In my lifelong journey as a follower of Jesus, there are only a handful of times when a sermon about Christ’s sacrifice on the cross brought me to my knees, weeping in repentance and in awe of the love of God. One of these times was in listening to a mother’s sermon.
It was in the words of Dr. Kerilyn Harkaway-Krieger in her sermon “On Giving Birth and Being Born Again” given at Gordon College Chapel that, for the first time, I heard the crucifixion likened to childbirth and the sacrificial love of Christ likened to the sacrificial love of a mother.1 And it was in this analogy that I felt the love of Christ like I hadn’t felt it in years, and my hope and faith were renewed.
Now, as a new mom, I am finding myself in desperate need of a mother’s sermon.
A Void in Our Pulpits
Our churches are full of mothers and women. And Scripture is full of women’s stories, many of them stories of mothers. Yet how many sermons have we heard preached by mothers? This is not to say a man cannot or should not preach these passages. This is also not to say that they should only be preached by women who are biological mothers or mothers at all. Yet we must acknowledge that there is a depth of meaning and insight that is lost when they are not preached by mothers, as is most often the case.
In my journey to motherhood, I am finding myself connecting with Scripture in new ways. I have wept with Hannah in my own battles with fertility and laughed with Sarai to discover my pregnancy. I have wrestled with Eve and the gynecological consequences of our sin. I have groaned with creation as “in the pains of childbirth” (Rom. 8:22). I am well familiar with the vulnerability of the pregnant women and nursing mothers in Matthew 24:19. I have felt the leaping of the babe in Elizabeth’s womb and groaned at the discomfort of Mary on the donkey and grieved the loneliness of the stable birth of our Savior.
I have so many new sermons stirring inside me as a result of these embodied experiences, and I have only been a mother for the duration of a thirty-nine-week pregnancy and the short nine weeks since my daughter’s birth. Yet I have to wonder if these sermons, and the sermons of so many other more experienced mothers, will ever be given a space to be preached if the church does not shatter the stained-glass ceiling.
And so I’d like to share two of those sermon themes with you. Maybe they will inspire you to preach a mother’s sermon at your own church.
Sermon Theme: The God Who Is “Mother”
There is a rich biblical and traditional theology which refers to God as “Mother,” yet we have to dig for resources which expound upon a maternal theological imagery. Rarely are sermons preached on this imagery, and it is not only mothers who need this kind of theological formation. It is needed by all of us because it is who God is as depicted in Scripture.
I have spent much of my life believing that referencing God as “Mother” meant that you were in the dangerous territory of heretical theology outside the boundaries of traditional doctrine and therefore not truly Christian. And although I am sympathetic to these concerns, these unthinking and harshly drawn lines have damaged our understanding of God even as he is described in Scripture.
A friend and I recently sat in my living room, her two-year-old playing at our feet, my nine-week-old sleeping nearby, her in the late stages of her second pregnancy and me riding the waves of post-partum hormones. Our conversation explored the changes in each of our spiritual journeys now that we are mothers. She shared with me how her lifelong theological formation which emphasized a God who punishes us for our sin led her to believe that, like Eve, her traumatic childbirth experience followed by several painful months of a brutal battle to breastfeed her son was God’s way of punishing her for her sinful humanity. In her spiritual journey she has had to untangle herself from this single-minded penal theology to lean into the God who is also described in Isaiah 49:15 as a nursing mother, saying, “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast, and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you!”
In my own tumultuous, painful, and challenging journey as a new mother, it is not the God who is a “rock” or a “consuming fire” or a “mighty fortress” or a “firm foundation” that I want to be comforted by. Instead I am clinging to the God who says, “Like a bear robbed of her cubs, I will attack them and rip them open…” (Hos. 13:8) and the God who describes, “As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you” (Isa. 66:13). My God is both the strong, steady Rock of Ages, as well as the soft cushion of a mother’s breast who is “like an eagle that stirs up its nest and hovers over its young, that spreads its wings to catch them, and carries them aloft” (Deut. 32:11). And yet where will I go to find a sermon preached on any of this?
It is my embodied experience as a new mother that has created in me a new craving and desperation for this kind of spiritual comfort and understanding of God. As I reflect on what I have been taught about the motherhood of God, I find it baffling that we are more comfortable with and comforted by the God who is a rock than the God who is a mother. I have never met a comfortable rock.
Sermon Theme: Born Again: A Metaphor of Motherhood
In the sermon that brought me to my knees, Dr. Harkaway-Krieger points to the common and influential theology of being a “born again” believer as it is told in the familiar story of Jesus and Nicodemus in John 3 and draws obvious, yet rarely preached, parallels of this common metaphor to human motherhood. She says, “Taking the description ‘born again’ seriously requires us to imagine God as ‘mother’ as the one who gives birth to us spiritually.” She adeptly likens the shedding of blood in childbirth to Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, saying, “The only time that I can think of that it is lifegiving to lose blood is in birth, and arguably perhaps also menstruation…”
Furthering the motherhood metaphor, Dr. Harkaway-Krieger then compares breastfeeding to Christ’s spiritual nourishment, saying, “Jesus also feeds us, spiritually, in the same way our mothers feed us when we are infants: with his own body.” Her inspiration for this comes from Julian of Norwich, pointing to this as a historical theology in need of remembrance.
The journey of my pregnancy has allowed me to have an embodied experience of the sacrificial love of Christ. For the first nineteen weeks of my pregnancy, morning sickness had me hugging the toilet. Every moment of every day was an exhausting battle to try to get enough food inside of my body so that both my life and the life of my daughter could be sustained. Near the end of my pregnancy, I was on bedrest protecting the life of my baby when I began to endure, for three long months, strong, painful, and constant uterine contractions which took us to the emergency room three times out of fear of early labor. And, at thirty-nine weeks, after three painful and futile attempts to medically induce labor, my daughter was finally delivered by C-section.
As I look at my daughter, healthy and thriving, and feel the damage done to my body to create, grow, and now sustain her small life, I am keenly aware of how desperately her life has depended on mine. For many hours of many days, I have found myself persevering in motherhood by the sheer fact that her body depends on the sacrifice of my own body. The giving of my own physical life so that she might live. It is a love I have never known so viscerally before. And as I stare at the wreckage of my body in the mirror—stretch marks decorating my belly and a scar the size of Canada—I know that I would endure this, and so much more, again if this was what was required for my daughter to live. And in staring at my own scars and the love which they represent, I am reminded of my Savior’s scars and hear his love anew, “This is my body broken for you.”
If it were not for Dr. Harkaway-Krieger’s sermon, which provides theologically sound and biblically adept likening of the birthing imagery of John 3 with the sacrificial and lifegiving bloodshed of motherhood, I would not have given myself permission to liken my own experience of motherhood to Christ’s love.
A Mother’s Prayer
How many sermons have gone unpreached because we do not share the pulpit with the mothers in our midst? How many passages of Scripture have been breezed over and unexplored because a male preacher does not resonate with these stories and images? How many other mothers, like my friend, are left feeling abused by God because of our limited exploration of the imagery of God found throughout Scripture?
Mother-centered theology and Scripture do not belong sequestered to the women’s retreat or the mom’s group or once a year on Mother’s Day. They are God’s truth for everyone every day. It is my prayer that as my own daughter grows in her faith, and all of our daughters and sons, that her experience and understanding of God will be formed by many voices, including a mother’s sermon.
This article is from “Motherhood,” the Spring 2022 issue of Mutuality magazine. Read the full issue here.
- Gordon College, “Dr. Kerilyn Harkaway-Krieger – 09/07/2018,” YouTube video, 35:56, 10 September 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QFy5ANbFMxQ.