Readings: Julia Ward Howe’s Mother’s Day Proclamation; Revelations of Love, by Julian of Norwich Chapter 26; John 14:1-14
Listen to the sermon here
“I myselfam the Way—I Am Truth, and I am Life. NO one comes to Abba God but through me.” Over the course of two millennia, the ways in which these words have been interpreted by far too many people who insist that they are “Christian” is enough to make most mothers, be they Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Shikh, Jew, atheist, or agnostic. It seems to me, that to insist that it’s Jesus’ Way or the highway, as if Christians have the exclusive way of being in the world, violates the basic principles of the image we have of what it means to be a good mother. Today, while we celebrate all the various stereotypes of what it means to be or to have a good mother, I don’t think any of you would hold point to the image of a mother who favoured one of her children to the exclusion of her other children. Yet somehow, the image of God as “Father” of us all, is messed up with the notion of a God who insists on a particular Way of being in the world, a way of being that believes particular things about who Jesus of Nazareth is, was, and ever more shall be; a way of being that insists that only those who believe particular things about Jesus will be welcomed into God’s household. The Good News is, that New Testament scholars have learned a great deal about this passage that contradicts the so-called “traditional interpretations” of this text. New Testament scholars begin by teaching us that these words attributed to Jesus, were in fact written some 70 plus years after Jesus’ crucifixion by an anonymous story-teller that we call John, who in all likelihood put these words into the mouth of Jesus in order to address a particular problem in the community to which this story is addressed.
But, more important than the realization that Jesus may never have actually said these words is the reality that taken out of context and proclaimed in ways that exclude some people at the expense of others, these words fail to express the very ideas of inclusion that the anonymous story-teller that we call John was trying to express to his community in the first place. For as the anonymous gospel storyteller that we call John insists:
“In God’s house there are many dwelling places; otherwise, how could I have told you that I was going to prepare a place for you? I am indeed going to prepare a place for you and then I will come back to take you with me, that where I am there you may be as well.
I suspect that part of the reason that some people are so willing to portray God as the kind of Father who would shut the door on the vast majority of human-beings, has something to do with the ways in which the reality that we call God has been imagined for far too long. So, on the day that we honour our mothers, let me remind us all, about the ways in which our tradition has failed to imagine the Source of our Being in ways expand our vision of the LOVE that is God.
In the beginning, that’s right. Genesis chapter one, verse one.
In the beginning God;
that’s God with a capital “G” in English.
But in Hebrewit’s just “el” no capital yet.
Just “el” the generic Semitic wordfor a god.
In the beginning “el” created the heavens and the earth.
Now the earth was a formless void.
Void,“tohu w’ bohu” in Hebrew a squishy, damp cavern; reminiscent of a womb.
The earth was a formless void, there was darkness over the deep.
Tehom dark waters.
And ‘el’s” spirit hovered over the water.
Spirit,rauach, the feminine for breath.
El’s feminine breath hovered over the tohu w bohu.
When suddenly, god speaks and there is light and the waters divide or are broken, depending on how you translate it, and all sorts of life comes teaming forth.
Five days of labour; labour get it!
Five days of labour and finally ‘el’ is ready:
“Let us make adam”
“adam” which literally means earth creature.
And so el takes some ha adama which is literally earth; dirt.
The pun is lost in our English translations but its actually funny in Hebrew.
El takes a chunk of earth and creates the earth creature in the in the very image of the divine.
Inthe image of God, God created them.
That’s right them, that’s what it actually says in the Hebrew text of Genesis:
In the image of God, God created them, male and female God created them.
And then God blessed them.
God blessed them male and female.
Male and female made in the very image of the Creator.
Could this mean that in the eyes of our ancestors in faith, the Creator is beyond gender?
But remember, there’s another creation story in chapter two of Genesis.
This one says that the“Lord God” made the earth and the heavens.
This creation story says that the “Lord God”formed “man” out of the dust of the earth.
The “Lord God,” everyone knows that lords are men, so the Lord God is clearly male.
But then again Lord God is only an English translation of the Hebrewword, “elohim”.
You’ll never guess what “elohim” literally means in Hebrew.
It’s the plural form of the feminine noun for majesty.
Sound male to you.
Well it was male enough for the male translators who worked for King James.
But read just a little further to chapter 17 of Genesis.
When the Lord, that’s Elohim when Elohim first enters into a covenant with Abraham.
“When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram and said to him,
“I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless.
And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.”
God Almighty, from the Hebrew, El Shaddai.
El Shaddai, finally we have a name for this God, this el.
Shaddai, the feminine plural for breast.
El Shaddailiterally translated means God with breasts, or Breasted God.
Good thing those translators chose to translate that one as God Almighty,
because you wouldn’t want people to think that God has breasts.
Those translators sure had their work cut out for them.
Over and over again in the Old Testament the Hebrew uses the word“rechem” to describe god’s love.
Now God’s love is a very important concept.
Remember later in the New Testament God is defined by love.
“God is love.”
Well in the Old Testament, God’s love is prefaced by the word “rechem” and those clever translators, had to fix that one cause rechem is the Hebrew word for womb.
You can’t have God Almighty having breasts and you sure can’t have God’s love describedas “womb love” so what did those guys do?
So, the next time you read the words mercy or compassion in the Old Testament remember, chances are it’s really “rechem”.
I suspect that, womb love became merciful, because the only other way to describe womb love is“motherly love” and we can’t have that, now can we?
El Shaddai breasted one.
Rechem “ womb love” motherly love.
And I haven’t even gotten to the really interesting parts, so I don’t really have time to tell you that God’s Spirit, well you probably already guessed or remembered that,
The Holy Spirit in Hebrew was rauach, a feminine noun for breath, breath, wind
and even in Greek pneumani is a feminine nounfor breath, wind or spirit, but by the time the church gets around to translating the Bible into Latin, and before you know it the Holy Spirit becomes a he.
But I don’t have time to go into that, so let’s fast forward to the book of Proverbs.
And there you have the stories of God’s wisdom.
Chokma in Hebrew, a feminine name.
Sophiain Greek, also a feminine name that in our English translations becomes the noun “wisdom”.
But I digress, because everybody knows we believe in God the Father the Almighty, Jesus Christ the only Son of God and the Holy Spirit, the Lord the giver of life who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
Now don’t get excited, I’m not about to commit heresy, not yet anyway.
The expression of the Trinity as three male persons is not in and of itself wrong.
Men are indeed created in the image of God and maleness can and indeed shouldbe used as a symbol for God.
However, the tenaciously exclusive use of male symbols or images for God has reached the point of idolatry.
God is not male.
God is not female.
God is beyond gender.
All our feeble attempts to describe God with language fail to express the immense wonder of our God.
To date, I still think the Hindus have the best way of expressing the very nature of our God.
In Hindu literature we find goddescribed as: “beyond the beyond, and beyond that also.”
We simply have no words.
So, our attempts to capture God in words fail.
Our images of God are incomplete like peering through a glass darkly.
No wonder our ancient ancestors portrayed God as the one who forbids us to worship idols.
We cannot create an image of God and worship that image and expect to have a relationship with more than a pale reflection of our God.
In the bookof Proverbs: Chokma, Sophia, Wisdom is personified. She becomes an expression of God’s Wisdom. The writer of Proverbs urges us to:
“Acquire Sophia, acquire perception, never forget her, never deviate from my words.
Do not desert her, she will keep you safe, love her, she will watch over you.”
In the creation story from the Book of Proverbs, Sophia calls aloud in the streets, she raises her voice in the public squares; she calls out in the street corners, she delivers her message at the city gates, “You ignorant people, how much longer will you cling to your ignorance?
How much longer will mockers revel in their mocking and fools hold knowledge contemptible? Pay attention to my warning: now I will pour out my heart to you, and tell you what I have to say.”
“From everlasting I was firmly set, from the beginning, before earth came into being.
The deep was not, when I was born, there were no springs to gush with water.
Before the mountains were settled, before the hills, I came to birth; before God made the Earth, the countryside, or the first grains of the worlds dust.
When God fixed the heavens firm, I was there, when God drew a ring on the surface of the deep, when God thickened the clouds above, when God assigned the sea its boundaries—and the waters will not invade the shore—when God laid down the foundations of the earth,
I was by God’s side, a master worker; and I was daily God’s delight, rejoicing before God always, rejoicing in God’s inhabited world and delighting in the human race.
Happy the one who listens to me,”
The ancient Hebrews had a symbol for Chokma, she was often portrayed as a dove. Sophia God’s wisdom and the rauach , the spirit of God are intimately connected in the ancient stories that try to make sense of who God is.
Throughoutthe scriptures God is portrayed as a strong mother, labouring to give birth, determined to protect her young. Suckling and nurturing the children of God at her breasts. These feminine images of God can all be found in the Bible. But still these feminine images disturbed the powers that be. So much so that scholars now believe that the evidence of the motherly attributes of God were indeed suppressed by the religious authorities. So, much so that by the turn of the first century when the author of the Gospel of John sat down to write his account of creation, God’s wisdom, Sophia who had a reputation for playfulness had to take on a more reasonable tone. And so wisdom became reason, the Greek word for reason is logos. Sophia becomes logos, logos has two meanings in Greek, it can mean either reason or word.
In the beginning was the reason, and the reason was with God, and the reason was God.
Reason, Wisdom, no matter how you express it, when the Word becomes flesh and lives among us it is still Jesus you’re talking about.
The links between Jesus and Sophia are many. That’s a whole other sermon. Suffice it to say that our idolatrous preoccupation with the image of that bearded old man in the sky fails to take the Bible seriously.
The church has deprived the people of God of the tender images of our God. So much so that sometimes I feel like a motherless child. We have grown up in the faith as motherless people living in a single parent universe headed by God our Father.
Psychologists warn us that in children the “loss of a mother is experienced as a loss of safety, security, nurture, comfort and joy. A child without a mother often fails to know itself as valued, or precious and often feels unworthy of love. How might our lives have been different if deep within us, we carried an image of El Shaddai, the Breasted One, Mother of Us All, and when things were bad we could nestle in her tender embrace? Men and women could both turn to El Shaddai and I suspect that the church would be a different place. The Vatican would certainly be different. Just imagine women and men created in the image of God, walking the halls of the Vatican; or what about women and men created in the image of God with an understanding of their own equality haunting the hallways of fundamentalist institutions.
Wisdom/Sophia is calling; calling us beyond the boundaries of our language and beyond the images we have created. Remember the words of the anonymous storyteller that we call John attributed to Jesus: “In God’s house there are many dwelling places; otherwise, how could I have told you that I was going to prepare a place for you?” Now, try to imagine what the welcoming of El Shaddai might look like as the Breasted One welcomes all her children into the household of God who is LOVE. Imagine, if you will, Jesus the Christ, God’s Sophia, describing herself as the Way, the Truth, and the Life, how might we emulate the Way of Christ, the truth of Christ, and the Life of Christ in any other way, than the way in which the anonymous story-teller that we call John portrayed Jesus, as the ONE in whom God was made visible, in the way that he lived and moved about the earth, tending to the needs of everyone he encountered, with compassion, ah there’s that word again, compassion, womb-like LOVE.
Let the Ruach of the Breasted ONE be who she will be, the Mother of us all, the ONE who is now and ever more shall be womb-like LOVE.
Very interesting, Dawn. Thank you for breaking down the language of the scriptures and showing us the many female images for God.
Today I was preaching Easter 7B on Mother’s Day and couldn’t help but include this imagery:
“When we think about the ONENESS Jesus called us into—the connectedness with Jesus and God he described with the illustration of the vine and the branches—I think it is very appropriate on this Mother’s Day to think about that most symbiotic relationship we first enjoyed with our birth mothers. When we were nurtured and growing in our mother’s wombs, WE WERE ONE. When the connection between us was an umbilicus and all we needed for life came through that cord of life—blood, nutrients, oxygen, WE WERE ONE. When we shared bodily space and bodily fluids, and we danced together and slept together, in summer heat and winter cold, WE WERE ONE. That interdependent relationship between mother and child is the kind of relationship Jesus wants us to have with God our creator—to be delighted to be one with God, to be cherished and nurtured and growing in God in the same way we were cherished and nurtured and growing in our mothers’ bodies. Do you have that kind of relationship with God? If not, what would it take for you to have that kind of relationship with God? ”