God Our Mother – Chuck Rush (5/10/15)

Mother’s Day 2015
For thus says the Lord… As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you
Isa. 66:12-13

Happy Mother’s Day to all of you who have mastered the fine art of being able to place any amount of food on a plate without anything touching.

Happy Mother’s Day to all of you who count the sprinkles on each kid’s cupcake to make sure they’re equal

You realize that you have just cut your husbands Veal Scallopini into
bite sized pieces for him.

I have a brief word for young mother’s, especially if you have left a basement full of laundry and a pantry full of muddy boots and there is a make shift fort in front of your garage. The baby is teething; the boys fought all the way to church and your husband spent an hour on the phone this weekend, working on a deal.
It is from a mother in a former generation (Erma Bombeck). “There will come a day”, she says, when “you’ll straighten up the boys’ bedroom neat and tidy: bumper stickers discarded, bedspread tucked and smooth, toys displayed on their shelves. Hangers in the closet. Animals caged. And you’ll say out loud, “Now I want it to stay this way.” And it will.
You’ll say, “I want complete privacy on the phone. No dancing around. No demolition crews. Silence! Do you hear?” And you’ll have it.
No more tablecloths stained with spaghetti. No more gates to stumble over at the top of the basement steps. No more lost shoes under sofa pillows. No more playpens to arrange a room around.
No more anxious nights with a vaporizer. No more sand in the sheets. No more fake tattoos, rubber bands for ponytails; tight boots or wet knotted shoestrings.
Imagine. A lipstick with a point on it. Washing clothes only once a week. Having your teeth cleaned without a baby on your lap.
No PTA meetings. No car-pools. No blaring radios. No teenage girls washing their hair at 11 p.m. Having a roll of Scotch tape with tape actually on the roll.
No more Christmas presents out of toothpicks and library paste. No more sloppy oatmeal kisses. No more tooth fairy. No giggles in the dark. Only a voice crying, ‘Why don’t you grow up? And the silence echoing ‘I did.’
Erma even gets me a little misty. But I have to tell you, she wrote this just before her grown children moved back home.
Kids are precious aren’t they? I read about one woman whose daughter just turned 11 months old. Full of the awesome wonder of the new world, her first words were ‘Wow’. “She spoke this marvelous word for anything new and wonderful to her, such as the assortment of toys she spotted in the pediatrician’s office or the gathering of clouds before a storm. She whispered, “Oh Wow!” for things that really impressed her, like a brisk breeze on her face or a flock of geese honking overhead. Then there was the ultimate in “Wow,” a mouthing of the word with no sound, reserved for truly awesome events. These included the sunset on a lake after a magnificent day and fireworks in the summer sky.
One day when she was 14 months and they were cuddling in the bed on an October day. Her daughter just said ‘happy.’
Another day, when she was in the midst of her terrible two’s she pointed to a beautiful model on the cover of a magazine and said ‘Is that you, Mom?’
And one day when she was three she put her hand on her mother’s arm and said “Mom, if you were a kid, we’d be friends.” ‘At moments like that’ her mother wrote ‘all I can say is ‘Oh, Wow’!
It is for this reason that we should say a word about Mother’s as the divine presence. For we worship a God who knows every hair on our head, a God who cares for us, an unseen presence that we recognize as comfort and strength. I wonder where we got that idea? [Caroline- hit the video] You know, every week, we repeat a prayer that begins “Our Father, who art in heaven”. And the Apostle’s Creed begins “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.”
But did you know that there is another tradition in the bible that thinks of God as Mother? It is a minor tradition, to be sure, but it is important nevertheless.
In the book Children’s Letters to God, one letter is from a girl named Sylvia, who wrote: “Dear God, Are boys better than girls? I know you are one, but try to be fair.” Sylvia.
I think most of us are like Sylvia. We think of God as Dad, probably because Jesus referred to God as Abba, daddy, papa.
I remember the first time I prayed “Oh God, our Mother, you comfort us in our time of need like little children.” I was in a little Baptist church in rural Kentucky and one of the farmers came up to me afterward and told me I should stick with the way the Bible talks about God. I showed him our passage. He was dumbfounded.
It’s not surprising. We didn’t have these passages read to us much when we were children.
There is a hymn of praise in Isaiah that is kind of startling. It starts off with a military male image and then concludes with a birthing image. It says “The Lord goes forth like a soldier, like a warrior he stirs up his fury; he cries out, he shouts aloud, he show himself mighty against his foes. [Then we have God speak] For a long time, I have held my peace, I have kept still and restrained myself; now I will cry out like a woman in labor; I will gasp and pant” (Isa. 42:13-14).
Isaiah is totally comfortable with the image of God as a mighty warrior and as a woman in labor, and Isaiah puts them side by side.
And there is another balance of metaphors in Moses speech to Israel in Deuteronomy 32: 18. He says “you deserted the Rock, who fathered you; you forgot the God who have you birth.”
The combination reminds us that god is not limited to male or female images. And it also suggests that God is a personal being, but not a human being. Today Peter William Chick was presented for baptism by Tim and Caroline, and just like this verse, mother and father stood together and promised not to desert the god who fathered them or to forget the God who gave us all birth.
The prophet Hosea uses one image for God, seeing God as a parent who teaches a child to walk, a parent who picks it up and bends down to feed it. These are all the tasks that a mother performed in ancient Hebrew society. God is agonizing over the prodigal child, but rejects fierce anger in favor of warm and tender compassion, like a mother waiting up and night in worry. “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. The more I called them, the more they went from me… Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk; I took them up in my arms, but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with chords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to feed them… My compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and not human, the Holy one in your midst, and I will not come in wrath” (Hos. 11:1-4; 8-9).
Yet another prophet, Jeremiah, speaks of the love that God has for us that comes from the womb. “Is Ephraim my dear son? Is he the child I delight in? As often as I speak against him, I still remember him. Therefore, my womb trembles for him. I will surely have motherly compassion on him, says the Lord” (Jer.31:20)
These are not verses our children have memorized but perhaps they should. Jesus knew them; in John’s gospel he uses this image of giving birth to describe the ordeal of the disciples as they were being birthed into a new life. He said “You must be born again”.
Jesus freely identified with a mother animal image, likening himself to a mother hen who gathers her chicks under her wings. (Here we mean chicks in the ancient barnyard usage, not the Men’s locker room understanding). He says “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often I have desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but you were not willing”. Jesus uses an image of a comforting mother to describe his deep love for a lost city.
Finally, there is the image of God in the Revelation of St. John at the end of the bible. John pictures a new heaven and a new earth. He sees the compassion of God at work. It is not an exclusively motherly image, but it is an image every one of us associates with our mother. I read from Rev. 21:3-4. “And God will be with them fully; God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
I think that is right. There is a strong sense in which our Mother’s are the presence of divine comfort for us. Or conversely, for the vast majority of us, when we experience the presence of divine comfort, we remember our Mother’s- vaguely, viscerally.
The psychologist Robert Coles wrote about the children that first went through the experience of integration in the Deep South in the early 60’s. It was traumatic at the time, these black children walking to school with white parents protesting outside, yelling slurs at them, while they tried to keep their composure and just walk in the front door of the school. Coles wondered what that was like for them, so he interviewed some of their parents. One African-American mother he interviewed said this.
“Every day when my daughter comes home from school, I can tell she is anxious and worried. Those adults yelling hateful things at her on her way to and from school. She would never show it in front of those people but she was afraid and nervous. So everyday when she got home from school, I would have her put away her books and things. And then I would have her come over to me and sit on the couch and I would just hold her there in my arms. After a bit she would just start to cry. I would hold her and rock her and she would get through it.
And then it would make me angry and worried. I don’t know how I would have gotten through it, except every evening I would go over to my Mother’s house. We would share the goings on of the day, how she was doing and what not. Then I would reach over and put my hand on her arm. And she would put her hand over my hand. I would just stand there for a moment and we’d get through it.
At some point I began to realize that my daughter was leaning on me, I was leaning on my Mother, and my mother was leaning on Jesus. That’s where we got the strength. My mother was Jesus for me and I was Jesus for my daughter.”
That’s it in a nutshell. I don’t know anybody, how old, how independent and tough, that doesn’t need a little divine mothering. I don’t know anybody, however young and naïve, that can’t pass on a little divine compassion to others. I hope you get to be part of the blessing somehow, someway.
A blessed Mother’s Day to you Mother’s, a blessed Mother’s Day to you Mother figures, and a blessed Mother’s Day to that Mother most in need of liberation, the woman in every woman. Amen.

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Once, when Jesus was in one of the cities, there was a man covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he bowed with his face to the ground and begged him, “Lord if you choose, you can make me clean.” Immediately the leprosy left him. And he ordered him to tell no one. “Go,” he said, “and show yourself to the priest, and as Moses commanded, make an offering for your cleansing as a testimony to them.” But now more than ever the word about Jesus spread abroad; many crowds would gather to hear him and to be cured of their diseases. But he would withdraw to deserted places to pray.

Barbara Brown Taylor in her book, An Altar in the World, tells a story about a time when she was guest preaching at an Episcopal church in the south. She arrives early to check out the sanctuary & get settled in. She immediately noticed that behind the altar there was a striking mural of the resurrected Jesus, stepping out of the tomb. After greeting a member of the altar guild, a manicured and proper southern lady, Barbara walks up behind the altar to get a closer look at the mural. She says that Jesus looked “as limber as a ballet dancer with his arms raised in blessing…except for the white cloth swaddling his waist, Jesus was naked. His skin was the color of a pink rose. His limbs were flooded with light.”
Barbara felt protective over Jesus with so much skin showing, he is all exposed in such a public place. She recognized the beauty in this painting that in Jesus' moment of transcendence, he remained human, he came back wearing skin. But then she also quickly noticed that something was missing, the wounds in his hands and feet were apparent – though not grotesque. His arms were thin but strong, but then staring at his underarms, she noticed - that Jesus had no body hair! “Beautiful, isn't it?” asked the woman who was polishing the silver. “It surely is that,” Barbara said, “ but did you ever notice that he has no body hair? He has the underarms of a six-year-old and his chest is a smooth as a peach.” And the woman shrank in awkwardness. “Uh, no, um, wow…” she said.

This may or may not have sent me on a Google hunt to find a picture of a hairy Jesus, but alas, in the collective Christian imagination, Jesus is really into hygiene. Seriously though in a majority of these portraits, Jesus skin is silky and “rosey” and white and “hair free.”

And this perfectly manicured Jesus is problematic especially when I imagine Jesus in our gospel reading today. First of all - let's get something straight up front, Jesus was not fair-skinned, which is another sermon for another day. Second of all Jesus most certainly did not have access to spa treatments, sunscreen, or a personal trainer. I mean seriously though it looks like he baths in milk and does mint julep masks every day! And yes, Jesus was crucified, but he looked damn good doing it! The reality is that Jesus was a poor drifter teacher who trudged around in dirt and grim and touched lepers. And who knows, Jesus may have even been uglier or fatter or shorter or grey-haired or balding than our perfect-bodied Jesus! Why would that be such a scandal?

It would be a scandal - because we are generally uncomfortable with our own bodies – we decided to manicure Jesus' body and make it perfect to make us feel a little more at ease about the imperfections and struggles in our own bodies.

So Jesus' messy body – with smelly feet and bad breath and hunger and pain and a couple grey hairs – one day in his travels encounters a man who's body is covered in leprosy. And the man's frail and weak body covered with open wounds throws himself on the dirt ground at Jesus' feet in desperation. And Jesus heals him and restores him to his community. And I need Jesus to have a messy, real body in this scene. Because imagining the rosy pink flesh that is unblemished and perfect touching the broken body of the leper with open wounds just doesn't do it for me. “Rosey-skinned”

And perfect bodied Jesus doesn't fit in this story for two reasons:

1) Jesus' body certainly stands in contrast to our leper friend. The leper's flesh is rotting and open to infection, while Jesus' skin is shiny and new. If Jesus' body in our cultural imagination is perfect, unblemished, without warts or bad breath or hangnails, then we can hold his body at a bit of a distance. And the reverse is also true, Jesus can hold our bodies at a bit of a distance – and he would hold the body of a man with leprosy at a distance.

2) Leprosy is contagious, physically and socially – by touching this man, Jesus risks, pain, brokenness, loss of feeling, loss of limb, being socially ostracized. So when Jesus' body touches this leper – he risks being contaminated with this curse – this social and physical death. He puts his body on the line. And to top it off Jesus risks his own religious authority – if he contracts leprosy, everyone will think that it is his fault- that he deserves this suffering because he has sinned.

And so rosey-skinned-unblemished-no-body-hair-Jesus just doesn't do it for me in this scene. He is too ethereal, too perfect to risk touching a leper. The rosey-skinned Jesus has a special body and he can stand apart from us – he doesn't really get what it's like to be human. The Jesus with body hair, he is on our team, he is vulnerable, he touches lepers. He has skin in the game. He is moved with pity to touch a man who is untouchable.

But here is where the rubber hits the road, (START SLIDESHOW) just like the portrait of Jesus' perfect body we idealize the perfect human body now more than ever, and our relationships with our bodies are so complicated and loaded that we often cope by ignoring our bodies until they scream at us for attention.

Think about the struggles that land in our bodies: Struggles in our sex lives, with body image, with our relationship to food, our ability to balance rest and work, our relationship with other people's bodies, bodies that don't fit quite so easily into nice categories. We have an insidious cultural habit of demeaning and objectifying bodies in order to sell perfume. And don't get me wrong the Christian church has been the worst, trying to control our sexuality, and creating negative images of our bodies to suppress and oppress certain people with shame.

All of these complications and struggles divorce us from our bodies. Like the leper our bodies are fraught with illness – we are the most addicted, overweight, prescribed adult cohort in human history. These sacred vessels created in God's image are at risk of being subsumed by the quest for the “perfect body.” This dichotomy between our own body and the perfect body - divorce us from our bodies – suppress the beauty that we already are for some ideal or we ignore our bodies because they are loaded with shame

So here's the deal – This leper story is a story about isolation. This man is divorced from his own body, and kicked out of his religious, social and familial support system to battle this disease alone. And to top it off he is isolated from God, in their cultural context, this disease is proof that he has sinned before God and is therefore paying penance for his sins in suffering. So this man is left utterly isolated.

Jesus' miracle here is that he restores this man to his own body. When you have leprosy you lose sensation – you lose your connection to your nerves, which can eventually cause loss of limb. And so when Jesus heals him – he now is restored to his own body. This man is also restored unto his community, and they can now begin tending to the wounds of his soul from the pain of social isolation.

Like the leper we need Jesus to restore us to our own bodies and to restore us to authentic communities that can help us heal.

Why are people cast out in our society because of their bodies? Maybe they are too fat, too thin, too old or too young. Maybe they happen to love the “wrong body.” People are isolated because they are differently-abled, or their bodies carry the weight of illness or chronic struggles. We carry shame around in our bodies, not just eating disorders and a distorted idea of what “healthy” bodies look like but the general feeling that we are unaware of our bodies and our connection to God through them.

When we affirm Jesus' imperfect skin, we also need to affirm our own sacred skin. How does our culture try to divorce us from our own bodies? How do we lose touch with the sacred goodness of each unique body that is created in God's image, with one uniform and oppressive definition of “healthy” and “beautiful?”

Here me now when I say, “you are a person of beauty and worth, created in God's image.” How does that mantra change us? How can we develop rituals to remind ourselves of the sacred connection of our bodies and souls and minds? What does cherishing and affirming your body look like for you? Is it a yoga practice or a sport? A good bath, a long walk? Is it a nap or a morning routine?

Jesus says, “This is my body – broken for you”

Jesus body was broken

Our bodies are broken

And yet we celebrate them today as a place of sacredness – that God calls “GOOD.”

A beautiful miraculous gift – these things that we walk around in

These bodies that heal and breathe and walk and sing and dance

These bodies are our spiritual homes

May we gather in communion today with this mantra

“I am a person of beauty and worth – created in God's image”

And may that mantra heal us and draw us into communion with God and each other.