Dancing with the Trinity

God’s Labor of Love

Ali Tranvik

Sermon at Holy Trinity, March 12, 2017

John 3:1-17


Good morning! It is wonderful to be with you on this snowy spring morning! It’s good to see that so many of you braved the cold and remembered to change your clocks. It’s days like these when I wish I wasn’t Lutheran…because we as Lutherans know that good works don’t merit salvation. But if they did, I’m convinced the people who actually remember to change their alarm clocks for daylight savings and make it to church on time should get some kind of brownie points or something. In all seriousness, I am very humbled to be preaching here today…thank you, as always, for your warm hospitality.

As you know, this past Wednesday was International Women’s Day. In Chapel Hill – Carrboro, we were all particularly aware of International Women’s Day this year, but it’s actually been part of American history for over 100 years. It’s a day to celebrate women:

-We exist because of women.

-I as a woman can vote because of women, get an education because of women.

-I can wear pants, wear a clergy collar, all because of the long & hard fight of women.

But March 8th is also a day to recognize the work we have yet to do…

-Today in the U.S., for example, white women make 79 cents to a white man’s dollar—and that’s 60 cents for black women and only 55 cents for Hispanic women.

-1 in 4 American women has or will experience domestic abuse.

-Girls throughout the world still face significant barriers in access to education and healthcare compared to similarly-situated boys, and the list goes on…

So it was against this backdrop of International Women’s Day that I read today’s Gospel story, and I instantly found Jesus and Nicodemus’ conversation about birth a rather curious connection. To see the kingdom of God, Jesus tells Nicodemus, “You must be born from above” (other translations say, “you must be born anew” or “born again”). After hearing this, Nicodemus, quite the literalist, asks, “So does this mean I’m supposed to crawl back into my mother’s womb and be born a second time?” But Jesus rather mysteriously responds, “What’s of the flesh is flesh, but what’s of the Spirit is Spirit. To see the kingdom, you must be born of the Spirit.”

While Jesus makes this flesh-spirit distinction in response to Nicodemus’ rather silly question, if we zoom out for a moment and look at the larger context of Jesus and of Scripture, we know that flesh and spirit—secular and sacred—are actually much more intimately related than an initial reading of Jesus’ comment might suggest.

-The sacred comes to us in the worldly waters of baptism

-God meets us in the mundane matter of bread and of wine in Holy Communion

-God inhabits flesh itself in the incarnation

We have a God for whom flesh and Spirit are not separate. A God who shows us that matter matters—that holy and heavenly moments can and do happen in our mundane and material world.

So, while Jesus says that the kingdom of God is not accessible by the physical birth of a woman, he preserves this metaphor of birth—one of the most fleshly metaphors possible. We still must be born, Jesus claims…just not in the way we initially think. By claiming we must be born again, Jesus is saying that we still must be pushed and groaned and strained and sweat into life, but this time, our birthing mother…is God. God in this story, is a woman in labor.

I realize this is not the usual image we use for God! God is Father, God is shepherd, God is rock, but God as a laboring woman!? …it’s frankly a bit disturbing. We don’t like to envision a divine body that suffers, swells, leaks, and bleeds. Honestly, we’re not always even comfortable with God as a woman period, let alone one who’s in the midst of a bloody birth!

But let me assure you this image is not one I conceived, it’s not just a weird thing seminarians like to talk about, or some feminist trope. It’s actually a biblical one! You see, Scripture give us a myriad of metaphors for God, which, to me says that our imagination—our language—is simply insufficient for grasping the divine. Right when we think God is lion, he’s lamb. Just when say God is king, he’s servant. Right when we settle on God as Comforter, he’s judge. The moment we call God Father, she’s Mother. Adding some of these less familiar, less comfortable biblical images to our spiritual and ecclesial repertoire reminds us that God is far too big, too mysterious, too unpredictable for our imaginations.

I’m taking a class right now through Duke Divinity School called “Images of God” taught by Lauren Winner. Our class meets in the Raleigh Women’s Prison, as half its members are women from the divinity school, and half are incarcerated women. Each week we explore a lesser-known biblical image of God—God as clothing, God as gardener, God as warrior, God as inmate, and this past week, God as various types of birds (again, all biblical images!). At the beginning of the semester, Dr. Winner told us, “The characteristics that we attribute to God are the ones we end up valuing in society.” So for example, if we picture God exclusively as an old white man with a long beard, then we actually end up valuing old white men more—giving them greater esteem. Following this same logic, if we see Jesus as a homeless person, perhaps we’ll value homeless people in our society a bit more. If we pray to Jesus as an arrested man on death row, then we might think differently about our incarcerated population. If we imagine God as a laboring woman, perhaps our world might start seeing women and mothers through new eyes…

Our spiritual imaginations matter. Using a variety of images for God not only helps us better imagine who God is and what God is like, but they actually do something. In changing the way we see God, these different images change the way we see the world.

So today, in our passage from John, Jesus tells us we must have a spiritual birth—born anew, born again—which leaves us with an image of God as a woman in labor.

It was just a couple of weeks ago that we explored the image of God as a laboring woman in my class at the prison. I learned that “God as mother” was an image that the Church not only “allowed” but embraced as one of its dominant images throughout various points in history. For various reasons, this image of God has become peripheral (even unwelcome) in our life of faith, but that’s not the case for much of church history. I also learned about the importance of breathing in childbirth. I learned that the rhythmic breathing of labor isn’t something that just passively happens (like you and I are—supposedly—breathing right now) but rather it is something that women are taught and trained to do, something that helps them manage the pain, something that biologically allows the rest of the body to do its work. Breath is what makes birth possible. Breath is the agent of life.

In our class, my peers and I read a passage from Isaiah 42 where God says, “For a long time I have held my peace, I have kept still and restrained myself. Now I will cry out like a woman in labor, I will gasp and pant.”

This passage—sound effects and all—is one of the most descriptive passages the Bible gives us of God as a laboring woman. It is God’s grunting and groaning and gasping that ushers us into life. That is to say, the work of bringing forth new life does not come without effort and pain on God’s part.[1] We are not easy babies to bear!

This life-giving gasp in Isaiah reminded me of another biblical breath, another creative rush of holy air that God breathed into Adam in Genesis. Breath was the agent of life. It also reminded me of the biblical breath in Ezekiel when God breathed miraculous life over a valley of dry and dead bones. Again, breath was the agent of life. And, it reminded me of the biblical breath at the end of Mark, when, “with a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last.” This breath was also the agent of life, because it wasn’t Jesus’ last! What we thought was a dying breath—what we tried to make Jesus’ dying breath, was un-killable! New life was possible not because Jesus died but because death couldn’t win.

The cross and the birthing stool become one. For it is in Christ’s bleeding and bellowing, gasping and groaning, pain and labor, death and resurrection that we are born again. It is the ultimate labor of love…for God SO loved the world.

We remember our spiritual births in the waters of baptism, when we proclaim that by the Spirit we were reborn as children of God. Interestingly, the Greek word for Spirit (pneuma) and the Hebrew word for Spirit (ruah) both translate to “breath.” So when we are baptized in and by the Spirit, God is breathing us into life. I invite you, as you leave this place today, to stop at the baptismal font on your way out and mark the cross of Christ with water on your forehead—where a cross of ashes was marked just a couple of weeks ago. And when you do so, I invite you to remember in the midst of this season when we dwell on our earthly mortality, that you already are born again—given life, abundant and eternal, by God’s labor of love.

For God SO LOVED the world that she gave her only Son, so that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. Thanks be to God!

[1] Winner, Wearing God, 139.