Sermon preached March 16, 2014
Texts: Deuteronomy 32:8-14; Isaiah 49:13-16; Luke 13:31-35; John 3:1-17
Those of you who came hoping for some extended commentary on the Academy Award winning film from which I appropriated the title for this morning’s sermon will be disappointed. All I have seen of the movie “Her,” starring Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansen, Amy Adams, and Rooney Mara are the previews. However, I do know that at the heart of the movie is a mysterious personal presence who speaks as a female.
Mysterious personal presence – female. Hmm. Let me get back to this. First a little personal history. Alan Watts (1915-1973), one-time Episcopal priest, later founder of the American Academy of Asian Studies and well-known teacher of Buddhism and of the relationship between Eastern and Western spiritual traditions – Alan Watts was an important teacher for me at a certain point in my spiritual journey. When I was going through a period of curiosity and doubt, Watts’ writings, filled with gentle wisdom and humor helped keep something alive in my soul. His writings were a doorway not only into other spiritual traditions, but also into lost dimensions of Christian spirituality.
And it was through Alan Watts that I first heard the story about the astronaut who went far out into space and upon his return was asked whether he had been to heaven and seen God. “Yes.” “Well, what about God?” “She is black.” (Watts, OM: Creative Meditations, 143) Alan Watts was a good teacher, and his story still has something to teach us.
God is not male. Nor is God female. As theologian Sallie McFague writes: God as mother does not mean that God is mother (or father). We imagine God as both mother and father, but we realize how inadequate these or any other metaphors are to express the creative love of God, the love that gives, without calculating the return, the gift of the universe. (Models of God, 122).
God is not male or female, but I take seriously the words of another theologian, Elizabeth Johnson. The mystery of God transcends all images but can be spoken equally well and poorly in concepts taken from male or female reality…. In actual fact, however, male and female image simply have not been nor are they even now equivalent. Female religious symbols of the divine are underdeveloped, peripheral, considered secondarily if at all in Christian language and the practice it continues to shape. (She Who Is, 56-57)
God is not female or male, and we may use male or female images for God. However, we have tended to use the male much more frequently, for many years almost exclusively. If we are to develop ourselves more fully spiritually, if we are to grow more into our God-likeness, then we need a richer understanding of God and that includes a greater development of the feminine face of God – mysterious personal presence in a female voice. Besides, if we are to take the Bible seriously, we cannot ignore this feminine face of God.
Let’s take a quick tour. Nicodemus comes to Jesus in the night. “We know that you are a teacher who has come from God,” he says to Jesus. “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Puzzling remark. Nicodemus tries to think this through. “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus tells Nicodemus not to be astonished by his words about being born from above. The Spirit of God gives birth. I don’t know about you, but from all I know, it is women that give birth.
The Song of Moses, God is praised. The pronouns are male, but listen to some of the images. He sustained him in a desert land, in a howling wilderness waste; he shielded him, cared for him, guarded him as the apple of his eye. As an eagle stirs up its nest, and hovers over its young; as it spreads its wings, takes them up, and bears them aloft on its pinions, the Lord alone guided him…. He set him atop the heights of the land, and fed him with produce from the field; he nursed him with honey from the crags, with oil from flinty rock; curds from the herd, and mile from the flock, with fat of lambs and rams. Nursing. Again, I don’t know about you, but from all I know, it is women who nurse.
Jesus, coming into Jerusalem speaks from the heart. 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 person in whom we see the image of God most fully, Jesus comparing himself to a hen gathering her brood. A female image.
One of the starkest female images for God in the Bible are the words in Isaiah, words attributed to God. 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.
Let me try and bring all this to a few succinct points. If God can and should be described in female images, what might they say about God?
God is a creative power, a creative love. But God’s creativity is not simply a creativity that works with things outside of God. God’s creativity comes from deep within God’s own self. God’s creativity is God giving birth.
God’s care for creation, God’s care for us is a nurturing, nursing care.
God care for creation, God’s care for us also has a tough side, a fierce dimension. Sallie McFague, who has written wonderfully about God as lover, mother, friend, writes this about the image of mother-God. In the picture of God as mother, God is angry because what comes from her being and belongs to her lacks the food and other necessities to grow and flourish (Models of God, 113) The image of God as nursing, nurturing mother needs to be supplemented by the image of God as mother fiercely defending her children and calling the world to provide for the flourishing of all.
The point of our shades of God series is not to form us theologically. This is not simply a cognitive exercise. To better understand the shades of God, is to better understand the direction for our lives. St. Maximus the Confessor: If we are made, as we are, in the image of God, let us become the image both of ourselves and of God (The Philokalia, II, 171)
So what does understanding the feminine shades of God mean for us, for becoming both ourselves and more God-like?
We are to be those who creatively give birth to the good and beautiful in our lives and in our world. I deeply appreciate Patricia Farmer’s words in her wonderful book, Embracing a Beautiful God: It is our nature to create something. We are not just creations of God, we are cocreators with a divine Artist who continues to arrange for us new possibilities out of the colors and textures of our lives. When we offer our creative efforts to God, we are gathering up all the scatterings of our days and arranging them into something that makes sense to us…. It is like offering to God and the world a bouquet of flowers that we’ve hidden behind our backs, something fresh that we grew and tended ourselves. (21) We are not simply passive recipients of what happens in the world. Empowered and embraced by God we respond to her by creatively giving birth to our lives so we can give ourselves beautifully to the world.
There is tending and nurturing in that creative activity. How are we nurturing and nursing the God-given strengths, gifts and talents that we have? How are you helping you to grow in response to the nurturing activity of a mother-God? And how are we nurturing and nursing the good and beautiful in the world. What is good and beautiful is often small, quiet, hidden and needs our nursing and nurturing. The world is often a desert land, a howling wilderness waste. Empowered and embrace by God we respond to her nurturing love by nursing and nurturing the good and beautiful.
Lest we think of mother-God as only gentle and tender, we need to be reminded that God’s gentleness is strong, and God’s tenderness is fierce. Too many in our world lack the basic necessities to develop their gifts, and God does not play the kind of favorites among her children that our world seems to want to play. God calls us to play fair, to watch out for the least and the left out. Empowered and embraced by God we respond to her gentle strength and fierce tenderness by doing justice.
God loves us, God so loves the world, like a mother. It makes me think of a song – what doesn’t – a Paul Simon song. My momma loves, she loves me. She get down on her knees and hugs me. She loves me loves me like a rock. She rock me like the rock of ages, she love me. She loves me, loves me, loves me.
That’s a vital shade of God, and God inspires and empowers us to love like that, to love with a creative love working for the good of all the world. Be loved. Let God love you like a mother. Love, in her name. Amen.