Sermon Archives

God, Our Mother

Rev. Dr. Karin Case
Sun, May 14

Text: Matthew 6:5-15

Our Father. These are the words Jesus taught us to pray. Close your eyes for just a minute and let the words roll around. Our Father. What images come to mind? What resonances—positive or negative—do you have with God-the-Father in this prayer of Jesus? Please open your eyes, when you are ready.

For some of us, the image is powerfully grounding and reassuring. For others, God-the-Father seems distant or punishing. Some of us have histories of abuse by men in the context of patriarchy, that are too powerfully summoned by masculine God-language. Language of God-the-Father seems to separate us from the fullness of God’s healing power and intimate presence.

What, then, are we to do with our language for God? How do we stay true to our tradition, honor even the very prayer Jesus taught, while opening ourselves to the fullness of who God is? How do we use masculine God-language in ways that do not re-inscribe patriarchy or domination?

You may have noticed the language we use to address you—the congregation. We call you beloved, friends, brothers, sisters, siblings in the Spirit. We want that the names we use for the people of God convey warmth and welcome to all. We are intentional not to use gender-binary language, because we understand that gender cannot be reduced to two simple categories, male and female. Gender is more fluid than that. And we know we create a whole world of pain when we force complicated, living, breathing, loving, embodied human beings into rigid gender categories.

We are thoughtful and prayerful about how we speak to you all. Should we not use equal care for the language we use to speak of the Divine?

Our Father. There’s a reason “father” language resonates so deeply. It’s personal and, even—possibly—intimate. It points toward the positive qualities of a loving parental relationship—warmth, tenderness, unconditional love. Obviously, God is not like our human fathers, does not have the same faults and limitations. Yet the word Father is so powerfully evocative, it’s hard to sort it all out.

Human language itself is limited. No words are adequate to express what we cannot fully grasp—the Ultimate, the Ground of Being, the Source of everything that is. For centuries, philosophers, theologians and mystics have said that God is ineffable—too great to be expressed in words. And yet, human words are what we have. So, we must use them and we must consider them carefully. Words matter.

Language can be used to convey truth or conceal it. Think for example of phrases like “collateral damage,” “enhanced interrogation,” and “the final solution”— words used deliberately to obscure or to refer obliquely to things we prefer not to face directly.

Language can be poetic. Consider Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s words, “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. I love thee to the depth and breadth and height my soul can reach…” Language can be technical and functional. Think of an Ikea assembly manual, or the airbag warning affixed to the sun visor of your car. Or Linneaus’s taxonomy of plants.

Language can be public or private. It can be steeped in historical resonances, or it can feel surprising and new. Recall Maya Angelou’s inaugural poem, “On the Pulse of the Morning,” which was both. She wrote,

Across the wall of the world, A River sings a beautiful song, Come, rest here by my side. Each of you, a bordered country, Delicate and strangely made proud, Yet thrusting perpetually under siege. Your armed struggles for profit Have left collars of waste upon My shore, currents of debris upon my breast. Yet today I call you to my riverside, If you will study war no more. Come, Clad in peace, and I will sing the songs The Creator gave to me when I and the Tree and the rock were one. (1)

Language carries emotionally-laden and socially powerful content. It can convey playfulness, beauty, or subtlety. Think of your nicknames for your beloved. Language can convey power and force. Think of the language of lament, the language of protest, or the rhetoric of political regimes.

Language is evocative. It can, for example, evoke powerful memories of childhood. Think for example of how familiar and “right” the King James version of Psalm 23 still feels to so many. The Lord is my shepherd. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.

Our language also comes down to us through the ages. One of the things we have received from our forebears in faith is masculine God-language. Now, it’s not the only God language embedded in our tradition. Consider, for example, this description of God from Isaiah 42:14.

For a long time, I have held my peace,
I have kept still and restrained myself.
Now I will cry out like a woman in travail.
I will gasp and pant….

Happy Mother’s Day, by the way. If our tradition offers such powerful feminine images of the Divine, why do we use so much Father-God language? Why not evoke Mother-God? I suggest we should, in fact, claim this Divine feminine.

But first a look at how the masculine God became so embedded in our language. In Jewish tradition, the Hebrew letters, YHWH, are used to represent the name of God, which is considered too holy to be spoken aloud. Written Hebrew lacks vowels, so it’s unclear how these four letters—the tetragrammaton—would be pronounced. That’s a tricky thing about reading Hebrew—the vowel symbols are not recorded in the text. When my nieces and nephew were preparing for their bar and bat mitzvahs, I learned that reciting the Torah portion is challenging, not only because it requires mastery of Hebrew, but because the vowels do not appear in the Torah text, and one has to memorize them.

But back to the subject at hand. Gentiles (like us) most commonly settle on Yahweh as the spoken version of YHWH. But YHWH is also the origin of the name Jehovah. And—check this out—in most standard, English-language Bibles, YHWH is translated as LORD, capital L-O-R-D. Which in English, also sounds gendered. There are Lords and there are Ladies.

There’s much more to say about this linguistic history. Adonai and Elohim are also in the mix, but we’ll save that for another day. Suffice it to say that we have inherited from the original Hebrew a masculine-gendered name for God—Yahweh. And we have replicated that gendered name through centuries of our own Christian history.

Here’s my question of the day: How does our masculine-gendering of God foster our relationship with God? Does it also hinder us? Is God-the-Father simply a “given” of our tradition, or is a fundamental emphasis on Father language an impoverishment of our tradition, a contraction that prohibits us from experiencing the fullness God?

Some images of the God-the-Father are so beautiful and powerful. Think of God’s creating Adam depicted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Visualize that ancient, white-bearded man, hand reaching out to touch and to create. The finger-to-finger gesture of our humanity made in God’s image. Or recall the story from Genesis we read on Ash Wednesday, of God walking in the Garden of Eden, human-like, with footfalls that Adam and Eve can hear. So immanent and personal.

We know that God does not actually have a physical body like we do, nor any physical morphology that corresponds to gender. In fact, if we think about the body of God, it is just as accurate (and possibly more evocative) to think of the stars spread out across the heavens, or of spiral galaxies, great oceans or mountain ranges, complex ecosystems, or fields or grain, or bread. These are the body of God.

The gender of God is a social construct. Should we not, then, use the full breadth of our tradition to speak of the Holy? A woman in labor, a hen sheltering her chicks under her wings, Wisdom-Sophia—at loose in the world. A Divine Mother? Why not?

You may have noticed that we at First Church,\ most typically use a fairly traditional version of the Lord’s Prayer. We pray to “Our Father.” We say “trespasses,” where some other churches or traditions say “debts” or “sins.” You may also have noticed that in our bulletin—just above the Lord’s Prayer—there is customarily a sentence which reads, “Please pray this prayer and address God in words most meaningful to your heart.”

Recently our Deacons began some conversation about this. How to we extend a true welcome to those for whom Father-God language is painful? How do we convey that we know God is not male, that the feminine is every bit as holy as the masculine, and also that gender is not binary?

We’ve tried praying, “Our Creator.” We’ve prayed, “Our Creator, our Mother, our Father.” This is a conversation that never gets fully resolved. But it’s an important conversation to have.

How can our language for God be as varied and rich as our experiences of God? How can the ways we speak of God—and more importantly to God—draw us closer into relationship with the One who knitted us together in our mother’s wombs, who loves us tenderly and calls us by name?

Katie Omberg, our Ministerial Intern for two years, taught us that our liturgical language can be gender-rich. When we go through our lexicon, changing “King” to “Sovereign” or “Lord” to “Holy One,” the result is that our worship is denuded of gendered language. Katie asks, what if, instead, we go for full gender inclusion in our liturgy?

Try this on for a moment. God our Mother. God our Mother. This is a God that makes me want to stretch out my body on the good earth and feel the pull of gravity on my bones. Our Mother. Maybe it makes us think quite literally of our own mothers—with all their strengths and faults. Maybe it gives us a tiny glimpse into the sacred. Our Mother. What comes up for you?

Sometimes we need a God who is like a conquering warrior or a stern judge. And sometimes that’s how God shows up. But we also need a God who gentles us, a Sweet Sprit, like a tender, loving Mother.

We need many names for this wonderful God, who calls us to fullness of life.

1) http://www.nytimes.com/1993/01/21/us/the-inauguration-maya-angelou-on-th...