Mary Bea Sullivan

soul stirring stories

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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

What is your name?

Below are notes from last Sundays sermon, a response to the Orlando tragedy.  If you prefer to listen to the audio version you may find that here.


According to the Washington Post, during a court appearance this week, the man charged with the death of Jo Cox, a popular British lawmaker, when asked by the judge, gave his name as “death to traitors, freedom for Britain”

Filled with hate; filled with rage, he forgot who he was.

What is your name?  Jesus asks the man who has been roaming naked among the tombs.

“Legion” he responds A Legion is“A regiment” of Roman soldiers, could be up to 6000 soldiers..

The man has lost himself to the cacophony of the voices of his troubles..

We have lost ourselves in the cacophony of horror—49 dead in Orlando; a stabbing in Britain; tornadoes, earthquakes, politicians on the take, refugees scrambling from bombs onto overflowing boats,

No wonder some of us pine for the good old days when our troubles were not legion.

Or is that even true?  Do we want to return to WWII when bombs rained on London from Sept-May? Do we want to return to the times when women and people of color could not vote?

Do we want to return to the days when the Cuyahoga River was so polluted it caught fire?

Perhaps we have a tendency to romanticize the past at the risk of dealing with our present.  Memories are often inaccurate because they are emotion-driven. Pining away for the “good old days” distracts us from living in the present moment.

This is the time in which we are born.  This is the place where we stand. Each time has had its own trials and troubles. We can learn from the past, we cannot live in the past.

To live in the past is to squander the gift of what is here right now.  To live in the past is to give up on the future.

And yes, we stand at a time when our troubles are legion—the troubles in the world; and for some of us, the troubles in our hearts and in our homes.

What is your name? Jesus asks…  What is your name?

When we become lost in the despair of the day, we forget who we are…we forget whose we are—children of God, united with Christ in our baptism.  We are God’s own beloved children, whether  we remember that or not.

The man was naked, unclean—among the tombs

ostracized, sometimes chained

suffering, isolation

internal turmoil of battling

external turmoil of social pressures

“People were afraid of him, but Jesus faced him calm and unafraid” (Barclay 128)

There is no place Jesus won’t go…no person Jesus won’t touch—not the Gentile slave, not the sinful woman, and not a man running naked among the dead.

Jesus is present with love where there is suffering, he moves into the suffering with LOVE…He is in a nightclub turned horror hall, with those who are wounded, those who are dying—what is your name?  I am with you.  You are mine.

He is with refugees on boats and in squalid camps—what is your name? I am with you.  You are mine.

He is with families living far from home in the hopes of a new life—what is your name?  I am with you.  You are mine.

He is with politicians who have sold their souls for cash—what is your name?  I am with you.  You are mine.

He is with you; he is with me in our suffering and confusion and pain—“you don’t need to stay in the tomb of despair”,

Jesus says—

you don’t need to isolate and hide—You are mine…my beloved, I am with you in all things all ways.

This was a horrific week and this was a gorgeous week…

Tragedy—the shooting of a promising young singer, the massacre in a nighclub, and an innocent boy snatched in a freak accident.

And at a time when courageous leadership might offer comfort our state is embroiled in spending our time and resources investigating those in power at every level.

This is too much too much our hearts cry for respite from the tumult.  We pray for peace…

If we chose to hole up in homes who would blame us?

But so many of us did not.  Refusing to be paralyzed by fear.  Refusing to be locked away in despair, we gave out beans and rice; we stuffed sack lunches and books in our vans and we drove less than a mile away to be received by the joy-filled faces of children and grateful mothers.

We transformed  the parish hall into hogwarts.

Every act of generosity, every act of love is a defiant declaration that hate won’t win.

A grateful declaration of thanks for what God has done for us.

“Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” Jesus told the man he had healed.

He didn’t guarantee that nothing bad would ever happen again. 

Just yesterday Malcolm and I were in Cullman for an engagement party for a dear friend’s daughter.  On Thursday of this week, the father of the bride-to-be buried his little sister.

In one week their hearts held the tension we all hold—profound grief and sadness from loss, hope-filled joy and expectation in new life.

“Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” Jesus told the man he had healed.  He did not guarantee nothing bad would ever happen again.

So the man went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.

But beware, healing can cause fear—the people of the town, when they saw what Jesus had done, they were afraid.  As much as they liked to complain about the naked, raving man in chains—they knew what to do with that.

Give them a man who has lost his sense of self to such a degree when asked who is he can only answer “legion.’  We know what to do with that.

But healing—can we stand the healing?  Can we believe in it? Pray for it? celebrate it? trust it is possible for ourselves and for others?  Believe it is true for our country?  for our world?

I hope so—-because cynicism is the genesis of apathy which leaves a vacuum that can be filled with hate.  We are to be counter-cultural beacons of hope in a world in need of healing.  Our hope is not in ourselves, but in one named Immanuel, God is with us.

What is your name?  God claims us and calls us by name in our baptism.  beloved children of God.

When we forget who we are, who’s we are we leave ourselves open to cynicism and hate.

When we remember who we are; who’s we are, we are given the strength and courage to hold the horror and the hope.

“Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.”

Declare it by showing your love of God and love of one another and love for all people everywhere.  

Remember who we are, whose we are, we belong to God and we belong to one another, have hope, give thanks, even in the midst of our troubles.  Amen.

Sermon Proper 7C June 19, 2016, The Rev. Mary Bea Sullivan

The Episcopal Church of the Holy Spirit Alabaster, AL

Isaiah 65:1-9, Psalm 22:18-27, Galatians 3:23-29, Luke 8:26-39

Being Welcomed


Messenger by Roerich Nicholas

Last week I began an e-course entitled “The Wisdom of Parables.”  The offering is a collaboration between Spirituality and Practice and Contemplative Outreach.  We were praying with the story of the Tax Collector and the Pharisee in Luke 18: 10-14.

Also last week, the church where I serve, The Episcopal Church of the Holy Spirit in Alabaster, AL, in collaboration with the school system, became a feeding site for  offering free lunches for children.  The community has been gearing up–preparing the parish hall, signing up volunteers.  We even received a grant from our diocese to provide free books to the children–nourishing body and mind and hopefully, through relationship, soul.

On day one a grand total of ONE child showed up from outside of our community for lunch.  Our disappointment was abated by the parish hall being filled with young families from Holy Spirit sharing meals, laughing, and playing on the playground.

That afternoon I drove around a neighboring mobile home park distributing flyers in english and spanish inviting families to eat and read with us.  I met smiling mothers, gorgeous children, my heart was full from the encounters and I was sure we would have a better response.

And we did. On day two our numbers doubled and we had TWO children from outside the community come to receive lunch.  “We are called to be faithful, not to be successful.”  I encouraged our deflating volunteers.  “We are not in control of the outcome, God is.”

By the grace of God, I was away and out of the way the next day. One of our members, Toni Nash, brought her friend Cheryl to help with distribution.  Again, barely anyone came to the parish hall.  Bi-lingual Cheryl, familiar with the culture Cheryl, asked, “Why are we sitting here?  We need to take the food to them.”  

And they packed up food and books and drove next door. Anytime they heard or saw a child, they would approach the home and ask if they would like a  lunch and a book. Twenty five lunches were distributed and 50 were ordered the next day.  Loretta, Tim, and the team at the Alabaster City School System have been flexible and encouraging at every step.

By Monday we were distributing 75 lunches per day and all indicators are that the numbers will grow.  We have set up a station at the entrance to the community for families to receive food and books. We continue to receive more children at the church as well. Yesterday there was story time in our choir room!

As is often the case when co-creating with Christ, so much has been turned on its head. Instead of receiving guests in our home, for the most part, they have been receiving us in their homes.

So many questions are swirling. When we approach the door/the neighborhood, how do we change the energy? Do we enter with humility or perceived power?  Do we recognize our deep needs as well as those of our neighbors?  Do we experience mutuality or superiority?

Most profoundly,  Where is the church? 

In the Spirituality and Practice course that I mentioned,  we were guided through visio divina with the painting pictured above by Roerich Nicholas. I was struck how when I approached our neighbors homes,  I felt like the man pictured in the painting. I was received by those who were gracious and humble; I needed the sanctuary they provided.  

Finally, In her book, Making All Things New,   Ilio Delia describes the church as either a closed systems which “perceives everything outside the system as a potential threat…” (127) Or an open system which can change as the environment changes. Quoting systems theorist Eric Jantsch, “To live with an evolutionary spirit is to let go when the right time comes and to engage new structures of relationships.” (The Self-Organizing Universe, 40)

Collaboration with the school system, the diocese, and the FDA; inspiration from a guest volunteer, and willingness to leave the confines of our physical space all reflect a thriving, evolving, open system.  I am grateful for this ongoing experience and this beloved community.

If you would like to contribute to our ongoing relationship with our neighbors, please consider making a donation and if you like you may note “outreach” in the memo.  Thank you!



Clarity and Clutter

Recently I was with my spiritual director, a wise and gentle soul steeped in the Ignatian tradition. We were discussing a number of important choices I was considering. “You know Mary Bea,” she offered, “Ignatius says you can only discern one thing at a time.”

The truth in that simple statement has resonated repeatedly over the past few weeks.  Perhaps you are better than me at moving methodically.  Sometimes I find I’m whirling in so many directions even our high-energy dog Maya seems to be standing still in comparison.

Anxiety, overwhelm, and “not enough,” are the maladies of our time.  How do we participate in creating an environment conducive to responding to the stirrings of the Spirit, rather than reacting to perceived or real pressures?

As a response to a deep longing to reconnect with the part of me that thrives when exploring creative expression, I have decided to write brief reflections again.  This is the fruit of time in discernment, thank you to my spiritual director and others who have encouraged this step.

In support of this choice, I have redesigned my website (still under construction), claimed a new email, and committed to setting aside time to write.

Many of you signed up for my blog years ago before I went to seminary.  It is joy to reconnect.  Thank you for the time we have spent together.  If you prefer not to receive these blogposts, you may unsubscribe. I support your simplification as well!

Attached is my spiritual director’s form entitled Ignatian Wisdom for Discernment.  We are making choices all of the time, some consciously, many unconsciously. Prayerful time with this process is a step toward renewal. Today, I choose clarity over clutter.

I give thanks for you!



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