Sermon God of Our Mothers
Copyright Sarah K. Person
Delivered November 17, 2013, First Unitarian Universalist Society of Middleboro
God of Our Mothers
Feminist theology opened our doors to a new way of thinking by empowering the woman’s voice and perspective in matters of faith. We’ll examine how a one-dimensional view of God and the institution of church may limit what religion can offer us. We will also examine how expanding our own views may affect our relationships with those who shaped our spiritual lives.
Rev. Terry Sweetser tells this story:
“I was seven years old when I had my first encounter with theology. My mother made a batch of fudge, placed it in the refrigerator and decreed it could not be sampled until after supper. I was not pleased. I contrived every scheme I could imagine to sneak some, but someone always seemed to be lurking around the kitchen.
“At about four o’clock, I got what seemed like an unbelievable break. My mother and sister had to go to the store, leaving me alone for a little while. Mother must have been reading my mind because she gave me a warning on her way out. ‘Just because I’m not here,’ she said, ‘don’t you think you are alone with the fudge. God is watching you.’
“The word theology means god-study. As they drove off, I was studying hard. It did not take me long to conclude that I was a seven year old atheist. Boy, did that fudge taste good. Unfortunately for me mother had counted the pieces, and the recount on her return showed a deficit of three. When asked how I could brazenly have taken the fudge in front of God, I said, ‘I don’t believe in God.’ My ever practical mother responded, while administering my first spanking: ‘It would be in your best interest to act as if God were there.’
That, is a God of mothers!
Like many of us, God is not a simple word for me. Instead, it is loaded with associations and memories – and they are not mine. In my childhood home, the word God was not spoken; except either to be taken in vain, or in the most intellectual terms. The God of my father was a mystery to me – he simply would not talk about his Jewish upbringing – and his refusal made the subject taboo. And, what he didn’t talk about, my mother didn’t talk about. As a Unitarian child in the fifties and sixties, I learned about the God of my friends and their families, but never my own. I was being raised a Humanist by default rather than intent. To find out years later that our faith had its origins in Christianity surprised and discomfited me. All my images of that Jewish and Christian God were of a stern and unknowable grandfather mechanic who arranged peoples’ lives and deaths to fulfill some unknowable purpose. And there had to be rules about how we lived our lives and what we believed. And to be good, we had to understand our place in God’s universe was miniscule.
The most important part of being a modern and liberal thinker was that we left rules behind. It helped to think that Unitarians and Universalists were heretics. As Unitarians, we believed in a unified nature of God and refused to believe in a God that was three in one: Father, Son and Spirit. As Universalists, we believed that God was supreme enough to save all. We rejected the fact and necessity of miracles; God was present and marvelous in the nature of all things, and that was sufficient. And when Humanists like my dad came along, that made all of this really moot, but at least we had some history to use in our arguments with the mainline faithful. That gave us some street cred as far as I was concerned, I knew what we were fighting against. On the other hand, and it’s a big hand, I didn’t know what we were fighting for. I want to explore that with you today.
In the process of growing up and growing out from under my upbringing, I’ve learned to appreciate those aha moments – the light bulbs going off over my head, the light coming all unbidden from my heart. Have you ever had those topsy-turvy moments? They’re literally like viewing a map of the globe for the first time with Antarctica on top and China and India in the middle. It takes a moment to realize what you’re looking at, and to realize how arbitrary and Eurocentric our mapmakers are. One of those topsy-turvy moments came to me while I was in chaplaincy training. I was sharing a difficult episode that day, one in which I questioned whether what I was doing was of any use at all. And I was rocked by a realization: if I used a language of faith to connect with my patients, if I connected with their God, I betrayed my dad. My dad had been my mapmaker, my silent guide. But I needed, I needed, to connect with something larger than me to be able listen deeply and completely to what my patients had to offer. I needed something to help me find a foundation for being and knowing and acting. I believed I needed this to make sense of disasters in which thousands could die in a single mighty storm, or an infant could die upon being born. So I began to search where my father had not. I began to search for ideas that would shake me up.
Before I begin, I want to share another story from Rev. Guengerich; one he heard from Swanee Hunt a few years ago. Swanee Hunt is a former ambassador to Austria, a Harvard lecturer, a prominent female philanthropist and, among her many accomplishments, has a degree in theology. Her story goes like this:
When the 19th century women’s rights pioneer Margaret Fuller died, she went straight to heaven. As she approached the pearly gates, she saw a line of people waiting to talk to St. Peter, so she took her place at the end of the line. Moments later, St. Peter glanced up and saw her. “Margaret Fuller,” he called out. “Bypass the line come on in!” As Fuller approached, St. Peter said, “I’m sorry to see you so soon. Only 40 years old. Too bad about the shipwreck.” He sighed, and then said, “Your life was short but exemplary. You qualify for an extra distinction: you can have a private welcome meeting with anyone in heaven.” Fuller thought for a moment and replied, “The Virgin Mary: I’d like to meet the Virgin Mary.” “Oh, her again,” St. Peter responded. “Everybody wants to talk to her. Well, you’ll have to wait, but you’ve got your wish.” After a short wait, Fuller was ushered into the presence
of the Virgin Mary. After exchanging pleasantries, Fuller said to Mary, “I saw you everywhere in life. I saw you in paintings, on shrines, in bas reliefs, attached to prayer beads, and even dangling from rear-
view mirrors. But I never understood your expression.” Fuller continued. “You were the mother of the messiah, savior of humanity. Yet you always looked wistful, even a little sad. Why?” The Virgin Mary looked around to make certain no one else was within earshot, and then said, “Off the record? We were hoping for a girl.”
God as woman. God as female is one of those topsy-turvy moments. God as woman is not the goal of feminist theology, but feminism can certainly shake us up. It’s a limited term (white, northern American and European experience). In essence, God as male translates to male as God and that gets us into trouble. It makes terrible ideas about power and righteousness normal. Feminist theology is a way to come to terms with a dominant view of God and religion that inflicts injury and oppresses women and other minorities. Feminist theology is a frame of reference and a set of commitments that deal more with the Bible than third world feminists: African, Asian, Latino Mujerista. Feminist theology is rooted out of women’s experience and western philosophical traditions, but it has some things in common with these other struggles. I offer them to you as a way to think about whether and how the idea of God has a place in your life.
Like our Unitarian forebears, feminist theologians base their sense of the holy on what is particular, embodied, and concrete. They don’t look for truth in arbitrary universal pronouncements by unknown authors. We find truth in our own stories, they tell us; truth our own bodies, and truth in fact. Our experience is held as that which is true. When the bible offers a story with consequences for a woman that diminish her or violate her – turning her into a pillar of salt for grieving for the life she left behind – feminists invite us to suspect these stories. I have to point out that at least most of the women in the Hebrew Bible were named by the hundreds. There are probably twenty names in all in the New Testament. The most powerful stories stripped the women of their names. Lot’s wife had a name. The Samaritan woman had a name. The penitent woman who washed the feet of Jesus had a name. Once you start to see all the ways, small and large, in which a patriarchal church stripped women of their worth, you begin to realize how a dominant culture can also strip us of a God we can relate to. These biblical stories and their interpretations are being used by organized religion to commit violence on our souls and tell us it is okay. It is really liberating to go back to the bible, or whatever sacred scripture we use as a source, and find those things which affirm us and empower us to be strong, whole, equal, connected, questing, awake, dignified and effective. God, says the feminist theologian, does not have to hurt.
And that is what I invite us to consider today. God does not have to hurt, or isolate, or turn one against the other. The idea of God hurt my dad, and he would not talk about it. I do not know what affirmed and empowered him, or even if he sought that. He did not have words to share his search or struggle with me. It is important to find the words, even if they remain unspoken. It is important to find the words and to eliminate whatever gets in the way of finding them. The search and the struggle are part of our humanity. They give us meaning and purpose. We are not here on this earth just to be, we are here to do. And part of what we are here to do is to help those who come with us and after us on our journey. Whether we believe in God and what we believe about God is not as important here as what we do and why we want to make this a better world. It is enough to know we are cherished by something beyond ourselves, we are accountable to something beyond ourselves, we are grateful to something beyond ourselves. We affirm that here. It is what makes this a holy place. So let us find the words to help each other be strong, whole, equal, connected, questing, awake, dignified and effective. It is as simple as that.