“I have been a church nerd my entire life. Over the years I’ve read and studied scripture quite a bit, and I’ve even read the Bible cover to cover a couple of times. One of the things that appeals to me about the Bible is that it uses so many different images to tell us about God. No one image tells us everything about God; each of them teaches us something about God. The Bible tells us that God is like a shepherd. God is also like a light. God is like a rock. God is like a sower who sowed some seed. God is like a mighty wind. God is like a friend. God is like a King. Each of these scriptural images balances the others to give us a fuller understanding of our relationship to God.
I thought I was pretty familiar with all the scriptural images of our relationship with God until I read the lectionary passages for today. Suddenly, I was struck by a Biblical image of our relationship with God that I had never noticed before: “Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation, if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.” We are used to thinking of ourselves as children of God. I had always assumed that the scriptural images of God as our parent were limited to the image of God as Father. Then I read this verse again, “Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation, if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.” Where does a newborn infant’s milk come from?
In today’s sermon, we are not talking about formula, simply because our scripture isn’t talking about formula. Our scripture is talking about milk.
Our scripture tells us that our relationship with God is to be like a newborn infant’s longing for its mother’s milk. How could I have missed this lovely maternal image of a little baby being comforted and fed while snuggled in its mother’s arms?
I was talking to a couple of men in the congregation. I said, “The lectionary reading says, ‘Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation, if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.’ So do you guys think I can get away with preaching a sermon about a breastfeeding God?” One of the men just raised his eyebrows and laughed. The other said, “Well, maybe if you worded it carefully. You wouldn’t have to actually say the word ‘breastfeeding’.” I wondered, is breastfeeding the newest taboo?
Both of these men are fathers. When their children were babies, they fully supported their wives’ breastfeeding. But I think they are right that we are not quite comfortable with talking about breastfeeding in general and a breastfeeding God in particular.
Is it that in 21st century America we are so accustomed to the way corporations use women’s breasts to do things like advertise beer? Are we so accustomed to it that we have now become uncomfortable with the idea that breasts might have a purpose other than a directly sexual one? Does the mere thought that breasts produce milk make us squirm?
Or is it that we feel uncomfortable that someone might mention “breastfeeding” in church? And yet it is not unusual for us to mention ‘circumcision’ in church. And circumcision is not quite as pleasant for babies as breastfeeding is.
Or is the real issue about our concept of God? The Church has said for centuries that it is unreasonable for women to object to depictions of God as a member of the opposite sex, because we all know that God has both masculine and feminine attributes. So when men come across a depiction of God as a member of the opposite sex, does the same thinking apply? And if we can never talk about God in female terms, what do women lose? What do men lose?
I raise all these questions because I am not quite comfortable with the idea of a breastfeeding God myself. It is outside my comfort zone. Still, I believe that when we stretch our comfort zone, our comfort zone becomes bigger, and our faith itself can be enlarged.
So, in the end, I figured the people of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Heathsville could handle hearing a preacher say the word “breastfeeding” in church.
But the main reason I am preaching on it, is that the idea of a breastfeeding God does not come from a feminist theologian in 21st century America. It comes from scripture. Right there in First Peter chapter 2, verse 2. “Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation—if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.” And I believe that this scripture has something to teach us about our relationship with God.
This scripture is primarily about our spiritual hunger. All of us want a deeper sense of God’s presence in our lives, a sense of holiness, a sense of transcendence. We want the gifts of the spirit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. We want souls that radiate with the love of God.
But we adults don’t always pay attention to what we are hungry for. I have sometimes sat in front of the television screen with a full bag of potato chips beside me, and half an hour later suddenly realized that the bag is empty, because I had been mindlessly putting into my mouth chips that I wasn’t really hungry for, and didn’t really want, and didn’t even enjoy. How often do we put spiritual junk food into our souls? There have been other times when I have been so busy and preoccupied that I have skipped a meal and refused to pay attention to my hunger, with the result that I am irritable and impatient with people. And then afterward, I eat whatever I can get my hands on fastest, rather than sitting down for a decent meal. How often do we skip meals spiritually and refuse to pay attention to our spiritual hunger? And what effect does it have on our souls?
We could probably take a lesson from infants. When they are hungry, they know it, and they do not mess around. When newborns are hungry for milk, they long for it. They cry for it, as if their life depended on it. Because, of course, it does. And the milk they long for is exactly what meets their needs. In fact, the milk a woman’s body produces when her baby is a newborn is different from the milk she produces a month or two later, because it fits different needs at different stages of her baby’s development. And so it is in our spiritual lives, that God meets our needs in different ways as our faith development goes through different stages. Even the scriptures themselves speak to us in different ways as time goes on.
We adults so often thwart our real desires. As C. S. Lewis writes, “If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly to hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith. Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling around with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea.”
So take the beach vacation! Instead of filling your life with things that don’t really satisfy, go ahead and indulge your spiritual longings, even if you have drifted far away from them. Especially if you have drifted far away from them. Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation.
Our scripture tells us that the spiritual longings themselves are good. You don’t have to be perfect. You don’t have to have God all figured out. The important thing is to keep longing. And remember that like a loving mother, God wants to take care of her baby. God has plenty of milk to fill your longing.
The point of this longing for the pure spiritual milk is that by it you may grow into salvation. As a newborn grows, its longing for milk does not stop. As a newborn grows, its appetite grows too. It is a beautiful thing to see the deep bliss of a baby who has just been well fed. It is a beautiful thing to see the joy in people’s spirits when God has provided exactly what the person needed. And paradoxically, having our longing satisfied makes our longing even deeper. If you have tasted that God is good, then go ahead and long for the pure, spiritual milk, like newborn infants.
One of the reasons that eating the bread and drinking the wine at the Eucharist is so powerful, is that it reminds us that we need to keep coming back to be fed spiritually, just as we need to keep coming back to be fed physically. Just as one good meal will not sustain us forever, no matter how satisfying it is, one good spiritual experience will not sustain us forever. We need to be fed at regular intervals, like newborn infants, longing for the pure, spiritual milk, because we have tasted that God is good.
If you feel a little strange about the Eucharistic idea of being fed from another person’s body, today’s scripture offers you the opportunity to reflect on the thought that newborns throughout the centuries have been fed from another person’s body. God’s love flows as naturally as a mother’s milk.
What are the longings in your soul? A longing for peace? For energy? For comfort? For deep love? When you feel any of these longings, you can imagine yourself as a small baby, with a loving mother picking you up and embracing you, and soothing you, and singing to you about how much she loves you, and feeding you with warm milk that makes you feel comforted, and loved, and at peace. You can picture God caring for you as a loving mother cares for her little baby.
Your longing for God is good in itself. When you need care the most, even if you cannot form a prayer in words, you can picture yourself like a newborn infant, longing for the pure, spiritual milk, because you have tasted that God is good.”