The Church as Mother
Presented by Jane Page
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Statesboro
May 12, 2002
Today we are going to explore a metaphor that I believe will be helpful. My Funk & Wagnalls defines metaphor as “A figure of speech in which one object is likened to another by speaking of it as if it were that other, as He was a lion in battle.” Now the Bible and other religious writings are full of metaphors and metaphorical language. One metaphor that many of us grew up hearing in Christian churches is The Church is the Bride of Christ. Where does this idea come from in scripture? The Old Testament makes reference to Zion as a Bride. Now because I’m speaking of a metaphor that is common to Christianity, I will be using the Bible as my major text today.
Isaiah 62: 5 is referring to Zion in the scripture:
As a young man rejoices over his bride, so will you God rejoice over you.
In Revelations, the Bride is revealed as the Holy City or the New Jerusalem.
Revelations 21: 2 says:
I saw the Holy City, the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.
And in the Gospels we find Jesus using the wedding ceremony as the setting for two parables: In one, Jesus compares the Kingdom of Heaven to a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son and ended up inviting the folks off of the street corners. Another parable tells of ten virgins or bridesmaids who were waiting for the bridegroom, some fully prepared and others not. But exactly where in the Bible does it say that the Church is the Bride of Christ. Well, it doesn’t. But, most theologians agree that the stimulus for this commonly used metaphor came from the verses I quoted previously and from Paul’s writings. In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians he compares the relationship of Christ and the Church to that of a marriage.. Ephesians 5 25 says:
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.
Although Paul doesn’t use the work “bride” in describing this relationship, most of us remember the idea of Christ and his bride, the church. Why? Because the relationship of a bride and groom is usually thought of as full of joy, hope, possibilities, devotion, and overwhelming exhilaration. But most folks who have been in a relationship for anytime at all realize that there is more to a marriage than the honeymoon. Now don’t get me wrong, couples need to cultivate that joyous feeling often. And just as couples sometimes need to take a little trip or go on a date to emotionally renew their relationship, a church needs to have services which emphasize spiritual renewal – even Unitarian Universalist Churches. But a marriage must move beyond the bridal suite and the bride must take on other roles. And today as we celebrate one of the roles that many women take on – that of mother- I want to challenge us to expand our metaphor, and think of the Church and its role as Mother.
The Church as Mother is a powerful metaphor because mothers can make such a difference! Now since most of us have had mothers or others who served in that nurturing “mother role” for us, this should be a metaphor that we can identify with. Motherhood is a life full of joy and pain and the church in its mothering role must be ready to accept great challenges! Yes, mothering is challenging!
There were four mothers standing around one day as one of them complained about her baby. “I just can’t wait till she sleeps all night. We haven’t had a good night’s sleep since she was born and I’m just worn out.”
“Oh, you just wait till she reaches the terrible twos,” said another mother. “That’s when you’ll really be challenged.”
“Not as much as when she becomes a teenager,” exclaimed the third mother who had twin teenagers.
“None of you know the meaning of dealing with a child who is challenging and frustrating,” said the fourth mother. “You just wait till she goes through menopause!”
Yes, each age is a challenge – although teenagers probably do get the prize for raising parental stress. When our grandson was born, I looked at him through the nursery window and expressed my non-biased perception that he was a beautiful, wonderful baby. An onlooker agreed but then added, “But just think, one day he’ll turn 15.”
So if the Church (and I’m referring to both the larger church and the local church) is up to the challenge of the mothering role, what are the characteristics of mothers that the church should adopt.
I’m going to share four characteristics that we generally think of as characteristics of good mothers.
1st – Mothers meet the physical and emotional needs of their children. We make sure our children do not go hungry. We make sure they are clothed properly and have the warmth they need. When they are sick, Dr. Mom provides the medicine and proper care. When they are hurt, we provide the hugs. The early church understood the need to do this. Perhaps because the words and teachings attributed to Jesus still rang in their ears:
From Matthew 26: 35-40.
For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me. Then the righteous will answer him, Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you? The King will reply, I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.
Now who are the children that we need to care for? Is it just our church members? NO, the church members ARE the church. We do need to take care of our members, just as a mother needs to eat properly and exercise herself. But the REASON she takes care of her own body, is so that she can serve others.
Now, is it the government’s responsibility or the churches’ responsibility to care for the needy? Isn’t it really a shame that we have to have this debate when in reality both should do all they can. Certainly, the churches have probably neglected this role. Yet, in a country as prosperous as ours, no child should go hungry! And if that means government involvement, then we need it.
However this responsibility of the Church should not be ignored. It’s pretty easy for us to throw a little money in an envelope when special offerings are taken for World Hunger or to meet other basic needs. But if we are to really take on the mothering role, then our gifts should be of a sacrificial nature. When I was a little girl my Mama would make the best fried chicken in the world. As we began to pass the plate around, Mama would always claim the chicken neck – saying that she liked it best. Funny thing, though, when I ate chicken at my friend’s houses, their mothers always preferred the chicken neck too. When I got married, I realized that my mother-in-law always ate the chicken neck. I really didn’t understand this until I had children of my own. Of course, mother eats the chicken neck. It has the least meat on it. And, in fact, you do get to liking it after a while. Now my children will be quick to tell you that I don’t fry chickens and therefore, this is not true at our house. But I’ve eaten my share of proverbial chicken necks ,so I understand the concept.
The Church as Mother must meet the basic needs of humanity and should do so sacrificially. This is the 1st characteristic of motherhood and one that is imperative.2nd -Mothers tend to love unconditionally. All mothers get disappointed with their children -(and likewise I’m sure children are sometimes disappointed with their mothers). But in many of our families, the love and acceptance is always there. Sometimes as church members, it’s hard to love some folks.
Maybe they’ve hurt us. Or maybe we just don’t like what they do.
Or perhaps they’re just too different. Let’s look again at Jesus’ teaching.
Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:43 are:
You have heard that is was said, Love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.
You know as a candidate for ministry in the UU church, I realize that an important role is that of servant. But sometimes it’s difficult to take on this role. As I pondered this one evening, I realized that its fairly easy for me to take on this servant role with my sons and grandson. Why is it easy? Because I love them so. Then I realized that if I could just expand my love, the difficult servanthood role could be more easily adopted. The Church as the nurturing Mother should continue to dismantle the barriers and expand the love. How do you connect and love those that may be difficult to love? A mother continues to love her children in difficult times because they belong to one another. They are family. I think we need to constantly remember, that we are all children of the universe. And although we may have differences, we’re a lot alike. We all experience happiness and heartbreak and pain and joy We are family. And we should love one another.
3rd – A mother teaches her children. As you can tell from my accent, I’m from the South.
And southerners take pride that we strive to be polite and have good manners. Now, does having good manners come from eating GRITS? No, these are things that are taught. How many times do you hear mothers reminding their young children, “Say Please.” “Say Thank-you.” And then after they have learned these words come the prompts, “What do you say?” “What do you tell Aunt Mary?” And not only do they teach them – they model this behavior for them. All of the child development research reinforces the fact that children learn what they observe – not simply what they are told. The Church as Mother also has the responsibility of teaching. And the lessons must move beyond the sanctuary and the Religious Education class. And just as it is with teaching children, the best way to teach is through our own modeling of important principles like those Unitarian Universalists have agreed upon. I can preach love and compassion here, but tomorrow at work if I don’t live it, those that have heard it will ignore the lesson. I happen to be a teacher by profession. When I give my students an assignment, I try to give specific directions and procedures for completing it. But I’ve found that if I just show my students a good example of this project, they can understand what I’m talking about. The Church as the teaching Mother should provide those examples through stories and by modeling our principles.
The fourth and last characteristic of Mothers that I’ll share with you is this.
Mothers Work Hard!!!
I grew up with a Mama that worked hard all day long in a Beauty Shop then came home and did the cooking and house cleaning. When I was a teenager, I told her that I would like to see her one day without a hair brush or a dust rag in her hand. Well, folks, I’m happy to say, that day has finally come! Now when I go to see my Mama, she has a hoe or a rake in her hand. She can still out work me all to pieces. But whether our mothers worked away from the home or at home, most of them worked hard. And when the going gets tough in a family, the Mama keeps going. Remember O’lan from Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth and Ma from John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. These are two examples from literature of the strength, perseverance, and hard work that mothers exhibit. The Church as Mother should stand ready to work hard also. What is our work and where is our work?
There is a story that a preacher told about a lesson he learned early in life which may help us answer this question. This preacher grew up in the early part of this century in the City of Chicago. As a young adolescent, his parents wanted him to have some time out of the city experiencing life on a farm – so they sent him one summer to live and work with his aunt and uncle on a farm. The Uncle got the boy up before dawn and told him to go out to the wood pile and chop the wood, stack it, and bring some in to fill up the wood bin by the stove. The boy was looking forward to his farm work and enthusiastically completed the job.
He was quite tired though as he brought the wood to the house for the stove. So after putting it in the wood bin, he started back up the stairs to complete his sleep since it was barely morning anyway. As he started up the steps, his Uncle pulled on his shirt sleeve and said. “Just where do you think you goin’. You ain’t done no work yet.”
“What do you mean – I haven’t done any work? I been workin,” explained the boy. “Why I chopped the wood and stacked the wood, and brought and filled up the wood bin by the stove – jest like you said.”
“You still ain’t done no work yet boy,” the farmer said. “Let me ‘splain somethin to you. Any thing you do in the house or around the house or for the house – them there is CHORES. The WORK is in the fields.”
Now sometimes after I’ve served as a worship leader or preached in church or played the piano or perhaps served a greeter or prepared refreshments for the social time, I want to pat myself on the back, and congratulate myself for doing the work of the church. But you know, anything we do in the Church, or around the Church, or for the Church – “them there’s just Chores.” They certainly need to be done. But it’s not the real work of the Church. THE REAL WORK IS IN THE FIELD!!
In John 4:35, Jesus said:
Do you not say, four months more and then the harvest? I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest!
And in Matthew 9:35-37, we find Jesus lamenting over the lack of workers in the fields:
Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few.”
Have things improved or do we still have a shortage of workers in the fields?
Where are the fields? For some of us it may be foreign lands where we may help with disaster relief. But for many others it may be the work place or the soccer field. And the fields are certainly in our homes and in our communities – but sometimes on the side of the tracks that we don’t visit very often. Those are the places that we need to be working and sharing in the role of the Church as Mother. Those are the places that we should care for the needy, love unconditionally, and teach through words and deeds.
Some of us may have been in and served in this service today. And tonight as we climb those proverbial stairs, we may pat ourselves on the back and take pride in the work we’ve done. But we may just feel that tug on our sleeve and hear an inner voice that says, “Wait a minute ______, Wait a minute ______, Wait a minute Jane, You haven’t done any work yet.”
Today is Mothers Day. A day to celebrate and remember our mothers and others who have nurtured us. As you consider motherhood, I challenge this fellowship to consider moving beyond the comforting role of Bride and take on the work, and the teaching, the caring for the needy, and the unconditional love of the Church as Mother.
Amen and Blessed Be!
© 2001 Jane A. Page, Statesboro, GA.
All rights reserved.