Sermon: #YesAllWomen and God-Talk

Trinity Sunday, 15 June 2014 – Rev. Gia Hayes-Martin:
I have to admit something: I am afraid to stand here this morning and preach. I am afraid to speak these words to you. But I believe, and I have preached it often enough, that following Jesus demands a certain willingness to overcome fear, an ability to go places we are afraid to go and do things we are afraid to do, strengthened always by the presence of Jesus with us. I would be a serious hypocrite if I didn’t muster up the courage to say what I’m about to say.

I am afraid because my words this morning are about misogyny, and God, and how they are related, and how God offers us a way to untangle them. Misogyny is the belief that females and femininity are inferior to, and exist for the benefit of, males and masculinity. It erupted into our national consciousness a few weeks ago, after a young man killed six people and himself at the University of California, Santa Barbara. The perpetrator left videos and a manifesto that revealed his vicious hatred of women, and his resentment that they did not give him the sex he believed he was entitled to. A conversation started on the social-media site Twitter, initially saying that not all men are like that. Which is absolutely true. I was raised by one of the best men on earth; I am married to another. But then a number of women began to tell their stories, pointing out that only some men harass women, but yes, all women have experienced harassment, violence, or discrimination. The feed is still going on Twitter, under the hashtag #YesAllWomen.

I’m not on Twitter; I’m on Facebook, where #YesAllWomen was slower to take off, so it took me a couple of days to catch on to this. And when it did, my initial reaction was to distance myself from it. All women? Not me, surely. But once I started to think about it, I was flooded by memories I have tried to forget. Belittling remarks by colleagues. Being hugged too tightly and groped by colleagues. The seminary classmate with too much interest in me who preached a sermon in which he imagined himself murdering a woman; the way the male professor blew off my concerns about my safety, and how I had to ask friends to keep that guy away from me until the semester was over. The stuff I’m willing to talk about is the least-worst that has happened to me. I don’t talk about the worst things, and the worst I’ve experienced is nothing compared to what friends have gone through. Remembering these things, and hearing what’s happened to others, I realized that I have been doing a high-wire act all my life, with no net beneath me. Sometimes men jostle me, and sometimes they try to push me off balance. Other men, many other men, help me keep my balance, reach out to catch me when I waver––but while I am on a high wire without a net, they stand on solid ground. I can’t remember a time this hasn’t been so. The only word that describes how I feel about it is rage.

Long before #YesAllWomen started, a number of theologians pointed out the connection between misogyny and the way we understand God. The book What Language Shall I Borrow? by pastor and hymn-writer Brian Wren, which is now 25 years old, has been important in my thinking on this. Wren says that language influences and slants our thinking and behavior. How we name God, the words and images we use to describe God, shape how we think about God. And Wren acknowledges that God is invariably described in male terms. God is Father, King, Almighty, Protector. God the Son became incarnate in a human man. Even God the Spirit, a way of understanding God that has nothing to do with gender at all, is described with male pronouns. Wren argues that masculine language for God reinforces male superiority over women. The theologian Mary Daly put it more bluntly in her book Beyond God the Father: “If God is male, then male is God.” Daly means that if God is male, men are created in God’s image, and women are something less. Indeed, medieval theologians believed that women are defective men who need to be ruled and controlled by men. Which is the definition of misogyny.

The thing is, the Bible is much more nuanced on the subject of God’s gender than we give it credit for. And we can understand God as male only if we overlook the many biblical descriptions of God in feminine terms. Isaiah compares God to a mother who comforts her child and a nursing mother who can never forget her child (Is 66:13, 49:15). Deuteronomy and Isaiah and the gospel of John describe God as a woman in labor or giving birth (Dt 32:18, Is 42:14, Jn 3:6). Hosea gives the tender image of God as a woman lifting an infant to her cheek and teaching the child to walk (Hos 11:3-4). Hosea also describes God as a furious mother bear attacking those who have taken her cubs (Hos 13:8). Both Luke and Matthew quote Jesus declaring his wish to gather up the children of Jerusalem as a hen gathers her brood under her wings (Lk 13:34, Mt 23:37). And then there is the creation story in which God creates humanity, both male and female, in God’s image. Both genders are needed to reflect the image of God.

These images from the Bible suggest that God has both masculine and feminine characteristics. Brian Wren reminds us that all images and metaphors for God are not God, and we cannot allow them to become God. God is transcendent, cloaked in mystery, accessible to us but always beyond us. All human ways of describing God fall short of the fullness of God’s nature. The Trinity is the best example of that; as much as we try to grasp it, try to pin it down in words and images that make sense to our limited human understanding, we finally have to acknowledge that the Trinity is a mystery and leave it at that. Of course, we continue to search for metaphors for God that describe our experiences of God as best we can. Wren suggests we need many images of God, even conflicting ones, to remind us that God cannot be restricted to our limited human understanding of God. When we have many images of God, their very dissonance and variety point us towards the fullness of God’s nature. And here is where we start to untangle misogyny from God. God is like a male, and at the same time God is like a female. God is like a Father, and at the same time God is like a Mother. God is like a fierce mother bear on the attack, and at the same time God is like a mother gently cradling a child. These opposites could not hold true for a human being, but they do when we’re talking about God. God exists beyond all human categories, including gender.

Once we see that, the way out of misogyny becomes a little clearer. To honor the full nature of God, we can be careful about the pronouns we use when we talk about God, as we’re already doing in this community. God isn’t a man, so we don’t call God “he” or “him.” God created human beings, male and female, in God’s image. We can proclaim especially to our children that all people bear the image of God, and we must treat them with dignity and respect, especially when they have experienced harassment or discrimination. The many, many good men out there have their own work to do. Brian Wren writes that the value of God being incarnate in the man Jesus of Nazareth was that only a man had the power to create change in first-century Palestine. Today’s men must go and do likewise. Of the many encouraging posts on #YesAllWomen, one of the best was from a man who said, “Started reading the #YesAllWomen tweets because I’ve got a daughter, but now I see I should be reading them because I’ve got two sons.”[1] This father and many others can teach their sons as no one else can.

None of this is easy. It requires that we examine our own privilege, our own understandings of God. It requires us to be open to the transcendence of God, and the way God defies all our attempts to define God. Yet in the end it will be worth it, when women can step off the high wire onto solid ground.

Genesis 1:1–2:4a, Psalm 8, 2 Corinthians 13:11-13, Matthew 28:16-20

[1]Albert W. Dubreuil @awdubreuil, 5:36 p.m. 24 May 2014.

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