Mary Bea Sullivan

soul stirring stories

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Does God Cause Hurricanes

This sermon was delivered to the congregation at Saint Paul’s Church in Tortola on Sunday, March, 18, 2018

Jeremiah 31: 31-34, Psalm 51:1-13, Hebrews 5: 5-10, John 12:20-33

How many here play a musical instrument? 

One of many destroyed homes by Hurricane Irma on the island of Tortola.

Musicians know that tuning is usually based on a fixed reference point.  For example, when tuning a violin, one will play a note on a piano or a tuner to use as the reference point to align with, in order to accurately tighten or loosen the strings.

What if we thought of our heart as an instrument?  What is the fixed reference point to which we tune our hearts? 

Our readings today are filled with heart imagery.  In Jeremiah we get a heart tattooed with God’s law on it; in Psalm 51 our hearts are pulverized by shame and we beg for a clean one. Perhaps it would be helpful to clarify what we mean by heart to better understand our scripture today.

We are not talking about a sentimental, Hallmark greeting card heart.  Throughout scripture we understand the heart to be the seat of our connection to God. 

Spiritually we understand there to be a component of will, of choosing within our hearts. We also associate the heart with love. Those of us who have been in long-term relationships, or cared for difficult people, can attest to the fact that love is not always a feeling, but it is always a choice. 

Love is a verb.

St. Augustine speaks of the heart when he says, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”

Speaking from the truth of his own struggles, St. Augustine is reminding us that if we tune our heart to anything other than God, our hearts will be restless.

We hear this and know it to be true, and yet it is so easy to tune our hearts toward with things we WANT to be God…

we tune our hearts on a desire for affection/esteem from others,

we tune our hearts on a desire for POWER and CONTROL,

we tune our hearts on a desire for safety and security.

These are all natural things to desire, but they are not God. Even when we attain them, our hearts still ache.  That is one of the reasons we fast during Lent, to create a space, an emptiness free from our cravings and allow God into that space. 

In Jeremiah, God writes a new covenant on the very heart of God’s people.  The people to whom Jeremiah was speaking were a people rebuilding Jerusalem after the exile to Babylon. 

At the beginning of the 31st Chapter of Jeremiah we read, “The LORD appeared to us in the past, saying: “I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with unfailing kindness.  I will build you up again, and you, Virgin Israel, will be rebuilt.  Again you will take up your timbrels and go out to dance with the joyful. Again you will plant vineyards on the hills of Samaria; the farmers will plant them and enjoy their fruit….

See, I will bring them from the land of the north and gather them from the ends of the earth. Among them will be the blind and the lame, expectant mothers and women in labor; a great throng will return.  They will come with weeping; they will pray as I bring them back. I will lead them beside streams of water on a level path where they will not stumble.” (Jeremiah 31:3-9)

Over these past few days I have heard your stories of rebuilding since Irma. I have heard your yearning to be able to return home to repaired roofs and restored windows and renewed livelihoods. I have listened to mothers who long for their children to come home again. 

I am struck by how you have much in common with the exiled people of Israel. You too have known great dislocation.  You too have known a loss of the way things were.  I do not pretend for one moment to know what you have, and  are still going through. I do not pretend to imagine that simply listening for a couple of days, means I understand the complexities of your experiences.

I have however, been deeply moved by you—by your resilience, and your generosity of spirit, and your hospitality, and your love—of God and of one another.

In the ancient times of Jeremiah, the people of Israel made sense of their great loss—of temple and home and culture—as punishment from God because they had worshipped false Gods. They had tuned their hearts on the wrong fixed point.

So, that leads us to wonder, did God cause hurricane Irma to punish the people of Tortola?  Did the God who created the heavens and the earth; the God who swept a wind over the face of the deep; the God who made each of us in God’s own image, cause hurricane Irma for punishment?  I have heard some of you wrestle with this question.

I know enough to know there is much mystery to God and God’s ways about which I do not know.

And I do not believe we have a chess-playing God who might say oh I’m going to move this rook here and give Tortola a monster storm, or I’m move this queen here and not cure this child of cancer.

The truth is, the world God created here is temporal. Our bodies do not last forever—that becomes more apparent to me with each passing birthday. 

And so we will all one day die.  We can speed the process up with unhealthy diets or addictive behavior; or we can do our best to keep it at bay with exercise and other healthy habits—but we are all the same, death is the great equalizer, we ALL have a finite number of days here on earth. 

And our world is created with the possibilities  of storms, and earthquakes and wildfires.  Some is inherent in the natural order and has always been this way. And some is specific to human behavior such as throwing a cigarette out the window onto a parched land and starting a wildfire. 

I do not know what that holy equation is balancing that which God has set in motion in general by creating a temporal world, and that which is touched by the influence of God, post-creation, and  that which we impact with our choices and our prayers.

What I do know is that every adult I have ever met has endured some form of tragedy in their lives. What I do know is that few in the history of the world have seen what you—individually and as a collective body, have endured.  Not only endured, but survived.

As I said, I have heard your stories these last few days. I am forever changed by your stories.  I am honored to be one of the keepers of your stories.  Thank you.

I want to share back with you some of what I have heard these past few days.

I heard that in the middle of the storm, people who had not felt God’s presence much before, prayed fervently to a God they weren’t even sure existed.  It is as if in the storm, God wrote faith on their hearts.

I heard of people walking over downed trees and dangerous power lines to check on family and to share food.  It is as if in the aftermath of the storm, God wrote generosity on their hearts.

I heard you tell me, that after the storm, the island looked so brown-it was as if an atomic bomb had dropped.  And that when you were dazed, and gazed upon it, you felt you had not been grateful enough for the many gifts God had given you. It is as if God wrote gratitude on your hearts.

I heard stories of lost interest in material things and greater interest in relationships.  It is as if God wrote love on those hearts. 

In another storm, Hurricane Sandy up in the Northeast of the United States in 2012 some friends of mine went up to help in the immediate aftermath of the storm.  These men were deeply moved by one story. 

Two brothers who had been estranged for more than 20 years because of some long-forgotten slight, were reunited when one of the brothers, who lived on higher ground, realized that the other brother was in the ward of New York that had been flooded by the Hudson River. 

He walked down to his brother’s home, invited him to take shelter with him, and steps toward reconciliation were taken.  It was as if God wrote humility and the willingness to forgive on their hearts.

Jeremiah is prophesying about a day when the people will obey God’s law not because they are supposed to, but because they WANT to. This sounds like the best impulses you have described to me since the storm.  The generosity, the forgiveness, the hospitality, and the love offered out of grateful hearts. 

And yet it is natural to struggle to maintain the intensity of those initial impulses toward good.  It is natural struggle to always WANT to follow God. God knows this, that is why Jesus humbled himself to become human, so we could know God better. So that we could see, we could have more understandable fixed reference point to tune our hearts to God.

One thing we know about God, thanks to Jesus’ emptying himself, first to become human, and then on the cross, is that God is merciful, God is loving, and by the grace of God, God is forgiving.

It is difficult to reconcile a God who would create storms for punishment with the God we know in Jesus. Jesus teaches us that God is always drawing us toward deeper and deeper love.  In the midst of even our greatest tragedy, God is with us and moving us toward new life.  Sometimes, something needs to die for that new life to bloom.

Anything that gets in the way of our following the great commandment to love God with all our heart, all our mind, all our soul and all our strength; and to love our neighbor as ourselves, must die for us to experience the new life that awaits us in Jesus.

It seems to me that some of you, shaken by the winds of the storm, experienced a clarity about that which must die in your lives.  I am so sorry you have gone through this tragedy. I am sorry your homes are damaged, your livelihoods are devastated, and your young children have had to leave you and go far away to attend school.

And, I admire your ability to make meaning from it. I admire your resilience and your willingness to be of good humor in the midst of it all.

And if you have not felt resilient, or of good humor ,or you struggle getting out of bed, be gentle with yourself, very few people in the world have experienced what you have. The progress can be slow and it can be difficult to remain positive. I hope you will find strength in leaning on one another and whatever resources are available. I hope you will find strength in prayer. 

I promise you—you are loved, and you are not alone. God promises that God will be with us in the restoration.  God will gather the people again, and walk alongside as the foliage returns, and the roofs are restored and the island beats with vibrant life once more. 

Whether we are in a time of great joy or a time of great sorrow in our lives, we have the constant presence of a loving God, even when it seems not so.  We worship together in community so that when my faith is failing, my brother or sister can carry me.  As I said yesterday, that is one of the reasons the creed says, “WE” believe.  We carry this together. When I struggle to believe, my brother or sister will carry that for me. 

God wants us lift our hearts in prayer in our joys, and anguish, and even anger. I spend time with many grieving people and sometimes they are angry at God. We can feel ashamed of our anger, but I say—go ahead and express everything to God. The God who knit you in your mother’s womb, the God who knows what is in your hearts before you do, that God can take it.  And the truth is, it doesn’t go away with faking it. It only shifts and moves when we acknowledge it and deal with it in healthy ways. 

We can serve God by serving one another, sometimes sacrificially so. 

This is how we tune our hearts to God—by taking time in prayer, coming together in worship and supporting one another, studying scripture, and serving God. 

When we tune our hearts with God as our reference point, we play the music Christ taught us to play, we know that tune, it is written on our hearts.   Amen.

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The Light that Shines Into the Darkness

This sermon was offered to Saint Luke’s Episcopal Church on December 31, 2017. The scripture was John 1:1-18.  May the Light shine brightly in the world in 2018.  

My parents live on the beach in Amelia Island, Florida.  One of their guest bedrooms has a balcony that overlooks the Atlantic Ocean.  Being one of eight children, it is a rare treat when I land in that bedroom for a couple of days. 

When I am in the front guest room, I get up early and make my coffee, traipse back up the stairs to the balcony, wrapped in a blanket, and silently sip my brew as I await God’s show.

I peer out at the darkness that covers the face of the deep. As many times as I have seen it, I am always enlivened by the first indication that a new day is dawning, when the dark, grey sky above the water is slowly transformed by shards of pinks and oranges. Moment by moment the show intensifies until a tiny semi-circle of yellow makes its way on the horizon.

The hint of yellow becomes larger and more intense.  And then, within minutes, the oranges and pinks are gone, the sun is up over the horizon and a new day has begun.

There are times when I go to visit my parents when sadly, the show never materializes.  There are times when storms roll in and I might catch glimpses of the sun behind the clouds, but the radiant sunrise I have come to treasure is denied me.

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.  Then God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.  (Genesis 1)

God’s word spoke light into being.

In the very first verse of the very first chapter of our sacred texts we learn that God’s word is a mighty and creative force.  We learn, says Gail O’Day, that “Light was the first gift of creation.” (The Word Disclosed Preaching John’s Gospel, p.22)

And this light provided crops and warmth and life.  And the people of Israel loved their God and forgot their God and they returned to their God. And they loved their God and they forgot their God and they returned to their God.

And their God was always with them, even though they did not always feel that God was present, even though they did not always trust that God was there. Ultimately, God donned human flesh to live among the people so that we might better know God, and so that we might better follow God.

Patristic Father, Athanasius famously proclaimed, “God became man so that man might become God.”  (On The Incarnation) 

Does that sound heretical to you?  It did to me the first time I heard it.

Only God could become God.  And yet Athanasius was widely quoted in the early church. Martin Luther referred to this saying (Theolgia Germania),  It is even deemed doctrine in Roman Catholic Catechism and Protestant hymns (Wesley).

Most important, it is scripturally sound. In John 17 we learn, “The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

After all of the attempts to pierce the human heart, in the face of our remembering and forgetting, God became human so that human beings might become God.

The same God who spoke  light into being.  The Same God who donned human flesh.  The same God who is the light that shines in the darkness. That same God, Spoke each and every one of us into being.  Like the sun was spoken into being to provide warmth and light, each of us was created for a purpose. 

That purpose is to work toward union with God and carry the light of Christ into this world. 

Christmas is not a season, it is a way of being.  Howard Thurman’s poem  “The Work of Christmas” speaks to this truth:

When the song of the angels is stilled,

when the star in the sky is gone,

when the kings and princes are home,

when the shepherds are back with their flocks,

the work of Christmas begins:

to find the lost,

to heal the broken,

to feed the hungry,

to release the prisoner,

to rebuild the nations,

to bring peace among the people,

to make music in the heart.

The love of Christ transforms us—makes us better, makes us want to be better, and it transforms those around us.  If we have felt the light of Christ in our own lives—we are to shine it upon all who are around us. 

We have an inspiring example of this in our own community.  Remember Kay our deacon-in-training from last summer?  She has created a “warming station” at Grace Episcopal Church in Woodlawn.

Kay is spending her Christmas vacation recruiting and staffing a 24 hour place of warmth, food, and respite for homeless people to get out of the cold.

Kay and her volunteers carry the light of Christ. 

Birmingham lost a giant this past week when Judy Bridgers died.  Judy and her late husband, Bill, who was the founding Dean of UAB’s School of Public Health, were known for their generosity and gracious hospitality, especially to those of us in need of extra care.

In the late 80’s and early 90’s when HIV/AIDS patients were being shunned by families and churches, Judy and Bill opened their home to them and she tended them in their dying days. 

I have benefitted from others shining the light of Christ in my own life. There was a time when I found forgiveness elusive and the hardening of my heart negatively impacted those around me.  Additionally, deep grief had a way of making me feel as if  I was sitting on my parents’ balcony enduring an endless storm.

I found no solace in any of my usual places of comfort.  Finally, I sought help and shards of the light shone upon me in the form of a Christian grief counselor.  I felt the warmth of the sun in a Buddhist teacher who compelled me to go home to Christianity, and furthermore, he instructed me to go deeply in following the ways of Jesus.

But the full radiance of the sun shone upon me in the unconditional love of my husband, Malcolm.  I was hesitant to return to Christianity for a host of reasons.  I was turned off by some of what I had experienced and heard and read from some who claimed the mantle of Jesus.  I had been hurt by a denomination that treated women as second class citizens. 

While I struggled with all of this, Malcolm simply loved me. He loved me unconditionally.  I watched the way he generously loved other people too—especially people on the margins, the untouchables-people with HIV, people who were mentally ill, people who were homeless. 

The light shone in the darkness of my heart and I found a Christianity I wanted to be a part of. The light shone in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.

I love Christmas as much as anyone—the music, the food, the laughter and tears with family. And in all that we have laid upon this mystical, magical time we are to remember most of all:

God became human so human beings might become God.

We have a choice, do we receive or reject the light?

I want to take a moment to speak to those of us who may be experiencing a stormy time in our lives.  I know that it feels cold and it feels dark. It can be particularly painful to be feeling this way when it seems as if the rest of the world is wrapped in joy. I promise you, even if you cannot see it; even if you cannot feel it—there is warmth beyond the clouds.  Seek out someone you trust to help shine that light for you.

And for those of us who feel bathed in the glow of Christ’s love, I have a challenge for us-share it. Love others unconditionally. Be generous.  Give away more than you think you can afford in time and love and resources. 

At every Rite 1 Eucharist we claim, “All things come of Thee or Lord. And of thine own have we given thee.”  All this love, all of this light is not ours to hoard, but to share. Malcolm and I both give our parents great credit for shining Jesus’ light on us and on others.

Who has shone the light for you? 

How are you or can you carry this light to the lost, or the broken, or the hungry, or the prisoner?  How are you, how are WE participating in rebuilding communities, bringing peace, making music in hearts?

In the beginning God created light, God became light, we are to be light.  Amen 

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It is snowing here in Birmingham, Alabama.  That is cause for great joy among little ones, and varying

Photo by Malcolm Marler

degrees of stress for bigger ones.   The forecast calls for one to three inches of accumulation.  A winter storm warning has been issued. Basically, the city is shut down.

The town of Rangeley, Maine is accustomed to an average of 121 inches of snow each year. Accumulation of one to three inches of snow is a disappointing dusting for Rangeley’s residents.

Having lived in many places in the United States and in Tokyo, I have heard folks snipe at the perspective of others who are from different parts of the country or the world. Rugged Rangeley folks might chuckle at Alabama’s snow-fearing wimps.  People from Birmingham can’t understand why anyone would want to live in such God-forsaken country.

Our perspectives are shaped by our cultures, our climates, our family history, our personal experiences.  What is ONE perspective among many, can easily become THE perspective. Judgment and the overlaying of our perspective onto another, prevents us from understanding and loving the “other.” It limits our experience of life.  If we truly believe that all people are made in the image and likeness of God, it limits our experience of God.

Response to snow is an innocuous example of how we judge and exclude.  When the stakes are higher the judgment can become dangerous. When we are open to listening to one who is different, with a  willingness to be changed by the encounter, our perspective broadens.

Jesus knew about this when he walked through enemy territory in Samaria and chatted with a cast-out woman at a well.  Despite the cultural taboos about Jews and Samaritans, and men speaking with women, Jesus took the woman seriously. He listened to her. She questioned him. Love pierced her and she could not help but run to tell her fellow Samaritans about the one whom she knew to be the Messiah.  Jesus and the disciples stayed in Samaria for two days teaching, transforming, and being transformed.

Yesterday, inspiring leaders from the international mission program, Global Teams came for lunch at Saint Luke’s.  At one point in the conversation we discussed the story of Jesus and the woman at the well. Kevin Higgs, a Christian man who has lived, and respectfully assimilated into Muslim countries for more than two decades, pointed out that for the two days when Jesus and his disciples stayed to teach in Samaria, they stayed in the homes of people whom their tradition taught them were unclean–filthy and offensive really.

Yet they stayed. And lives were forever changed, so changed that we continue to tell the story 2,000 years later. Let’s keep living that story. 

Happy Snow Day!



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I repeatedly vow not going to start my day reading the news.  And yet I did it again this morning. After absorbing the events of the day, I felt discouraged and angry. What do we stand for as a country when we imperil the safety net for the least of these? What does it mean to be Christian when Christianity is wielded as a shield for one who is accused of harming children?

I lamented to Malcolm about how powerless I feel in an age mired in greed and lies. I told him I worry that we are wasting our time in our desire to make the world a better place. Then I put down the news, lit a candle, and opened one of my favorite prayer books,  Sounds of the Eternal: A Celtic Psalter  by John Philip Newell and read,

Photo by Malcolm Marler

“Wait for God, be strong, let your heart take courage, wait for God.” Psalm 27:14

Tomorrow begins the season of Advent, a time of holy waiting, a time of preparation, a time of expectation.  Like Lent, Advent is a penitential time–a time to reckon with that which broken within us, and among us, a time to acknowledge our shortcomings, and turn back toward a merciful God, asking for forgiveness and willing to live into new life.

I am not very good at waiting.  I am suspicious of the way “waiting” has been used to continue to oppress the marginalized. And yet, the psalmist links waiting with strength and courage. The psalmist reminds us we are a people of hope. 

Pondering this holy waiting, I am aware that waiting is not a passive pursuit. After Mary bravely  assented to carry the Christ-child, she did not sit still. Her holy waiting began with a revolutionary proclamation of praise and a trek to her cousin, Elizabeth’s home.

As we settle into this Advent-eve I wonder what awaits us as we ponder waiting for God. I pray we will be strong, that we will let our hearts take courage as we wait for God.

God’s deep and abiding peace,

Mary Bea

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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
  • 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

We will with God’s help.  Amen.


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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

Sarah Dylan Brewer

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


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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

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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

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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!



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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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