Growing up in church, I heard sermons about Jesus' mother Mary and cousin Elizabeth mostly at Christmastime. While I didn't know the correct term for the season is "Advent", I did know that the sermons I heard were always meant to illuminate the mystery and miracle that was Jesus' birth.
Many of the sermons used Mary's (and Elizabeth's, to some extent) pregnancy as a metaphor to suggest that there is something within all of us waiting to be birthed. These sermons told us that we are "pregnant” with purpose, destiny and power and all we have to do was “birth” our next level and “push” our babies (manifested destinies) out. In context, these things sounded powerful. I even shouted off a few of them, especially when the preacher proclaimed that the chaos in my life was "labor pains" as I was getting ready to birth a new dimension in God (…that and the right chord on a Hammond will get you every time). I would say that, on the surface, these sermons are harmless. However, there is no surface. To their very core, these sermons are inappropriate and dangerous.
For me, these metaphors are often the hallmark of a lazy sermon and poor exegesis. Preaching punchlines that rely so heavily on pregnancy and women's reproductive concerns often lack deep theological analysis around what's actually happening in the text. Seriously…God comes to a young teen, tells her she's the mother of the Messiah and all you can come up with is that I'm pregnant with purpose? That’s all you got?! Gas and WIFI are entirely too high to be wasted like this. Yes we shouted but did we get free?
And let’s not forget the sermons where we’ve been told not to "abort" our destiny by refusing to do what the Lord commands. I've even heard sermons that used incest and rape as metaphors to describe what happens when we fail to do God's will. And as vile and rancid as these sermons are, women shout off of them. We lay prostrate on the altar at the end of them. Because we want to get it right. Because we want to be whole. Because whatever move God is about to make next, we don't want it to happen without us. Our vulnerabilities and insecurities become preaching fodder and we are manipulated into believing that, somehow, it aligns with God’s word. But God is not like man. God ain’t petty.
...but some preachers are though.
If you think I’m wrong, ask yourself how many times you’ve heard men’s reproductive health used in a preaching moment. How many times have you ever heard a preacher use erectile dysfunction to illustrate the heights we don't reach in our worship and obedience to God? When’s the last time you heard impotence used to refer to a lack of faith? Have you ever seen an altar call to pray for men’s reproductive health like we’ve seen so many times for women? Female sexuality gets so routinely exploited in church that the objectification of Black women in the preaching moment has become normalized. Much of Black preaching happens on the backs and in between the legs of Black women and we really should be ashamed. But we are not because that would require we care about how our preaching impacts our largest and most dedicated constituency. And we don’t. We don't care at all.
We are so comfortable using these metaphors and preaching punchlines as if we even get biology and sexuality right in the first place. I once heard a preacher say that Mary didn’t breastfeed Jesus because he was perfect and to drink her milk would have made him sinful. In what world does that even make sense?? And we tell people they’re pregnant with purpose while simultaneously mistreating the single sister who is actually pregnant with a real baby. Our extreme ignorance and total hypocrisy surrounding issues of gender, sex and sexuality collide in the preaching moment, making us look crazy and causing women to suffer as a result.
Some will ask, “what if a woman preaches it?” and I think it’s important to recognize the ways clergywomen can also embody and engage in the same gender violence that has bound the sisters in the pews. While I would love for them to be most sensitive to the issues we face, I also know that we’ve not yet been fully honest about the ways some clergywomen create roadblocks to Black women’s total freedom and liberation. Patriarchy has become so much more sophisticated and seductive. There are ways a woman can preach using pregnancy and reproductive health that seems intimate- like two homegirls talking to each other. However, it traffics in the same kind of rhetoric that male clergy depend on for shouts and seeds (all puns intended). And clergywomen should know and do better, for no other reason than we are often all we have everywhere we are.
When I hear these sermons, I can’t help but think of the women who are harmed by them:
women who have struggled and are struggling to get pregnant
women who have been unable to carry their babies to term and miscarried
women who gave birth to stillborn babies
women who gave birth but their babies did not make it home from the hospital
women who have had abortions for a myriad reasons
women whose reproductive agency was robbed of them due to sexual violence
women who long to birth their own children but haven’t gotten and possibly won’t get that opportunity
women who do not desire to be mothers at all
women whose issues around fertility and motherhood may never be known to us
Each and every one of these women sit in those pews and endure the painful negation of those called to set them free. And. afterwards, we find each other to heal and process…like my friend did when she called me after her pastor closed his “Mary sermon” this past Sunday by telling them to touch their womb and tell it “Greatness is in utero.” At 33 years old and five months removed from a total hysterectomy, the moment left her devastated. I refuse to believe a discerning preacher- one who is genuinely asking God for a liberating word- is getting a green light from Heaven on this. God has had to dry too many tears of women broken by the longing and loneliness these experiences create to be okay with this kind of theological violence and malpractice.
There is so much more to Mary, Elizabeth, Sarah, Hagar, Hannah and all the women in scripture than just making them reducible to how well their pregnancies can preach. They deserve so much more and so do the generations of women that have followed them. And if those who preach cannot recognize this, may their words fall on deaf ears until they change their message…or until they finally stop talking and leave us alone.