St. Alban’s has a new tree.
It is a gorgeous “October Glory” red maple and it was given in loving memory of The Rev. Gary Steber, Rector Emeritus of St. Alban’s, who entered the nearer presence of our Lord in July of 2021. A number of Father Gary’s friends and loved ones came together to make this gift, and on Friday, October 27, a small group gathered to see the tree planted and ask God’s blessing upon it. It was a perfectly clear fall day and a fitting tribute to a man who loved trees and the outdoors.
Father Gary served St. Alban’s from 1994 to 2002, the first full-time rector in St. Alban’s history. His visionary leadership and warmth of spirit ushered in a period of tremendous growth for St. Alban’s, allowing a small mission to triple its membership in just a few years and attain parish status. Towards the end of his tenure, he worked alongside the lay leadership of the parish to shepherd the process of building the nave and church facilities we now inhabit. Gary’s joy-filled ministry embodied God’s radical welcome to all.
The Gospel of John, Chapter 1, verses 35-51 tells the story of how some of the disciples were introduced to Jesus. The first two, Andrew and Simon, meet him and want to know him—who he is, where he’s staying—and Jesus responds with an invitation. He says, “Come and see!”
Come and see. It is a beautiful, welcoming invitation to be part of a community.
The next day, Philip is invited to join them. From there, Jesus’s welcoming invitation becomes contagious, because Philip then goes out and finds someone else, Nathanael, to meet Jesus. Apparently, Nathanael was hanging out under a tree when Philip approaches him and tells him that he needs to Jesus of Nazareth, because he’s the one!
At first Nathanael is a bit skeptical, but when he expresses doubt that the Messiah was going to be found in a backwater town like Nazareth, Philip echoes the very sort of open invitation Jesus had given earlier, and says, “Come and see.” So Nathanael goes and sees, and then, Jesus speaks to him with such intimacy that Nathanael suddenly understands that the one with whom he is speaking is God’s son. And Jesus promises Nathanael a share in not only his ministry, but also his resurrection.
There’s a lot going on in the story, but when you strip it down to basics, it’s just a story about a man who was standing next to a tree when Jesus came along and said, in essence, “I know you. You are going to work for me, helping to build the Kingdom of Heaven right here on earth.
And that, my friends, is also the story of Gary Steber in a nutshell.
With degrees in Forestry from Sewanee and Yale (two of the finest institutions one can attend, in my opinion) not to mention roles as a paper boy, a fighter pilot in the Air Force, a home inspector, a Scoutmaster, and employee of the U.S. Forest Service, everything changed when Jesus saw him, probably standing next to a tree and said, “Gary, I know you. You are going to work for me, helping to build the Kingdom of Heaven right here on earth.”
And so, off to Sewanee again for seminary, followed by an incredibly rich and full life as a priest, a pastor, and above all, a disciple of Jesus Christ. Gary was a disciple who welcomed, loved, encouraged, and molded countless other disciples in the parishes he served. Like Nathanael and the other disciples, Gary was a follower of Jesus who invited others to see and know God--the God who created them, redeemed them, and died and rose again for them, the God in whose tender embrace Gary now abides.
I think Jesus’s words of invitation to the disciples, “Come and see!” are the very embodiment of Gary’s ministry. One longtime parishioner put it this way to me, saying: When Gary came to St. Alban’s, it was still a small family-sized congregation meeting in the little chapel, and Gary just flung the doors of this parish wide open and beckoned people in. Come and see! Come and see!
And they did. The community took notice of Father Gary’s warmth and wit and joy, and so they came through those wide open doors and they saw God’s love in action. People came because the Spirit was up to something at St. Alban’s and Gary’s ministry was a big part of that. When they came, they were introduced to a faith tradition grounded in radical welcome, not judgment.
Enough of them came that soon it was time to get a bigger place, and so the process of building this structure began. I’m told Gary’s touch is very much evident in the design of our nave. There’s a reason our nave windows are clear glass rather than stained glass—because the disciple who was standing next to a tree when Jesus called him to ministry never lost his love and appreciation for trees, and he wanted us all to be able to see them during worship.
So next time you are strolling the grounds of St. Alban’s, look for the lovely new red maple tree along Caldwell Lane, just past the Memorial Garden, and give thanks for The Rev. Gary Steber, whether you knew him or not, because his legacy lives on in this vibrant church community. Thanks be to God!
Yours in Christ,