The following sermon was preached by Sarah MH on October 4, 2022 at Wine Before Breakfast.
God As Mother
Today I am preaching on God As Mother. As most of you know, I do not have any human children, although I do have a dog and a cat, and lots of plants. For that very good reason, I was surprised when Brenda asked me to preach since Jess is probably going to have a baby any minute now, but I suppose that’s what I get for requesting that we explore the image of God As Mother in the survey Brenda and Deb sent out in August.
Like maybe some of you, I grew up knowing that God was my Holy Parent. God the Father was never something that was overt, he was there, however it was really only when we talked about the Trinity that God was Father. As a child, our bedtime prayer was “As a hen covers her chicks with her wings to keep them safe, spread out your wings and protect us this night”. In my family, it is the women who lean towards ministry. My grandmother, Nell, wrote her chaplaincy thesis on women in ministry in the Bible. My other grandmother is one of the most prayerful people I know, and has dedicated her life after retirement to being a church leader and missionary. Women and God have always been closely intertwined in my life.
It wasn’t until I was old enough to go to youth group and then really pay attention to what was going on at summer camp that all of a sudden God was really Father, and somehow God was really manly, or in the words of a girl in my youth group: Daddy God. Because of the guys that camp attracted- macho, “manly” and very loud- and because camp ran on a framework of patriarchy and submission, I came to understand God as a Father who was deeply disappointed with me and my feminine side, who was strong, powerful and not afraid to use force or guilt to turn my heart to him. The version of God that I learned about at Evangelical Christian camp was strictly patriarchal.
Yet, as I grew up and began to distance myself from camp and youth group, as I came into my own faith, away from Hillsong, Bethel and Jesus Culture, back into mysticism and tradition, I found a God that wasn’t all Father, somewhat like Mother, and sometimes very much like neither at all, Parent God.
The reality is, God is neither male nor female, yet this was never obvious as a child. I feel like I was cheaped out on, in what I could have learned as a teenager and young person and taught as a leader. Yet, God as Parent was always there, hazy in the background, waiting for me to discover them. My Heidelberg Catechism taught me that God is a Spirit, and has no body as we do. Genesis teaches us that God created humans in their own image, from two most holy things: the breath of the Holy Spirit and dirt from the earth God created, and God saw that both humans created were very good, neither less good than the other. So as I came to terms with God as Parent, God as Mother became more believable. I started to look at the language of the Bible and early Christian teachings, and I began to see the fluidity of God as Mother, Father and Parent; the Trinity.
While the first two members of the Trinity are the Father and the Son, and those are the two that most modern Christianity leans on, I think it is in the Holy Spirit that we find Mother God. I’ll explain more as we go along today, so if you are ready to walk out, please stay and hear me out! For me, the Holy Spirit is the balance that I was craving in my relationship with God the Father. The Holy Spirit has escaped our need to gender everything and yet I feel the most close to God the Mother when I look at how the Holy Spirit is symbolized in scripture, with wind, fire, light and water. For myself, a solid definition of the Holy Spirit is: the inspiring and freeing power of God let loose on the earth. This allows me to hold space for both God the Father and God the Mother.
It should be noted that the word spirit was translated as masculine with the Latin form of spiritus, however was originally feminine with in the Hebrew word ruach, and the Greek is neither male nor female with the word pneuma. The activities of the Spirit as creator, nurturer, protector, as a force of nature, seeking out the needs of her children to empower and encourage them is remarkably parallel to that of women’s experiences. Some of the ways the Spirit has been mentioned in Scripture with the traits of a mother are as a God that gives birth, nurses her young, protects them and attacks those who would harm her children.
Isaiah 49:13-16 reads: Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth; break forth, O mountains, into singing! For the Lord has comforted his people, and will have compassion on his suffering ones. But Zion said, ‘The Lord has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me.’ Can a woman forget her nursing-child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands; your walls are continually before me.
Even more precise of an image of God as Mother is Isaiah 42:14 in which God identifies as a mother who’s forceful labour lays waste to the land and leads the children to paths and high places and will not abandon them. However, a few verses before this, God identifies as a warrior and a soldier, proving to be mighty against enemies. While we think of being a warrior and a soldier as being traditionally masculine, there are women in the Bible like Jael and Deborah who are fierce warriors too. It is unhelpful to say that military might is explicitly masculine. In any case, God here is comfortable with being on both ends of the spectrum that we humans have created in gender: both the masculine and feminine side and God is comfortable being both in the middle and outside the spectrum.
The theologian Lynn Japinga wrote in her book Feminism and Christianity that language about God should help us to understand and encounter God, but we should not confuse the reality of God with the limits of our language [Feminism and Christianity: An Essential Guide, Abingdon: 1999, p. 64]. God is beyond gender, the pronouns are only there so that we can more clearly understand God who is beyond our understanding. God is clearly comfortable with identifying as male, female and non-binary, it’s us who needs help and understanding, not God who needs more labels.
Using feminine images for God is not new or radical, it’s part of early Christian history. Lynn Japinga also writes that in the second century, Clement of Alexandria mixed his metaphors in his description of Christians nursing at the breast of God the Father. Medieval mystic Meister Eckhart described God’s daily activities: “What does God do all day long? God gives birth. From all eternity God lies on a maternity bed giving birth.” [Feminism and Christianity, p. 65]
Yes, it is problematic to reduce the Holy Spirit to a mother figure only, not all women are mothers nor do all desire to be a mother, nor does motherhood define femininity. However, those who transcribed the scriptures and continued the early church teachings found a lot of material in the contemporary cultures about women’s roles in society which helped to articulate the Spirit’s function. When Jesus meets with Nicodemus, he provides a birthing metaphor: “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit” (John 3:5). Jesus explicitly describes the Spirit as one who births. In addition, the Psalms describe the Spirit as a midwife, a washerwoman and one who knits life together inside the womb. In addition, the bird symbolism that we see all over the Bible, from cover to cover, was commonly employed to represent female deities in the ancient near east.
From this, the Bible and what we know of the times in which the Bible was transcribed, there is a Biblical case for the feminine in the divine: God as Mother, nurturer and just as much female as male. God’s creation of humans in God’s own image signifies that God is the fullness of femininity, masculinity and non-binary, God transcends gender binaries and constructions. The creation of women in God’s own image means that the realities women live offer helpful metaphors for describing “divine mystery”. There is room for creative, spiritual re-imagining while remaining true to what the Bible says, embracing God’s femininity, mothering and the God-given giftedness of women. Some of us, for too long, have heard one version of the Bible and that has hurt and crippled our relationship with God. When we include the femininity of God in our perspective of the Trinity, we are restoring Scriptures to what they once were and taking the Bible more literally than those who claim God only reflects male characteristics alone. How can we understand God fully if we are only seeing part of God and part of the Trinity? How can we be a complete and authentic community if we do not see the Trinity as equally feminine, masculine and non-binary? Our need for harmony in community is reflected in the perfection of the Trinity. The Father, the Son and Holy Spirit exist in complete mutuality and dependence without a hierarchy of leadership importance and it is the Spirit that reconciles us to model together perichoresis, the authentic and reciprocal community between human and divine in each other. Together, the Trinity sets the example for all people of their God-given capabilities to birth, tend and care, as well as to protect and provide, like a Mother and like a Father. The Trinity is bringing us to an awareness of the fuller picture of God’s being so that all people can find themselves in God’s embrace. Friends, may you find all of yourself in the embrace of Mother God today.