Mary Bea Sullivan

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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,

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.


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!



The Gift of Technoglitches

In an attempt to transfer my website over to a new domain, I have inadvertently made the email address that I have used for more than a decade inaccessible.  My initial response is telling–relief.  Somehow the possibility of starting new and being freed of all that old information has me feeling lighter, unencumbered.

Sure, when the reality sets in that good has been lost with junk, I may experience frustration. For now, I am acutely aware of the need to declutter, not only my email but so much more.


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