Mothers’ Day and God’s Wild Love

The Awkwardness of Mothers’ Day

I don’t know who made the decision to combine this particular Gospel with the secular celebration of Mother’s Day. Jesus today reassures his disciples, “I won’t leave you orphans.” Happy Mothers’ Day.

Mothers’ Day for our family is a bit tricky. We are a household with two dads. Ellis’ mother died when he was a boy. I am lucky to have a great relationship with my mom, so all of the Mother’s Day gifts our child makes at school can go to her. She’s happy to receive them, but you get the hint that we’ve had to negotiate this day, and this idea of “the mother.”

I can’t tell you the number of times one of us has been in a store with our kid, and someone has said some version of “oh, is mom getting a break. Are you having a boys day?” or “oh, is dad babysitting?” The answers are no, and in our house every day us a boys day. And I know, relatively, we’ve got it easy. These assumptions don’t usually cost me much. Every once in awhile, to have my parenting questioned because of my gender is irritating, but mostly it’s funny.

Women, for millennia, have carried the vast majority of the uncompensated labor of childcare. I think that’s partly why we make such a big deal out of mothers’ day. Deep down we know the bargain we’ve made around parenting isn’t fair. So have a nice brunch, get a massage, enjoy some flowers, you deserve it. Frankly, the mothers among us likely deserve much more than a day.

I share my complicated relationship with Mother’s Day because I know many of us have a complicated relationship with mothering. It may be that you’re trying to be supermom and you’re feeling the exhaustion. It may be that you don’t have an easy relationship with your mom. Or maybe you miss your mom. Maybe you never had a mom. Today, I want to unpack motherhood theologically.

Theology and Motherhood

I do so, less on account of the Gospel, and more in the spirit of St. Paul on Mars Hill. Today’s first lesson finds Paul in the heart of Athens, in debate with the philosophers. And Paul does something both brilliant and playful. Paul notices that in Athens there exists a temple to “an unknown God.” Then Paul says, “what you worship as unknown, we know.” He describes the God of the Adam and Eve, Abraham Sarah and Hagar, Miriam and Moses, and of Jesus. Paul describes the God of Israel, but he does so in the language of the philosophers.

All these categories you may have heard for God: omnipotent: all-powerful, omniscient: all-knowing, omnipresent: existing everywhere, these are the categories of Greek Philosophy. These anxieties about the omni-ness of God, they are Greek Philosophical anxieties. But Paul does something brilliant. He takes the philosophical and makes it personal. Doing so, we get one of the great lines of Scripture.

Paul says, in God, “we live, and move, and have our being.” I know, it’s translated a little differently in your bulletin, but when Paul quotes the prayer book, we go with the prayer book as Episcopalians. I’m joking, of course it is the other way around. Our prayer book is something like 80% scripture.

Of course the phrase is another interesting one to read on Mothers’ day. What does it mean to talk about a God in whom we live, and move, and have our being this day?

You may have noticed, Holy Communion uses mothering language for God. One of our eucharistic prayers talks about creation “burst[ing] forth from the womb.” Our blessing for the Easter Season assures us “God loves you as a mother.” The inclusions are intentional. For thousands of years, Christians have been calling God “Father.” Scripture also includes mothering images for God, not as many as Fathering images, but more than you might imagine.

The question I want to ask you today, is what it does when we talk about God as a mother, as our mother?

Surely for some, it is comforting. Hearing God called “mother” absolutely tells you that you’re not in a church like the one in which you grew up. You can take a breath. But what if it is more than about branding. What if calling God “mother” asks us to reorient our sense of who we are before God, and who God can be for us?

If we imagine God having feminine qualities, we might approach God differently.

If we imagine God as a mother, we might be less transactional in our spirituality. A lot of Christians pray in a very economic way. There’s a barter, an exchange. “God, I’ll do this if you’ll just give me.” It tends to mirror a lot of folks’ relationships with a male parent, the one with whom they had to negotiate an allowance or a loan to help buy a car. What if God wasn’t the one with whom you had to bargain, and instead was the One you simply knew would be there. God might not give you an answer in a difficult situation, but would be there to hold your hand, to help you know you’re not alone in the face of whatever comes.

If we imagined God as a mother, some of us might access a version of God less concerned with our career, our title, our position. Could we imagine God as a mother who wants to get beneath all of the exterior accomplishments and measures, a God who simply asks us, “is it all making you happy?” What if God primarily wanted us to be happy?

If St. Paul can use the language of the philosophers to describe God, surely we can take some of the best images of motherhood as well. If St. Clare and Dame Julian can call God a mother, if the Bible talks about God as a mother, surely we have something to benefit from taking on the image.

I’d invite you, in your prayers, in your thoughts about God, see what happens if you imagine God as a mother, instead of as a father. If you have been intentionally avoiding God as father, if you’ve been avoiding anthropomorphizing God at all, see what happens when you allow God as a mother to enter your imagination. You might be surprised. I’d invite you to play with God as mother in your spiritual practice.

Playing with Spirituality

Play like this may be new to you spiritually. But in Athens, there on Mars Hill, Paul is having some fun with the idea of God. The wordplay comes through even across the centuries and the translation. For Paul, describing God is a joyful activity, a playful activity.

We can be painfully serious about God in our society. I’d argue that tendency toward seriousness leads to peril. If God is only some judgmental, serious, economic God in the sky, well you end up with the kind of legislation we saw pass in Missouri this last week. You end up with a very limited and controlling view of God and of humanity. And what is the response to this patriarchal angry God?

The answer, in part, is to be playful. We could look at our neighbors and say, “well that’s not the God I know.” The God that I know isn’t so concerned about. a gender binary that God needs us to enforce it here on earth. The God that I know isn’t so concerned about adherence to one particular system that God wants us to ignore doctors and scientist. The God that I know can be in the play, can help us expand beyond our binaries. The God that I know can be glimpsed in the best of science.

The answer, in part is playful. In that playful spirit, I want to offer one more observation this Mothers’ Day. We are in the part of Easter that builds toward the conclusion. Jesus is reassuring his followers. “I won’t leave you orphans.” Maybe a strange line on mothers’ day, but notice what Jesus is saying. Jesus wants to expand his followers’ vision. Jesus promises to send “an advocate.” Who God is for them will shift. This is Jesus talking about sending the Spirit.

The Spirit is the least talked about, least understood member of the Trinity. These days though, I’m finding the Spirit particularly helpful. We don’t have as much baggage around the Spirit. We haven’t imagined the Spirit as some dude on the cloud giving orders. The closest we get is a pigeon. I had a seminary professor who described most European art for the Trinity as “two dudes and a bird.” Most of us don’t have emotional baggage around birds. But we don’t have to get stuck on birds either

On this Mothers’ day, in addition to imagining God as a mother, I wonder if it might help to imagine the Spirit like a wild and loving auntie. She’s a little unpredictable. She’s not tied down like your parent or your big brother. She takes you on adventures and pays for the ice-cream after school. What if we imagined the Spirit as the One you call on when you need to hear it’s okay if you don’t get married, or if you drop out of law school. It’ll be okay if you don’t have kids, look at me, my life is full of kids, the Spirit says. We’ll hear more about the Spirit soon. Pentecost is coming.

But like Jesus, today I want to assure you: if you are burned out on the image of God as Father. If, on Mothers’ Day, even the images of motherhood don’t fit or give you pause, take heart. There’s room in the Spirit for all of us. If you can, celebrate all of the mothering that brought you to today, whether that came from your mom, or from your step-mom, or from your queer uncle. Celebrate all the nurturing, under-compensated, love that exists. Celebrate the ones who care.

But this Mother’s Day, know too: God doesn’t leave us without people to care for and people who care for us. It may take a little playful work in these disconnecting days. We may need to make a phone call to an auntie, show up for church and decide to help a parent who is struggling by sitting with a kid. Tell them, “you’re doing a good job.” We may need to adopt a neighbor as if they were family. But have faith and be playful: God won’t leave any of us orphans, because in God there is always more than enough wild love to go around.

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

One thought on “Mothers’ Day and God’s Wild Love

  1. .”Dear Mike, thank you ever so much for this wonderful sermon. I especially got a kick out of “two dudes and a bird” (I truly believe God has a sense of humor.. I will admit that it took me a while to shift my idea of God to the the idea of a mother. I had a good dad, so I didn’t have the discomfort others may have experienced, but several years ago I got to know some women who pointed out the mothering side of God, you might say, especially the concept of the Spirit as feminine. That really broadened my mind–God as a bird protecting her fledglings under her wings.
    Peace to you and your family.

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