The Mystery (and Trials) of Being a Woman (and a Mother)
A sermon preached by John C. Hall on May 11, 2003


Text — John 10:11-18


There’s something pretty presumptuous and ridiculous about my sermon title.  After all, what can I possible have to say about the mystery of being a woman or a mother?  But I’ve wondered, and tried to imagine, what it would be like to be a woman, and a mother.


I noticed a long time ago that Mother’s Day seems like a bigger deal than Father’s Day, and maybe that’s because usually women and mothers pay a bigger price for their place in the world than men do.  Not everyone would agree with that, and it’s not true in every case, but on the whole, I’d say that men have it easier than women do, for a variety of reasons, but surely the main reason has to do with the fact that women give birth.


One hundred fifty years ago, many women gave birth to ten or more children by their mid-thirties.  Many women died young, in childbirth.  Today, choosing between or balancing a career and child-care is a lot more complicated for women because they are more attached to children from the start.  For centuries, women have had to fight hard for economic and political rights — the right to own property, to file for divorce, to vote, to hold political office.


I’ve been learning lately about how the whole idea of human rights emerged in the 18th century.  The leaders of the French Revolution — a revolution that claimed to be based on the “universal rights of man” — argued that one of the problems with the old regime, the monarchy, was that women had too much influence among the nobility.  It wasn’t natural.  When a French woman, Olympe De Gouges, said, “Women have rights too” she was executed for being an enemy of the revolution. 


Women in the United States weren’t allowed to vote until the 1920s.  You have to ask, Why did it take so long?  Why were men so opposed to women voting?  I’ll say something about the stated reason in a moment. 


Women also have a more complicated, or problematic, relationship to beauty.  How we look is factor for all of us, but this more loaded for women.  There is power in being an attractive woman, and this has to be on the mind of any girl or young woman growing up, even if she rejects this as an important value.  Women spend more time and money on beauty because of this power, but there’s also a danger that comes with it.  This is the famous “paradox of the beautiful woman.”  If a girl is pretty, she gets more attention.  She gets her way more often.  The paradox, and the danger, is that other people, and she herself, can make too much of that and pay less attention to her inner resources, her mind and soul.  Very attractive people can feel empty because so much is made of their exterior.


Like society as a whole, the Christian church has a rather bad record, overall, when it comes to women.  The culture of Christianity, like the culture is sprang out of and lives in today, is one that gives advantages to men.  The language of the Bible, the language for God — God the Father, God the Son — is a problem because it implies, or can be taken to imply, that males are closer to the divine image. 


There’s a lot of disagreement over how big a problem this is.  There’s a lot of disagreement over how to deal with that problem.  The problem itself isespecially unfortunate and ironic because, over the centuries, the church has been sustained mainly by women, even though the leadership has been mostly male.


But that wasn’t always the case.  There’s evidence  that in the very early church, when people worshiped in private homes, women had a major leadership role because the domestic realm was the realm of women.  As the church grew and was forced to move into larger public buildings, men took over because the public realm was the realm of men. 


Today, we’re seeing a fast-moving feminization of the church’s leadership.  Most seminary students are women, by a fairly substantial margin — just as women outnumber men in many other professional schools.  I believe most college students are women. 


Not surprisingly, in light of history, some people see this feminization in the church and in medicine and law as something to worry about.  I’ve read articles about this.  What if men are left too far behind in terms of education?  In the church, there’s a concern about having too many women clergy.  Is this really something to worry about?  Why isn’t it seen as a “natural” development the way male leadership was seen as “natural in the 18th century and earlier?  Maybe women’s interests and skills are just more suited to these professions.


I guess what I’m saying is that, in so many ways, women can’t seem to win, and when they do win something — usually after a long hard fight — it’s viewed with some suspicion.


In the 1700s, men argued against women’s rights on the grounds that women have a different nature than men — they’re too emotional; they’re ruled by their bodies.  They’re prone to superstition.  They’re easily tempted by the devil.  This was supposedly self-evident through reason. 


In the 1800s, the so-called “science” of phrenology was the rage.  Phrenology claimed to find a direct relationship between the features of the human skull, its size, its shape, its ridges, and the personality and intelligence of the person.  Women’s skulls were smaller and so, men concluded, women shouldn’t vote or hold public office.  Women’s strength was in the lower part of the body, the hips, while men’s strength was located around the shoulders, closer to the head.


These were serious arguments, and this is the sort of nonsense that women have had to put up with. 


But this debate about how women and men are different, and how they’re similar, and what we should do with these similarities and differences is still a hot topic.  If you’re at a dull party sometime, bring this subject up and you’ll get something started.


Most of us would agree that everyone in our society has benefited enormously as women have come to play a wider role.  There’s just more raw talent and intelligence available for everyone’s well-being because women are doing things they didn’t used to do.  Societies that use the talents of women will have a huge advantage over those that keep women locked out of circulation.


Today, in our Second Hour program, we’re going to listen to mother’s talk about what it’s like to be a mother.  There’s more to being a woman than being a mother, but motherhood is huge, important mystery of human life.


The image, or the icon, of the “mother and child” is one we see everywhere.  It’s no accident that Christianity, early in its life, turned to Mary to counter-balance the masculine language for God: the Father and the Son.  People pray to Mary because she is Jesus’ mother.  This is less so in western Protestantism, but for most of the church in the world, Mary is part of the mystery of God.


Many mothers in our church have said how giving birth was a religiously transforming experience.  One mother said that being a mother is like having your heart walking around in the world, outside your body, exposed to danger.  Being a mother is a mystery.  It’s also the way God becomes flesh in creation — through mothers.


The mission of First Church is to engage and support people in worship, learning, fellowship, and service, so that all may find in our community the Spirit of the living Christ.  We are an Open and Affirming Church: All are welcome into the full life of our community regardless of their race, age, gender, nationality, marital status, economic situation, mental or physical ability, or sexual orientation.

First Church of Christ, Congregational
United Church of Christ
190 Court Street
Middletown, CT
Sunday Worship at 10 a.m.
Child Care Provided
An "Open & Affirming Church"

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