Sermon by Rev. Deborah Sunoo
Did you know that speaking of God as our Mother is biblical? Father language for God is used more often in most churches, but that text we heard from Isaiah 66 a moment ago is just one example among several in Scripture where God is described using maternal imagery. “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you,” says the Lord, (Isaiah 66:13) and Isaiah elsewhere compares God to a nursing mother (Isaiah 49:15). Deuteronomy 32 speaks of God as a mother eagle hovering over her young and then bearing them up on her wings. Jesus says he wants to gather up the people of Jerusalem like a mother hen gathers her brood under her wings (Matthew 23:37 and Luke 13:34). The prophet Hosea even offers an extended metaphor of God as a loving parent who teaches her child Israel to walk, bends down to feed him, takes him up in her arms, lifts him to her cheek. (Hosea 11) Hosea later employs the image of God as a mother bear too. (Hosea 13:8)
Human mother, mother hen, mother eagle, or mama bear, they’re all powerful images of God’s love and protection. Beautiful reminders that just as a mother cannot forget her child, just as a mother does everything in her power to guide and nurture and protect her child, just as a mother loves her child, so too does God lovingly watch over every one of God’s children.
Like all metaphors for God it has its limitations. Certainly, there are mothers who don’t behave in loving ways or protect their children the way they should. And none of us is perfect; we all fall short of the ideal. But think for a moment about what it looks like for a loving parent to hug or to feed a baby. Think about the energy and attention required to teach a toddler to walk, or how it feels when a child you adore learns to run - and then uses that skill to run away from you! Think about what it means to be a mama bear in the bestsense, loving a child or grandchild fiercely and forever. There’s something there, biblical authors remind us, that speaks to God’s care for each one of us.
And did you catch a bit of divine mama bear behind those other verses we heard today from Romans 8 too? “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?” (Romans 8:35) No! “For I am convinced,” says the apostle Paul, “that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39) That’s forever love for you. We won’t face anything, ever, without it.
I’ve often said that if the children who grow up in this church hear us reminding them regularly how much God loves them – and everyone – then we’ve done our most critical work of Christian Education. There are all kinds of other things we can and do teach them too. But I suspect none are more important. I want them to be absolutely convinced that nothing can separate them from God’s love. I want them to know God loves them, loves us, loves every child of God on this planet. No matter what. There’s not a thing we can do to earn that love, and there’s not a thing we could ever do to lose it.
Why is it so important to remember that nothing can separate us from God’s love? Quite simply because far too many things can appear to do so. And even our most cherished beliefs can take a beating sometimes when the going gets rough.
Paul uses some fairly broad poetic terms here in Romans 8 like height and depth and things present and things to come. But he also gets specific, invoking challenges the early church in Rome may have been facing at that time, real life dangers like famine and persecution. Even when it gets that bad, he assures them, nothing – not anything, ever - can separate them from God’s love.
And if that’s the case, then I am convinced that neither physical nor emotional pain will ever be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Neither will addiction or job loss or divorce or dementia. Poverty can’t do it, and neither can homelessness. Human prejudices don’t ever separate us from God’s love and neither does bullying or abuse or gun violence. Not hurricanes or earthquakes. Not heart disease or heartache. Neither physical nor mental illness, not even the most unbearable depths of depression can wrench us out of God’s loving embrace. No medical symptom however mysterious or exhausting or painful. Not grief at the loss of someone dear to us, even someone as dear as Stella was to Steve, and to her mom, and to her children and grandchildren, and to the rest of her family and her community.
The psalmist puts it this way: “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol (the place of the dead), you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.” (Psalm 139:7-10) We simply won’t face anything, ever, that is able to separate us from the love of God through Christ Jesus our Lord. I’d like to see you try, says our divine parent. It’s just not going to happen. God loves us through all of it, more than we can imagine.
We may not always be able to feel God’s love. And there’s the rub. But it’s way too big, too broad, too much to be limited to whatever we may be able to see or feel. God’s love for God’s children is simply there… it’s here… for us and for everyone, no matter the circumstances. Nothing can take it away from us. Not our own stupidity or mistakes or rebellion, not any selfishness or childishness or bitterness on our parts, or whatever may be the particular mess our hearts are in at any given moment. Nothing we could ever say or do, nothing that could ever happen to us, is any match for the reach and reliability, the fiercely protective mama bear foreverness of God’s love for all God’s children.
Preaching professor Tom Long tells the story of a memorable confirmation Sunday at a friend’s church. Confirmation generally involves a period of preparation designed to help teenagers become active adult members of a congregation, and in this particular church Confirmation Sunday also brings an opportunity for the class to show off a little bit of what they’ve learned. Sometimes they’ve memorized a creed; sometimes they’ve learned a little church history. This particular year they had memorized a passage of Scripture, a section of Romans 8 that includes the verses we read this morning. So the teacher asked them all to stand up in a line across the front of the sanctuary that morning and to take turns sharing with their church family what they’d learned.
“Joe,” he said, starting with the first kid in line, “what shall separate you from the love of God?”
Joe replied, “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Joe beamed, his parents beamed, the congregation beamed. And the teacher moved to the next student, “Katie, what can separate you from the love of God?” And she recited those same powerful words from Romans 8.
But then, as the question moved down the line, the congregation grew increasingly anxious. You see, at the end of the line was Rachel, a child of warm smile and easy grace who also had Down Syndrome. There was no way she could memorize that big long passage from Romans 8, could she? But the question kept moving closer and closer down the line until it finally got to her. “Rachel,” asked the teacher, “what can separate you from the love of God?”
Rachel flashed her beautiful smile and said but one word, “Nothing!” And of course that said it all.