Sermon 5.14.23 Mother’s Day

2601 54th Avenue South  St. Petersburg, FL  33712
On land originally inhabited by the Tocabaga
Date: May 14, 2023 Mother’s Day
Scripture Lessons: Genesis 3:21, Isaiah 46:3-4, 49:15, 66:12-13, and Matthew 23:37

Sermon: Motherhood and God
Pastor:  Rev. Kim P. Wells

Elizabeth Cady Stanton is well known for her role in the women’s suffrage movement.  She gave her life and passion and energy to securing the right to vote for women in the United States though the 19th amendment did not pass until 18 years after her death.  Cady Stanton was not just concerned about getting women the right to vote.  She was also dedicated to the elevation of the status of women in our country and our culture. She was a passionate advocate for women’s rights in the 19th century.  She was also a wife and mother of 7 children!

Cady Stanton’s analysis of the society around her led her to see the Bible and religion as one of the main factors contributing to the degraded status of women in America.  She believed that “the church was the greatest barrier to women’s full emancipation.”  [Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza, Searching the Scriptures:  A Feminist Introduction, p. 56.]  She declared:  “Whatever the Bible may be made to do in Hebrew or Greek, in plain English it does not exalt and dignify woman.”  [Introduction to The Woman’s Bible, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the Revising Committee, p. 12.]

So she set about bringing together a group of women to write The Woman’s Bible which would be a commentary mainly on stories about women in the Bible.  She had a very hard time getting support for this project.  

Some thought that attacking religion and the Bible was too volatile an approach and that it would sway people away from supporting the right to vote for women.  

And there were conservative Christian women who supported the right to vote because they wanted to be able to vote for things that were important to them like prohibition.  Some things don’t change.   They did not support The Woman’s Bible project.

There were others in Cady Stanton’s circle who did not think that religion was of much significance anymore in influencing society and culture.  Cady Stanton observed: 

“Again, there are some who write us that our work is a useless expenditure of force over a book that has lost its hold on the human mind.  Most intelligent women, they say, regard it simply as the history of a rude people in a barbarous age, and have no more reverence for the Scriptures than any other work.  So long as tens of thousands of Bibles are printed every year, and circulated over the whole habitable globe, and the masses in all English-speaking nations revere it as the word of God, it is vain to belittle its influence.”  [Introduction to The Woman’s Bible, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the Revising Committee, p. 12.]

But Cady Stanton held firm on the influence of the Bible on contemporary American culture.  She reminds us:  “These familiar texts are quoted by clergymen in their pulpits, by statesmen in the halls of legislation, by lawyers in the courts and are echoed by the press of all civilized nations and accepted by woman herself as ‘The Word of God.’” [Introduction to The Woman’s Bible, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the Revising Committee, p.8.]

While Cady Stanton was scathing in her criticisms of the Bible and Christianity, she certainly saw the good in the witness and ministry of Jesus.  One contemporary scholar reflects on her view of Jesus:  “Stanton was quick to distinguish between the teachings of Jesus, which promised a radical equality of women and men, and the teachings of the institutional church, which had continued to ignore or subvert Jesus’ message for eighteen hundred years.”  [Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza, Searching the Scriptures:  A Feminist Introduction, pp. 53-54.]

Cady Stanton pursued The Woman’s Bible project even though it was very controversial and took many years to complete.  

And from a vantage point of over a century in the future, we can see the validity of Cady Stanton’s views on religion and the 

Bible.  They are of great influence on American society.  Still Today.  And we see that just as in Cady Stanton’s day, religion, specifically Christianity, the church, is perpetuating the subjugation of women.  As a Black colleague told me recently, different means less than.  Separate is not equal.  And our society has created a zone for women that is separate from men. Women are not equal to men in society at large.  Pay is not equal.  Power is not equal.  It’s extremely evident in the actions around reproductive healthcare.  There’s no movement restricting access to viagra even though it may be contributing to unwanted pregnancies.  No, we are not living in a context of gender equality.

Have things gotten better for women?  Yes.  Is there gender equality.  No.  Is the church and Christianity part of perpetuating the inequality.  Yes.  When you have the largest Christian communion in the world not ordaining women, there’s still a problem.  

And scholars have helped us to see that this situation is in large measure related to imagery and language for God.  When God is predominantly imaged in male terms – lord, father, he –  then male becomes equated with God.  God as Father.  Father as God.  You can see how this works.  And feminist scholar Christine Downing observes,  “. . .To be fed only male images of the divine is to be badly malnourished.”  [Mary Grey, Introducing Feminist Images of God, p. 31.]

I was in a clergy group recently and all those present were women.  At one point, one colleague blurted out, “We’ve had a male God for 6,000 years.  I want a female God for 6,000 years and then let’s see where we are.”  

In my own thinking, I would like to see the church pass on anthropomorphism for God all together.  No male.  No female.  No mother.  No father.  No Lord.  No Lady.  No him and he.  No her and she.  They, if you must.  But we still have this masculine heritage to deal with.  We still have the Bible.  And it may take the using of feminine imagery to balance the masculine imagery to get us to a place that is reflective of the witness of Jesus –  freedom and equality.  

Yes, the Bible has much masculine imagery for God.  But as we heard this morning, there is also feminine imagery for God.  And actually quite a bit of it.  Especially in the Hebrew Bible.  There are numerous images of God as a nursing mother.   About God doing what is conventionally considered women’s work – feeding, nurturing, comforting.  And there are examples in the New Testament as well, like the one we heard this morning in which Jesus is imaged as a mother hen protecting her chicks.  And there are feminine images of God doing things like baking and sweeping.  So our tradition gives us material to work with, but as a patriarchal culture the church has chosen to focus mainly on the masculine.

Is God male?  Is God female?  Of course, God is neither.  Or God is both.  Or God is more than either one.  God is mystery.  God is beyond our comprehension and categories.  In the Gospel of John, we are told, God is Spirit.  Yes, we can affirm all of this intellectually.  But hearing the word God associated with masculinity has an impact and we see that impact in the church and the world in the inequality of women.  Catholic theologian Elizabeth Johnson exposes our biases when she observes:  “If it is not meant that God is male when masculine imagery is used, why the objection when female images are introduced?”  [Elizabeth Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse, p. 34.]

I would have been the first to say calling God ‘father’ and ‘he’ doesn’t really matter.  But then I went to college.  A women’s college.  Where everything was she, her, and women.  Hearing that continuously, seeing it continuously, and finding it so jarring made me realize how conditioned I was to a man’s world.  He. Him.  Man.  Even mankind.  Of course that includes women, we’re told.  Uh, no, it doesn’t.  And thankfully things are getting better.  People are actually getting to choose their own pronouns – well in some contexts, though not in the public schools in Florida.  

Thorny as this is, the way to the beloved community that we see in the ministry of Jesus, the will of God for humanity and Creation, on Earth as it is in Heaven, involves dealing with male imagery for God which undergirds patriarchy and oppression.  The way to equality, to each and every person a child of God, to true freedom, must include addressing the impact of male imagery and terminology for God.  We can’t get to Jesus’ vision of the beloved community as long as patriarchy is undergirded by male imagery and language for God.  

This Mother’s Day what do we want for Mother’s?  We want a world where children are safe.  Where there is affordable, accessible health care of all kinds, including reproductive health care.  We want high quality child care and education for all children.  We want healthy food and safe homes for all kids.  We want equal opportunity for all mothers so they can support their families.  We want family leave and personal time off so that mothers can care for their children, and when needed, aging parents.  We want access to the arts and recreation for all children.  We want a world where women are paid a living wage, equitable to men.  To create a society more supportive of mothers and more child friendly, we need to have gender equality.  And the concept of a male God remains an obstacle to gender equality today just as it did in Cady Stanton’s day.  The Woman’s Bible is still needed.  

Elizabeth Cady Stanton saw the potential for good in the Bible and religion but also saw the harm that they were doing not just to women but to society as a whole.  She was insightful and saw what we would call the intersectionality of oppression.  In testimony to the Judiciary Committee of the Senate of New York about the need for property rights for married women in 1860, Cady Stanton stated:  “The prejudice against color, of which we hear so much, is no stronger than that against sex. It is produced by the same cause, and manifested very much in the same way. The negro’s skin and the woman’s sex are both prima facie evidence that they were intended to be in subjection to the white Saxon man.”  [Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Wikipedia]

This Mother’s Day, we celebrate the freedom and well-being that all mother’s want for their children.  And we know that can happen only in a world in which women are also free.  We are inspired to pursue the well-being of all by the gospel, the liberating word of Jesus, who calls us to transform our reality into the reality of God freeing ourselves from all systems and dynamics that oppress and make people less than.  

Cady Stanton did not give up on religion.  She saw it’s potential power as a positive influence on society as we do.  She declared:

“All these old ideas should be relegated to the ancient mythologies as mere allegories, having no application whatever to the womanhood of this generation.  Everything points to a purer and more rational religion in the future, in which woman, as mother of the race will be recognized as an equal in both Church and the State.” [Elizabeth Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse, p. 60.]

This Mother’s Day may we recommit ourselves to that purer religion that promotes equality for all people and protects the life of our Mother Earth.  Amen.

A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.

Author: Rev. Wells

Pastor of Lakewood United Church of Christ since 1991. Graduate of Wellesley College and Union Theological Seminary of New York.

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