Deacon Dani Gabriel
February 14th, 2020
St. Alban’s Albany
Sometimes something has to be transfigured before we can see it as it truly is. Sometimes, we need an announcement and a heavenly voice. Sometimes this happens, unexpectedly, when you’re not prepared. Peter and James and John were clearly not prepared, as Peter bumbles with his suggestions. I was not prepared, either, as I approached St. Alban’s.
I approached St. Alban’s in the middle of the pandemic and the building was the same. Same church it has always been, with beautiful windows and the labyrinth I’ve traced many times. But I saw it clearly in the sunshine for what it really is: a building. Not the church at all. I’ve always said, I’m going up to THE church, or I was at THE church, as though the church could be held in the building.
But the pandemic has made this as dazzlingly obvious as Jesus’ garments: the church has nothing to do with the building. Our buildings offer solace and a place to worship, mourn, and celebrate. They are sanctuaries where we find rest and renewal. Yet they are not the church.
In this past 11 months I have seen church overflowing the buildings. I have seen church on Zoom and on Facebook and in the streets. Church cannot be contained. It’s alive. It’s where we are. It’s where Jesus is: everywhere.
And I was more than startled. I had not actually experienced the truth of this, at least not so deeply, so viscerally, until now. Like the disciples, maybe, up the mountain. The St. Alban’s buildings are not THE church as I called them, anymore than any other buildings. You are the church, every day, reaching out to one another, praying for one another, loving your neighbors, serving those who are struggling. And that is cause, even in this challenging time, for great joy.
Now we have to decide what that means in the future. How will we use our buildings? How will we remember what we have learned on this mountain? I’ve been writing about these ideas for a while, and this poem, which I shared with you in my first sermon as deacon at St. Alban’s has new meaning now as I share it now in my last sermon at St. Alban’s:
is depending on two dollars
and a bummed cigarette.
he’s sunburnt, skin cracked open,
oily hair and a bleached t shirt.
he’s not bothering to smile anymore,
he’s ditched his sign by the lamp post.
the lord has nothing to say.
there is a direct line to heaven today
for the first person
who pulls over, opens the window,
and passes him a twenty.
or a bottle, or a joint, or hell
just a hand.
in the coal red afternoon
cars streak hot breath on my cheek
as i say
hey, how’s it going?
and he nods.
the world reorients itself
i hadn’t noticed it but
god is all over the city today,
she’s tracking up and down the BART train
asking for change,
she’s crying in the bathroom, waiting
for someone to notice she’s not ok,
he’s up against the side of the building
in pajamas and handcuffs.
the kingdom of god
is a dirty sidewalk full of needles
and the drug sick angels
lurching at the entrance of the bar
are his messengers.
my god was sleeping in front of the spired church
on that manicured corner
and now he’s smoking weed in the courtyard
while the faithful prepare bulletins
and light candles.
he’s coming in.
Friends, it’s easy to mistake the buildings for the church. There will be a lot of choices to make as the buildings reopen and church begins to look more like what it used to be. Don’t forget who you truly are.