What comes to mind when you think of ‘mother?’
It might be things like:
Why haven’t you called me back?
Mind your manners!
Good home cooking
A safe place
Norman Bates (yikes!)
It’s interesting, isn’t it? I think we tend to separate motherhood from fatherhood in our minds. But really, the job descriptions aren’t all that different, are they? Both parents can love and care and discipline (and hopefully do). Both wake up in the middle of the night and change diapers and play and read bedtime stories. And today more than ever, dads are welcomed and even expected to play an active role in parenting their children. I see more and more stay at home dads around Austin and I think it’s wonderful and really healthy.
But for all the similarities, there is something DISTINCT about a father’s love and presence and a mother’s love and presence.
There’s something different about the bond between a mom and her kids, especially early on. She is the first heartbeat they hear other than their own. The first voice. She nourishes literally from her own body for 9 months and longer if she’s able to breastfeed. I’ll never forget holding Torey for the first time. Her whole face seemed taken up by these huge eyes looking up at me.
Last weekend we got a chance to celebrate the life of Kyle’s beautiful and wise and very spunky grandmother. She was 90 when she passed away. And it was hard but beautiful to watch her two daughters say goodbye to her and begin to process her loss.
Whether your connection to your mother is life giving or hard, I believe it is something really central to who we are and touches the core of how we relate with the world. All of which reminds me of a time when Torey was about 8 or 9. We had taken a trip to Sea World and Kyle decided that this would be a perfect time to introduce Torey to her first roller coaster. I wasn’t so sure about it. She was barely tall enough and it looked pretty scary.
But in the end, Kyle convinced Torey to ride it and me to let her. Kyle and Torey got in one car. I got in a few cars up. The guy working the ride came and helped us buckle our seatbelts. And there was that jerk as the ride started. We were moving up the first hill. And there was that agonizing pause that you always have where you’re looking down at all these crazy twists and drops that you’re about to go on. And I heard Torey behind me doing a little second guessing…And we were off—whoosh—down the first hill. And there Torey was with her strong and loving dad right next to her holding her hand.
But all the way down Torey was yelling MOM?!?! And she yelled for me down every hill and on every curve. Here we are in our 90stastic overalls after the ride. As you can see, she made it safe and sound. And later that afternoon, she tried another roller coaster and loved it and she’s never looked back. Here she is a few years ago on another roller coaster.
We need people in our lives to push us to risk and be daring like Kyle did for Torey that day, don’t we? But there has to be a balance, too. Sometimes, we just need a mom to hold us and keep the scary stuff away and tell us things are going to be ok. We need both.
And I think the same is true with God.
We need to be inspired to be bold and daring and to stand up for justice. We need boundaries and black and white and guidelines. But sometimes God is painted as only caring about those kinds of things. We also need nurturing and security and protection. We need it when life hurts. When work or family or not having a family is hard. We need it when we read the latest about ISIS and Boko Haram. We need it when 50 years after Selma, Ferguson is happening.
And what if God always notices and cares? What if it was God’s desire all along to mother us as well as father us—to love and comfort as much as admonish and instruct and inspire? That’s the question we’re going to lean into today.
We are in the season of Lent—a time to prepare for the mystery and pain and beauty of Christ’s sacrifice and resurrection. Our text is Luke 13:31-35.
31 At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” 32 He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. 33 Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’ 34 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, and you were not willing! 35 See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”
Jesus is traveling through the countryside villages and towns, healing and teaching as he goes. There were some Pharisees who were actually supportive of Jesus. And they warn him that Herod, who had already killed John the Baptist by this time, wanted him dead, too. But Jesus is not nearly as concerned as they are. He actually gives them a little snark about Herod.
His response must have been the last thing the Pharisees expected. He’s not changing his plans—he knows he’s got a lot of work to do and not much time left to do it in. He destination is Jerusalem—the heart of Israel in every way—and he knows that he’s going to die there. Today we’re going to be focusing specifically on his lament over his people in verse 34 to discover what Jesus wants to offer, why he would want to offer it, how he does it.
So, what does Jesus want to offer?
34 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, and you were not willing! (Luke 13:34)
God’s people were called to be a holy nation and to be a kingdom of priests. But they’d worshipped other gods, taken advantage of the poor, even practiced slavery. God has been calling them back and warning them of judgment if they continued in the way they were going. But instead of listening and changing their ways, they usually ended up arguing with God’s messengers. And they’d killed lots of them, too. And Jesus is headed to the very city where a lot of it happened.
But instead of getting mad that the very people he’s helping want to kill him, he cries for them. He cries over what he’s wanted to offer that they haven’t been able to receive.
And he hadn’t desired it once or twice but often—repeatedly. He’s wanted to gather his people like a hen gathers her brood.
He wanted to mother his children.
Tozer wrote “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” In other words, the thoughts and images we have of God are the most formative, the most fundamental, the most consequential of any thoughts we could think.
So how about it? When you think of God, what comes to your mind? What do you picture? A bright light or dove? Is it an old man with a white beard? Is God loving or angry? Do you imagine Jesus? Is he pale and European looking? I hope he’s not weird and scary like this Jesus? Do you ever imagine Jesus smiling and joyful and looking like he’d be fun to hang out with? Does anyone think of Alanis Morrissett doing cartwheels? Or a dapper Morgan Freedman? Are any of you old enough to remember this one? I think I was about five when it came out—George Burns played a sarcastic cigar smoking God in this film which also starred John Denver. How about this one? Do you ever imagine God with a womb? A nursing mother gazing down at a beloved child. Do you think of God as mothering? That one tends to make a lot of us squirm a bit for some reason, doesn’t it?
But a lot of our spiritual older brothers and sisters were really comfortable with God in this role. They were familiar with Jesus as one who had wanted for so long to gather his children like a mother hen does. There was this 4th century monk who took the pseudonym Marcarius in honor of another monk who had lived about a century before him. He wrote this: “A babe has no force to accomplish anything…and makes a noise, and cries, seeking after its mother. The mother meanwhile pities it and rejoices that the little one seeks after her with pains and crying… [the mother comes to the child] …and takes it up, and cherishes it, and nurses it with great affection. That is what God does…”
And then there was Hildegard of Bingen. She was an 11th century genius. She was a composer, a prolific spiritual writer, and pastor. She wrote a strong rebuke to the emperor because he was promoting disunity in the Body of Christ. And over a thousand years before Tolkien, she created a book in a language she’d created complete with its own alphabet just for fun. She wrote : “…through this fountain of life came the embrace of God’s maternal love, which has nourished us unto life and is our help in perils and is the deepest and sweetest charity and prepares us for penitence.”
How do these images meet you? I have to be honest; I’ve gotten comfortable over the years with God as a teacher and guide; as a loving Father. One whose forgiveness and grace I need and want. With a God I want to honor with my life. But as I’ve bumped against this idea of God mothering in the past, it always seemed a stretch…It didn’t fit with God I’d experienced. That had a lot to do with my own journey…but it also had something to do with how God was painted in a lot of the churches I’ve been a part of. Maybe that’s true for you, too. See if this sounds familiar: Yes, God is forgiving and loving and kind. But what God is REALLY interested in is me getting my act together and reminding me when I didn’t.
But in some really painful seasons in the past several years, I got to a place where the ways I’d always known and interacted with God began to be revealed as incomplete. It became clear that God was inviting me to go deeper…And what I began to see is that Pseudo-Marcarius and Hildegard are connecting with God in ways that God actually describes God. What would it look like to receive a mothering Jesus and have that Jesus present to us when we prayed and made decisions and lived our lives?
Why would Jesus want to offer motherhood?
Let’s look at the text again. Why would Jesus want this for us? 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, and you were not willing! (Luke 13:34)
They’d been waiting for the promised Messiah who would restore everything that Jerusalem represented. Jerusalem was the home of the King. And it was where the temple was. It was the place where worship and forgiveness and fresh starts happened. It was the place where God lived among in his people—his very presence inside the Holy of Holies.
And they thought they understood…they expected another king like David or Solomon who would kick out the Romans and purify the rebuilt temple that Herod was still adding flourishes to. But that wasn’t Jesus’ plan. And what he’s saying here is that it wasn’t God’s plan all along.
Why is that? Why would Jesus want to gather them? Why would Jesus want to offer motherhood? In the 1940s, the germ theory was increasingly understood. Hospitals were incorporating it into their health practices, and it was saving lives. Rene Spitz studied orphanages that were also starting to apply this new knowledge. Nurses were encouraged to keep the infants well fed, warm, and clean; diapers were changed. But they were encouraged to touch the babies as little as possible. They figured the less contact they had with the babies; the less likely they’d be to catch various illnesses. Makes sense, right?
But it’s not what actually happened. Fully 75% of the babies in these hygienic institutions died—in one case it was 100%. And the diseases they were hoping to protect the babies from? 40% of the institutionalized babies who contracted the measles died while less than 1% in the larger population did. They are actually videos of these babies—they’re tiny for their age and they just lie there looking at their fingers.
What these orphanages accidentally discovered is that humans have a physical need for touch and play and connection. That we actually die without it. This is what Jesus was talking about. What he always knew… When Torey was in her first semester of college, I got a call. No crisis—just a hard day. Her dorm room was tiny and dusty and old. Her roommate was awkward—she was the only college freshmen I’ve ever heard of that went to bed before 11pm. She was missing home. She had projects and papers due. So, she asked, ‘Could I please come visit for a weekend?’
So, I went. And we didn’t really DO anything. We stayed in a hotel and did facial masks. We ate pizza. We watched movies. We took selfies on her computer. But even though not much happened, it’s one of our favorite memories from her college days. It was meaningful and it was important. I got to be present for her and love her.
And Kyle was often there for her in similar ways. They’ve always been close. But in that moment, Torey needed a mom. She needed me to provide a sense of connection and comfort and belonging in a way that was similar but distinct from the way Kyle loves her as a father. There was a time when Israel was also feeling alone. They were far from home and they felt abandoned.
14 But Zion said, “The Lord has forsaken me,
my Lord has forgotten me.”
15 Can a woman forget her nursing child,
or show no compassion for the child of her womb?
Even these may forget,
yet I will not forget you. (Isaiah 49.14-15)
They feel overlooked and ignored by God. And God’s response is, ‘You know what mother’s are like? You know how they have this deep unbreakable bond with their children? That’s what I’m like. ‘Can a woman forget her nursing child? Can she show no compassion to the child of her womb?’
What’s the answer? Of course not. Never in a thousand years. But God says—Let’s imagine the impossible. Let’s say a mother could forget a nursing child. God is saying here--even if the impossible happens—even if a mother could forget the child that’s crying with hunger a few feet away—I will never forget you.
And this is one of those situations when reading it in the original language would be even richer. Because the word for compassion is a form of the word womb. Raw-kham’ is how you say the Hebrew word. It means to love deeply, to have mercy, to be compassionate. It’s a word that speaks of a deep love.
The same kind of love Jesus was expressing. Why would Jesus want to gather us? Because he knows we need closeness and connection. He knows that we will wither without it. He knows we need mothering. And it’s a need he wants to abundantly meet.
How does Jesus mother us?
Let’s look at our text again. How does Jesus want to mother us? With Herod breathing down his neck, Jesus isn’t thinking of how to save his own skin. He’s remembering all the times when he reminded Zion of his compassion.
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, and you were not willing! 35 See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’” (Luke 13:34-35)
They thought they could solve things with political or military power or if they found just the right way of applying the ceremonial law. They were praying desperately for the Messiah to come but they missed him because he looked and acted so differently than they expected. And they had their inheritance in way— “see your house is left to you” ...They were back in Jerusalem and back in the temple. But it would all turn out to be empty without God’s presence and power.
But Jesus hadn’t given up. He hadn’t given up on healing them, covering them, protecting them, saving them. There is tenacity in motherhood, isn’t there?
Mothers tend to have a softness that fathers don’t. But that tenderness shouldn’t be mistaken for weakness. There is something strong and protective underneath the nurturing. I’ll never forget the day I learned I was expecting Torey—something changed inside me. I knew that I’d do whatever it took to love her as well as I could and to provide for her and guard for her. It was a feeling of overwhelming love and there was something fierce about it, too. If you who are a mom, you’ll know exactly what I mean. And if you’ve known the adoptive moms I’ve known, you’ll know that biology isn’t the point here. Mothers are mothers.
Which brings us to why Jesus chose this metaphor. A hen with chicks would have been a really familiar sight to everyone hearing Jesus. Even more familiar than it is in East Austin.
When a hen is raising chicks, she has a particular call to draw the chicks to her. The chicks aren’t able to regulate their temperature well at first, so she’ll share her body heat with them. And if she senses a threat, she’ll call them then, too. She’ll cover them with her wings and puff herself up so that she looks more intimidating. .
And this is what Jesus is evoking. A mother who shares her life and guards her children. And if there was a teacher who really got what Jesus was trying to say here, it was Julian of Norwich. She had a series of visions in the spring of 1373 and spent literally the rest of her life praying and studying Scripture and pondering what God had shown her. Most of that time was spent alone in a single room connected to the church in Norwich.
With reference to the Trinity, she wrote, I saw “three properties: the property of the fatherhood, and the property of the motherhood, and the property of the lordship in one God.” She also wrote, “So Jesus Christ, who opposes good to evil, is our true Mother. We have our being from him, where the foundation of motherhood begins, with all the sweet protection and love which endlessly follows. As truly as God is our Father, so truly is God our Mother.”
She understood Jesus as maternal in participating with the Godhead in the creation of humanity. She saw him as maternal in his incarnation as he took on human nature as the first step to the possibility of rebirth that he first spoke of to Nicodemus. She saw him as maternal in his sacrifice as our Savior. She described the Eucharist as Jesus feeding us as a mother would with the covenant meal—in remembrance of his own body and bloodshed.
There is a mystery here that Julian spent her life pondering. Because God is creator and sustainer of a vast universe. Holy. Wholly other. A mighty warrior. When humans meet God in his glory they tend to fall on their faces. Isaiah was terrified. Even John the beloved disciple fell face down when he met Jesus in glorified form in Revelation.
And. God wants to know us and always has. God walked with Adam and Eve in the garden. God wrestled with Jacob. Jesus came and took on human form. And through it all, God has been revealing that he is father and mother. Jesus’ love is gentle and it’s also tenacious and steadfast. As Julian understood so well, Jesus mothers us by gathering us for comfort and connection and protection. That was his desire for Israel. And it’s still his desire for us today. And like the best of mothers, he was willing to sacrifice himself for the children he loves. Jesus mothered us by laying down his life for us. What if we received Jesus as a God whose life and death and resurrection revealed that he was the long-awaited Messiah—our Savior—AND as one who is the perfect expression of motherhood?
If you’ve taken a college psychology class, you’ve heard about Harry Harlow’s experiments from the 1950s.
He took young monkeys from their mothers and offered them a choice of two surrogates. One was a wire mesh mother with a something resembling a head with a bottle inside. And the other was a similar mother covered with soft terry cloth without a food source.
And what happened? The monkeys stayed with the ‘wire mother’ only long enough to eat. Sometimes not even that long. But every time the monkeys treated the cloth-covered figure as mother. They touched her; they squealed at her; they embraced her; they hid behind her when they were scared; they cuddled with her for comfort. They didn’t have to be taught to want a mother— to seek one out. They just did.
Harlow found what Jesus knew—that we—and most of creation with us—are made to be mothered. And he knew that mothering was much more than food and physical care. Sometimes we need to be inspired and pushed to risk. Sometimes we need boundaries and black and white. We need God to Father us. And sometimes we need womb love. We need connection and covering and compassion. We need to be held and comforted. We need someone to keep the scary stuff away and remind us that someday all will be well. And that we are loved in the meantime. We need God to Mother us.
And it has always been God’s desire to do—to be—both.
And so Jesus came and took on flesh and spent a lifetime doing what he’d long been doing— gathering his children as a mother would.
And then he lay down his life for them—for us.
And I wonder…
How often has Jesus wanted to gather you?
What has stopped you from being willing?
What would it look like to risk receiving Jesus love, grace, and sacrifice?
What if we let ourselves be comforted by a Savior who is Friend, King, and who loves us as a Mother?
Jesus, like a mother you gather your people to you;
you are gentle with us as a mother with her children.
You weep over our sins and our pride and
tenderly draw us from hatred and judgement.
You comfort us in sorrow and bind up our wounds,
you nurse us in sickness, and feed us with pure milk.
Jesus, by your dying we are born to new life;
by your anguish and labour we come forth in joy.
Your warmth gives life to the dead,
your touch makes sinners righteous.
Lord Jesus, in your mercy heal us;
in your love and tenderness remake us.
In your compassion bring grace and forgiveness,
may your love prepare us for the beauty of heaven.
Gather your little ones to you, O God,
as a hen gathers her brood to protect them.
 Based on writings of St. Anselm. http://re-worship.blogspot.com/search?q=god+mother