God Our Mother
I didn’t want to do it.
I didn’t want to preach “The Person Who Went to Seminary Sermon.”
This is a sermon I’m sure you all have heard before, maybe from me and I didn’t know it.
This is the sermon with fancy words like “soteriology” and “the eschaton” in which the preacher just has to show off the fantastic theological concepts she has learned and is sure are very, very relevant to everyone if she could just make them see it.
This is the sermon that sounds vaguely like a term paper and might even have footnotes and definitely drops names like Karl Barth.
The eager preacher rushes on earnestly, unaware of the glaze creeping over the faces of the congregation as they stop trying to care about hypostatic union of three persons in one godhead.
Well, like I said, I didn’t want to give that sermon but I think there must be some kind of law that everyone does it at some point.
But I don’t think you’ll find it boring because I think some of you may find it a little controversial.
This is not a dull theological concept, it’s an innovation in prayer that I found quite shocking myself the first time I heard it.
No doubt some of you are already very comfortable with it and others of you will leave here today thinking it’s a load of junk, but I hope many of you are like me—skeptical but willing to hear it out.
I knew that today was the day I must talk about it of all days.
Today I’m going to talk about taking prayer to God the Father and adding to it something new: prayer to God our Mother.
Have any of you ever prayed “Our Mother, who art in heaven?”
It definitely feels a little strange at first.
I had never heard prayer of this kind until I got to seminary and suddenly in chapel we were singing, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want, She maketh me to lie down in green pastures, She leadeth me beside the still waters.”
A colleague of mine at Christ Church had a tote bag so awesome I always wanted to steal it. It has printed on one side, “God is not a boy’s name.”
Of course we know that at heart God is neither male nor female.
God is so much bigger than our human categories that calling God Father is simply a way of understanding God’s love for us, and calling God Mother is no different.
So let’s think about the ways in which God is our loving Mother.
The most obvious is of course that God created us and gave birth to us, loving our souls from the beginning of time and seeing them safely into our earthly bodies through our earthly mothers.
Then there is the way in which God tenderly nurtures us through childhood, gently awakening faith and opening our eyes to the wide wonder of the world into which she brought us.
But this is not a Hallmark Cards Mother’s Day sermon.
One reason God our Mother is such a powerful figure is because there is real pain for us in thinking about mothers.
There are those of us who are estranged from our mothers or our children.
There are those of us who always wanted children but could never have them, or had children and found them taken away before their time.
There are those of us who because of unexpected or dangerous pregnancies found ourselves giving our children back to God before they were born.
And there are those of us who feel like lost and hopeless orphans when our mothers die even if we are grandparents ourselves.
As every mother and child here today knows, motherhood is about more than kisses and flowers on the second Sunday in May. It can be the most volatile and emotional relationship in our lives.
And should our relationship with God be any less passionate?
Julian of Norwich, the 14th century English mystic, was one of the first documented women theologians and she saw God as our Mother.
In speaking of the Incarnation, she writes, “God is our natural mother, our gracious mother, because he willed to become our mother in everything, took the ground for his work most humbly and most mildly in the maiden’s womb…. Our high God, the sovereign wisdom of all, arrayed himself in this low place and made himself entirely ready in our poor flesh in order to do the service and the office of motherhood himself in all things.”
See how she simultaneously calls God Mother while still calling God He?
Julian found harmony in finding all the range of human love in God and then was overwhelmed by how much bigger and bolder than that was divine love.
Julian also loved Christ our Mother, describing his love for us when she writes, “A mother can give her child milk, but our precious mother, Jesus, can feed us with himself. He does so most courteously and most tenderly, with the Blessed Sacrament, which is the precious food of true life.”
Her words come to mind when Jesus describes himself as a mother in the gospels: “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 [mother] hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”
I know that on this day when we celebrate and honor mothers many of us have close to mind the stories we love about our mothers.
I’d like to tell you one story about my mother that helps me understand best on a very simple level how God is my mother and why I love her for it.
When I was five years old going on six, my mother got pregnant and found herself expecting twins. Having brought me, my eleven-year-old sister Maggie and my three-year-old sister Merideth into the world safely, all was expected to go well.
But it didn’t.
Toward the end of the first trimester Mom’s appendix ruptured. She had to go into emergency surgery and she and the twins almost died.
After she woke up in the hospital, the doctors told her she had a less than 5% chance of a positive outcome to her pregnancy.
Even if by some miracle she and the twins lived, the babies had an incredibly elevated risk of severe physical and mental challenges, mainly because of the experimental drugs they would have to put Mom on to prevent her body from rejecting the fetuses as it had rejected the burst appendix.
With three young children and her husband providing the family’s only meager income, my Mom took on a battle of mind, body and spirit that I would not understand until years later.
My main memories are of Merideth and I making her endless baloney sandwiches in an effort to help as she was on complete bedrest, and her thanking us and eating every single one. I don’t think I’ve seen her eat baloney ever since then—we probably fulfilled her lifetime quota during those months.
Through prayer, good doctors, and sheer grit my mother got through the pregnancy.
It was a long winter and I remember her and Daddy having closed door conferences about making ends meet with her on such expensive medications.
She spent her fortieth birthday in the hospital.
But she did it.
She never gave up, and she was determined to love and care for the twins no matter how long or short their lives, no matter how great the physical or mental challenges they faced.
Our family was blessed with a happy ending. Our girls were born glowing with health and with every gift of their bodies and minds intact and blossoming.
Now Mom has watched them grow from her miracle babies to the graceful, beautiful, confident young women they are today.
My mom’s battle was over twenty-five years ago, but in her I see one quality that shows me God my Mother: fidelity.
My mom stuck it out every minute of that long struggle, and God does the same for us.
Perhaps the most defining characteristic of motherhood is the willingness to sacrifice one’s life for one’s child, in the instant of a crisis or in the long years of a carefully weighed choice.
A mother is one who would die for her child, and God is the Mother who did die for her children.
Jesus’ sacrifice of himself on the cross was his moment of caring for Jerusalem and the whole world as the loving, faithful mother.
But equally as important as being ready to die in being a mother, is being ready to live.
A person becomes a mother in a physical and spiritual labor that still is a battle through pain and fear no matter how advanced the medicines and technologies in the delivery room.
That fight to bring new life into the world is one that God intimately understands, because Jesus fought the hardest fight of all to birth new life for us.
Jesus fighting through death to resurrection shows the courage and fidelity common to every mother who sticks it out through the long months of waiting and the chaotic hours of labor on the way to new life.
Being a mother is about risking everything, even life itself, for the hope of new life being born.
And can there be any better way of describing what Jesus did for us from the Cross to the Resurrection?
So I hope God our Mother feels less like a thought experiment only a theologian could love, and more like a Biblical and Christian tradition that deserves the attention of our hearts and minds.
If this sounds totally bogus to you and will add nothing to your spiritual life, than chuck it. I won’t be offended, and neither will God.
But what if you tried it? What’s the risk?
I know some of you are old hands at praying to God our Mother, and some of you have never done it before and think it sounds pretty sketchy despite my rhapsodizing.
Just try it and see what happens, because it’s the season of Easter and there’s no better time to explore a face of God we’ve maybe never seen before.
Just try it.
Maybe start out simple with, “O God my Mother, I want to love all your children but I need to let you know that I don’t think I can sometimes.”
Or this: “O God my Mother, please love me because it feels like no one else does right now.”
Or maybe this: “O God my dear Mother, I love you. Thank you for my life.”
Today at the Eucharist, I’m going to pray, “Our Mother, who art in heaven.”
Try it with me today, and see if your soul gives birth to new light.