"As the Spirit comes": Bishop Gates's sermon to the Electing Convention

Following is the text of the sermon preached by the Rt. Rev. Alan M. Gates at the Electing Convention on May 18, 2024, at Trinity Church in Boston.

Bishop Gates gives sermon at Electing Convention Vicki Ix Bishop Gates gives the sermon at the May 18, 2024, Electing Convention: "The Holy Spirit will come, as the Spirit comes into all our in-between times, to enlighten, to equip, and draw us forward in courage and hope."

Here is the first sentence in the first chapter of the bicentennial history of the Diocese of Massachusetts: “Bishop William Lawrence often said that no one could hope to understand Massachusetts Episcopalians who did not realize that most of them were to a large extent Congregationalists at heart.” [i]

And yet, here we are.  Gathered to elect our Seventeenth Bishop.

The text goes on to explain that in its early history of post-Revolutionary challenges for an English church, the diocese “remained financially feeble, and to expect members of … far-flung and ill-supported parishes to respond to diocesan-wide admonitions was a counsel … infrequently fulfilled.” [ii]

And yet, here we are.  A diocese of some 170 worshipping communities, clergy and laity gathered in common purpose to affirm that we do belong to one another, not as fellow subjects of a lordly prelate, but as members of a mutually supportive body, whose next shepherd we are eager to select.

One more quote from that diocesan history had to say about this diocese: “The freedom with which Massachusetts Episcopalians sometimes combined treasures old and new in patterns suited to individual taste frequently has seemed to verge on the eccentric to Episcopalians from dioceses accustomed to greater uniformity imposed hierarchically.”  [iii]

And yet, here we are.  After countless decades, still combining treasures old and new in ways sometimes compellingly creative, sometimes eccentrically individual.  Here we are, gathered to make and celebrate a decision about hierarchy, in a way that does not seek to impose uniformity, but rather strives for unity, by the movement of the Holy Spirit. It's in our DNA.

Every year I am struck anew by the liminal quality of Ascensiontide.  You know the tale.  How for forty days the risen Jesus had been appearing to his disciples – talking, walking, sharing a fish fry or two, and then at Ascension, Jesus says another farewell to his disciples.  

He sends them out into the world, and he gives them this promise: “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you.” [Acts 1:8] And then, as the disciples look on, he is lifted out of their sight.

That promise – “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you.” – is the reiteration of a promise he had given to them at the Last Supper, when he said, “I will not leave you orphaned.” [John 14:18] Or in other translations, “I will not leave you comfortless.”  And that, in turn, reiterated an even earlier promise – we heard it in the gospel just now [7:37-39] – when Jesus said, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.”  The evangelist John tells us that this too portends the coming of the Holy Spirit. Rivers of living water.

So Ascension Day recalled the moment when the risen Jesus disappeared from the sight of his friends.  And tomorrow, Pentecost Day, we will celebrate the day when Jesus’ promise was fulfilled – when those rivers of living water, a.k.a. the Holy Spirit, will come upon the disciples with a mighty whoosh to equip and empower his followers.
But where does that leave us right now in the story? It leaves us in an in-between time.  Ascenstiontide.  No longer the past; not yet the future.  For now, the disciples are living “in the meantime.”  You and I spend a lot of our own lives “in the meantime.”  The times in our lives, like change in the world, does not often resolve in neat, delineated chapters, does it, nor in tidy and satisfying ways. We live "in the meantime," looking forward, and claiming as the promise Jesus gave us when he said, “I will not leave you comfortless.”

I wonder what sort of in-between time you might be dwelling in these days?  In between jobs; or waiting for kids or grandkids to be born; or grieving the loss of a loved one, certain that life will never be the same; or retiring and not certain what is next; or contemplating a move; or watching and worrying about a supreme court decision; or watching and worrying about the outcome of a war far away; or watching and worrying about an election not far away.  Or maybe, waiting for the outcome of an episcopal election.

We live, my friends, as the apostles did between Ascension and Pentecost.  Whatever sorts of in-between you might occupy, this Ascension moment is for me and for you.  And what did they do in that moment, those apostles?  We are told simply that they claimed Jesus’ promise: “I will not leave you comfortless.” And then they just went about their business.  They did not stop their lives.  They did not put everything on hold and go from Mount Olivet to some other mountain to wait for something momentous.  No.  They simply put one foot in front of the other, returned to Jerusalem, re-gathered as a community, and set about preaching and praying – as they had been doing for the past three years.  

Whether it is in our home lives, our church lives, our work lives, or any other aspect of our days – we do what we can, when we can, as faithfully as we can.  That is how Ascension tells us to live “in the meantime.”

Oh – and the disciples did one other thing, didn’t they?  They conducted an election.  The number Twelve was a sign for them of completion and wholeness:  the twelve sons of Jacob, being the twelve tribes of Israel; the twelve minor prophets; the twelve members of the parish vestry.  Of course there needed to be twelve apostles!  So a slate was presented: Justus and Matthias.  There were no further nominations.

And they prayed, and their prayer went like this:  “Lord, you know everyone’s heart.  Show us which one of these … you have chosen to take the share in this ministry and apostleship.” [Acts 2:24]  And the lot fell upon Matthias.

I expect it’s a dicey proposition for anyone in such a moment to invoke an election called to replace Judas! But honestly, holding the election for a leadership position on the Eve of Pentecost is  a powerful symbolic timing, is it not?  We are waiting for the Holy Spirit. We are counting on the Holy Spirit.  We are expecting the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit will come, as it came on Pentecost Day.  The Holy Spirit will come, as it has come into the midst of God’s people again and again and continuously.  The Holy Spirit will come, as the Spirit comes into all our in-between times, to enlighten, equip, and draw us forward in courage and hope.  
And so with those apostles we pray:  “Lord, you know everyone’s heart.  Show us which one of these … you have chosen to take the share in this ministry and apostleship.”

Amen!  Come, Holy Spirit!

[i] M.J. Duffy, ed.; The Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts 1784-1984: A Mission to Remember, Proclaim and Fulfill (Boston: The Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts, 1984), p. 1.

[ii] Ibid, p. 2

[iii] Ibid, p. 3.