Pastor Adrianne Meier
4 December 2022
Saint Thomas Evangelical Lutheran Church, Bloomington, Indiana
On Pregnancy Loss, Infertility, and the Love of God
Sing, O barren one who did not bear; burst into song and shout, you who have not been in labor! For the children of the desolate woman will be more than the children of her that is married, says the LORD. Enlarge the site of your tent, and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out; do not hold back; lengthen your cords and strengthen your stakes. For you will spread out to the right and to the left, and your descendants will possess the nations and will settle the desolate towns. Do not fear, for you will not be ashamed; do not be discouraged, for you will not suffer disgrace; for you will forget the shame of your youth, and the disgrace of your widowhood you will remember no more. For your Maker is your husband, the LORD of hosts is his name; the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer, the God of the whole earth he is called. For the LORD has called you like a wife forsaken and grieved in spirit, like the wife of a man’s youth when she is cast off, says your God. For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with great compassion I will gather you. In overflowing wrath for a moment I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you, says the LORD, your Redeemer.
This sermon has a trigger warning. It has a trigger warning because it is about the real lives of women—the real lives of people with wombs—the real lives of people who love and lose, who are bound by a society that tells them their value is not within them, but in just one, particular contribution to the society. In truth, all sermons, all Scripture, all theology—everything we do as a church should have a trigger warning, because we don’t live hypothetical lives. Everything we do as a church should have a trigger warning, because God doesn’t hypothetically live, die, and rise for us and because God doesn’t hypothetically love us. Everything we say and do as Church should have a trigger warning, because we have a real God who loves our real lives. This is a sermon with a trigger warning because taking the risk to live in this world is to risk being hurt, broken, and torn apart in ways that we cannot recover, in ways that will render us unlovable ever again, in ways that even threaten our ability to love ourselves again. But, God doesn’t love us in spite of what we have lost—or what we have never been able to have—God loves us in and into a wholeness that includes our grief, our losses, our holes, our traumas and trials. In short, God. just. loves. us.
The Bible is filled with stories of women whose redemption is found when they, finally, fulfill what the human authors believe is the pinnacle of women’s lives and become mothers. These authors seem rather self-satisfied, believing as they do that God performs exactly as expected, opening barren wombs, redeeming infertile and barren women, disregarding their (society-given) shame. We can certainly take these stories on their face. Case closed. But I prefer to read between those introductory lines, to flesh out these stories. To consider the real lives behind those indictments.
It isn’t like it is hard—one in four pregnancies end in loss; one in five women (and their partners) will struggle to get pregnant. In this post-Roe moment, the news seems to cover every teenage pregnancy, every risky birth. I need only to imagine Elizabeth—or Mary—or Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Samson’s mother (whose name is lost to history), the “great woman of Shunem” who gave hospitality to the prophet Elisha, the mothers of the babies who did not live to see the Exodus, and the mothers of Bethlehem whose babies were killed by the orders of a tyrant, and this childless woman in Isaiah 54—I need only imagine them having my own story of loss, or as any of my friends with their bruised up thighs from hormone injections. I need only imagine them like the mothers whose babies are torn from their arms when they try to cross a river, a gulf, or an ocean into a free and new life. I need only imagine the mothers of brown and black boys, or the mothers of trans kids, or the mothers of paranoid kids whose blood runs in the street. These are not stories of lives ultimately fulfilled. These are the stories of lives that are lived completely and fully in their brokenness. These are the stories of lives that are loved completely and fully in their brokenness. These are the kinds of people God just loves.
I remember with overwhelming clarity the moment hope reentered my life as we committed our daughter’s ashes to the ground around an adolescent birch tree in my parents’ backyard. I thought about Elizabeth, this barren women, knowing how many mothers are barren because they cannot carry a pregnancy. And I remembered that God heard her and looked with favor on her, not in some single moment of inspiration, but for her entire life. God heard her and loved her in her hopelessness. God heard her prayers in her sleepless nights, in the bright red flow and the salty tears that returned again and again and, awfully, again. God heard her laments when babies too small to live were forever entrusted to God’s unending care. God heard and loved what she bore into the world instead. Elizabeth, like the other barren women of the Bible, was of a generation of women who carried a nation’s grief and fear and anxiety on her back. She was part of the rebuilding of the ruins wrecked again and again at Rome’s hands. She was part of the rebuilding of hope—bearing John was just one part of that life’s work. God did not love her—and Zechariah—in spite of their barrenness, but God loved them into a wholeness; parenthood was just one part of that. What these few lines really tell us are this: God just loved them.
And this is good news to me. Because if God can just love Elizabeth, broken mother that she was long before she became John’s mother, then God, too, can love me, broken mother that I was and still am. And this is still good news from where this preacher stands: if God can loved what is banged up and broken in me, if God can love what doesn’t measure up to society’s hopes and dreams for me, if God can just love me in wholeness…then I fail to see who or what can fall outside of God’s ever expanding and fully complete love. God just loves us. God just loves you.
I once heard the author Glennon Doyle, who blogs on a site called Momastery and has several passionate memoirs about loving, brokenness, mental health, addiction, parenting, marriage, and coming out as a lesbian. Once, I heard her say that she always worries when someone comes out as bisexual, or lesbian, or gay, or trans, and the person listening says, “I’ll love you no matter what.” She says that trouble is that the “no matter what” implies a sense of “in spite of,” which is rarely what is meant. God doesn’t love LGBTQIA folks in spite of being queer, God loves them into a wholeness that includes their queerness. God doesn’t love with a love predicated on what the future might hold, how we might change, and who we might become. No. God’s love is a love that loves completely, courageously, and wholly. God just loves this broken and mending world. God just loves us.
In 2015, the New York Times ran an excerpt of Catherine Newman’s book Catastrophic Happiness—a piece about living with her friend while she was on hospice care. She called it mothering her dying friend. Near the end of her piece, she remarks that, when her son was born, she was stunned to realize that everyone was born!Every single person she saw. They were born! And, when her friend died, she realized that everyone she saw was going to die. She writes, “You already know this, but I hadn’t understood it. I hadn’t understood that you’re stuck loving only hearts that could stop beating, that will. You love them with your own stretched and scarred organ, the one that might pound on long after, like a dumb animal. Like it didn’t get the memo about the heart and what the heart can take.”
And, Beloved, I think that is the real good news here. Amid all the happy-baby-Jesus/Santa-frenzied/hustle and bustle/stick-a-smile-on-that-face Christmas. God sees the wholeness of the world, not just its happiness. God sees the brokenness of the world, not just the ways life sticks to the script. God just loves our whole stretched and scarred hearts with God’s own stretched and scarred heart. God just loves us.