John 15:9 – 17: God as Mother


A sermon preached on May 13, 2012 – Mother’s Day – based upon John 15:9 – 17.  

I heard a story about a family of sharecroppers living in Georgia during the 1950s.  The family was very poor and there just wasn’t money for extras.  One year the family had a bumper crop and with the money they had left over they decided to buy something for their home.  After looking through the mail order catalogue they decided to order a mirror.  When it arrived they all took turns looking at their reflection.  The youngest son who had been badly burned in a fire when he was a baby looked into the mirror and then looked over at his mother.

“Ma,” he said, “you knew I was this ugly and yet you still loved me all these years.” 

The child may have been burned, but he was still beautiful in the mother’s eyes.

In honor of mother’s day, let me go out on a limb for some people and say that the main reason that Christians most commonly refer to God as “Father” rather than as “Mother” is simply because the language of our faith was developed in a culture where women weren’t valued.  It was a society where a daily prayer recited by men included thanking God for not making them women.

Women were viewed as inferior.  They were weak and untrustworthy – for this reason women weren’t permitted to testify in court.

So in that culture, if you want to use the image of a parent to talk about the personal kind of love that God has for God’s creatures – God’s children – well, the only option was to speak of God as Father.

You could argue that God was pictured as a father because it was the “masculine” aspects of love that were to be emphasized in the concept of God.   You know:  strength, discipline, accountability – that sort of thing.

But here’s the deal:   these days it’s easier to recognize that both fathers and mothers possess what is traditionally thought of as masculine and feminine dimensions of love – discipline and accountability as well as tenderness and nurture.

Some people might think I’m being heretical – that I’m messing with the word of God.   For God’s sake, didn’t Jesus himself call God “Father?” He sure did, but my point is this: being incarnate in a particular culture in history, Jesus had to use the language of that culture in order to be heard, and that culture referred to God as “Father.”

But notice this:  when Jesus talked about God being a father, the father he portrays is one with what we think of as “feminine characteristics.”   He told us to call God “Abba” – a word of tenderness best translated “daddy.”

He said that when a child asks a father for bread — which, you’ll notice was something a child would more commonly be asking his mother for, so the dad in this instance is taking on the mom’s role — he emphasized that we sure would hope this father would do the nuturing thing and give the bread and not be a hard-ass who gives a stone instead.

And think also of the father of the prodigal son who cares only that the lost son has come home – he’s not concerned about handing out the appropriate punishment for the misdeeds of the son.

On one occasion Jesus referred to himself as being a mother hen who longed to shelter her chicks beneath her wings.

So I hereby give you permission — as though you have any such need for me to exercise such authority — permission to refer to God as “mother”, or “mom”, or even “mommy”, if you feel so inclined.  I’m not suggesting replacing giving up “Father” as a name for God.  I simply pointing out that there are what we think of masculine and feminine qualities to God’s  love, and addressing God as Mother may open us up to more of the width and depth and height of God’s great love for us.

So, to take the first line of gospel reading Bob read for us:

“Jesus said, “As the mother has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.”

Abide in the mommy’s love.  Abide in mom’s love that sees the beauty inside us that oftentimes the world cannot see.

Abiding in mom’s love is an appealing idea to me at the moment, given the fact that my own mother passed from this world just a little over two weeks ago.

For me, part of what I have cherished most about my mother’s love for me is that she was the person I could count on to understand me.  My mother “got me.”   When I shared my thoughts and perceptions with her, it wasn’t difficult for her to follow what I was trying to express.

You could say this had to do with the fact that at approximately 50% of my DNA came from my mother.   In regard to the way my mind works, I’m pretty sure I got a good deal more than 50% of my mother’s DNA.

My mom pretty consistently affirmed me; she seemed to delight in hearing me share my thoughts and perceptions.

Now being understood is a big deal for me, because I am aware of myself as being a bit of a strange bird – I mean, my peculiar vocation sets me apart from others to some degree, and within this vocation itself, I am something of a strange bird as well.  If you have been with me in one of our small groups, you have probably heard me talk for a while and then suddenly stop and ask, “Am I making any sense?”  I often wonder whether my perceptions make sense to others.  And there have been times in my life that my strange bird quality has led me to feel pretty alone, and that there was something wrong with the unique way my mind worked.

But my mother “got me,” and took delight in hearing what I was thinking.  And that was always deeply reassuring.  And I believe that on some level I continue to abide in my mother’s love even as she has departed from this world.

And so it’s helpful for me to think of God as an ever-present mother who understands me even better than my earthly mother, because it was God who formed me in my mother’s womb, knitting together the absolutely unique combination of DNA that shapes me.  And I do believe that this God takes delight in me – as God does with all God’s children — particularly when we’re using our minds in the unique ways each us were created to think.

There is further cause for thinking of God as a mother when we hear these words on Jesus’ lips:

“No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

Giving birth itself is an act of laying one’s life down in love.   The pregnancy can include nausea and back aches and swollen ankles and God knows what else that come from carrying a child around for nine months.  And beyond that, from what I’ve seen giving birth requires that a woman undergo a degree of pain beyond anything she’s ever known before – indeed, to put her very life at risk (which was especially true in ancient times when there were no guarantees at all that a mother would come out of child birth alive.)

It is possible for a man to have a hand in creating a child – you know how it’s done – and never, ever sacrifice anything on behalf of his child – to go off and leave the child high and dry.

Not so a woman.  She may put the child up for adoption because she’s not ready to make the further sacrifices necessary to raise that child, but there’s no getting around the sacrifice she must make in order to birth the child. And so mothers, by virtue of the sacrifice they are compelled to make on behalf of their kids, mirror Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross.

And in some ways this is even more true of mothers who adopt their children in their willingness to sacrifice themselves in more ways than could ever be numbered for the sake of their kids who aren’t flesh of their flesh.

With all this talk of self-sacrifice, it can be easy to miss the fact that the love we are focusing on goes hand in hand with joy.   Jesus said as much in this morning’s Gospel lesson:

11I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete…

He goes on to say…

15I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends…

I wasn’t sure how to end this sermon.   On a whim this morning,  I opened up a book on my shelf and happened upon a charming devotional poem that conjures up the image of God’s womb from whence we all came,  and offers this common womb as the reason why you and I, whoever we are, should be friends, and be so joyfully.   It comes from a Sufi poet named Hafiz who lived in the 14th century.  I found it enchanting, and so I end this morning with the last few lines of this poem, which is entitled “Your Mother and My Mother”:

I should not make any promises right now,

but I know if you


somewhere in this world—

something good will happen.

God wants to see

more love and playfulness in your eyes.

For that is your greatest witness to Him.

Your soul and my soul

once sat together in the Beloved’s womb

playing footsie. 

Your heart and my heart

are very, very old