Encircled by Love

Easter 7B-24
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Only one American artist was allowed to exhibit her work with the 19th century French Impressionists. Her name was Mary Cassatt. Born this month of May in 1844, Cassatt grew up near Pittsburgh, but lived most of her adult life in France, where she befriended artists such as Edgar Degas.

Cassatt is best known for a series of unselfconscious paintings on the theme of mother and child. She is famous for me personally, because a print of one of her paintings hangs in my childhood home. The original now belongs to the collection displayed at the Art Institute of Chicago. I bet one or more of you have it too –or will recall having seen it.
The Child’s Bath, 1893, is one of Cassatt’s masterworks. In it, mother and daughter are lovingly absorbed in the mundane bodily routine of bathing. Somehow Cassatt invokes in us the memory, or perhaps, inspires in us the feeling of loving protection emanating from good mothering. Love that is strong enough to encircle an entire household and make it a home. Cassatt brings us inside this circle of tender care.

Cassatt’s intimate image of mother and child invites the observer into the expansive, other-focused, and fully human self that God calls us to become in Christ Jesus. Lay your narrow, small, narcissistic self aside. Abide in me, Jesus prayed, so that you all may be one with each another, just as Jesus and the Father are one in the Spirit. (John 17:11)

“If you google the history of Mother’s Day, the internet will tell you that Mother’s Day began in 1908 when Anna Jarvis decided to honor her mother. But “Mothers’ Day”—with the apostrophe not in the singular spot, but in the plural—actually started in the 1870s, when the sheer enormity of the death caused by the Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War convinced writer and reformer Julia Ward Howe that women must take control of politics from the men who had permitted such carnage. Mothers’ Day was not designed to encourage people to be nice to their mothers. It was part of women’s effort to gain power to change society.” (Heather Cox Richardson, Letters from an American, May 11, 2024).
The Civil War was the springboard would launch the Woman Suffrage movement. Fifty years of advocacy and struggle ended with the right to vote in 1920. We proudly point to that human dynamo, Emmy Evald, the daughter of the first pastor and the wife of the second pastor of Immanuel, who took part in the movement in Illinois and in Washington D.C., and famously hosted Susan B. Anthony in the church parsonage. And yet, it took another fifty-five years, in 1975, that Mildred Nelson would become the first woman at Immanuel to serve on the church council.

Jesus prayed that we may all be one. According to St. Paul the early church was eclectic and inclusive, “neither Jew or Greek, slaver nor free, male and female, but all are one in Christ” (Galatians 3:28). Even so, persistent, insistent, and pernicious patriarchy remains a core teaching of many, if not most, Christian churches throughout the world today.

According to cultural critic bell hooks, “Patriarchy is political-social system that insists that males are inherently dominating, superior to everything and everyone deemed weak, especially females, and endowed with the right to dominate and rule over the weak and to maintain that dominance through various forms of psychological terrorism and violence.” There can be no freedom for patriarchal men of all races as long as they advocate the subjugation of women. So yes, on this Mother’s Day, be nice to your mom. But also, let us be transformed, by the renewal of our hearts and minds, to be the kind of community for which Jesus prayed that is no longer racist or sexist in which all humans are free to shape their destinies.

Chapters 13, 14, 15, 16, and 17 of John’s gospel –five chapters!—linger with Jesus and the disciples on this last night as time was running out. On the night he was betrayed, our Lord Jesus prayed. “Holy Father, protect them in your name so that they may be one as we are one.” (John 17:11) Chapter 17 of John’s gospel is sometimes called the other Lord’s Prayer. It is not a prescribed prayer; It isn’t a bossy or controlling sort of prayer like those you might have experienced from a false Christian friend. Jesus is not trying to manipulate his followers or God. It isn’t a fix-it prayer. Instead, it sounds rather desperate — Jesus is about to go to the cross and he actually seems to be begging God to shield his friends from the consequences of his impending death.

The word “protect” dominates the prayer. The words “oneness” and “love” dominate the second half of the prayer (John 17:20-26). Jesus wants those he loves to be safe, and to find a sense of security in their unity with each other, with him, and with God. Jesus invites us inside the circle of love that is the Holy Trinity. The 14th century anchoress, mystic, and theologian, Julian of Norwich used an obscure old English word to refer to the kind of enveloping and protective love that Mary Cassatt makes the subject of her paintings. She called it “Oneing.”

Notice how different this “oneing” is from the vision many of us grew up with of an angry God who must be appeased so as not to destroy us. Notice how different our faith lives become when we understand Jesus’ prayed so that we might be fully one with God starting right now and not waiting until after we die to prove we are worthy of God’s love. This healing vision of union with the living God frees us from the prison of us versus them thinking. Our old, worldly mind divides the world into mine and yours, same and different, better, and worse, slave and free, male, and female. Jesus’ prayer moves us beyond these old dualisms so that what is mine and what is yours becomes ours. In union with Christ, we remain different and diverse without being homogenized or colonized. We are united without loss of identity and without walls of hostility. Jesus shows us by his actions that prayer isn’t a magic trick or manipulation. But it is mystery and transformation.

“John 17 is a model for how we all should pray — for protection, unity, awareness, and love. Even when we’re anxious. Or desperate. [Like right now.] When we care so much about others that we long for their well-being and safety in difficult times. Perhaps especially then” (Diana Butler Bass, “Jesus prayed for his disciples. What?”, Sunday Musings, 5/12/24). “…one with the saints in one unbroken peace, one with the saints in one unbounded love…[one with each other and people of faith around the world, one body] with the Trinity in unity.” (ELW #463, “Lord, Who the Night You Were Betrayed”)