a mother, give of your very self. And it's not limited to the mothers who are women, is it? The mothers who are men also give of their very selves. Generosity, unconditional love, absolutely unconditional love – that's the love of a mother. She may be tearing her hair out. She may be wanting to kick her kid out onto the street…. But love is there. And it may even be love that's motivating that desire to kick the kid out onto the street. That time comes for every child doesn't it?
Unconditional love is also like hospitality. God sets a table before us.
Inclusion – concern for the common good: the mother doesn't only care about her own child. The Mother cares about all children everywhere….
The fierce protective impulse. I read that as justice. The Mother is fiercely motivated to protect her children.
These are the qualities of God, when we think of God as mother, aren’t they? Also, dreaming and yearning and aching for the best for her children. This is what God does as the Mother. She dreams and she yearns and she aches for the best for us, for her children. And sometimes dreaming for her children is almost too painful. And sometimes it's the only thing that keeps hope alive – dreaming for her children.
So, let's imagine for a moment the Mother-God's dream for her offspring. She wants health for us. Doesn't she? Just like any mother that we know. She wants health for her children, physical health, emotional health, spiritual health. First and foremost, she wants her children to thrive.
She wants meaning for her children. She wants her children's lives to have meaning. It may not be the meaning that she desired for them. They may not follow the path that she had laid out for them. But if they have meaning in their lives, she is gratified. Respect and gratitude for her: this is what the Mothering God wants from us, her children – respect and gratitude for her who has given us birth.
She wants real peace, deep peace that comes with interdependence. She doesn't want to have warring children. She wants us to be in peace with each other – despite, and maybe even because of, our differences, sometimes, she wants peace for us through interdependence.
Last fall I described my experience at one of the first gatherings in preparation for the New Poor People’s Campaign, which launches today. It aspires to continue the work that Martin Luther King said when he launched the original Poor People’s Campaign,
“When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, economic exploitation, and militarism are incapable of being conquered. A civilization can flounder as readily in the face of moral bankruptcy as it can through financial bankruptcy. A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. We are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s road side, but that will only be an initial act. One day the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be beaten and robbed as they make their journey through life. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar, it understands that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth, … and say, this is not just. A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war, this way of settling differences is not just. This business of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of sending men home from dark and bloodied battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love.”[i]
It was no accident that the original launch of the Poor People’s Campaign was on Mother’s Day, and it is not merely coincidence that it is being relaunched today. With the ferocity of a mother bear, in the activist spirit of Ann Reeves Jarvis, a movement is arising again that speaks truth to power through grass-roots acts of non-violent civil disobedience and resistance. Tomorrow, rallies will be staged in state capitols across the nation, including ours in Olympia. Forty days of action recall forty weeks of gestation, after which the hope is to give birth to health, respect, and peace for all – but especially for those who live in poverty. Over the next forty days, I invite you to join me in a fast from all that encourages and supports racism, economic exploitation, and militarism. It may simply be in the language we speak, with metaphors for God that subtly devalue women, humor that ridicules the “other” – such as calling something “crazy,” idioms based in violence or militarism – such as being “on target” or “shooting from the hip,” or dismissing someone as a “bum.”
Our fast may be in forgoing the convenience of Amazon Prime second day delivery or purchasing the latest upgrade from Apple.
Or it may be in uttering the simple prayer,
“Mothering God, to what are you giving birth through me? Amen.”
[i] Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Beyond Vietnam” (April 1967), https://kairoscenter.org/quotes-from-rev-dr-kings-last-years/