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Mothering Spirit

Sermon - 5/11/08
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Acts 2:1-13

The story for this Mothers Day is the Pentecost story.  We heard this story some in the first hymn we sang, and I'm going to read it now from the second chapter of Acts:

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’ 12All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ 13But others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’


Today is a rather unusual day.  The sacred and the secular combine on our calendar this day.  When I looked ahead at the calendar and realized that Pentecost would fall on Mothers Day, my first reaction was 'What the heck do we do with that?'.  It's never happened before that I know of.  Certainly not in my ministry.

But the more I began to reflect on it, as we got closer and closer to this day, the more I realized -- how appropriate, how fitting a day, at least from the church's perspective, to think of Pentecost in terms of Mothers Day.  I don't know if it works the other way around, I didn't think about that (you can work on that).

People often ask me:  "What is Pentecost?".  If you go into the Hallmark store and you ask for the Pentecost section of the greeting cards, the clerk will look at you like you're crazy.  I'm still waiting for that day when I get a 'Happy Pentecost' card.  It hasn't happened, and I don't expect it to happen any time soon.

Most folk outside the church (probably most folk inside the church) have not a clue what Pentecost is about.  So this is my suggestion for you from this day on:  to simply think of Pentecost as the church's Mothers Day.

It is the day which we celebrate not only the birth of the church, but also we honor the mother of the church -- the holy spirit.

To call Pentecost the church's Mothers Day, I think, works on several levels.

First of all, the holy spirit is often portrayed as the feminine side of God.  In Hebrew, there is 'hokmah', or in Greek, 'sophia', or wisdom, that is often used as a synonym for the holy spirit, and is portrayed in Proverbs 8 as the co-creator, along side of God, who brought the world into being.  And the pronoun for Sophia is 'she', as well as for 'hokmah' in Hebrew.  English-speaking folk have not a clue about this because we don't have nouns that have gender, but in most other languages, nouns do have gender.  And in Hebrew and in Greek, the noun 'wisdom' is feminine -- she.

And thus in the hymn that we're going to sing at the end of the service -- "Holy Wisdom" -- the words to that tune were made quite well known through Whoopi Goldberg's Sister Act.  In that hymn we sing:

Crafter and Creator too
Eldest she makes all things new
Wisdom guides what God will do
Partner, Counselor, Comforter
Love has found none lovelier
Life is gladness lived with her
Wisest one, radiant one, welcome holy wisdom

And there's another Hebrew word, also feminine, that is used for 'spirit', and that is "ruah", which means 'wind' or 'breath'.  That you heard in the first verses of Genesis -- that is the wind of God moving across the face of the waters of the earth in the creation story.  And then again in Genesis 2 it comes again when God breathes life into the first human being, that's 'ruah', the breath, the wind of God that gives us life.

And so Gene Jantzen wrote another hymn that we will use right after the sermon and draws on this feminine image of the spirit, basing the hymn on the writings of Julian of Norwich from the 14th century, one of the great Christian mystics who was the first woman of letters in the English-speaking world.  In that hymn, we sing:

Mothering God, you gave me birth
In the bright morning of this world
Creator, source of every breath
You are my rain, my wind, my sun

Remember that last image, as the sun comes out and shines on us today, we'll come back to it.

In all of the debates over evolution vs intelligent design, we often lose sight that the Bible is now about how God created the world, but rather it is about the who -- the source of life.

Job says 'the spirit of God has made me the breath, the ruah, of the almighty, gives me life'.  The ruah, the spirit of God, is that life source of life for all of us.

So Diane Eck, in her book "Encountering God", writes:  "To speak of God as spirit is to speak in the imminent and immediate way of God's presence.  It is the mystery of God, as close to us as our very breath".

I think most of us have probably at some time participated in deep breathing exercises.  Have you ever done that?  Either as a form of meditation, or yoga, preparing to sing, or simply a way to get more oxygen into your blood.  It's a healthy thing to do.  So at seminars and workshops and various events you're encouraged to breath deep.  You take a deep breath. . . . and hold it a second. . . and then breathe out.  Right, take in the breath, and very audibly let it out.  You hear the rush of the mighty wind?  That is the spirit of the divine.  You breathe it in, and we let it out.  It is part of the very essence of life, the spirit of life with every breath that we take in.

And so Eck writes:  "Resting the mind on the breath for a sustained period of meditation, or for a moment virtually any time of the day, is a vehicle for resting in the spirit".  Just that very act of taking that deep breath, you see, is a means to physically, bodily connect with the spirit of the divine, that ruah in whom we have our being.

Pentecost, however, is not about the birth of us as individuals, nor is it really about the birth of the institution, the church.  Rather, it is about the birth of a community.  Pentecost is about how that breath, that spirit of God gave birth to a whole new community.

And note especially that long list of locations in the middle of the story, you know, we often skip over -- did you notice how quickly I read through it so you had no idea whether or not I was pronouncing the names correctly (a trick they teach you in Seminary)?  That's not there by some geographical accident.  That's very intentional, to point out how this spirit unites all people, bringing together people from different languages and cultures, and in a reversal of that tower of Babel story (mentioned again last Sunday, where that spirit of God confuses the people and separates them into different groups of languages) now that is turned around.  Now, they are united in that spirit.  And all hear in their own tongue what these Galilean preachers are proclaiming.  They become, in other words, a single community united in this spirit.

You'll recall as that story unfolds, we see this spirit constantly expanding that circle as it grows wider and wider, and includes a broader group.  It breaks down all of those barriers of class and gender and race and culture and language -- and even of religion -- to create one global community.

Just like a mother, the holy spirit plays no favorites.  Loves all her children equally. 

There's one more way in which this image of Pentecost as Mothers Day works powerfully for me.  I don't know about your mother, but mine was an incredibly free spirit.  She has two sisters here that can attest to that, I think.  Someone who was known to take showers in the rain.  To jump into Crater Lake partially clothed, much to the embarrassment of her children, because after hiking all that way down and getting there and seeing that beautiful, clear water, and not having brought her bathing suit with her, she wasn't about to climb all the way back up to get it!  But she couldn't resist that temptation, and so she jumped in.  Her favorite 'color' was leopard spots.  Anything with leopard spots, especially lingerie with leopard spots.  She was someone who put her husband through seminary, raised her kids, before she got her high-school diploma.  And then went on to get a PhD.  And I suspect she was the only minister's wife in the entire nation, if not the entire world, who specialized in sex therapy!  Now you know why I'm so messed up J.  She was a free spirit in so many ways. 

You see, Pentecost is all about the freedom of that spirit.  And to dramatize this freedom, Roman churches in the 10th century put holes in their ceilings as a way to show that the church could not contain that spirit, it was free to go wherever it will.  The wind blows wherever it will.

On Pentecost, they would let loose doves in that hole and drop down rose petals, descending upon the people like tongues aflame amidst the beating of the doves wings.  The sound, the rush, of the wind.

Again, writes Diane Eck:  "We need these holy spirit holes.  Our churches need these skyward openings to the wind rush of God.  Holy spirit holes would be perpetual reminders of both the prophetic and the Pentecostal movements in our churches that our knowledge of God is not complete.  They would ceaselessly remind us that no image or icon, no petal or flame, can domesticate God's spirit.  In symbolic images, like the dove and the wildfire, are images of utter freedom".

One of the examples that Dr. Eck cites of that spirit of utter freedom is a young Korean feminist theologian who shook up the 1991 assembly of the World Council of Churches with a powerful sermon that some denounced as chauvinistic, while others claimed as one of the holiest moments of the assembly.  Some may recall, I've mentioned it once or twice before.  But it was a sermon that I immediately recognized when I read about the controversy in the news because I had heard it before. 

Chung Hyan Kyung, in essence, gave the same sermon in Joey Jeter's preaching class at the School of Theology at Claremont.  Kyung Hyan and I and Judy all entered seminary together, graduated together.  It's only 1 of two sermons that I remember from that class (the other one was mine J).  It was so powerful.  She danced it, and folks talked about it for days.

Joey didn't quite get it, he gave her a "B".  Gave me an "A", but the World Council of Churches didn't invite me to speak to their assembly.  And after he heard her do it again in 1991, he suddenly got it.  He wrote to the dean of the seminary and said 'Would you please change that grade I gave 9 years ago'.  So now Chung Hyan and I are right up there at the top J.

I don't want to focus on that sermon -- if you're curious about it, I have copies of it, although reading it is not quite the same.  But if you want to know what nearly caused the orthodox churches to leave the World Council of Churches, ask me.

I want to focus instead, since it's Mothers Day, on Kyung Hyan's mother.  While doing research on her doctoral thesis in Korea in 1987, Kyung Hyan learned from a cousin who was doing household chores, lived with the family where she was born, that her parents (both then deceased), she learned that the woman who had raised her, that she had known as a mother all her life, was not the woman who gave birth to her.  Of course, that was quite a shock for her to learn that. 

The woman who gave birth to her was a poor single mom who lost her fiancé to the Japanese colonization of Korea during World War II.  And Kyung Hyan's father hired this woman as a surrogate mother after his own wife failed to conceive a child after 25 years of marriage.  Under the terms of the contract, the mother was to give up her daughter on her first birthday, to the father.

Now, 32 years later, mother and daughter were reunited for the first time.  Her mother told Kyung Hyan how she did not want to give up her baby girl.  But Kyung Hyan's father was rich and powerful, and she knew that she could not fight him.  She told Kyung Hyan how hard she cried that day at the railroad station when she had to give her up (a rainy spring day much like today).  She became mentally disordered over her grief, and her only son (then a teenager) could not bear the suffering and committed suicide.  Her mother, now alone, her only solace was that her daughter would not suffer from the usual ostracism of Korean society of that time, of children born out of wedlock. 

And by, in effect, negating her own existence as the mother of Kyung Hyan, she knew that her daughter would be legitimate and accepted in the world.

Kyung Hyan writes of that first meeting in 1987:  "When I first went to meet my birth mother and listened to the stories of her hard life's journey, I felt that something in my deepest being was broken open.  It was like the experience of baptism.  Something was washed away, and I felt truly free.  Through this ill 72 year-old woman, my mother, I felt that I was encountering the power of the despised of my people's history".

And that experience totally transformed 11 years of western theological training she had received at places like Claremont.  And she said "I felt an inner, powerful spirit turning me from my wish to do theology like Europeans, and toward the open arms of my mother, where I could rest safely in her bosom.  My sobbing mother looked like an icon of God, through which I could clearly see what God was telling me about my mission.  Without any system of support to be a productive and public person, the only way she could survive without being mutilated was by becoming totally invisible.  Her heart was broken.  She was forced into poverty.  And for a period of time, mentally disordered".  Writes Kyung Hyan:  "I wanted to do theology in solidarity with, and in love for, my mother, so as to resurrect crucified persons like her by giving voice to their hurts and pains, especially those Asian women who are located on the underside of the underside of history".

And what emerged from that transformative encounter with the spirit of God in her mother, is what Kyung Hyan calls "Asian Women's Theology".  We've all heard recently about Black Liberation theology over the controversial preaching of Jeremiah Wright, this is Asian Women's Theology that she developed out of listening to the stories of other Asian women.  And she describes it in her book "Struggle to be in the Sun Again" -- she writes:

"Many Asian women think God is life-giving power to be naturally personified as mother because woman gives birth to her children.  God as mother and woman challenges the old concept which emphasizes God as immutable and unchangeable.  This female God is a vulnerable God who is willing to be changed and transformed in her interaction with Asian women in their everyday life experiences.  This God is a God who talks to Asian women, listens to their stories, and weeps with them.  Asian women trust in this God enables them to trust themselves and to hope in the midst of their hopelessness".

And then, quoting a poem from a Japanese woman from which she gets the title of the book, writes:

"Originally, woman was the sun.  She was an authentic person.  But now woman is the moon, she lives by depending on another, and she shines by reflecting another's light.  Her face has a sickly color.  We must now regain our hidden sun, reveal our hidden sun, rediscover our natural gifts.  This is the ceaseless cry which forces itself into our hearts.  It is our irrepressible and unquenchable desire.  It is our final, complete, and only instinct through which our various separate instincts are unified".

And then Dr. Chung concludes:

"In Asian women's perspective, knowledge of self leads to a knowledge of God.  In their suffering, Asian women meet God, who in turn discloses that they were created in the divine image.  Full and equal participants in the community with men".

Such is the work of the mothering spirit that loves each and every one of us equally.  That gave birth to us.  That nurtured us through all those years of growing.  That desires at all times the best for us.  That weeps with us and for us.  That gave us this community of caring, loving people, working for the unity, peace, and justice of the world.

In her bosom, may we all find rest.


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