Merciful Moms

Carla J. Bailey, May 14, 2017

Scripture Psalm 123

In 1993, right here in Minneapolis, an interfaith conference of clergy, laypeople and feminist theologians was held. It was called “Re-Imagining: A Global Theological Conference by Women: for Men and Women.” The conference grew out of a U.S. mainline Protestant response halfway through the World Council of Churches’ Ecumenical Decade: Churches in Solidarity with Women—1988-1998. The conference brought together 2,200 people, a third of them ordained clergy and most of them women. Attendees represented 16 denominations, 27 countries and 49 states. All the presenters were women. The conference aimed to encourage churches to address injustices to women worldwide and promote equal partnership with men at all levels of religious life. In recognition that traditional Christianity’s male-centered language and images have often stifled and hurt women, organizers chose “re-imagining” as the theme. International theologians were invited to address the theme as it applied to God, Jesus, church, creation, community and world. (See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Re-Imagining_(Christian_feminist_conference) for a brief overview of the conference’s themes.)

To say there was a backlash after the conference is a little like saying the Pope was concerned when Martin Luther nailed his theses to the Wittenberg door. It was impressively vitriolic. I had not personally attended the conference, to my lasting regret, but, oh my, did I hear about it. About that same time, I had been called to be the UCC Conference Minister of the Indiana-Kentucky Conference. In that role, I was frequently called upon to navigate internal conflicts in UCC churches across the two states. Almost without exception, the Re-Imagining Conference was brought up as an indication that the Church was going to hell, led by Re-Imagining feminists. “What do you think of calling God ‘she’ and imagining God with breasts or a pregnant belly in labor to birth creation? And replacing bread and wine with milk and honey? And ignoring Jesus to worship Sophia (the personification of Wisdom in Proverbs 8 and 9)? Those women are killing the Church! What are you going to do about that?” It was one of those experiences, repeated many, many times, of being attacked by genuinely mean Christians intending harm. And it was one variation of a lesson, again repeated subsequently, of navigating church conflicts when the subjects being discussed were not the real issues.

Mother’s Day is a complicated observance in our common religious and worship life. Preparing for this sermon today put me in mind of that Re-Imagining controversy. (Oh, by the way—Plymouth is hosting and taking a significant role in planning the 25th anniversary of Re-Imagining this coming January.) But, back to Mother’s Day. Back in the ’80s, I was part of a small group of women called “Feminists in Faith.” We were all what we called then “women religious,” which meant we were rabbis, Christian clergy and nuns, all working in the Twin Cities. We would often talk about some of those very things that would later roil the mainline denominations post Re-Imagining—feminine images of God, bringing feminist perspectives to church governance, holding on to our integrity as religious women when many women were challenging us as to why we would remain in what seemed like a hopelessly patriarchal institution. I remember one particular session when we were talking about preaching about God with female features, all of which are biblical and most of which depict God as a child-bearer, pregnant and in labor, nursing Israel at her breast, and so on. It was at a time when Warren and I were coming to grips with the realization that we would need to build our family through adoption, rather than pregnancy, so I was perhaps overly sensitive, but I asked then, and it is a question I continue to ponder: Are there feminine attributes to God that are not relegated to pregnancy and childbirth? And if there are, what might those be? And if they aren’t gestational in nature, then are they nonetheless biologically feminine or could they also be attributes we would want men to exhibit?

You are sharp listeners so you can see the problems already. When we anthropomorphize God—that is, ascribe to God human characteristics—we are immediately limiting God, making God something more in our image than the other way around. And when we assign God male characteristics, are we not simply ascribing to God cultural expectations of what it means to be male—a very, very good male to be sure, but male just the same? Think of how we traditionally imagine God: wise, strong, compassionate but not wimpy, loving but not sentimental. I once heard a revered church leader described as having a muscular theology. Tell me, is that church leader male or female? You get the point.

Which leads me back to why and how Mother’s Day is so complicated. Our culture has turned this day into a sentimental festival of gratitude and guilt, which is a far cry from its origins in the 19th century. In the years before the Civil War, Ann Reeves Jarvis, a peace activist from West Virginia, helped start “Mother’s Day Work Clubs” to address public health issues. These clubs later became a unifying force in a region of the country still divided over the Civil War. In 1868 Jarvis organized “Mother’s Friendship Day,” at which mothers gathered with former Union and Confederate soldiers to promote reconciliation. Her daughter, Anna Jarvis, in 1905 began a campaign to make Mother’s Friendship Day a nationally recognized holiday. In 1914, Woodrow Wilson signed a proclamation designating the second Sunday in May as a national holiday to honor mothers. Eventually, Anna Jarvis grew to resent how Mother’s Day had been exploited by Hallmark Cards and candy manufacturers. She organized boycotts of Mother’s Day and threatened to issue lawsuits against the companies involved. She protested at a candy-makers’ convention in Philadelphia in 1923 and at a meeting of American War Mothers in 1925. She was occasionally arrested for disturbing the peace in her efforts to redeem the meaning of Mother’s Friendship Day.

Yet another cornerstone to the Mother’s Day phenomenon was built by the abolitionist, poet and suffragette Julia Ward Howe, who in 1870 wrote the “Mother’s Day Proclamation” we read earlier in our service. It was a call to action asking mothers to unite in refusing to send our children to war and instead to promote world peace. Did you know, before writing the Mother’s Day Proclamation, Julia Ward Howe wrote “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” after she and her husband had visited Washington, D.C., and met Abraham Lincoln at the White House in November 1861? She was deeply influenced by the ravages of war, her commitment to peacemaking growing from “The Battle Hymn” to a Proclamation for peace.

I wonder how the message and purposes of these anti-war, activist women, all three of whom were angered and galvanized by the carnage and human cost of the Civil War, in particular, and war in general, became what we now celebrate as Mothers’ Day. Talk about Re-Imagining!

A couple years ago a friend gave me a book written by the Irish novelist and playwright Colm Tóibín, called The Testament of Mary (Scribner, 2012). My friend had heard me give a Lenten meditation about Mary, mother of Jesus, in which I wondered what life was like for Mary after Jesus’ death. Apparently, Tóibín wondered the same thing and turned his musings into a most provocative novel. In The Testament of Mary, Jesus’ mother is an old woman, living in Ephesus, alone, years after her son was crucified. She is cared for and visited by two gospel writers who, not having themselves been witnesses to the life of Jesus, press her for details—words she can barely stand to speak. She does not agree that her son was the Son of God. Rather, he gathered misfits around him. This is what she tells the gospel writer, “All my life when I have seen more than two men together I have seen foolishness and I have seen cruelty, but it is foolishness that I have noticed first. He (the Gospel writer) is waiting for me to say something more, to tell him about the day our son was lost and how we found him and what was said.” Later, she remembers talking to Martha and Mary on the day of Jesus’ arrest, and realizing that her son’s life was nearing its violent end. “‘He is already in custody,’ Martha said, ‘and it is already determined what is to be done with him.’ They both watched me now, afraid to say the word which had not been uttered yet. ‘You mean he will be crucified?’ I asked. ‘Yes,’ Martha said. ‘Yes.’ And then Mary spoke: ‘But that will be the beginning.’ ‘Of what?’ I asked. ‘Of a new life for the world,’ she said. Martha and I ignored her.”

Finally, Tóibín imagines Mary remembering the walk to Golgotha, Jesus dragging his cross, his face bleeding from the thorns digging into his skin. “He was the boy I had given birth to and he was more defenseless now than he had been then. And in those days after he was born, when I held him and watched him, my thoughts included the thought that I would have someone now to watch over me when I was dying, to look after my body when I had died. In those days if I had even dreamed that I would see him bloody, and the crowd around filled with zeal that he should be bloodied more, I would have cried out as I cried out that day and the cry would have come from a part of me that is the core of me. The rest of me is merely flesh and blood and bone.”

“The part of me that is the core of me”—is that a different place for women than it is for men? Is it a different place for women who have given birth than for those who have not? Or is it a place of loss, the place in any of us when all that is left is merely flesh and blood and bone?

When I was thinking about this sermon today, preaching on a day that is so emotionally loaded for so many women and so full of contradictions, I knew I wanted to lift up one of the biblical images of a mothering God. I re-read all the passages that allude to a feminine God. That took about five minutes. I chose the 123rd Psalm. You might have missed the allusion to a female God when I read the Psalm a few moments ago, so let me make it explicit. It’s in the line about how the Psalmist, speaking for us who are also lifting our eyes to the one enthroned in the heavens, look to God like servants look to the hand of their master—male—or as the eyes of a maid—and here it is, so don’t blink—look to the hand of her mistress—female. We look to God like a maid looks to her mistress—her mistress being her god. The thing is, that isn’t a particularly illuminating image for us. It may be too bound by our history of slavery, and though the Psalmist would like us to think of ourselves as slaves obedient to God, I’m pretty sure that particular image may need to be edited by what we know to be a relationship shackled to violence and racial and economic disparity to be useful to us.

But I had chosen the Psalm for today so I went digging in to its language and the origins of the Hebraic images, and there I found the nugget. Have mercy on us, O God, have mercy upon us, for we have had more than enough of contempt. It’s in the word mercy. In English, our one word “mercy” has about four or five iterations in Hebrew, depending on the type of mercy one is describing. One of those Hebrew words for mercy has as its root the word womb. Womb. So, when the Psalmist is asking for mercy, when we are asking for mercy, we are calling out to the womb of God. But there is more to the word. It is not only a reference to the womb of God, it implies the relationship between all who come from that same womb. We are bound to one another, not because we are physical, biological siblings and not because we were born from our biological mothers, but because we are born of the same metaphysical, holy and deeply sacred God who gave us and all creation birth. Yet again, I caution against the over-anthropomorphizing of God. If we are trying to make God in our image, male or female, we have already failed to understand God’s mystery.

Instead, let me leave you with the thought that God’s mercy in its full Hebraic meaning is what fills that empty place Colm Tóibín describes as the place from which Mary cried out. God’s mercy is the balm over the wounds inflicted by contempt and conceit. God’s mercy is the source of our strength, our courage, our serenity. In that spirit, interconnected as we are by having been birthed from God’s womb, a Happy Mother’s Day to you all. Amen.