Mary Bea Sullivan

soul stirring stories

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Communion of Saints

It was early in the service at St. Luke’s.  The first five pews were filled with joyful families and four glorious babies.  Each infant adorned in magnificent christening gowns, some if not all, surely worn by their ancestors.

Two of the babies grew restless as babies are known to do, especially in church.  Their grandmothers gently whisked them away into the sunshine to distract them as they awaited the moment they would be washed with baptismal water and sealed by the Holy Spirit as Christ’s own forever.

One of the grandmothers returned with her young charge.  She stood at the rear of the small chapel, swaying back and forth, soothing the restless baby.  Next to them, along the back wall is a columbarium where there are niches with nameplates identifying saints who have gone before us.

As I gazed upon this tender moment between grandmother and grandchild, the baby reached out her arms toward the columbarium wall.  I imagined the communion of saints , those who have already run their race, reaching back toward her, and the other babies as well, welcoming them into the Body of Christ.

The grandmother took a step backward, a little closer to the wall and the baby reached out to touch  a number of the niches in what seemed to be a blessing.

Those of us who are alive in this moment carry a sacred responsibility to continue the work of those who have gone before us and to prepare the way for those who have yet to come–to do our best to move the world closer toward the heavenly kingdom. 

For Christians, we do that by living out “yeses” to the questions in our Baptismal Covenant (from the 1979 Book of Common Prayer according to the use in the Episcopal Church):

  • Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and
    fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, and in the
    prayers?
  • Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever
    you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?
  • Will you proclaim by word and example the Good
    News of God in Christ?
  • Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving
    your neighbor as yourself?
  • Will you strive for justice and peace among all
    people, and respect the dignity of every human
    being?

We will with God’s help.  Amen.

 

Take Courage!

This sermon was preached at Saint Luke’s Episcopal Church in Mountain Brook, AL.

Let’s face it, there are some scary things happening in the world today — The dramatic escalation of the rhetoric between our country and North Korea. An epidemic of depression and addiction among our young people.

And the disturbing reports out of Charlottesville VA of white supremacists marching with torches Friday night, and the ensuing violence as protestors and counter-protestors clashed yesterday. 

How are we as Christians to faithfully respond in light of the divisiveness and anxiety we are experiencing in this country and the world?  Some of our cultural responses are quite unhealthy—shifting blame to the “other” as the source of our fear; masking fear with alcohol or drugs or numbing ourselves with social media.

We have so many reasons to be afraid. In today’s Gospel, Peter is a symbol of being afraid in the midst of the chaos. Like Peter, we are experiencing these fears where it feels like the place on which we had hoped to stand, is just not there.

How do we personally and as a body of Christian people, begin to act on this faith that is calling to us, like Jesus is calling to Peter? Peter has something to teach us about how to respond.

I want to share a little context about our passage from Matthew (Mt. 14:22-33).  It immediately follows the feeding of the 5,000. Jesus commands the disciples to go into the boat without him so he can dismiss the crowds and pray by himself. 

The disciples are commanded to go out to sea.  As you probably know, there is much Biblical symbolism in the sea—it is the locus of evil and chaos, and mystery.  Only God has control over the sea. 

Peter and the others were violently tossed about. This must have been a terrifying experience.  The harrowing lasted nearly all night. 

Finally, Jesus comes to them—in a form that scares them even more. 

In our NRSV translation, Jesus says, “Take heart. It is I.”  Many other translations interpret the Greek to be, “Take courage. It is I.”

My friends, it takes courage to have faith. Courage to believe in the face of overwhelming odds. Courage to believe God cares or even exists. Sometimes, it takes courage to pray.

THERE ARE STORMS WHIPPING UP AROUND US—words of war, racial tensions broken open reminiscent of the 60’s, and many other struggles. 

It would be easy to be discouraged, but Jesus compels us to take courage.  Oftentimes we would rather stay in the boat and just tremble.  OR sit in the boat talking about how crazy Peter is.  Taking courage looks like leaving the relative safety of the boat, and walking into the chaos, trusting we are not alone.

Both Mark and Matthew’s Gospels include this story of Jesus walking on water.  In Mark’s version, the disciples don’t understand who Jesus REALLY is, because their hearts were hardened.

Only Matthew’s version includes the exchange between Peter and Jesus. In Matthew, Peter gets it.  PETER KNOWS WHO JESUS REALLY IS.

Listen closely to Peter’s response to Jesus.  “Lord, IF it is you..” Did you hear that? Inherent in his response is questioning. “IF it is you command me to come to you…”

And Jesus does.  Peter begins to be like Jesus, walking on water. Notice how Peter asked Jesus to bring him closer to Jesus, not for Jesus to come to him.  Also, Peter asked to do what Jesus was doing— to walk on water.  If we are going to get closer to Jesus, we have to model our lives after his.*

Faith in Jesus means—praying like Jesus, loving like Jesus, forgiving like Jesus, speaking like Jesus, giving sacrificially of ourselves—like Jesus. 

SO IN THIS TIME OF OVERWHELMING EXISTENTIAL FEAR AND ANXIETY, HOW ARE WE AS CHRISTIANS TO RESPOND? Jesus is inviting us to trust him. What does that mean?  What is he inviting us to?

I hope you will pray with those questions.  Let me assure you, your preacher does not have all of the answers. That is one of the gifts of doing this in community. Each of us is made in the image of God, given the Indwelling Spirit of God. Each of us has a unique relationship with God and a unique wisdom. I welcome a conversation about what comes to you in prayer.

In the meantime, here are four scripturally based suggestions:

First, Be mindful of LANGUAGE—Our words have the power to destroy and the power to build up (Proverbs 12:6).  A lot of the turmoil we are experiencing is a result of the violence that is a part of the rhetoric of our time. In words, we are being so violent.

I’m talking about the words that we speak, the words we write on social media, even the words we think.  We must be vigilant in not participating in perpetuating an environment of violence. We must not be complicit in language that incites hate. Words matter.

Second, FORGIVE. When we live in a zero-sum world where there have to be winners and losers. Everyone loses.  Rather than a spirit of superiority and dominance, Jesus calls us to a spirit that seeks to carry the possibility of reconciliation and healing. 

So much of the hurt and suffering that is out there is caused by people who just don’t know what they were doing.  They would not say these things or do things if they were in their right mind. Many are reacting from great hurt and pain.

I am not suggesting we condone violent, belligerent, or any kind of sinful behavior. We are held accountable for what we do.  But the spirit that is like unto the spirit of Jesus always looks for more than punishment.  It looks for a path toward reconciliation. 

The best modern day example of this is Bishop Tutu—reconciliation that held people accountable, but always for our common deliverance for victims and perpetrators.  For Jesus there are no winners and losers. Christ sees us all perfect.  Everything is grace. 

The Church has its mission to think and act and witness to a redemptive kind of relating to one another.  Do we dare to voice this unconditional love that looks beyond all of the brokenness? 

Third, if we want to understand more of what Jesus is calling forth from us in this time, we must have a REGULAR AND RIGOROUS PRAYER LIFE. I once heard a a personal trainer say, “There are so many ways to exercise, just choose one you love and be faithful to it.”  That is true of prayer too. 

There are so many ways to pray. We can read Scripture, or pray with beads, or say mantras while running or turn off the radio and plead with God on the way to work. At the center  of all prayer is a lifting of our heart to God. Our job is to take time to consent to God’s presence and action within us.  Like any relationship, our relationship with God requires time and attention.

I encourage you to recommit to a faithful prayer life, and pray for those you deem to be your enemy.

Fourth, develop a relationship with someone or a group of people who thinks differently than you, believes differently than you, lives differently. Barriers break down through relationship.

When  Peter  began to walk on the water, he became afraid. That is when he started to sink.  It is a natural response. And in his fear, Peter cries out for help. Frequently, we interpret this exchange as Peter failing the faith test. What if we were to push back on that reading and instead, see how much good Jesus can do, even with a little faith?

Remember, later in Matthew Jesus tells us  that if we only have the faith of a mustard seed, we can move mountains. Also later in Matthew Jesus identifies Peter-faith-wavering Peter, as the rock of the church. 

We are invited to take even our smallest kernel of faith and courageously follow Jesus.

Look at Peter—Jesus LOVED Peter, did not expect perfection from Peter—just faith and following. 

The revelation of God in the chaos may not come in the time we desire—that storm lasted a long time for the disciples. Or in the form we desire. You know they weren’t hoping for a water-walking ghost.

But, if we continue to move toward Jesus, and follow him we will have an experience of the risen Christ in the midst of our storms.  And, we will be the Church that fulfills Christ’s mission. 

I pray we will have the courage to have faith, that Jesus is with us in the storms, to live out our faith and bravely follow in the way of Jesus.  We as Christians have an important voice in the conversation.

Jesus asks not our perfection—only a mustard seed of faith. Yes, we will forget. We will sink under the waters of our doubts. Still, take heart! Take courage! God can make miracles with the smallest of seeds. Thanks be to God.  Amen

Notes– I am grateful to the following for their influence on this sermon

* Michael Renninger   http://asermonforeverysunday.com/sermons/a38-tenth-sunday-pentecost-year/

Sarah Dylan Brewer  http://www.sarahlaughed.net/lectionary/2005/08/proper_14_year_.html

The Rev. Joe Elmore, retired Methodist Minister and beloved friend.

 

God Is Gathering Us

photo by Cameron Nations

Transitioning back to work after an active, invigorating two-week vacation was hindered by the lingering effects of a sinus infection.  My clergy colleagues were eager to support and took care of my assigned duties.  Unexpectedly, I was worshipping without the responsibility of holding any details.  I love to lead worship. I love to celebrate the Eucharist. I love to preach. Yet this day, receiving the gift of being carried by the liturgy as my colleagues skillfully led, and read, and prayed, and preached was a soothing way to re-enter after vacation.

Dropping into the deep space of observer, I looked out into the congregation and their stories welled-up. Stories of love and loss and joys and fears.  Stories of dreams beyond measure fulfilled. Stories of dreams dashed and making meaning from “what is.”

Since we had an abundance of clergy, out of an abundance of caution, I did not even  participate in administering the Eucharist. Stationed behind the altar, I prayed as the incarnate manifestation of those stories bravely knelt, raised their hands and received the Body of Christ.  I noticed that two people were next to each other who had each lost dear loved ones in the past year. I prayed they would experience the communion of saints present at the Eucharist–their loved ones present in this moment with them.  As they rose, nearly simultaneously, the elder of the two–whose loss was a bit longer ago, gently put his arm around the younger, the one whose wound is quite fresh.

Today was the first Sunday for our new organist, Kenneth Hamrick. Staff members who do not usually worship at the 10:30 service made it a point to come support  Kenneth on his first day. I adore our former organist Jim Dorroh.  Jim helped to install the organ at my former parish, played at my ordination. He will always be dear to me. There were many changes with the music today. All supported beautiful worship in my unmusically-trained opinion. I couldn’t help but smile when I looked to the choir loft and saw Kenneth exuberantly oozing his love of music, I dare say, love of God during the offertory anthem. He could not be contained as he played, “Sing to the Lord a new song!” (Ps. 96:1). I kidded Kenneth afterward that I was afraid he was going to bounce off of his bench, out of the choir loft, and tumble into the congregation. Kenneth’s love of music and people is infectious.

Recently I have been challenged to defend the Church’s relevance in today’s world. Do we really make a difference?  My experience today and so many days is “yes.”  God is gathering us–to play and pray and cry together and laugh together. God is gathering us to study together and support one another and even call each other out when we are not living in accordance to the Gospel.  God is gathering us to care for the least of these and share the bounty of gifts God has bestowed upon us. Together we find truths inaccessible on our own. Separate of community, there is a danger of making ourselves gods.

Yes, piling a bunch of humans together in organized religion is messy. That’s true of our families and our workplaces too. And yet in the mess we grow. We forgive one another. We are humbled by our own mistakes. We are lifted up by the encouragement and inspiration of one another. At the core is our Great Thanksgiving for everything–breath, and life, and struggle, and work, and love, and beauty, and most of all for Jesus who came to show us the way. Personally, I have to be in intentional community to be able to follow his greatest commandment, to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'”

God is gathering us. Welcome to the table.  Amen.

 

 

Where Do We Stand?

Burundian refugees arriving in Tanzania, 2015

Early in my first year at Virginia Theological Seminary, I was approached by Joseph, a quiet priest from the African nation of Burundi. My classmate was young and towered over me in his thin, 7-foot frame.

Sheepishly, he asked if I would join him and a few other students at St. Clement’s Church for a private memorial service that Saturday. “It is the 17th anniversary of my parent’s death.” Joseph said, “I never got to bury them.”

“Of course,” I replied. 

On the morning of the service, I regretted my “of course” because I was recovering from bronchitis, mid-terms were the next week, and I had paper due on Monday. I didn’t think Joseph and I were that close, I wondered if my participation really mattered. Thankfully, guilt, the wrong reason for going, prevailed. 

When I entered the small, brick church, there was a tiny contingent of students—Michael from Liberia, Joel, who some of you know from Kenya, and three other American students, all sitting in the front row.  I slipped in next to them.

Joseph stood up and expressed his gratitude for our being there, especially for the parish deacon, who had heard Joseph’s story, heard his lingering pain, and suggested this gathering in the service of healing. 

We listened to Joseph tell his story—the most tragic first person account I have heard in my life.

When Joseph was a teenager, Burundi broke out in civil war between the Hutu and Tutsi clans. “Neighbor turned on neighbor,” Joseph recounted. On the morning of October 22nd, 1994 there were violent clashes in his village and Jospeh was told to take his younger siblings and hide in the basement.

He heard his parents being taken from their home.  When the violence subsided, when the screaming was over, when they lifted the cellar door, Joseph and his siblings re-entered the world as orphans.  They never saw their parents again.

“I knew when I accepted Jesus in my heart,” Joseph spoke as tears streamed down his face, “I knew I  had to forgive my neighbors for killing my parents.” Miraculously, Joseph had forgiven his parents’ killers.

What now haunted him, Joseph explained, what had haunted him all these years, was the fact that he had not fulfilled his duty as an eldest son in burying his parents. That, we learned, was the purpose of our gathering that day. 

After we prayed, after we celebrated the Eucharist, we followed the Deacon who carried the processional cross, out into the parish garden. We prayed prayers from the burial office, Joseph dug a hole and we planted a golden mum in memory of his mother and father.

“A weight is lifted.” Joseph smiled. “I give thanks to God.”

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus’ first sermon was the Sermon on the Mount, which begins with the Beatitudes—a bounty of blessedness which at first hearing doesn’t sound so blessed.

One aspect of the Beatitudes is their relationship to location. 

Fr. Greg Boyle, in his book Tattoos on the Heart writes, “Scripture scholars contend that the original language of the Beatitudes should not be rendered ‘Blessed are the single -hearted” or “‘Blessed are the peacemakers…’

Greater precision in translation would say: ‘You are in the right place if you are single-hearted or (You are in the right place if you) work for peace…The Beatitudes are not spirituality after all.” Boyle contends, “They are geography. They tell us where to stand.”  (Gregory Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart 74-75.)

Each of us is born into a particular time and a particular place into a particular family and a particular culture with a particular set of gifts and challenges. This is our time. This is our place.  Where do we stand?

If you have ever read or watched Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings Trilogy, you know that those tales take place in troubled times.  There were wars and Frodo Baggins’ journey was epic in its danger and adventure.

At one point, Frodo, feeling weary of the weight of having to play a most dangerous and important part in the restoration of peace, lamented to the wizard Gandalf, “I wish it need not have happened in my time.” “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” (J.R.R. TolkienThe Fellowship of the Ring.)

The Beatitudes helps us to set our hearts, and our voices, and our feet in the right place in the time that is given us. 

My classmate Joseph, chose reconciliation over retaliation.The deaconess who gathered us for that 17-year late burial service, chose compassion over complacency.

Blessings are made real by the power of God working through our particular lives.

I want to switch gears for just a moment, so we can notice the language in the beatitudes:

Blessed ARE those who mourn for they WILL be comforted.

Blessed ARE the merciful for they WILL receive mercy.

Blessed ARE the peacemakers, for they WILL be called children of God.

Do you hear that bending of time—that already, but not yet? This interplay from now to that which is to come, is the hope and fulfillment of God’s promises to us.

It is the hope of a man who has lived through the hell of civil war, who has seen men and women, at their absolute worst, and he still chooses love, he still chooses to forgive, and to dedicate his life to Jesus Christ as a priest in God’s church. 

The Beatitudes harken to heaven, something we imagine as the future, yet it is touched by earth right now.  “Earth hallows heaven.” Says David Bartlett. ( Dave Bartlett, “The Beatitudes,” Journal for Preachers, Vol. XL, Number 2, Lent 2017, p. 17.)

 In the Beatitudes, Jesus is beckoning us toward heaven.

Perhaps that is why we read the Beatitudes on All Saints Day.  We are reminded that the we are intricately linked with all of those who have gone before us—the Johns and the Judases, the Marthas and the Marys, the grandparents, and the children, and all of those who had their opportunity to be in a particular time and a particular place in which to live out their blessedness. 

All Saints’ Day is a stark reminder that one day, it will be our own name that will be read in memory.

Thus the urgency for us to decide what to do with the time that is given us.

What a fruitful time we live in to be the conduits for Christ’s blessedness.  We are blessed to be a blessing. 

Everyone of us is blessed in God’s eyes—no matter our age, or country of origin, or physical capabilities, or GPA, or salary, or affiliations.

We are blessed to be a blessing. 

We live out this blessedness in community because it is impossible to do it on our own. Notice how my classmate Joseph’s healing came in community.First, when as a refugee from civil war, he was introduced to Jesus by a community of faith that loved him, cared for him, and encouraged him to forgive his parent’s killers. And then by a community gathered to bury a golden mum in memory of his parents.   

We learn where to stand in community.  We uphold one another when the world thinks we are so foolish to believe in the promises of Christ. Even when the world seems fractious and hateful and merciless we believe the promises of reconciliation, and wholeness, and mercy. Together we live into the already healed, but not yet visible restoration of all things in Christ.

We believe that listening to one another’s stories, and planting golden mums makes a difference—that they are ways we awaken to the kingdom of heaven right here, right now. 

Jesus taught in community, healed in community, died in community, and was resurrected to a community. Christianity at its core is about relationship.

The beatitudes give us the hallmarks of what it looks like to be Christian community.  They help us to see if we are standing in the right place with the shared humanity Rich referred to in his sermon last week. 

The Beatitudes tell us:

You are in the right place, if like Joseph’s deacon, you listen to someone who is different than you, with a heart willing to be moved.

You are in the right place if you are Care Team members offering presence, and prayers, and food; if you are teenagers stuffing bags for Stop Hunger Now; if you bring water to a homeless person in Linn Park parched by the summer heat.

You are in the right place if you welcome the stranger into your heart and your home.

You are in the right place if you are  Sunday School teachers guiding little ones with love and listening to parents worries and complaints;

You are in the right place if  you are doctors giving heartbreaking news with mercy; if you are judges deliberating with justice and compassion; if you are advocates giving voice to the marginalized; if you are Kairos visitors bringing the Gospel to prisoners.

We are in the right place if we are a community choosing to be single-focused on embodying God’s love, forgiveness, and mercy;

We are in the right place if we are a community willing to foolishly believe that we can change the world one blessed heart at time.

This is our time. This is our place, it is for us to decide what to do with the time that is given us.”  Amen.

Audio will be available here.

 Saint Luke’s Episcopal Church, Birmingham, AL

Micah 6:1-8, Psalm 15, 1 Corinthians 1:18-31, Matthew 5:1-12

Words Matter

While visiting the Redemptorist Retreat Center, I was standing beneath petroglyphs created by the Hohokam peoples more than a century ago and marveled at our timeless yearning to communicate with one another.

Petroglyphs speak to an innate desire to share and shape our stories.  Today, most of us use words and not markings to tell our stories.

Never before have there been so many ways to share our words. Perhaps we are saturated with words and have lost respect for the power they hold. When I mentioned this observation to my spiritual director, Karen Johnson she said, “I tell my grandchildren, the old saying ‘sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me’ is not true. Sticks and stones will break our bones and words can break our hearts.”

“We are to let our words be gifts and not weapons.” Karen concluded.

Our words have energy. If we believe we are invited by God to co-create the beloved community, we are to examine how we use words to move toward that vision, and how we use words to move away from it.

Words matter–silence matters too. Recently I was with a group of people who were belittling someone who has been good to me. I stood by silently, losing the opportunity to bravely use my words to defend a friend. I did nothing to transform the energy of ridicule toward the energy of love.

There is a recent notion that we are not to take people, especially people in power, at their word.  I disavow this cynical manipulation of words.  If we cannot trust what a person says, posts, or tweets, how are we to understand him or her? Communication is the foundational basis of relationship.

It is disingenuous to throw out words or promises or threats , and then ridicule those who take your words seriously by saturating the airwaves with more words to say you did not mean your original words. Slinging words around like hash in a pigpen and expecting the recipient to intuit one’s sincerity places a false sense of responsibility upon the recipient; and worse, falsely releases the word-slinger of culpability for the energy created by his or her words.

I can’t control what other people do, but I can be more mindful of the power evoked by my words. I can own the truth that words not only tell, but shape our stories.

I commit to be more discerning of how I use words, asking myself a question inspired by Karen’s insight: Are these words gift or weapon? I pray for the strength and wisdom to choose gift.  I pray for courage to use my words to speak up when silence would mean allowing weapons to be aimed unabated.

I hold out hope that ours is a God of transformation and redemption. I also believe we are invited into that process–individually and collectively.  What will we choose? What words will we choose?

One Way Forward

A few years ago I was part of a team leading a spiritual retreat for people impacted by HIV/AIDS.  Before one of the breaks, I offered to take a group to walk the labyrinth.  To my disappointment, only one person chose to join me, and this person was someone I found especially challenging.  I will refer to him as Jim.

Jim frequently interrupted others when they were speaking. He lacked self-awareness; even his voice bothered me. I wanted to bail, but there was no polite way for me to do that, so we began the short walk to the labyrinth.

Under the gaze of undivided attention, I found Jim to be significantly less irritating. I asked a few questions and learned a bit of his hard and heartbreaking story. When we reached the labyrinth, we noticed it had fallen into disrepair and the path was not easily visible.

“I don’t know how to do this.” Jim said looking downward. Then he added, “I’m scared.” “Don’t worry.” I replied. “I’ll lead you.”

I told Jim that some teachers encourage us to enter labyrinths with awareness of a three-step process. First, on the way in toward the center, we may create an intention of releasing something we would like to let go of. Second, we may simply receive while in the center. Finally, we can be aware of how we feel different, perhaps lighter as we return home following the path back out of the labyrinth.

We began to walk slowly with Jim right behind me, but he was still afraid. I asked if he wanted to place his hand on my shoulder, and he did.

We silently continued in this manner, Jim resting his hand on my shoulder as we trod the sacred path. When we reached the center I turned around to see a beaming Jim. He hugged me exuberantly. We celebrated; we prayed. As we turned toward home, I invited him to lead the way. Jim did not think that was a good idea, yet he relented.

And so we silently traveled out, Jim ahead, me a short step behind, with my hand on his shoulder. When we reached the exit/entrance, Jim pumped his fist and we both cheered.  On our walk back to the cabins, we laughed and listened to one another anew.

Throughout the weekend, I noticed Jim was less irritating–I’m not sure if his behavior changed or my perspective of it, or both. Rather than avoiding him, I felt genuinely excited to see him.

Could this be one way forward for us all? Is there someone, or a group of someones that get under your skin? A person or people that you judge, or to whom you feel superior? How might you create an opportunity to connect with that person, or one of those persons? What might you have to let go of to make space for connecting with those who are different.

Vilifying anonymous “others” in our thoughts, or speech, or actions is easier  if we keep them “separate” from us. This is all-too easy to do online.  Real relationships require we carry an openness to be changed by the “other.”

My arrogance and sense of self-importance threatened to prevent me from receiving the grace of walking with Jim. With whom are you being invited to walk in a new way? May we all have the courage to take the first step in love.

 

 

Putting on the Mind of Christ

Sermon by Rev. Mary Bea Sullivan,  Saint Luke’s Episcopal Church, Birmingham, AL Philippians 2:5-11  

Growing up I was greatly influenced by my Irish Catholic great aunts, the Sullivan sisters—Aunt Bea, Audy, and Aunt Katherine.  Each of them lived long lives-well into their 90’s; Aunt Katherine actually broke the century mark.

My siblings and I would kid about our great aunt’s secret to longevity which included beginning their days drinking hot water with lemon, and ending their days with a manhattan.

A couple of years before Aunt Katherine died, my mother and I went to visit her. She was in an assisted living facility in Dallas. Aunt Katherine was legally blind, her hearing was impaired, and she spent a good bit of her time alone. 

The day we arrived, she was dressed in a lace blouse with a cardigan sweater.  Ever the lady, she graciously invited us to sit down. After mom and I filled her in on our lives, and those of my siblings, there was a long period of silence.  Aunt Katherine had a distant look as if she had left the room in some way. 

Seeming to remember that we were with her,  she said, “I’m afraid I’m not a good hostess. I’m used to spending most of my day in prayer and usually it is only the Blessed Mother here with me.”

“Well,” my mother immediately replied, “You keep pretty good company.”

What I remember most about our visit with Aunt Katherine was that in spite of her diminished physical capacities, in the midst of what could have been uncomfortable pregnant pauses, there was a palpable sense of the sacred in that room. 

There was something about being in Aunt Katherine’s presence that stilled me, I felt unconditionally loved. She was a better hostess than she knew. 

I do not want to romanticize the loneliness that often comes with aging and especially aging alone. 

And yet, one of the greatest gifts of being a priest, is the honor I have of visiting people who no longer have the ability, and in some cases, desire, to be out in the world in an active way.  They have reached a stage of life, or have been impacted by illness so as to be at home most, if not all, of the time.

All have had to let go of things that they held dear— beloved family members who have died; meaningful careers, and life-giving hobbies. 

There can be a suspension of time when we are in the presence of those who have been forced to cease the forward motion most of us experience—God’s presence borne in the pregnant pauses; in the glint of love shining through eyes that speak for mouths that no longer move. 

For me, these visits are a reminder that if I live long enough, one day, I too will be sitting in a chair awaiting precious visitors.

In the experience of suffering, we are especially reminded of the vulnerability and fragility of this life, and from this spacious, scary place, oftentimes, God’s love reveals itself. 

The Christ hymn we just read from the second chapter of Philippians speaks of putting on the mind of Christ. Within this mind of Christ is the humility Jesus exemplifies in emptying himself to become human, even though he could have been exalted as equal with God. 

Central to kenosis, the self-emptying love alluded to in this passage is Jesus’ first self-emptying when he became incarnate, and the second self-emptying, when he chose to endure the humiliation of the cross for the reconciliation of the world.

Edgy Lutheran pastor, Nadia Bolz-Weber speaks of this as the “blessed exchange.”  When “God gathers up sin, all our broken …junk, into God’s own self and transforms all that death into life.  Jesus takes our (mess), and exchanges it for his blessedness.” (Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People, 18)

For the record, I cleaned up Bolz-Weber’s language for this pulpit, but I find her original writing more effective than my sanitized version.

What is the mess that is gathered up and blessed by Jesus? Our physical suffering, our emotional suffering, the pain we inflict on others, our selfishness, our meanness, our putting allegiance to idols, like career, or physical appearance, or political affiliation, or alma mater, ahead of our allegiance to the one for whom every knee shall bend and every tongue shall confess as Lord. 

All of our mess is gathered in God and transformed into love and mercy.

Putting on the mind of Christ is a call to live into our birthright as the imago dei, we are the image and likeness of God—every human being individually, and we, collectively as the Church, inheritors of Jesus’ teachings through the power of the Spirit. 

Putting on the mind of Christ is a call to humbly empty ourselves to be conduits for Christ’s love.

When I visit our friends who are frail, I am reminded that sometimes the emptying happens to us—we live in a world bound by the rough-edges of fragile human bodies, swinging financial markets, unpredictable weather, and other means of exposure to loss.

We live in a world of impermanence. This  would be incredibly fear-inducing without faith in the one thing which is most permanent —-

Hope in Yeshua, Jesus, a name which means “Yahweh, or God, saves.”

God saves us from our pain.

God saves us from our selfishness.

God saves us from …you fill in the blanks.

Yes, sometimes the emptying happens to us, and ALWAYS we are encouraged to humbly empty ourselves of those things which prevent us from putting on the mind of Christ. 

It is easy for us to be filled with self-righteousness but that prevents us from loving or understanding those who are different than us.

It is easy for us to be filled with a desire for accolades and attention, but that prevents us from encouraging the blossoming into fullness of those around us.

It is easy for us to be filled with a desire for safety, but that prevents us from taking risks to make this a more just and merciful world.

It is easy for us to be filled with a desire for power or control, but that prevents us from humbly seeing all persons as God’s beloved, and it inhibits the space for the Spirit to move within us.

Emptying ourselves of self-righteousness, emptying ourselves of desire for attention, emptying ourselves of desire for safety,  emptying ourselves of desire for power is a way to humbly claim our greatest allegiance is to Jesus Christ… a suffering God who loves us sacrificially. (Inspired by Contemplative Outreach Welcoming Prayer)

We are to empty ourselves in love as Jesus did. I know it’s not easy, that kind of love is always sacrificial. 

That kind of love is always filled with hope.

That kind of love transforms the world.

In his letter to the Philippians, Paul is writing from prison to a primarily Gentile community experiencing internal conflict and external persecution.

Yet , There is a drumbeat of hope and joy throughout  Paul’s letter.

If you are looking for a New Year’s resolution I encourage to read Philippians in its entirety today.  Imagine if we chose to  “take on the mind of Christ” as our mission in 2017.

Rev. Rob Fringer summarizes Paul’s call to this kind of mission when he writes,

“The sacrificial love of God seeks to transform us into people who together as the body of Christ reflect the imago dei (image of God) in our world…

We must find our identity, our very being, in the heart of God and live out of this love in tangible ways in the world.” ( Robert Fringer, aplainaccount.org)

Recently, I had the privilege of sitting with one of our Saint Luke’s members who is homebound . At the end of our visit, after conversation, after Communion, I moved to shake his hand good bye, he shot me a glistening spark of love from clear blue eyes.

I felt as if I were seeing the very face of God. I felt beloved.

Like my Aunt Katherine, emptied of many of the temporal things we value during our active phase of life, the light of Christ shone bright through him.

I imagine that moment of grace was preceded by many filled with the painful struggle of one letting go after another.   

My time with him has sustained me this week.

Knowing one day it probably will be me in that chair, I aspire to do so with the love and grace afforded me by Aunt Katherine, the gentleman this week, and so many others.

We are all given opportunity to practice the humble path of letting go, of courageously emptying ourselves, trusting the space will be filled with the light of Yeshua, the one who saves.  Amen 

The Eternal Equalizer

In my few years as a priest, I have had the privilege of anointing with oil those who desire healing for themselves or for others.  Sometimes the prayer is for healing from a physical ailment; sometimes from grief, or financial struggle. The list is endless because the kinds of suffering we experience is endless.

Inherent in these requests for relief is the humbling realization that we are not in control of many things in our lives; that we seek relationship with the healing, loving, divine power many of us call “God.”

I have also anointed the foreheads of those who are breathing their last, assuring them that they are loved by God, praying for the merciful forgiveness of their sins, that they will be released from suffering, restored to wholeness, and brought into everlasting life.

These are sacred moments. Stripped of title, stripped of conventional physical beauty, stripped of all but one tenuous breath in and another tenuous breath out– pretenses drop away. Identification with power or tribe or bank account or beauty is meaningless in these moments.

All that is left is the essence of the core of the humanity and the soul of the one who will soon depart this life to what Barbara Crafton calls “The Also Life.”

I have had the honor of anointing brown skins and white skins, Republicans and Democrats, people who are gay and straight, those who are rich and poor, young and old. I have not anointed any of different faiths or no faith at all, but I would if they wanted me to.

The differentiating factors that we spend an inordinate amount of time using as ways to separate ourselves become immaterial when we are faced with the eternal equalizer–we all suffer, we all die.

Rather than causing distress, this simple truth offers clarity and urgency to finding purpose and meaning in life. If you aren’t sure what your purpose is, what would it be like to make loving whoever is in your orbit your purpose? What about offering kindness and love to the difficult teenager in your family, the neighbor who lives alone, the grocery store clerk who seems tired and stressed?

Maybe we can share with one another a bit of the grace we have all been given.  Maybe we can practice dropping  the pretenses now. Pledging allegiance to our shared humanity by reaching out to those we deem different than us. What if, instead of pre-judging and assuming we know what others think or believe or feel, we asked a few questions with a sincere desire to understand. What brings you joy? What do you fear? Who do you love? What do you believe?

And then, what if we were to listen devoutly, without judgment, without interruption, without imposing our own story? What if we were to listen for points of intersection, rather than points of departure?

On the precipice of a new calendar year I have hope that we can partner with the Divine to be the healing balm for one another we all desire.

 

© 2017 Mary Bea Sullivan

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