Mother’s Day is a day when we honour mothers, and God knows we live in a world that needs to hear that message, which is rooted in the ancient biblical commandment: “Honour your father and mother.”
In their typical definition of “mother”, people often suggest attributes usually associated with God: a complicated and mysterious being who gives birth to new life; one who loves unconditionally, one who nurtures, one who has wisdom and insight, one who is always there, the one who makes it all better.
It’s strange we haven’t associated God more with mothers – it’s a gentler, kinder image than the typical image of God people carry around with them!
One author put it this way:
If God was a woman conversations about gender would be nonexistent.
If God was a woman sexual trafficking would have never been heard of.
If God was a woman the Suffrage Movement would have not been necessary.
If God was a woman slavery would be incomprehensible.
If God was a woman beauty would be our highest pursuit.
If God was a woman children would be our focus.
If God was a woman nature would be protected, cared for, and flourishing.
If God was a woman war would be nonexistent.
If God was a woman everything would be different than it is right now.
God may not be a woman (and let us remember that God is not a man either!), but it’s interesting to speculate how different the world would be if it stemmed from and was oriented around a feminine point of view. Yet even today, to suggest some different images of God, and the use of less gender specific language, can still be a problem, even for women themselves, because the patriarchal, power and domination models are so ingrained.
Honour your father and mother, the Bible says, yet it remains unfortunate that we have not felt free to honour God as both father and mother.
There is a feminine face of God: Shekinah, the Jewish term for the presence and blessing of God, was traditionally expressed in the feminine; Sophia, the wisdom of God, is repeatedly referred to as she; the prophet Isaiah’s images of God as mother and nurturer. Many religions recognize the feminine in their conceptions of the divine.
The Madonna and child is an image that has been at the heart of Christian devotion since the beginning. Think of what it means when you make an image like that so central — what a powerful reminder that the life of God in Christ was entrusted to and shaped by a woman (and if scripture is accurate, a single woman at that). A woman was there nurturing and guiding Jesus at the beginning, and at the end of his earthly life, once again it is women, and one in particular, Mary Magdalene, there to love and support and tend to him even in death.
The Creed makes sure we understand that Jesus is firmly rooted in the feminine as well as the masculine, deriving one kind of life or energy from “The Father” and another kind of life or energy from “the Mother.” Many aspects of his ministry involved liberating women from oppression or including them among his disciples.
Until the 4th Century (in other words, for the first several centuries of the Church’s existence), women held significant positions of leadership. Christianity in the first place was an institution radical for its inclusion of women in leadership, and St Paul, in his writings, clearly references women who were prominent in the life of the early church.
Today’s first reading (from Acts 16) offers what may be a typical example of liberation in action, a vignette revealing the way in which Christianity liberated women from various forms of oppression and social domination. At huge personal risk, Paul confronts the way in which a young woman’s gifts were being co-opted for money.
First of all, she was a slave, and because Christianity viewed all people as children of God, slavery, which was commonplace throughout the Roman Empire, quickly became offensive, and Christians became a threat in part because they challenged not only the social but also the economic status quo. So Paul is not merely confronting the fact that this girl’s gifts are being misused, but also the social injustice that she is not free to become a person in her own right – in a sense she has been obliged to prostitute her spiritual gifts.
That sort of subservience – that sort of subjection and abuse – is offensive to us, but the story serves as a reminder of the flourishing slave/sex trade that continues around the world, and within Canada, almost all of it involving women being used as commodities by men.
The recent incident in Ohio, in which three young women escaped, having been kidnapped in their early teens and kept as personal slaves for 10 years, reminds us that it is virtually always men who perpetrate these kinds of things, and virtually never women.
The story from Acts has such a familiar ring to it, because in our own time, people who attempt to intervene in the human slave trade are threatened and harmed, as Paul and his companions were. The story suggests he and the others were “severely” flogged before being jailed, as a punishment for trying to interfere.
Paul, in freeing this girl whose genuine gifts and potential were merely being used to make money for her owners, reminds us that even today women are often enslaved and manipulated – treated as commodities and not as people – sometimes in their own homes and families. The authorities in their “wisdom” have the disciples flogged and thrown in jail because they are creating a disturbance to the social order, and depriving certain business-men of their means of income.
It is when they attempt to jail the disciples and their message that the heart of this story emerges. An earthquake happens and “the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened.” This is not just a description of an event that happened in Philippi — it is a description of what happens when we come to know Christ — when we experience the reality of knowing God. The doors are opened and our chains are unfastened — this is a description of what happens to us when we trust God with our lives.
Liberation from prison becomes, in the hands of the Gospel writer Luke, a metaphor – a parable – a means of teaching people of subsequent generations the way of Christ. Christianity is about liberation – on every imaginable level – and there is no aspect of life which is not subject to its authority. Christians have to have the courage to believe that, and to act upon it, as St Paul did.
From the point of view of faith, this story is a parallel to the resurrection story: another attempt by worldly powers to destroy and bury the life to which God is calling us being thwarted by the power of God
The shaking of the prison walls is highly suggestive, symbolic of a breakdown of the old order. And notice that suddenly jailer and prisoner are friends, that the jailer suddenly wants to be part of the Christian community. When we make the choice to break dividing walls and to confront oppression, that is what happens.
As Jesus nears the end of his life, he prays that his disciples will come to know the unity – the oneness – the communion – that he has known, the unity that he has experienced. He is speaking of a potential and possibility not yet realized – a hope – a vision – a dream – that perhaps one day the predators and oppressors of the world will stop preying on people and learn to be with them, as a mother with a child. In the midst of all the sectarianism and tribalism, the ongoing oppression and brutality in our world, Christians have to continue to hold up this vision – a vision not based on ancient and habitual hatreds and prejudices but rooted in the Love which makes everything one.
If our mothers have loved us, we know this much: Love frees us – it makes us confident in who we are, and yet aware of our place in the world because we have been taught to love others not just ourselves. It makes us reluctant to put up with oppression and abuse or to condone it when we see it happening to others. Those who do not yet know that love – the love of God – are relying upon us to reveal the way.
Transformation is often painful and upsetting – it challenges who we are and doesn’t leave us the same. In every age there are those who try to close the door upon God, who suppress the voice of conscience, who try to shut away the call to justice and compassion. Love finds a way.
As the Church today continues to struggle with gender and sexual equality and to move past patriarchal and tribal ways of looking at life, let us celebrate the way the Gospel liberates all people, including women.
The Rev. Grant Rodgers+
RCL appointed readings:
Acts 16:16-34 One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour. But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities. When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, “These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.” The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely.
Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks. About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted in a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them outside and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” They answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.
Psalm 97 The LORD is king! Let the earth rejoice; let the many coastlands be glad! Clouds and thick darkness are all around him; righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne. Fire goes before him, and consumes his adversaries on every side. His lightnings light up the world; the earth sees and trembles. The mountains melt like wax before the LORD, before the Lord of all the earth. The heavens proclaim his righteousness; and all the peoples behold his glory. All worshipers of images are put to shame, those who make their boast in worthless idols; all gods bow down before him. Zion hears and is glad, and the towns of Judah rejoice, because of your judgments, O God. For you, O LORD, are most high over all the earth; you are exalted far above all gods. The LORD loves those who hate evil; he guards the lives of his faithful; he rescues them from the hand of the wicked. Light dawns for the righteous, and joy for the upright in heart. Rejoice in the LORD, O you righteous, and give thanks to his holy name!
Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-2 “See, I am coming soon; my reward is with me, to repay according to everyone’s work. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they will have the right to the tree of life and may enter the city by the gates. “It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.” The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.” And let everyone who hears say, “Come.” And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.
The one who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!
The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen.
John 17:20-26 “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. “Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”