Mothering God

First United Methodist Church – Omaha
Dr. Jane Florence
May 13, 2018
Scripture: Hosea 11:3-4
Sermon: “Mothering God”

I usually avoid preaching about Mothers on Mother’s Day. It is a delicate day. Some are taking a loving mom to lunch after church. Some are grieving the absence of a loving mom this year. Some are angry they never had the quintessential Mother’s love. Some women are grieving the lost child that would have called them, “Mother.” Some mothers are grieving the prodigal child and feeling a mothering helplessness. We speak of a Mother’s love and care as the ultimate, self-sacrificing: “I would do anything to save my child”; and often it is. Yet, we can read any number of headlines where mothers have exploited, abused, even killed their children. So, I’ve thought it’s best just to avoid the topic of sorrow or joy. That’s why I usually avoid preaching about Mothers on Mother’s Day.

However, maybe it’s best just go ahead and name it. We are a space to hold and share the sorrows and joys of life. If we name it, then see what lies beneath the Mothering God image deeply woven in the Judeo-Christian faith.

Our text we just heard is from the Hebrew book Hosea. If you have not read the prophet’s story, you might give it a go. The story is full of passion befitting an HBO mini-series. It would be labeled ‘for mature audiences only.’ From the depth of husbandly desire for his beloved to the feverish lust of a wife chasing after various other lovers, her husband’s torment finds expression in violent anger outbursts and domestic abuse.
Hosea’ was a Jewish prophet 750-724 BCE in a politically turbulent time. By that I mean five out of six kings were assassinated then. Corruption in the royal court ran rampant. International relationships were volatile as ‘foreign policy was unpredictable.’ Domestic infighting was no better. The nation experienced tremendous economic abuses and social inequities. The rich were exploiting peasants, and their religion had become a cult paying homage to please many gods.

Hosea could see it was unsustainable. He prophesied that the nation would fall if they did not repent and change their behavior. Kingdoms can’t last under those circumstances. Time proves him right. In three years, the kingdom fell.

Hosea uses three metaphors in his preaching to the naughty nation. First, there is his own story. Hosea is a faithful husband, and his prostitute wife. In the husband/wife metaphor, Hosea is God, and his wife is the naughty Nation of Israel. The husband/God is faithful and desires relationship with the wife. But Gomer, the wife, sleeps around, a lot. People breaking covenant with God are often compared to prostitutes and adulterers in scripture. Hosea becomes abusive and an image for the wrath of God and pours out punishment upon the errant wife in an attempt to change her ways. We aren’t going to go much farther with that metaphor today. God as domestic abuser doesn’t offer much Truth, and husband as god is a story that won’t preach in this pulpit.

It is Hosea’s second metaphor that we want to consider, the parent/child metaphor. The imagery is consistent with female parent in the Jewish culture. The Hebrew noun is feminine here. There is a Jewish tradition of Mothering God, called She·ki·nah. God is described as a Loving Mother God. Her provision and care for her infant reveals the depth of her devotion. She taught her child to walk; she took him in her arms and healed his hurts. She led him with bands of love, lifted the infant to her cheek, and bent down and fed her little one. Mothering God images describes God’s creation and care for the Hebrew people. It shows God’s deliverance and provision for them as they fled slavery in Egypt and entered the wilderness wandering. It was God’s guidance for the infant Hebrew people that created the once powerful nation.

Like I said, there can be just as much emotional baggage and resistance to mothering God image as to a husband God metaphor. Some of us can draw near and recognize a mothering God who bends down, scoops us up in her arms, kisses our boo-boos, and feeds us from an ample bosom of love. Some of us bristle or weep at the same image of Mothering God. The metaphors here reinforce gender stereotyping and fall apart in many ways. Anytime we use a metaphor, we realize that it has its limits, Mother God as well as Husband God. All metaphors for the Divine are but words pointing to that which is beyond words. Yet, words are how we communicate.
Hosea has a bad relationship with his wife, the prostitute. His heart is broke by a woman, yet he goes beyond that one bad female relationship to explore this imagery of Mothering God nonetheless. He is not the only one to do so. The prophet Isaiah uses many images of mothering God as well as the psalms and even Deuteronomy. Speaking to the errant nation as the wayward child again, Deuteronomy reads, “You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you; you forgot the God who gave you birth.” (32:18) It was the ROCK that bore you and Mother Earth God who Birthed you. You have forgotten your Mother.

Stories behind these metaphors are the same. The child does wrong, goes astray, but God is nurturing and forgiving, and seeks and restores to right relationship.

Regardless of our personal experience of mothers, or mothering, the text can speak to us of the Holy Divine, God of us All – who loves us all, nurtures us all, and provides and cares for all. If human mothering works for you or if it doesn’t, perhaps you can expand the metaphor to other mothers you have seen in the world.
I walked the zoo last week. I was glad to get to see the white handed gibbons again. Their treehouse was getting a home improvement last time I was there, so I didn’t get to see them. After my trip to Peru, I found particular interest in the Rain Forest section. I was delighted when the baby gibbon was born in Oct of 2016, coinciding it would seem with my trip to the Amazon. I’ve been watching them ever since.

It was such a tiny thing when I first saw the baby gibbon clinging so tightly to momma as she swung through the tree. It was still tiny when it began to swing solo. One day I was watching the palm sized gibbon. Mom was sitting on the tree limb high above the ground. The little monkey was all over the place, climbing on her and swinging around the branches. I held my breath fearful for its safety. There were no child restraint seats or safety harnesses in place. Mother Monkey appeared to be confident in its abilities as she sat there unmoving appearing to catch a nap with eyes closed. But appearances were deceiving. As little one climbed a bit too far and a bit too high, it made a leap beyond its abilities and started to free fall toward certain death. Before I could cover my eyes, mom had jumped, swung, and caught baby with one hand in midair descent.

I learned that white handed gibbon offspring aren’t weaned until they are almost two years old. They stay with mom until they hit adolescence and can go on their own. (Are humans the only species that allow our children to hang around after they reach puberty?) Until then, Mom teaches them how to climb and swing from tree to tree, eat, play, sing, rest – everything they will need to live in community. She leads them, Mothering One.
Hebrew scriptures sing of this Mothering One, who leads, teaches, cares, nurtures, feeds, heals, guides her children. YHWH trained the young Israel to walk in the right way. And when they fell and hurt themselves, it was YHWH who offered healing. The extreme intimacy of these metaphors is not to be missed.

Hosea, a male prophet, has given his life over to the pursuit of a female who is wanton and regularly uninterested in him. As he exercised violence against her, perhaps Hosea learned in his deeply painful experience that traditional views of God as a male did not get him very far. Hosea turns against that traditional male God and instead prefers the warm comfort of the nurturing Mothering God. That non-male YHWH will not exercise anger, will not come again in fury. “The Holy One in the midst of the people is Hosea’s God who is not the powerful God of Amos, the raging God of Micah, or the demanding God of Ezekiel. YHWH is here the warmly compassionate God who in mournful sadness and expectant hope keeps searching for the lost, no longer as a male of traditional [expression] but a God of new heart, a God madly in love.” 1This is the God Hosea discovered. The true Rock who gave him birth. The very Rock of Salvation who birthed him. This is the God of Jesus the Christ.

This is the God of us all. May it be so.