Transcript: Sermon given by the Rt. Rev. Mark Hollingsworth Jr. at the consecration of the Rt. Rev. Alan M. Gates

The sermon given by the Rt. Rev. Mark Hollingsworth Jr., Bishop of Ohio, at the ordination and consecration of the Rt. Rev. Alan M. Gates on Sept. 13, 2014, appears below.  A printer-friendly PDF may be found at the bottom of the page. 

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who… emptied himself…[and] humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.” Philippians 2:5-8 (abbrev.)

Good morning, Alan, Trish, Philip, Ethan, colleagues, friends, and all of God’s beloved. And thank you, Alan, for the humbling pleasure of participating in this important event in the life of the Diocese of Massachusetts and The Episcopal Church. It is a great joy to be back in the diocese that raised me and in which I had the opportunity to serve with so many of you for the majority of my priesthood. When I was a boy growing up at the Church of the Advent in Medfield and St. Andrew’s in Wellesley, we used to tell the story on our provincial, Bostonian selves, about the woman who moved to Back Bay from Iowa. A neighbor kindly organized a small gathering to welcome her and introduce her around. At some point in the evening, the newly arrived Iowan came to sit next to an elderly Beacon Hill resident who could have been my grandmother and who asked her, “Do remind me, from where is it that you have come?”  The newcomer answered, “From Iowa,” to which the Boston matron replied, “Dear, here in Boston we pronounce that ‘Ohio.’”

Of course, you all know much about Ohio, I am certain. That’s right, it is where Lebron James plays basketball again. And you may be heartened to know that there is a large contingent here today from the Diocese of Ohio (please wave), a true witness to the power of God’s reconciling love. Five full months since April 5th it has taken for some of us to get over your electing our friend and colleague to be your bishop. But God is relentless. And we know so well, as do those from Hingham, Ware, Lake Forest, and the other places Alan has served, just how wise was your choice. We are here out of our deep affection for the Gateses and in committed companionship with the Diocese of Massachusetts, to celebrate the new thing that God is doing with Alan and you.

The celebrations of the church are always about the new thing, always about the future, about what is yet to be. While in them we may recall where we have come from, they are celebrations of where we are going. While we give thanks for all that God has made of us to date, in the celebrations of the church we surrender anew to all that God will make of us tomorrow. Witness the vows we make. In baptism, confirmation, ordination, marriage, the questions and vows are cast in the future tense. “Will you continue in the apostles teaching… Will you repent and return… Will you proclaim by word and example… Will you seek and serve Christ… Will you strive for justice and peace…?” “Will you uphold Alan as a bishop?” The questions are “Will you?” and the responses, “We will.” Thank goodness they are not about the past. Thank goodness we are not asked, “Have you done this?” or “Did you do that?” They are not about what we’ve done and left undone, but about what we will do and what we are willing to let God do with us. Even in the burial service we pray that the deceased “may go from strength to strength in the life of perfect service in thy heavenly kingdom.” The celebrations of the church are always about transition, about change.

In every season of our lives, indeed in every moment, we are called into transition, called to change, not because we are deficient or inadequate, which of course we are, but because in the relentless provocation of divine love, God is always calling us forth into a deeper intimacy with God, urging us toward a greater godliness, and providing for us endless possibility to change into the likeness of Jesus. 

This is why we come together today, not to remain what we are, but to become what God dreams for us to be: to be transformed, to be saved, rescued, and not for our own benefit, but saved to heal the world God loves.

We are here because of those who are out there.

Of course this, in here, is so “us.” These are our songs, our traditions, our costumes, our vocabulary, our prayers, and our particular definition of a God who we admit is beyond all human definition. What we do here is important and it is good, only if it prepares us to serve them, out there, the rest of God’s beloved. If it results in more B-SAFE and B-PEACE programs, more Creation Care and Common Cathedral, more Veterans Ministry and Campus Ministry, more Mission Hubs and Global Mission, and increased parochial expressions of God’s mission, it is good. If it inspires fiercer advocacy, deeper peace, broader justice, more generous compassion, and more overt invitation to know Jesus, it is good. If this, in here, causes us to transition from what has been to what is yet to be and from our own will to God’s will, it is very good.

This ordination and consecration of a bishop diocesan marks an obvious ecclesiastical transition. At the same time, it brings into sharp focus a range of profound vocational, spiritual, relational, and emotional transitions, not just for Alan, but for each of us as we move through this moment into the future where God is awaiting us.

We may well struggle, however, both spiritually and emotionally, to celebrate and surrender ourselves to this transition into which God is leading us, if we do not acknowledge and embrace the personal transition within which this celebration falls for our beloved brother, friend, and bishop, Tom. His treasured companionship, through the twenty years of his episcopacy and the 40 years of his monastic vocation serving the people of this diocese and the larger church, is difficult and painful for us to let go of. Yet Jesus is right with us now and always, with you, Tom, and with each of us, adjuring us to abide in his love as together we surrender to the new thing that God is offering. We thank God for you, Tom, and we thank you, for the courageous, loving, and faithful companionship you have given us and that you continue to give us, as you model even now the surrender with Christ to the future that is God’s. In our every prayer, we are with you in this journey God has given us to share always.

In the Rector’s office at St. Paul’s Church in Cleveland Heights, right above the Rector’s desk and built permanently into the wall, is a plaster relief of the seal of the Diocese of Ohio. It is not the only image of the diocesan seal built into that parish building, but its placement in the Rector’s office is striking to me. I wonder in how many of your rectors’ offices is there a permanent image of the seal of your diocese. Over the past decade, during the many, many times I met with Alan in that room, I was repeatedly struck by how fitting was that symbol in that particular place, as it silently spoke to me of how fully Alan understood the parish’s place and role in the larger church, how integral to his vocation was his own commitment to serve on diocesan committees and commissions, seminary boards, and the like, how inspired was the congregation’s responsibility to the common life and ministry of the diocese, and most of all, how pointedly it expressed Alan’s and my relationship as colleagues, priest and bishop, in a shared ministry whose locus was the precious souls given to our care.

You have called to be your bishop a priest who understands the essential, albeit sometimes complex relationship between things parochial and things diocesan, one who lives with an unwavering fidelity to the body of Christ that comprises them both and in which they are immutably one and the same. He understands, and as a priest has manifested in every way, that very ecclesiology in his relationship to his bishops, wherever he has served and particularly in the Diocese of Ohio. And as a result, he already has practice and clarity about how to live as colleague and companion to clergy and lay leaders, now as a bishop, with a genuineness and humility that you will soon come to trust.

I could list for you the many qualities that so well suit Alan to be your companion as bishop diocesan, but I have every confidence that in short time you will begin to discover them for yourselves, if you haven’t already. It will, for instance, be hard for you to miss the appropriateness of his consecration falling on the feast day of the late 4th century Bishop of Constantinople who was called “Chrysostom,” meaning “golden-mouthed,” because of his exceptional homiletic gift and dedication to preaching. Neither will the authenticity of his pastoral heart and collegial companionship long escape your notice. So I will leave you to discover and delight in those things as you begin to serve together in this corner of God’s vineyard.

But you should know that while Alan is exceptionally suited to this new ministry, he is also, of course, essentially inadequate. It is precisely through this new work that God will make something new of him, something more of him, something more holy of him. That is true about each of us in our vocation to be Christian. We are exactly what God needs to heal the world, not because of who we are, but because of who God is. We are suited to the tasks with which life confronts us, not because of what we have done or proved capable of doing, but because of what God is capable of doing with us. We are not finished; we are always being called forth into newness of life. It has long seemed to me that perhaps the reason the bishop’s chair is the largest in the chancel is because it reflects the greatest room for growth. That is a great comfort to me as a bishop. And it is significant that the first paragraph of the Prayer of Consecration of a bishop includes these words, “We praise you also that from the creation you have graciously accepted the ministry of those whom you have chosen.” God graciously accepts us as we are, every one of us, and makes of us, when we are willing, what God needs us to be for God’s divine purposes. When, in turn, we humbly accept the realities of who we are, those gifts and inadequacies that God knows and has already accepted, and give ourselves continually to God, that is sacrificial giving. Through it, God makes us holy. That is what sacrifice means. Sacer facere: to make sacred, to make holy. Every member of Red Sox Nation knows that what makes a bunt or a fly ball a “sacrifice” is not that the batter is out, but that the runner is advanced. That is what makes it holy.

With his characteristic and scholarly thoughtfulness, Alan chose the lessons for this service from three sets of propers: the Ordination of a Bishop, the Celebration of New Ministry, and Holy Cross Day, this being the eve thereof. The Psalm and the Epistle reading are those designated for the last of these, the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. It is this passage from Paul’s letter to the faithful in Philippi that has risen most frequently in my prayers for Alan and for you over the past months: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who… emptied himself…[and] humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.”

The cross at Golgotha, more than any other Christian symbol, represents the place and moment of Jesus’ absolute surrender to God. It marks the most significant and pivotal point of his transition to the new life to which God had called him. It signifies to us the sacrifice into which we are each called, every one of us, the sacrifice by which we surrender our true selves to God and to that which is yet to be. The cross symbolizes that for which we pray in the Eucharistic Prayer, “Unite us to your Son in his sacrifice.” For this reason, Alan, the pectoral cross you receive on this the Eve of Holy Cross Day has particular import.

pectoral cross Bishop Gates' pectoral cross. Its design is both handsome and intriguing, incorporating imagery that evokes our heritage, our theology, and the identity of the Diocese of Massachusetts. It is a Canterbury cross, surrounded by Jerusalem crosses, and engraved with four symbols that proclaim the Trinity, the Christ, this State of Massachusetts, and this diocese, those being, respectively, the interlaced triquetra at the top, the Chi Rho at the bottom, the mayflower on the left, and on the right, the chambered nautilus, which adorns the pediment of the Cathedral Church of St. Paul. This last image intrigues me most.

The chambers of the nautilus are remnants of the cephalopod’s previous size, that from which it has changed. But they are not just relics of its past life; they have an important practical function. They contain a mixture of gas and saline liquid, the ratio between which the nautilus can change to control its buoyancy, allowing it to surrender to the deep during the day, descending to depths of 2000 feet, and to rise to the surface at night, to feed and perform other essential activities. It is the chambers and their ability to moderate the relative weight of the nautilus that permit it to go deep, again and again, and to return refreshed and renewed for growth and participation in new life. The spiritual equivalent of the nautilus’s chambers perhaps is prayer, that discipline by which we descend into the presence of the divine, again and again, to be refreshed and renewed, to give ourselves more fully to the God who loves and redeems us, and then to ascend once more toward the new thing that God is always dreaming for us.

The placement of the nautilus on Alan’s pectoral cross can remind us always that it is through the cross, the singularly most powerful image of Christ’s surrender to God, that we are all invited, in the words Bishop Tom so often uses, deeper into the heart of God. To “bear our cross” means just that, to surrender with Jesus to the new thing God is doing, or in Paul’s words to the church in Philippi, to let the same mind be in us that was in Christ Jesus, to empty ourselves, and humble ourselves, and become obedient to God. To bear one’s cross does not mean to suffer some self-focused and personal burden or pain in the neck. Rather, it refers to shouldering the cross we share with Jesus, the cross of self-sacrifice and surrender to God.

Dear friend Alan, I pray that, of all the symbols of the office and responsibilities to which you so generously give yourself today, this pectoral cross, designed and made for you as an expression of the love and gratitude of your companions at St. Paul’s Church, may be a constant reminder of the sacrifice of Jesus through which you and every one of us is invited into greater godliness and made holy. 

And friends in Christ, whoever you are, however you have gotten here, whatever your fears or faults or regrets or shame, no matter how little you think of yourself or how much you think of yourself, you are exactly whom God needs and whom God loves, whom God redeems and whom God dreams of carrying out God’s own mission. Every one of you. No exceptions. You are God’s beloved, for whom Jesus surrendered himself completely, in obedience to the point of death – even death on a cross.

Let us pray:

Provocative and generous God, since the time of Abraham and Sarah you have called forth those who love you to new lives of faithful service. Today, as we transition from one episcopacy to the next and turn to a new season in the life of your church in this diocese, we celebrate and give you thanks for what has been and for what will be. We ask your continued blessing on Alan and Trish and Philip and Ethan, on this diocese and your church, and on Tom and every one of us, in our common transition to become more fully the church you dream for us to be, even the very body of Christ, and in our individual transitions, through which you ceaselessly call us forth into newness and holiness. Give to us the same mind that was in Christ Jesus, who emptied himself and humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross. And we pray that his cross may be for us a constant encouragement to empty and humble ourselves, in surrender to your love and to your will, that it indeed may be done on earth, as it is in heaven.       Amen.

The Rt. Rev. Mark Hollingsworth, Jr., Bishop of Ohio