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May 14, 2017

“God, Our Nursing Mother”

By Rev. Katrina Pekich-Bundy

1 Peter 2.1-10

Isaiah 66.10-16

May 14, 2017

                The Bible is full of metaphors, especially metaphors for God. We tend to lean toward the same ones: Shepherd, Father, Lord, and King – but there are many within the books of the Bible. Today we begin a four part sermon series on the different metaphors. I was inspired to do so after reading Wearing God by Lauren Winner. She explores various metaphors in her book, and I will preach on some of them or a variation of them. You may not relate to each one, and that’s ok. This is meant to give you a broader perspective of God, and you might connect with one metaphor over another based on your life experiences and faith. I’ve also had some help from the adult Sunday School class. The week before I preach each sermon I am bringing the topic and scripture passages to the class for discussion. So, much of what you hear today is based on their reflections, of which I am grateful because it has continued to challenge me, as well.

                Why do we look at God through metaphors? This is a tradition we continue from scripture. Jesus spoke of God and God’s realm through metaphors and parables. We cannot physically see God and so we use metaphors to describe God. We say we can see God in trees and humans and in the sky and the sun, but is this truly God or a metaphor for God? To offer metaphors for God gives us a focus and can be helpful as we read scripture or communicate to God through prayer. Although, not all visuals of God are helpful, which we will talk more about later.

                For this first week I chose to look at God as a Nursing Mother. The predominant metaphor for God as a parent is Father. To say God is a Mother does not negate God as a Father, but perhaps offers a new way of seeing God – not to diminish but paint a fuller picture. Perhaps sometimes you have heard God referred to as a Mother or as a Woman in general, but I wanted to look specifically at God as a Nursing Mother based on the scriptures for today. Winner talks about God as a woman in labor. There are scripture passages that portray God in all these ways.

                We start with the Isaiah passage. The Israelites have bene in exile and they are waiting in Judah to return to Jerusalem. As they speak this they are offering hope, not yet in Jerusalem. The city of Jerusalem is first described as a mother. She is the nursing mother, offering sweet milk to her people so that they may be satisfied. They are consoled and comforted. The mother carries them and brings them to a safe place, and they are bounced happily upon her knee, amused and content.

                In verse thirteen God extends this metaphor to God’s self – God will be this Nursing Mother. Therefore, we can assume that She will also offer sweet milk to Her people and satisfy them. She will console her people and comfort them in times of need. She will carry Her people and keep them safe, and bounce them upon Her knee with contentment.

                I want to focus on these first verses, but certainly cannot deny the latter ones. These are rather unsettling, as the Sunday School class discussed. Some saw this as a portrayal of a Mama Bear. If you’ve ever heard that phrase in reference to mothers, you know that it refers to the natural instinct of a mother bear. You don’t mess with a Mama Bear and her cubs – or you will feel the wrath and protective instinct of that Mama Bear, who growls and defends her young.

                There is something to this metaphor, as well. Often women are viewed as delicate, kind, compassionate people. There is nothing wrong with this view, so long as it is not the only perspective. Women can also be firm and authoritative and confident. Men can also be delicate and kind and compassionate. What we drew from this idea of God as this Mama Bear was that God sets boundaries for Her children. God does not want Her children to run amuck but to live within healthy boundaries so everyone is safe.

                Breastfeeding God is a powerful image. To better understand this metaphor it might help us to think first of characteristics of nursing moms and their children and to see if God fits into those perspectives. A baby, whether breastfed or not, is dependent upon someone for food. Breastfed babies are especially dependent upon their mothers, who produce the milk. Now, this intense dependency only lasts for a small amount of time. Eventually the baby is weaned, but still relies on someone to bring solid food. When the baby is an adult, he or she relies on the knowledge given to them by the parent for how to earn money and buy food. That dependency remains, but changes over time. We, too, are dependent upon God, and at different points in our lives that dependency is more intense than at others. A newborn is helpless and cannot provide for itself – so we are at times when we seek God’s guidance.

                When a baby eats he or she eats until completely full and satisfied. We might not always do that with God, but perhaps we should. Perhaps when we seek God, rather than shooting up a quick prayer, we should indulge in God’s great mysteries through in depth silence and reflection.

                Nursing mothers completely shift their lives around for their children. The lives of both parents change dramatically. A baby means changing priorities and midnight diaper changes and changing patterns of life. Though, for a nursing mom, that mother cannot forget to nurse or pump breastmilk. A nursing woman must schedule her day so that she can either nurse her baby or pump, or her breasts will leak and become clogged. So God, the Nursing Mother, chooses to focus attention around us and to reorient life for us. Lauren Winner writes in her book about a friend of hers who had a baby and wrote about the changes in her annual Christmas letter. Sarah Ruble, her friend, wrote “This Christmas…I am reminded that there is no greater sign of God’s orientation for us, God binding God’s self to us, than the Incarnation, the taking on of vulnerable human flesh.”[1]. God came to be incarnate – to be with us and to love us even though we are sinners. That says so much about God’s love for us.

                Babies do nurse for food, but they also nurse for comfort.[2] Comfort nursing is a way that a baby can connect with the mother and feel safe. The baby may not be hungry, but to lie safe in a mother’s arms they are comforted. Sometimes we might not be hungry for God’s word, we just need to be comforted and reminded that we aren’t in charge – God is in charge.

                Breastmilk also has healing properties to it, which has not been studied at length, but certainly noted. When a baby is sick, the spit enters the ducts of the breast and the milk changes to give the appropriate antibodies to help the child’s immune system. Plus, if the mother is sick, those antibodies are passed along to the child to prevent illness. Now, we’re not literally drinking God’s milk, but we certainly affirm God as a healer, and knowing what ails us. Just as breastmilk doesn’t always cure a child’s illness, God does not always cure us, and that is a mystery. Though, we can see how God has been a healer through time, especially through Jesus Christ.

                When we are ill or hurting, God has deep compassion for us and weeps at our adversity. Elizabeth Gandalfo wrote about Rufina Amaya from Salvador and her story of losing her eight month-old daughter. During the Massacre at El Mozote her child was literally taken from her as she breastfed the baby. She wept and mourned her child. She felt it in her heart and in her soul, and when her breasts filled with milk she ached. She no longer was able to feed her child, or see her child, or hear her child’s laughter.[3] All parents who lose a child, especially in such a terrible way, ache to see their children. God aches for us when we are hurting. God wants the best for us, like a mother who sees great possibilities ahead and has great hopes. God weeps when those aspirations are not met – when our dreams are not fulfilled.

                Part of understanding God as a Nursing Mother is to experience God through taste. The 1 Peter passage reminds us that we are to taste God and to long for Her spiritual milk. This is a special, sweet taste. Imagine eating dry, bland bread for a month, and then, at last! A juicy apple! Imagine eating soup broth for a month, and then, lo and behold! A brownie sundae! Like water in the desert, like sweet fruit after bland bread, like an infant not yet weaned, we seek God.

                Obviously not all mothers breastfeed, and men cannot breastfeed, and not all of you were breastfed. This metaphor is not to exclude those who did not nurse but perhaps to be seen as a way to connect with God. Whether breastfed or not, perhaps we can see communion as a way that we are nursed by God. We are given the sustenance we need to energize us to grow in our faith. We receive the bread and the juice as God’s milk that connects us physically and spiritually with God. Just as milk is the simplest of meals for a baby, so bread and juice are the simplest of meals for us. So simple, yet full of nutrients, love, and compassion. As a mother makes sure her child’s needs are met, as she supplies and cares for her child, so we shall be fed by God. As Eugene Peterson wrote in his translation of this passage: “Now, like infants at the breast, drink deep of God’s pure kindness. Then you’ll grow up mature and whole in God.” 

                Being a nursing mother isn’t all it is cracked up to be. Some women struggle to produce milk. Some babies have difficulty latching. Some women have multiple children, which brings its own challenges. While they may have sat quietly and peacefully nursing the first child, with multiple children, that image of peaceful nursing doesn’t exist. Remember that God has many children. Sometimes She might find a still, quiet moment to sit with us and comfort us, but often She is also dealing with the fight over the who can play with the light saber while also holding a baby.

                There are limits to this metaphor. Just as some shy away from the male image of God, some may shy away from the female image of God. Especially if one’s perspective of a mother is painful rather than healing, this might not be a helpful comparison. Plus, not all women are mothers and not all mothers are nursing mothers. This metaphor is not to say that God is just female, or just a mom, or just a nursing mother, but to recognize a different facet of God. Rabbi Mark Sameth wrote an article in The New York Times about how God is transgender. By using the Hebrew name of God, he argues that it translates as “He/She” and God is best viewed as transgender.[4] Some prefer to view God as completely genderless.

                There are many ways to view God, and they each have limits. So with each week we will piece together these new perspectives and dare to see God in a new light. As we reflect on God as a Nursing Mother, I leave you with these words from poet Galway Kinnell, speaking of his mother: “I have always felt anointed by her love.” May you feel anointed by God’s love, filled by her milk, and comforted at her breast. Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

[1] Lauren F. Winner, Wearing God (New York: HarperOne, 2015), 170.

[2] Elizabeth Gandalfo, “Mary Kept These Things, Pondering Them in Her Heart: Breastfeeding as a Contemplative Practive and Source for Theology,” Spiritus 13, no. 2 (2013): 174.

[3] Gandalfo, 179.

[4] Mark Sameth, The New York Times “Is God Transgender?” https://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/13/opinion/is-god-transgender.html?emc=eta1&_r=0