St John’s, Port Moody / Easter 4 / May 11, 2014- The Rev. Don Grayston
Psalm 23:5 – “You spread a table before me ….”
So: Mothers’ Day today. In the week before Mothers’ Day in about 1983 or so, when I was rector of All Saints in Burnaby, I had a very busy week. It was non-stop Monday to Friday. Hadn’t written my sermon on Friday, said I would do it Saturday. Saturday was very busy; I’ll do it Saturday evening. Saturday evening: I’m beat. I’ll get up early in the morning and write it. Or better yet: I will pray a very short prayer before I go to sleep—“O God, give me a sermon!”—and see what comes to me when I wake up. In the morning, woke up, didn’t take my head off the pillow. Well, dear Lord? Yes! “Jesus our Mother.” Went downstairs, took my copy of Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich off the shelf, and turned to the chapter on Jesus our Mother, and there was what I needed for my sermon. Revelations of Divine Love is the first book written in English by a woman. She was born sometime in the 1370s, and died in the second decade of the next century. To set this in context, she was writing about the same time that Geoffrey Chaucer, regarded as the father of English literature, was writing The Canterbury Tales; and if we give him this title, we ought to give her the parallel title of mother of English literature. Her book, however, was far more personal than Chaucer’s. When she was 30, and still living at home, she became very ill. She was unconscious for a number of days, and her family expected her to die. But she recovered, and when she was able to speak, she told her family that in her illness she had had a series of visions of God, including conversations with God; and these visions and conversations are the subject of her book. After her recovery, she became an anchoress, a kind of nun who lived in an anchorhold, a little apartment in a church. In her book, he says that as truly as God is our Father, so truly is God our mother. Jesus, she says, feeds us, as a mother does her infant, from his own body–in the Eucharist he gives us his body and blood; and she also made a link between breast-feeding and the blood and water that flowed from Jesus’ side when the soldier pierced him with a lance. In the second half of the 20th century, which most of us lived through, with the rise of the women’s movement, feminine languge about God became important as many women began to look for ways in which our language about God could become more inclusive. At first, some people thought the best way to go about this was to eliminate all masculine terms for God—such as Father, Lord or King—in favour of a gender-neutral way of speaking. This made a lot of people uncomfortable, and many people experienced any change in God-language as loss rather than improvement. Some people regarded these changes as just a knee-jerk reaction to social trends. But in fact, they can be traced into very ancient places in our tradition, as we will see. As time went on, we realized that a better way was to balance masculine imagery with feminine. Apart from calling God our mother, this approach made use of that language of the feminine divine in the book of Proverbs in the Hebrew Bible and in the book of Wisdom in the Apocrypha, which speak of the personified wisdom of God in feminine terms. We also began to notice feminine elements in Jesus’ words, such as his sorrowful cry about the resistance to his teaching: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem …. How often have I longed to gather your children, as a hen gathers her brood under her wings; but you would not let me” (Matthew 23:37). Is Jesus comparing himself here to a mother hen? Yes, he is! So thinking of today as Mothers’ Day, I read the scriptures of the day through that lens, and found maternal images in Psalm 23. (The lectionary never lets me down!) “The Lord makes me lie down” – putting her children to bed. “I shall fear no evil”—dealing with childhood fears. “You spread a table before me”—three times a day in most families, and even in our enlightened times, mostly the work of mothers. “You have anointed my head with oil”—here I see mothers bathing their children, anointing them, especially as babies, with various creams and ointments—is Penaten still in use? I remember it being in our house when the kids were little. My point here is that when we speak of God, feminine imagery is as valid as masculine imagery. So it’s fine to speak of God as Father and it’s fine to speak of God as Mother. But I want to go farther than that, and offer you a larger truth, which is this: no language, even biblical language, is adequate to describe God. God is literally and ultimately indescribable. Here I find an Indian proverb to be very helpful. “The finger points at the moon; the finger is not the moon.” If the moon, reachable now but unreachable when this proverb was first uttered centuries ago, represents God, then the finger represents what we say about God. The finger points at the moon, but the finger is not the moon. The word “God” is not God; it’s a verbal finger pointing towards the eternal and inner reality of the universe. Does this mean that we shouldn’t say anything at all about God simply because anything we say about God is inadequate? Should we even use the name of God? Would it be better to keep silence? No, not at all. We need ordinary human words so that we can talk with each other about God. These thoughts take me to the Jewish tradition. Moses at the burning bush asks God his name, and the reply is “I am who I am.” In Hebrew this is written with four letters: YHWH, and for Jews it is so holy a name that it cannot be spoken aloud. When a Jew reading aloud from the Hebrew Bible comes to that name, he or she doesn’t say it, but out of reverence substitutes for it the name Adonai, meaning “Lord.” This is a very ancient acknowledgement of the inadequacy of human language to speak of God, as well as a model of reverence when speaking about God. And still staying with the Jewish tradition, I think of a comment of Leonard Cohen, who says something like this. “I am quite happy to use the word God. It’s a lot easier to say “God” than to say “the universal and eternal energy from which all things come and to which all things go and in which we live in the meantime.” Let’s return now on this Mothers’ Day from language about God our Mother to some thoughts about our own mothers. There is a temptation, aided and abetted by Hallmark Cards, to limit our observance of Mothers’ Day to sentimental cards and gifts. But if we are honest, not all of us have or have had good relationships with our mothers. American theologian Robert Raines says that there are four things we need to say to our mothers (and our fathers, for that matter) before they die; and if we have had a good relationship with our mother, the first one will be easy: it’s “thank you.” Then comes “I love you.” Then “I forgive you.” And finally, “Do you forgive me?” This may be something you need to do or it may not. And even if your mother has died, and you do want to say these things, it’s still possible to say them in prayer. Out of our own imperfections we reach out to and bless our mothers in their imperfections. I rest here in the confidence that Jesus our Mother holds both us and our mothers in his loving embrace. So a blessing today on all mothers, our own mothers and those who have been mothers to us. We bless also the name of the Lord our mother, who enables us to lie down in peace, sets the table of the Eucharist for our nourishment, and anoints us with the oil of the Holy Spirit. We bless also all those who speak of God to us, acknowledging as we do the inadequacy of their speaking (which includes this sermon) and the inadequacy of our hearing and understanding. And with a nod to Julian of Norwich, we bless the name of Jesus our mother, who births us in the Holy Spirit and rejoices as all good mothers do to see us grow into whole, mature, faithful and loving adults.