August 20,2023- sermon- Betsy Wooster

Sermon Text...


Metaphors for God Sermon Series:    By Betsy Wooster          August 20, 2023


God, our Mother


Our Sermon begins with today’s scripture readings:


Isaiah 66:12-13

12 For thus says the Lord:
I will extend prosperity to her like a river,
   and the wealth of the nations like an overflowing stream;
and you shall nurse and be carried on her arm,
   and dandled on her knees.
13 As a mother comforts her child,
   so I will comfort you;
   you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.


Hosea 13:5-8

5 It was I who fed you in the wilderness,
   in the land of drought.
6 When I fed them, they were satisfied;
   they were satisfied, and their heart was proud;
   therefore they forgot me.
7 So I will become like a lion to them,
   like a leopard I will lurk beside the way.
8 I will fall upon them like a bear robbed of her cubs,
   and will tear open the covering of their heart;

Luke 13:34

34Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing.

Let us Pray. Almighty God, you created us in your image, each of us in your likeness. Be in our hearts and minds and speak to us through your scriptures, that we may draw closer to you. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be pleasing to you. In Jesus name we pray, Amen.

Let’s take a moment and compare the three metaphors we’ve just heard in today’s scripture readings.

The prophet Isaiah is addressing the people of Jerusalem in the southern kingdom of Israel, Judah, in the 6th century BCE. God is joyful upon the peoples’ return from captivity in Babylon, and Isaiah describes God as a mother who feeds us, carries us in her arms, and dandles us on her knees. (Dandles: Moving a child in a playful or affectionate way.) Isaiah 66 is part of this post exilic period when the Israelites have made it home. Now, Isaiah has given, and will give again, many warnings to the people of Judah for turning away from God. But in this moment in time, Isaiah describes God’s action with the image of a mother’s Comfort and Abundant Love .


The prophet Hosea, who lived 200 years earlier than Isaiah, in the 8th century BCE, describes God as a mother who feeds her children, but they become proud, and forget who fed them. Hosea shows God as a mother who will defend the lives of her cubs at all costs, even when frustrated with them. Like a Mother bear whose cubs have been torn from her, she will tear open the hearts her enemies. The text goes on to say that, like a lion, she will devour them, and like a wild animal she will mangle them. She is Fierce.


In our reading from the gospel of Luke, we hear a heartbroken Jesus speak to the city of Jerusalem, and specifically to the scribes and pharisees, describing himself as a mother hen. In this case, a hen yearning to gather her brood under her wings, because they aren’t willing to follow her, and yet she also keeps them from danger. She is Protective.


The actual mother hen watches for danger. When she sees an animal that could hurt her chicks, she clucks to warn her babies. Some of the baby chicks quickly run under the wings of their mother for safety and the hen keeps her chicks under her wings until the danger has passed. The danger that Jesus sees for the people of Jerusalem is Spiritual. The gathering of his people under her wings is to enfold them in the arms of God.

Barbara Brown Taylor, Episcopal Priest and Scholar, writes this about the metaphor of Jesus as the mother hen:

“If you have ever loved someone you could not protect, then you understand the depth of Jesus’ lament. All you can do is open your arms. You cannot make anyone walk into them. Meanwhile, this is the most vulnerable posture in the world --wings spread, breast exposed -- but if you mean what you say, then this is how you stand… She stands between the chicks and those who mean to do them harm. She has no fangs, no claws, no rippling muscles. All she has is her willingness to shield her babies with her own body. If the fox wants them, he will have to kill her first.”[1] 

Of all the sermons we’ve heard this summer focusing on metaphors for God, today’s might be the most fraught. Unlike God as Tree of Life, or Fortress, or Living Water, or Artist, or Gardener, or Light, God as mother hits closer to home. We all have distinct experiences with mothers, good, bad, maybe somewhere in-between, or perhaps deprived of a mother figure in our lives. Our lives, and who we understand ourselves to be, are affected by how our mother saw herself in the world, by the way that she mothered us, by how she lived her life, whether we had her for most our lives or lost her too young.

Most of all, our connection to the concept of mothering, has much to do with what our own mother, or mother figures, have taught us about life, about love and about meaningful relationships. It is likely that the way you receive the metaphor of “God as Mother “will be colored by your direct experience of motherhood. And that’s also true for the metaphor of God as Father.


Our history, including the history of our faith tradition, saw the mothers and fathers of the world on unequal footing.  The image of God as father is prominent in our sacred texts, but it’s not exclusive. Today’s readings are some of the examples in scripture that identify God as female, as Mother.

In them we see Mother God as the one who nurtures and comforts us; we see her rage when her bear cubs are ripped away from her, and she’s going to tear apart anyone who would hurt her babies. We see her exasperated when, despite all of her efforts to help and protect us, we run the other way. This sounds a lot like motherhood, doesn’t it? Through most of the history of the Bible’s existence, God has been referred to as male, as “He.” This began in the culture of the ancient near east, where the Hebrew scriptures were born through oral traditions in and around the 14th century BCE, and they continued to be written and shaped into their final form over the next 1200 years.


This was the world that Jesus was born into, where God was most often Father, Abba, to Jesus, except for the times when Jesus referred to God as Mother or used other metaphors for God like we do today. Given the context, think about the way that Jesus and the prophets were defying cultural norms by describing God in maternal terms. If we think it’s norm- breaking now to talk about God as female, imagine the conviction and insight that Jesus and the prophets had.   

The patriarchal world view defined the social norms in the life of Jesus, and was carried into and beyond the years in which the apostle Paul and the writers of Gospels lived in the late first century AD.  And yet, Jesus, and various writers of the gospels, used female metaphors as well as male metaphors for God.


And sometimes, there were mixed metaphors: Deuteronomy 32:18 reads: 18 “You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you; you forgot the God who gave you birth.”  So, God is a Rock? God is a mother giving birth? God is a maternal Rock? Though strange to our ears, the passage reveals that God is more than one single thing, more than one way to be known. In the 14th century AD, the English mystic Julian of Norwich, wrote this in her published Meditations: “Just as God is our Father, so God is also our Mother. And with it comes the gentle Protection and Guard of Love which will never cease to surround us.” For Julian of Norich, in the 1300s, Mother and Father God were equally prominent.


Even today, in the Year of Our Lord 2023, our society still wrestles with the issue of the equality of men and women, fathers and mothers. We’ve come a very long way, thanks be to God, though the journey has been slow, like a trail leading up a mountain with a lot of zig-zagging switchbacks. You get to where you think you’re going, and then you have to turn and go down in the opposite direction, only to turn and go up again so that you can get to the place where you think you’re going, and on and on it repeats.


As today’s scripture readings suggest, God, who leads us on this endless hike, is kinda waiting for us to catch up, waiting for us to pay attention to the words of scripture that surprise us. When words or phrases in the Bible seem different or strange to us, for any reason, it’s a good thing to learn about the time and culture in which those words were written, about the specific audiences those writers were trying to reach, about the widely accepted social norms of the times they were living in.


Imagine what people 1200 years from now might think about the writings of our theological and biblical scholars today, or about what was being preached in the sermons of the 2020s? What would surprise them? Could it be, that they will be surprised that we don’t already refer to God as mother as regularly as we refer to God as Father? Might they find it strange that we often limit God to a particular gender at all? Maybe, like we do today with our scriptures, they will research who our present-day scholars and preachers were writing to, who their audiences were, and what the social norms were in the world in which we lived in 2023? Scripture that highlights “God as Mother” shows us that Mothering is sacred work, a sacred calling, for all mothers and for those who find ways to be mothering to other people.  


It is ALL sacred work. And though mothering may not be as valued in some corners in our society, our faith tells us that mothering is part of the holy work of God, in which we are called to participate. The metaphor also reminds us that we can’t fit God, and what God does, into narrow categories.

Mothers can have “fatherly” characteristics, and Fathers can have “motherly” characteristics. You may have noticed that in the hymn Bring Many Names that we sang this morning, Mother God is characterized as Strong, and Father God is described as Warm, somewhat reversing the adjectives often used to describe Mothers and Fathers.


Of course, no single image is a true description of God. God is beyond any of these descriptions, beyond gender, but we use the experiences and relationships in our lives to understand God. So, as the hymn reminds us, let’s not be afraid to bring many names to our understanding of God. Let’s allow Jesus, and the ancient prophets of Israel, to surprise us with the ways that they understood and described God as a mother. Remembering and knowing God as mother is to trust that God loves you in a nurturing way; that God loves you in a fierce way, that God loves you in a way that sees you fully and will bring forth the very most, and the very best, that you can be in your life, even when we may be turning away from God.


And God, like a mother hen spreading her wings, will be strong and vulnerable for you. God surprises us, so let’s surprise God. When Jesus tells us that he is a hen trying to gather us under her wings to protect us and show us how to live, let’s not run the other way. In our eagerness to learn the depth and breadth of all that God can be, let’s gather under the protection of her wings, and follow her home. AMEN.














[1] Barbara Brown Taylor Article in a 1986 edition of The Christian Century