Throughout our season of Lent we have the opportunity to consider how God has outstretched her almighty arm and has brought her children to safety … how she has blessed us with gifts too numerous to count … how she has forsaken the rich and haughty and how she has lifted up the lowly into her loving and protective arms.
I suspect what you may be thinking. Those feminine pronouns I have just used to speak of the almighty are like speed bumps in your easy listening. “She?” “Why’d he say she.” And then our minds go to remembering that God is neither male nor female and the only reason we think of her as a him is because, in antiquity, males were thought to be superior and, since God is superior, God must be male. Then our minds eye goes to Michelangelo’s portrait of God on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel where “he” is a macho old white guy with fierce eyes and a very male beard.
Throughout my forty years of preaching I have pretty much slipped into saying “God, he” in sermons. I’ve tried to mix it up a bit recently, throwing in a she a time or two. Maybe you noticed. The plus side of doing this is that it reminds us that God is not male and that we have for too long neglected the feminine side of God. The minus side of doing this is that it derails folk’s train of thought for a minute or two and by the time they start listening again you are on to point two of your sermon.
But I am lifting it up in this sermon because our gospel tells of Jesus using feminine imagery in speaking of himself. Jesus is warned that Herod is out to get him. They warn him, “Get out of Dodge!” In this case, “Get out of Jerusalem.” Jesus agrees to flee, but then looks remorsefully on the city and cries a lament, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings…”
A hen gathering her brood under her wings. It is warm, feminine, mothering imagery for Jesus, who is decidedly male. But there are also Old Testament images which speak of the Almighty – the Creator – in feminine ways. Genesis tells us that humankind was created in the “image of God.” “Male and female” he created them. This tells us that part of the image of God is female. Isaiah quotes God as saying, “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you.” Isaiah uses even more graphic feminine imagery when he has God say, “I have kept myself still and restrained myself; now I will cry out like a woman in labor. I will gasp and pant.” The Psalms also use feminine imagery for God. From Psalm 131: “But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; my soul is like the weaned child that is with me.”
In this day and age of the equality of the sexes and the #metoo movement it can seem refreshing to be reminded that God is not a man. So it is liberating to speak of her in feminine terms. Even rather Avant Garde. Chic! But, even that can lead us down a path we may not wish to tread. In those scripture verses I cited and even in Jesus own words, femininity is equated with being nurturing, protecting, and compassionate. It goes to the “soft” things like gentleness, sensitivity, and empathy. Mother hen things. The slippery slope there is when sensitivity slides into passivity and gentleness morphs into complacence which devolves into obedience.
I saw a meme on Facebook the other day – from a relative no less!! – which was a graphic of God as a big umbrella. The big God umbrella protected man (males) who were a smaller umbrella underneath the big God umbrella. The man umbrella protected the woman (female) who was a smaller umbrella under the man umbrella. She, in turn, held her small umbrella over her children who, I guess, didn’t get any umbrellas at all. All this puts women underneath men, smaller than men, and subject to men. The caption on the meme said, “This is not a popular concept, but it IS God’s word.” No, it is NOT God’s word!
When Jesus spoke of himself in feminine terms, as a mother hen, it was in the same breath that he spoke of himself as a prophet, in which he spoke of himself casting out demons, in which he spoke of himself as curing illness. What was he in trouble with the authorities for? For challenging the rigged system which favored the rich and powerful over the poor and helpless. This is what prophets do. They are bold, fearless, courageous, audacious, in-your-face people who persist. These are the qualities Jesus held up to the Pharisees in the same breath in which he used feminine imagery to describe himself.
We don’t need to confine the feminine side of God to soft, tender things. The feminine side of God can also include hard things like boldness, nerve, pluck, and chutzpah. The feminine side of God can be brash and impatient. It can be aggressive and insistent. What does the feminine side of God do? It challenges the rigged system which favors the rich ad powerful over the poor and helpless.
Even in today’s “enlightened” environment, women sometimes get called out for being prophetic. They may be allowed to be assertive, but they sometimes get criticized for aggressive behavior a man would never be criticized for. Our current freshman class of female United States Representatives are prophetic, but have been mansplained about their provocative behavior.
This isn’t a new phenomenon. Sojourner Truth was an African American evangelist, abolitionist, and women’s rights activist. In short, she was a prophet. She grew up as a slave and served several masters in the northern state of New York before escaping to freedom in 1826. She became a Christian and began doing assertive, aggressive, in-your-face things. She preached about abolition and equal rights for all. She became one of the world’s best-known human rights crusaders.
Her prophecy about equal rights wasn’t just about slaves, but about women as well. In 1851 she delivered a speech at a women’s convention in Ohio in which she said.
“And ain’t I a woman? Look at me. Look at my arms. I have as much muscle as any man, and can do as much work as any man. I have plowed and reaped and husked and chopped and mowed, and can do more than that. I can carry as much as any man, and can eat as much too. Why, children, if you have woman’s rights, give it to her and you’ll feel better.”
She almost didn’t get a chance to speak. Some men tried to hold her back. But still she persisted. Her words left such a mark that they were published and she received an audience with Abraham Lincoln. Sojourner truth went on to become a major advocate for abolition and for women’s right long before the Civil War let alone the suffrage movement. Her voice was feminine, but it was anything but gentle and passive.
Prophets live today. Simon and Garfunkel looked out over the inner city and sang, “The words of the prophets are written on subway walls and tenement halls.” Jesus looked out over Jerusalem and lamented, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under wings…” God speaks today through prophets. Let’s listen to God’s voice – the feminine one as well as the masculine.