Last Epiphany

Last Epiphany

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:


jesus christ
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.
careful friends
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.

Epiphany 5

Epiphany 5

Christine Staples

Feb. 8, 2020


Mark 1:29-39

After Jesus and his disciples left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him. In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.

I’d like to offer thanks to Steve Hitchcock for inviting me to offer a reflection on scripture to share with all of you, my beloved faith community, and for his suggestions for judicious prunings. I have so enjoyed hearing the reflections from each of you who have shared so far; one of the things I’ve appreciated is the little description of the journey each of you took as you reflected on the scripture. Therefore, I’d like to lead with a brief overview of the different pathways I could have taken today: this piece of scripture is brief, but it contains multitudes!

Firstly: I’m picturing Jesus and James and John, after a long day at the synagogue, going to Simon and Andrew’s house. They are probably expecting a nice meal and a comfortable rest – but Simon’s mother-in-law is sick in bed – Jesus has to heal her. And she gets right up out of bed to make them some supper. Well, there’s an interesting pathway….

Then, there’s the matter of miracles. I’m willing to venture a guess that each of us has experienced many miracles, small and large in our lifetimes. I can immediately think of a few in my life: a large one – giving birth to our amazing daughter at the age of 39 and 11/12ths. And small: our dear, late kitty, Bean; a tiny cream tabby kitten, walking out of an empty welding shop parking lot in the dark and cold of a January night, coming right up to us and introducing herself, just at the exact moment I was expressing my profound need of a cat of our own.

There’s also Jesus’ relationship to performing miracles: he’s performing them all day, every day. He’s so exhausted from performing miracles that he leaves Simon and Andrew’s home in the middle of the night, and heads out alone into a deserted place to pray, and still his followers track him down and say “hey, man, everyone has been looking for you!” How exhausting this must be.

Any of these aspects of the reading could absolutely yield an interesting reflection. But the thing which really stood out for me, which really caught my attention was this: Demons. All day, every day, mixed in with the healings, Jesus is casting out demons. And most strikingly for me: when he casts them out, he silences them, because they know him.

The first question I have to ask is: what, or who, is a demon? The classic depiction we have of demons is of a fanged, clawed, snarling, monster. But I don’t think this is the type of demon we’re talking about here. And of course, there’s the vision we have of “possession” from films like “The Exorcist.” That doesn’t seem to fit, either. For one thing, Mark tells this story with such a simple narrative style; it’s like reading an ancestor’s diary you find in the attic: “Cold today. I made bread. John went into town to sell some hay.” Only in this case, it’s “Jesus spent the day healing people and casting out demons. Then we walked to the next town, and he did it again.” I think even Mark would have mentioned it if the demon was really interesting looking or behaving. There are also what we call “personal” demons; which include anything from being endlessly haunted by something unkind or unwise we did fifty years ago, to trauma from our past, to addiction. And there’s psychosis. But again, none of these things really fit.

…“he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him” – What type of demon is so common that Jesus is casting them out day and night, and that KNOW THE LORD? And why does Jesus seek to silence them?

Last week in church we received a clue in another reading from Mark; the reading immediately precedes this week’s verses: Jesus and his disciples are in Capernaum; they go to the synagogue on the Sabbath, where Jesus proceeds to teach. And there is a man in the temple who is said to have an “unclean spirit”. The man cries out: “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” And Jesus rebukes him, and says “Be silent and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him.”

How interesting! Once again, the “unclean spirit” knows Jesus – it REALLY knows Jesus –  it calls him the “Holy One of God”. Even the disciples don’t “know” him in this way until after his death! This demon knows for sure who Jesus is – and it is afraid that in his role as the Holy One of God that He has come to destroy them.

Truth to tell, it didn’t take long for the demons to reveal themselves to me; I just started thinking about current events: people attempting to violently overthrow our government, murder our leaders, and assault police officers using flags emblazoned with Jesus’ name as weapons. Church leaders vilifying anyone who upheld the election results. Fundraisers for Kyle Rittenhouse on a so-called “Christian” online fundraising platform. Politicians deliberately separating immigrant families at the border and imprisoning them.

My fellow travelers, this is what I think: if a demon is someone who knows who Christ is, knows what Christ’s message is, and must be silenced from speaking His name, I think that it’s because the demon is using Jesus’ name for profane reasons,  to pervert others. The demon is afraid that its old ways, its old powers are about to be destroyed: white supremacy, homophobia and misogyny are “old powers” which spring to mind right away.

How do we know a demon when we see one?

Those of you who have been worshipping with me for the last couple of years will probably not be too surprised to hear that I often think in musical terms. I’d like to sing you a verse from a hymn I learned in my youth at my home church; it was written in the 60’s by a Catholic priest, and it’s based on the Book of John – I imagine many of you know it, even though it is, sadly, not in our hymnal:

We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord

We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord

And we pray that all unity will one day be restored

And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love

Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love

If someone is talking about having a mandate from God or Jesus, or carrying a flag or sporting a t-shirt, hat, or bumper sticker with God or Jesus on it, but the content of their speech, or their behavior is not loving – if it’s not inclusive, if it’s hateful, if it promotes racism, homophobia, misogyny or prejudice – there’s a demon talking.

Of course, if we call out a demon, the demon isn’t going to go “ha, ha! You got me!” and slink away. No, the demon will likely turn straight around and try to gaslight you – these demons are wily! A common tactic would be a raging accusation that YOU are actually the demon! When the Christian activist network Faithful America called out Franklin Graham recently for his un-Christian behavior, their inboxes were flooded with messages like “your whole organization, every person involved is an evil anti-Christ deceiving lying forked tongue devilish mockery to God.”

Another response might seem calm and almost reasonable, but not feel quite right: demands that people who were almost murdered should just “get over it” and move on. Or victim-blaming: that people who peacefully call out wrong-doing are actually to blame for inciting violence against themselves. The insistence that victims should forgive unrepentant evil-doers. Or people telling us that it’s just not Christian to seek accountability. Here’s an example; my cousin’s husband Rick is a retired UCC minister. A couple of weeks ago, he posted on Facebook that Donald Trump should be impeached, that there would be no unity without accountability. One of Rick’s former congregants responded “let us keep in mind, pastor, God is love. It’s upon religious leaders to bring us together, worship one god, believe in salvation, forgive and, above all, pray. Just saying.”

Does “loving our neighbor” mean we shouldn’t call out evil?

Okay, here’s my next hymn, based on the Book of Deuteronomy – this one is sung as a round; maybe we can sing this one together in person someday:

What does the Lord require of you, what does the Lord require of you?

To seek justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with your God

Justice, Kindness, walk humbly with your God.

As we travel through our days, let us seek justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God. Amen.

January 24th, 2021

The Rev. Dani Gabriel

January 24th, 2021

St. Alban’s, Albany


“As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him.”

When I read this story, I imagine myself as Simon or Andrew. I imagine dramatically dropping my nets and following Jesus and becoming a fisher of people, spreading the good news far and wide. This is always how I put myself into the story. I think this is true of a lot of us: we imagine ourselves the protagonists. We’d always be loyal disciples, never Judas. We’d be the ones listening and bravely acting. We’d learn the lessons well and carry the message far and wide. And yet this is not how it happened to me.

I had just about given up. On the church, on the future, on Jesus, on everything. We were deep into the pandemic. Gone were the early days of baking and art projects with the kids, gone were the days of intensely planning our first online services. There was no more adrenaline rush, just the daily trudge through Zoom calls and occasional outings with a mask and hand sanitizer. I wasn’t feeling the spirit. Not in the almost vacant church on Sunday, and not in the rest of my life either. I was feeling empty and tired. I was going through the motions of prayer and piety because I had made a commitment, and am very stubborn. But inspiration was long gone, gone the way of dinner parties and in person school.

One day I was out with a couple of members of All Souls delivering sandwiches from All Souls’ and St. Alban’s Project Sandwich to a local encampment of unhoused folks. This group of people was living mostly in run down RVs, with no running water or cooking facilities. The street was desolate, mostly empty warehouses. They were extremely isolated, and extremely grateful. I asked “How else can we support you?” and was stunned by the emphatic answer: Prayer. Here we were on the side of the road, and I felt very much that I was in church. More than I had in a long time. I was not expecting his answer and it broke through the numbness I’d been feeling. We could be in solidarity with our friends through prayer, we could be activists through prayer. I had, in fact, been forgetting to pray very much. The reminder helped me return to the core of my faith and reframe my work. I started to see evidence of the Spirit, moving at the edges of things, still there.

I’ve been thinking and praying a lot since that day. I was not out there fishing for people, spreading the good news, as I have always imagined. No. I was the one who was caught. I was totally unsuspecting that day, as I wandered into the net. I imagined I knew what I was doing and where I was going. As usual I thought I had something to give when really I had something to learn.

I think a lot about my friend in the camp and how he appreciated the sandwich but really wanted the prayer. I think a lot about what it really means to follow Jesus, and how sometimes the road doesn’t lead where we think it’s going. We are in these gospel stories, for sure, but we’re not always the characters we imagine ourselves to be. Sometimes we’re caught, unsuspecting, on the side of the road.


EPIPHANY 2 Reflection

EPIPHANY 2 Reflection

Margaret Doleman

John 1:43-51
“Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.”

When I first looked at this story, my first thought was, what is going on here? Truthfully, that’s often my first thought when I look at a passage of scripture. In this case, I got a little sidetracked, wondering about the significance of the fig tree. But I soon realized that for me, that didn’t really matter. It was probably a clue for John’s contemporaries, but I – we – already know enough about Jesus to know that when he says he sees someone, he really does see them. Sees them as God sees them – us. In all our beauty and uniqueness and potential, as well as all our flaws and failures, and all the things that hold us back from becoming all that we could be. Our history, our wounds, our prejudices.

So, Jesus must also know about Nathaneal’s feelings about Nazareth. After all, just before Jesus walked up to him, Nathaneal said to Philip, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” As the story is told, we might even imagine that Jesus overheard that. But he does not say, here is truly an Israelite in whom there is a lot of prejudice! Or, in whom there is no deceit, but a lot of prejudice. Or even, you have a lot of potential, Nathaneal, but you really need to work on your preconceived ideas of who’s worthy. He wants Nathaneal to join him, to do great things, so why bring up his weaknesses? Nathaneal is so impressed that he seems to forget his prejudice against Nazareth immediately. But we’ve seen this little glimpse of weakness in Nathanael.

We see it in all the disciples. They have to have everything spelled out for them, they argue about who is going to sit at Jesus’s right hand, they doubt his promises. And don’t even let me get started on Simon Peter.

But Jesus calls them, and he keeps them. With all their faults, they’re good enough for Jesus. And so are we. I know this isn’t an original thought, but , at least for me, it’s something of which I need to remind myself, frequently. God loves us, even knowing all the things about us that we don’t want anyone to know.

So, let’s talk about calling – or, if you prefer, inspiration. That’s what I see going on in this passage. One of my favorite Christmas movies is The Bishop’s Wife. It’s an old one (1947), about a bishop who prays for guidance, and suddenly, an angel named Dudley (played by Cary Grant) appears in his study. Everywhere Dudley goes, good things happen. Disasters are averted, people suddenly feel better, chores are accomplished with incredible speed. But the only person in the story who knows that Dudley is an angel is the bishop, who is also the only one who isn’t especially charmed by him. Anyway, there’s a scene in which Dudley and the bishop’s wife pay a visit to an elderly professor, who’s been telling everyone for years that he’s writing a new history of ancient Rome. But the professor confesses to Dudley that he hasn’t actually been able to write a word, because he really doesn’t believe he has anything new to say. Dudley makes a few suggestions, and assures the professor that he’ll have enough time left to finish his book. The next time the professor sees the bishop, he says he’s making amazing progress on the book. And in the end, even the bishop, in spite of his skepticism, gets the guidance he needs.

Unfortunately, I don’t think that Cary Grant is going to appear in my kitchen, offering encouragement. Nor do I think that Jesus is going to walk up to me on Solano Avenue and tell me who I am, or who I could be. Unfortunately, because the angel in the fantasy story, and Jesus, in all the gospel stories, has such charisma, such authority, that people instinctively believe what they say. Whereas, sometimes we don’t trust the encouragement of ordinary people. We think, you’re just saying that to make me feel better. But I do think that we do get the message, sometimes. An inner voice responds to an opportunity, saying, you can do this.
A loved one, a friend, a teacher, a supervisor asks us to do something that’s outside our comfort zone, and that person’s belief in us inspires us. When I think of the times I’ve surprised myself (in a good way), it usually started with something like that.

17 or 18 years ago, at an annual parish meeting, Virginia Schroeder said that the altar guild at St. Alban’s needed more members Now, ironing, polishing, and setting things up precisely have never been my best skills. The very mention of Martha Stewart makes me want to be somewhere else. But I heard a call that day, for whatever reason, and I’ve never regretted it. I’ve made plenty of mistakes, including a couple of really embarrassing ones, but nothing burned down, and now I have compelling evidence for new recruits that they don’t have to be perfect.

And I, and probably many of you, can remember moments in our children’s lives when a teacher or coach brought something out of them that we, as parents, couldn’t have imagined was possible.

When have you felt inspired to do something different? What was it like? Did someone else encourage you, or did you “just know”? How did it work out?

What might any of us be called to right now? How can we listen for that inspiration? Have we ever been that voice for someone else? Might we still be?

The story ends with a promise from Jesus: “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” Answer the call, act on the inspiration, and who knows what might happen?


Reflection for Christmas 1

Reflection for Christmas 1, December 27, 2020

Lawrence DiCostanzo

Isaiah 61:10 – 62:3

Galatians 3:23-25 and 4:5-7

John 1:1-18


Before we consider today’s readings, I would like to mention that tomorrow, December 28, is the Feast of the Holy Innocents.  You will recall these young victims of King Herod’s fear.  There were probably not many of them.  But lately the news has reminded me that Holy Innocents are still with us.  I am speaking in particular of sex trafficking in children and their slavery.  There are apparently many of them.  We don’t hear about them much because I think that a lot of films that support the trafficking appear on the so-called dark web.  I am not quite sure what that is, but the papers have also been talking about the posting of pornographic videos of minors on at least one site that is on the open web. I’m not sure if that’s true or is media hype.  As far as I know, the facts are not all in.  Nonetheless, please keep these kids in your prayers tomorrow and beyond.

And now for today’s Gospel passage.

Well, I have been on a really complicated journey to find a way to describe how uncomplicated the introduction to John’s Gospel is.  And I find that I keep circling back to my father.

My father’s name was John.  He was born in the United States in 1911.  But he was raised in Italy from infancy.  At age 14, he was sent back to the United States alone.  I really don’t know why.  What I do know is that despite the lack of education, despite the Great Depression, despite living between two cultures, my father modeled for me every virtue that God gave to Adam.  If God created us in his image, to live in peace and to tend the Garden of Eden, my father was the exemplar.

He worked hard and he loved my mother.  He was a great cook who loved to make large meals for large groups.  He made wine.  He painted the house every five years in the summer while drinking watered down Budweiser.  He created and cared for an enormous garden with lawns, an English border, trees, and, of course, a large vegetable garden filled with tomato plants, basil and parsley.

He could look at a pile of junk or an old oil barrel and conjure up something like a sturdy  three-legged table which we used for  years.  Or a huge barbeque which my mother demanded he hide behind the hickory saplings in the corner of the yard.

From his youthful forays into an amateur Italian theater society, he possessed a large store of Italian songs and stage routines.  And when he recited to the family, he’d make people choke with laughter or wipe some tears.  So, he had respect for the power of language.

I am “flesh of his flesh.”  Flesh of his flesh.  This is a figure of speech that signifies the unspeakable closeness between persons who are parents and children and grandchildren.  It is one of those combinations of thinking and language that I classify under the heading “metaphor.”  In today’s Gospel, John does not use that expression.  He uses the term Word to explain or describe what is almost the same thing.  He creates in our minds an image that describes an intimate connection or an identity between God and the earthly Jesus who walked among us – something that John desperately wanted to do.

In John’s mind, “Word” is the correct, respectful and powerful image.  He uses it to describe in a more exalted way what we feel when we say “flesh of my flesh.”

Why did John use Word as his figure of speech?  A word, like our thoughts, belongs to us like nothing else.  Our words come out of our mouths through the combination of thought and breath and tongue and lips.  In John’s age, when even philosophers didn’t know the particulars of sound waves, a word would have been a thing in itself that was totally connected to me and then was launched into the world where it would take effect when it struck another person’s ears.  It also has a kind of identity of its own.

In today’s Gospel, John harks back to the Creation story in the book of Genesis where God spoke a Word or a few words and light came to be.  “And God said, Let there be light.”  John is saying that God’s speech describes how he creates.  But what he is really saying is that the person who became Jesus is part of God like the breath is part of me.

So, why does John write this passage with a figure of speech or a metaphor or the inexact exactitude of poetry?  Why can’t he be direct?  I think John is trying out four things.

First, it’s the only way he has to describe his intuitive sense of who or what Jesus is.  Saying that Jesus is the Word not only puts Jesus at the moment of Creation when God spoke words Let there be Light.  It puts Jesus in God’s own mouth, makes him part of God’s own breath.  This is a really excellent description of the Trinity.

Second, John really wants to exalt the man Jesus.  He wants to make a connection between  a man who was crucified and the very God whom Isaiah saw in his vision of the Holy of Holies from which, by the way, we derive the Sanctus acclamation “Holy, Holy, Holy” which we sing at the Communion service.

Third, he really, really wants to show the magnitude of God’s love.  If John the Evangelist is also the author of the first letter of John in the NT, he is the man who wrote “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us.”  That is a remarkable and wonderful statement.  And the proof of God’s love is that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.  In today’s second reading, Paul picks up on this and makes its consequences more explicit.  “God sent his Son, born of a woman, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, Abba! Father!”  It seems we come back to the idea of Flesh of my flesh.

Fourth. John wants us to get down to the “doing” part.  John writes about love all the time.  He encourages us to love each other.  And, today, as never before, we can actually see so many of these “others” — on the internet, on TV, in newspapers, on Zoom, FaceTime, and WhatsApp, through email, chat, and all those modern things that keep us together in these times of separation.

And Loving is EASY.  We love ourselves and want to improve, including our facing the complicated feelings that we are not loved or are not worthy of love.  We love our families.  We love our family members who have died.  We love creation.  We give to environmental groups.  We can even join Gleaners who pick up backyard fruit and unharvested food and so forth to give away directly or to food banks.  You can check this  out on Google.  We study and discuss our faith in Sacred Ground to see how we can be better children of God along with others.  We make sandwiches.  We volunteer for Ashby Village.  We do the shopping for the house bound. There are a million different ways.

And we are not being asked to change the world.  As Bishop Marc said to us at Saint Alban’s two weeks ago when he visited: changing the world is God’s work.  We are only being asked to love.

Fourth Sunday of Advent

Reflection – 12/20/20[i]

Barbara Metcalf


We come to the last Sunday of Advent and we welcome the Annunciation as our gospel lesson, the precious words that Mary hears from the angel, and to which, perplexed as she is, she assents. We cherish Mary’s words at the Annunciation. She is our model in obedient behavior,

“Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

By that assent, she will become our model in being, not just in obedient behavior, because she will physically embody the Christ, the Incarnation, the radiant symbol of who we are, who all humanity is.

Part of the pleasure of this season is the familiarity of words like these – of all our holiday traditions, and, for many of us, the very words of our lessons in this season, heard over and over.

In just a few days, it should be close to midnight and we are all assembled, the tree put up by Chuck and lights arranged by Susan, the glowing candles clamped in place after Sean’s repairs, the creche before the altar filled with mis-sized animals by the children at 4, and Richard playing the organ as we reach the last verse of Phillips Brooks’s beloved carol:

“O Holy Child of Bethlehem….be born in us today.”

This is a special time. But this year is a time when even time, as so many people have commented, seems suspended — or maybe moves too quickly — unmarked by familiar routines. This is Covid-Time. And the seasons are off.  Camellia bushes are already blooming in our neighborhood. Covid-Time and Global-Warming Time. But disjointed as time is, limited above all in the gatherings of friends and church and family — since we of course won’t be singing together close to midnight on Thursday — we gratefully embrace the prayers and readings of the Advent cycle. Their very repetition is an anchor in reality.

So, what to my wandering eyes should appear but today’s Old Testament lesson, which I have no memory of ever seeing before. Where did that come from? Why not more verses from Isaiah, so familiar that we hear Handel’s music playing in our head?? Why are we reading about the Ark? But reading to the end of the passage, we find our anchor:  God’s promise to David that he will preserve his lineage forever. That certainly puts us back on familiar Christmas ground: the resonant phrase, “of the house and lineage of David.” And that is familiar ground because it means that the Israelites will have, as the passage says, “their own place, and be disturbed no more; and evildoers shall afflict them no more.” This is the promise we have circled back to again and again in Advent.

We have that promise in the Magnificat that we have repeated every week and again just now:

the promise of God’s faithfulness, that however dark the challenges of the moment, the

humble will be lifted up, the lowly exalted — and all will be restored. As Bishop Marc told us last week: We trust a God who loves us and will do the work of restoration, as of a garden that will grow and flower and yield fruit.

But what about all the rest of the Old Testament passage, all that about the Ark and the tent?

I’ve never thought much about the Ark of the Covenant except in a general way. That it contained the stone tablets of the ten commandments and was a potent presence, carried as the Israelites journeyed and as they went into battle.

But though I was initially puzzled by it, I actually think the discussion of the Ark is perfectly on target for today.

Last year when I went to Ethiopia, I was fascinated by the extent to which Orthodox traditions make the symbols of the Hebrew scriptures central in a way that I had never encountered them before. And of those symbols, none matters more than the Ark. Ethiopians believe themselves to be the possessors of the actual Ark, brought back to Ethiopia by the son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, preserved at the high altar of the Church of St Mary of Zion in the ancient city of Axum. And it’s not just that Ark. In Ethiopia, a church cannot be a church unless it contains a replica of the Ark, there too kept in the seclusion of the high altar. Every church, large or small. The Eucharist and the Ark together at the high altar.

But there’s more. In Ethiopia, Epiphany is celebrated as Christ’s baptism. We of course also link the baptism to the Christmas cycle, for us on the first Sunday after Epiphany. But in Ethiopia the conjuncture brings an extraordinary two-day celebration. The celebration entails not only exuberant immersions but processions of all those precious rarely-seen Arks from each parish’s church.

The Ark, which seems to hold God’s power, and the Epiphany Baptism, the public revelation of Jesus’ divinity, are each a powerful sign of the intersection of a transcendent God with the mundane – with us. Once we have encountered the combination, it makes sense. Each enriches the other.

As for the tent, the passage in Isaiah tells us something very important, which could not be more timely. David is troubled that “the ark of God stays in [something as flimsy as] a tent.” He says this is not right; the Ark needs a permanent place.  The prophet Nathan seems to concur. But God tells Nathan that he must stop David. God says in so many words, “I have been moving all over the place, in a tent.  I never asked David, or any of the other leaders of Israel, to build me a house of cedar. Forget it.” And this is another way of telling us that God is not limited to one place. God does not want David to build a house; God instead will give David peace where his lineage will last forever. It is that promise that is sung out in the glorious, exuberant words of today’s Psalm in praise of God’s faithfulness, God’s righteousness and justice, God’s steadfast love, and the promise of David’s eternal lineage.

To be sure, in due course, Solomon, David’s son, will build a temple. To be sure, we have our church buildings. But, as we know this year, as we have perhaps never known before, we don’t need them to know God to be present. It is uncanny to be reminded of this on what is usually a day when the building matters, when in a normal year in a few minutes we would be joyously “greening” (to use the old-fashioned word) the church for Christmas, planning for the luminarias to light the path in.

The novelist Marilynne Robinson apparently likes to quote her brother that “God is a sphere whose center is everywhere but whose circumference is nowhere.” Maybe God put off David’s wish to build a temple because of his shady past. But maybe God put him off to make clear that God had no circumference, that God was not tied down to one place more than any other.

The Bridegroom is not tied down. We need to stay awake, we were reminded a few weeks back, to be ready when the Bridegroom comes. But we also need to be awake because the Bridegroom appears in unexpected places. That too we’ve been reminded of this season – the Bridegroom is the one who is hungry and needs to be fed, or sick and needs to be tended, or unhoused and needs sandwiches and kindness – and shelter – or cruelly imprisoned and needs to be visited, even freed. And the Bridegroom is far too easy to miss.

We, like Mary, need to hear the angels who are all around us, not least when we meet like this and read scripture and sing with YouTube and pray for each other and the needs of the world. We need to aspire to Mary’s answer to the angel that all be “according to your word.”  The Bridegroom is always there, and we know his presence when we give and when we receive love and generosity, the human communion that is Divine.

Whether in our familiar, beloved, “greened” Christmas Eve setting or not: That is what we pray for in this season:

“Oh Holy Child of Bethlehem…be born in us today.”


[i] Thank you to Stephen Hitchcock for his good thoughts as I drafted these comments.

Second Advent

Reflection for December 6, 2020 (Second Advent) – Chanthip Phongkhamsavath

Isaiah 40: 1-5, 2 Peter 3:8-15, Mark 1:1-8

Happy Second Sunday of Advent!

I am reminded every year during Advent about the symbolism of each of the candles on the wreath, because truthfully, I forget. I may forget what each candle represents, yet they are all mixed together for me during this season – hope, love, joy, and peace.

This is also that point in the year when the church calendar is beginning again and there is a renewed sense of hope and anticipation.  Yet at the same time it is the end of the calendar year and for us the shortening of daylight hours until the Winter Solstice and Christmas shortly after.  It can seem like a bleak time with the longer nights, yet those longer nights do allow for one of my favorite things, which is lighting the Christmas tree and watching the reflections and bouncing light.  When I was younger it felt like Christmas couldn’t come soon enough and now it feels like Christmas comes too quickly.  Regardless, the anticipation is still there, knowing that Christmas morning is coming and with that the celebration of our Lord’s birth.  And the hope that we will be in the Lord’s presence again.

Peter tells us, “that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.” Time is a tricky thing. It is constant, yet our experiences of it differs.  There are the same number of days in December when I was ten as there are now, yet somehow the days, minutes, and seconds feel different.  And I don’t know if you have had those moments where it really felt like time was standing still – when everything seems to move in slow motion like in a movie – yet it is not a movie but rather a rare moment that makes an imprint into our memories.  For me it can be that split second before a fall or that moment of pure joy.  It is believable based on those memories that time could be different in the presence of the Lord. That time though has not yet come.

In the meantime, it feels like the perpetual wait. In any given year there is always room for good news during Advent, this year in particular – when the days and months seem to bleed together into one long moment of waiting to exhale – I think we all need good news just a little bit more.  As we brace ourselves for a winter that may seem particularly lonesome – with our public health officials tightening their restrictions and fatigue mounting – we are asked to be even more patient, to wait and anticipate good news.

Although not in the same way, I do this every year.  One of the reasons I love Advent and this season is that anticipation, those moments to stop and hope that the good news of the season will last a little longer.  It is the time of the year when the emphasis on kindness and giving is a little more present.  It is a little reprieve from seeking bad news and there is a renewed focus on good news.  The things from helping to feed our neighbors to ensuring children everywhere have a gift on Christmas morning takes more of a forefront.  And for this season, I am encouraged by the goodwill and I look forward to it every year. And each year I hope the good news of Christ’s birth is felt more, even as its message seems to diminish in the broader social context.

Despite the longer nights and what seems like darker times, we know the good news of the season is coming.  The reading from Mark leads off right away with, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” And John the Baptist was an active messenger, not only proclaiming the good news however leading the way with “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin.”  John knew that Christ would baptize with the Holy Spirit and laid a foundation with the baptism of repentance for something more.  For until we are able to repent, are we able to be forgiven? John knew the good news was coming and actively waited and acted all at the same time.  I wonder if he knew that it would happen in his lifetime or if it even mattered, because it did not stop him.

And although we wait to be in the presence of the Lord again, the reading from Peter asks, “what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God…”

For the past nine months we have waited for a solution for COVID-19 and we hope we are close to the good news that we have been waiting for.  In the meantime, I have tried, although I have also failed, to do everything I can to help slow the spread – I have tried to limit my interactions yet I know my bubble is bigger than it should be.  That does not mean that I give up, it just means it takes that extra reminder of why I should slow down, why it is important to keep trying.  For COVID we have the public health departments all over trying to be messengers of goodwill, telling us the things we ought to do even though they know that not everyone will listen – yet they continue with their messages knowing that eventually they will be able to give us good news, even though they may not know when. So in the meantime, I try my best to heed the reminders and try to do my part as we wait for that good news.

The messengers of God’s good news have done the same, they have stories and teachings to remind us, despite knowing not everyone will listen all the time, that there is good news and it begins with Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  We have calendars and cycles that remind us each advent that good news is coming.  Advent is one point in the liturgical calendar however it definitely does not mean it is the only time that we look for hope, love, joy and peace. It is not the only time we are waiting – we have always been waiting – yet that waiting does not mean we are inactive – it is anything but that.

So, this Advent season, as I look at my tree and realize it will be the second year that I will miss Christmas Eve service in St. Alban’s sanctuary, I continue to hope that the good news of Christ’s birth will be heard.  And I will continue to strive to be a messenger of that good news as well.  To live a life of compassion and be an example of goodwill, to take advantage of the time, however slow or quickly it moves that I have.  And I know that despite not seeing everyone in person you are active as well, in your prayers for our friends, in collecting socks and other items for the shower program, in all the sandwiches that were made as we adapted to our current situation.

During Advent, this season of anticipation, we continue to live our lives in active goodwill.  And although we do not know when we will be in the Lord’s presence again, we will continue to strive to do the best we can as we repent and are forgiven, because that is the good news we already know.  So let us be reminded again as often as we need to be, whether during Advent, or throughout the year, that the beginning of the good news starts with God and Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  Let us also share that good news, because although Christ was born and died for us, there is still more to come.


First Advent

Reflection for November 29, 2020 (First Advent) – Lawrence DiCostanzo

Isaiah 64:1-9, First Corinthians 1:3-9, Mark 13:24-37

Happy Advent!

I’d like to start with a couple of bicycling stories.

If you’ve ever driven up Mount Diablo, you know that the last eighth mile to the small parking lot at the very top is a 16 per cent grade.  Ascending this hill on a bicycle is painful.  The legs are hurting from standing on the pedals.  Breathing is a burning gasp after gasp.  Let us not even think about my heart rate.  But then I burst onto the top in triumph.  I have got the Gold.

This climb is my dream of how I enter into heaven.  I am climbing and panting, and everyone who has ever loved me is at the top and shouting, “Come on, Larry!  Come on!”  Of course, my mother is shouting, “Come on, Lawrence!  Come on!”  The climb and not the arrival is the dream.

This week I took another ride,– from Orinda to Danville and back by way of  Alamo, Walnut Creek, Lafayette, and Moraga.  As you know, these are the deep suburbs.  Actually, I love the suburbs.  The sky was dark blue, and the trees were an incredible range of red and orange.  The suburbs were wrapped in glory, burning with a smokeless fire.  And the air was fresh and cool.

And, as I frequently do, I said out loud to myself and to my ever tolerant riding companions,  “How can I leave all this behind?”  But, as often has happened in the past few years, in the twinkling of an eye, I thought to myself,  “You will never leave this behind.  God knows you well, and the new creation will be like this.  There will be bike riding there.”  Beautiful.

Perhaps you can tell by now that I am a romantic.  And so I came to Advent thinking it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.  And I’m singing, “Look at the five-and-ten/glistening once again/with silver lanes and candy canes aglow.”   And, then, Jesus comes up on my blind side and punches me in the face.  He says, “After that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.”  That demolishes my Christmas dreams and hits at my cycling romance.

Jesus’ prophecy is about something that we do not think about very much.  Perhaps, we do not like to think about it very much as it seems so distant and fantastical compared to our daily lives.  But it is something that was very much on the mind of the early church.  The prophecy is about the end of time, and maybe we should think about this more.  For one thing, Mark records this prophecy as Jesus’ own words.  For another, he puts this passage in as part of Jesus’ last teaching before his passion and death.  And last, we are involved.

Advent is the beginning of the liturgical year.  It is about the Incarnation, the coming of God to us and of his presence with us in Jesus.  But we actually live in the middle of the year.  Our dwelling place is really in the green season of Pentecost.  Living in this middle ground, we memorialize the Incarnation, we meditate on it and we reenact it.  But we are actually in history looking back on it.  Of course, it is really important as the gateway to the good news.  But, in history, it has already happened.

But Advent includes a deep reminder of something that is still to happen in our future.  This is the end of time, the second coming of Jesus, the new creation.   What Jesus is saying in today’s Gospel is that we had better consider the Omega moment which has not happened yet in history.

Jesus says this very carefully.  He says you don’t know when this moment will come.  He says:  Pay attention, keep it in mind.  The leafing of the fig tree signals that summer is near.  Keep watch over your master’s house while he’s away.  Be a good doorkeeper.  You don’t know exactly when the master is coming back.  And on November 8, in the Gospel from Matthew, we were told to be good bridesmaids with plenty of lamp oil.

But we don’t know exactly what we are waiting for.  As to what will actually happen, Jesus says that the sun and the moon will be darkened, the stars will fall from heaven, the Son of Man will be manifest in power and glory, and the elect will be gathered up.

This seems very scary.  And the fear is enhanced by the many images of the Last Judgment in our complex and marvelous western culture.  But I think I can say that, if Jesus is telling us this will happen, it has to be good.  Because God is love, and we at Saint Alban’s know this because we know love.  1 John 4-8.  And God’s love for his people is so consistent that it appears in the Bible when, for the first time, God actually explains what he is like. “And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.”  Exodus 34:6 and 7.

Jesus is using metaphorical language, the standard language of the prophets.  What does it mean?  I think that, if the sun is darkened and the stars are falling, God must be taking raw materials and remaking creation.  This is good,  And I say “Awesome.”  Or it’s like in Psalm 29 when there’s a terrific storm and all the people in the temple say “Glory!”

The real issue for us people in the green season is what do we do in the meantime?  I think that Jesus’ advice about keeping your eyes open, keeping watch, is actually the most important thing for us in this passage.  God has got the rest planned without consultation.  Here are three ways to keep watch.

First, live in hope.  Sometimes I think that Paul was wrong and that he should have said, “These three abide, faith, hope, and love, and the greatest of these is hope.”  Hope gives a kind of steadfastness and expectation and joy.  It is the friend of imagination.  It’s as if hope is a fresh breeze during a hot night.  Or it’s the endurance of a cyclist.  Or it’s the endurance of a cancer patient.  Hope gives us the intimations of a good future.  I think that hope is God’s own love for us that he sends into our hearts.

Second, I think that sometimes we are given the blessing of living in the Omega moment in our hearts and our imaginations.  I don’t really think that all the strong and consistent feelings I have when cycling are false.  When we sing a good hymn together, or when we sing “Holy, Holy, Holy” at communion, the Spirit is with us to comfort and give us happiness.  We are singing in the New Jerusalem.

Third, don’t get carried away.  I repeat that, although we celebrate Advent, we actually live in the season of Pentecost. And we have a lot to do.  Maybe we are watching for the last day simply by doing things.  Maybe this is how we keep the door of our master’s house.  In Jesus’ talk about the last days in Matthew chapters 24 and 25, he really makes us reflect on the doing.  He says:  “. . . take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.  For . . .

I was hungry and you gave me something to eat.

I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink.

I was a stranger and you invited me in.

I needed clothes and you clothed me.

I was sick and you looked after me.

I was in prison and you came to visit me.”


Matthew 25

The Rev. Dani Gabriel

November 22, 2020


“I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” —Matthew 25

Pretty simple, right?

The first time you visit someone in prison is something you never forget. When I was 19 I was a student teacher poet in the Poetry for the People program at UC Berkeley. We were all set to teach sections at Cal, classes at Berkeley High School, and classes at the Federal Women’s Prison in Dublin. I didn’t think anything of it. Of course, people need poetry in prison. Of course, I’ll go.

One evening a group of us headed to the prison for the final poetry reading from the last semester’s session. We took BART out to Dublin and then hitchhiked through the military base surrounding the prison til we met its razor wired entrance. I’ll never not know what it feels like to have the prison door click and lock shut behind me. Every time I went the doom of that moment rattled me. And that first time it was enough to rattle me the entire evening.

And there they were, these women I would get to know, with their words and their stories. They were powerful. They were survivors. And they taught me more than I taught them. They taught me what dignity is. They held such palpable dignity as they walked into the small room in ugly, dingy uniforms. They spoke of hardships I often related to, and had to ask myself, how is it that I am free to go, and they are locked down here?

“I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”

When Jesus tells us in this passage—and he’s not asking, let’s be clear—-how the righteous will be separated from the unrighteous and what we are expected to do for our siblings, he’s not just telling us to do it for the benefit of those who are hungry or in prison. He’s giving us the opportunity to encounter Him. He’s inviting us to meet him where he lives, which is with the poor, and the outcast, and those in prison. Make no mistake about it. When you commit yourself to acting in service you have just accepted an invitation from Jesus Christ himself to know and be known.

Over the months I visited the prison I got to know people’s stories. Stories of addiction, violence, and political protest. But I also got to know what they found funny, what they saw as beautiful. I learned a little about what it’s like to live in a prison surrounded by razor wire for decades or maybe the rest of your life. And it changed the course of my life, and my commitment to justice, and my commitment to serving my siblings.

“I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”

So reach for that invitation from Jesus in whatever way you can. There are ways to “visit” even without leaving your home. There are ways to connect and to affirm the dignity and divinity present in all of us. You can donate, correspond, and meet online through Episcopal organizations and others. The punishment in this passage is not the point. It’s the call to relationship, and ultimately to wholeness.

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

October 18, 2020

Exodus 33:12-23

Psalm 99

1 Thessalonians 1:1-10

MATTHEW 22:15-22

Here we are today, just over two weeks away from what may be the most momentous election in our nation’s history, and – of course – the Gospel is about money and politics.

This is also Jubilee Sunday, when we lift up the biblical tradition of the seventh year when fields are left fallow and all debts forgiven.  This year, we are observing Jubilee when the election may literally decide whether the world’s poorest countries and our own poorest citizens are granted a Jubilee of debt forgiveness – or pushed into an even deeper pit of debt.

Today’s short reading from Matthew 22 is the first of four tests or controversies faced by Jesus.  The reading follows last week’s parable of the wedding feast where all are invited.  On previous Sundays, we heard stories and parables about driving out vendors in the temple, good intentions versus good behavior, labor practices, and property rights.  All a prelude to today’s story about money and politics.

What makes today’s trick question so malicious or evil is that the Herodians (the Republicans) and the Pharisees (the liberal Democrats) were so desperate to get rid of Jesus that they collaborated to put Jesus in a no-win situation.

Jesus could say, “Pay the poll tax” – pay the required tax that conferred both the benefits and obligations of the Roman empire.  But, in the process, Jesus would betray those devout people like the Essenes and the Zealots who pledged loyalty to the God of Israel alone.

Or Jesus could refuse to pay the poll tax – and solidify his status as a dangerous radical, a revolutionary who would invite Rome to crush what little life and freedom was left in Judea and Galilee.

But like the parables we’ve experienced in the past weeks, today’s puzzle cracks open a new reality.  Jesus asks his interrogators to provide the coin, demonstrating that he doesn’t carry Roman coins.  Significantly, this coin was a denarius, a day’s wages – which for most people is what they earned and then spent to be able eat that day.

Even more significantly, the Roman coin bore the image of the Emperor and the inscription, “Caesar, son of the divine Augustus.”

Jesus acknowledges Roman authority, and he accepts that this is indeed Caesar’s coin, which the Judeans and Galileans were giving back to Caesar.  But Jesus says that this coin is all Caesar gets.  We are to give to God what is God’s.

And what is it that we give back to God?  The implication is that we give to God what bears God’s image– namely ourselves because we are created in God’s image.  Thus, Jesus challenges his interrogators – and us today – to give ourselves, our entire created being, back to God.

Of course, these words of Jesus are a judgment on the Pharisees and Herodians – and a judgment on us as well.  They – and we – want to be safe and secure in life.  We pay what is necessary to get along.  We make a deal in the hopes that political power will protect us – and maybe even provide some sense of worth and happiness.

But Matthew’s first readers knew that divided loyalties is a deal with the devil.  They would remember the story of Jesus’ temptation by Satan in the wilderness.  Even more telling, they were well aware that political accommodation in Jesus’ time led to corruption and oppression, which resulted in the utter destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans some 30 years after Jesus’ death.

For us today, it is equally deadly to live with divided loyalties, to try to buy our happiness.

Jubilee points out how the even well-intentioned use of time and money can lead to greed and corruption that enslaves others in our own country.  Predatory lending, fines that mount up, and housing costs beyond the means of most people – all cry out for Jubilee.  In developing countries, debts held by banks and other countries deprive the world’s poorest people of health care, basic education, and agricultural development.

In a real sense, the trap that the Pharisees and Herodians set for Jesus feels like a trap that God seems to have set for us.

We’re put in a situation where accommodation and divided loyalties seem the only option.  Even though we are created in God’s image, how can we possibly give ourselves completely to God?  There are so many competing demands for our time, attention, and resources.  And, to top it off, our seemingly innocent lifestyle decisions implicate us in creating a life-crushing debt burden for so many.

The good news – the source of hope and cause for joy – turns again on that word image.

In our first reading today from Exodus 33, we hear that God won’t let Moses see the face of the divine, a vision Moses hoped would confer God’s favor on him.  But God does allow Moses – while also protecting Moses – to catch a glimpse of God’s back, an image if you will of God’s goodwill.

You’ll recall that Matthew’s Gospel sifts through the expectations about the Messiah who was to come and restore Israel to greatness.  Matthew keeps linking Jesus and Moses, the great liberator and prophet.  But, for Matthew, Jesus is always more than just another Moses, and he is greater than King David.  The One who John the Baptist runs before and announces is the true Son of God – not some imposter like Caesar.

Jesus is the image of God who does give himself completely to God.  Throughout Matthew’s Gospel, we see what it means for Jesus to give himself to God– to heal the sick, welcome the outcast, and feed the hungry.  We also see that, as in today’s Gospel, this giving of oneself brings Jesus into conflict with religious and political authorities.

And this conflict ends in Jesus’ execution on the cross.  For Matthew, Jesus’ death is the way Jesus gives himself – as God’s Son – back to God.  All to redeem convicts, sinners, and hypocrites.  Including us.

For Matthew’s first readers and for us today, they knew and trusted that the crucified Jesus was also the Risen Christ.  Risen, but very much present and active among us as they gathered for the Eucharist, as they baptized others, and as they fed the hungry.

In our baptism, we are buried with Christ and raised with him, and our image gets conflated with the image of the Risen Christ.  In our baptism, we are given the wedding garment for this banquet of joy that we experience even as we gather remotely.  And, what makes this banquet so joyous, is that all are invited – including those who are burdened with debts.

This banquet – our worship together even over Zoom – is truly Jubilee, forgiveness rooted in the Sabbath, the seventh day when the God of creation rested.  God’s rest from creation is the source of our freedom from striving, our freedom from greed, our freedom from piling up goods we hope will make us happy.  An outpouring of sheer grace, this rest and freedom are available to all.

And, as we saw just a few decades ago when the nations of the world agreed to debt forgiveness, Jubilee restores society and rebuilds the community that makes all life possible.

Yes, Jubilee – in all its forms, both personal and communal – is our comfort now and our hope for the future.  Amen.