Readings for the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany (Year C)
This sermon was preached at Christ Episcopal Church in Eureka CA on February 6, 2022
A Methodist pastor spent decades searching for some artwork that had been spiritually formative for her as a child growing up in Tahlequah Oklahoma. Every couple years, she would do a Google search for this artwork, but never found any leads until last weekend when her search led her to Christ Church Eureka. Now our church is already a pilgrimage destination for organ aficionados, thanks to our magnificent Kegg Pipe Organ. It’s also a destination because of our unique prayer labyrinth and Stations of the Cross in our chapel and, of course, our historic redwood sanctuary, adorned with icons and stained-glass windows and 150-year-old pews, which at one time, had a seat reserved for former Humboldt resident and President Ulysses S. Grant. Our church is a destination for many reasons, but for this Methodist pastor, our church is now personally meaningful because of artwork that was installed here this last year, thanks to the generosity of beloved parishioner Annalee, and the vestry who voted to install the artwork here, and the wardens, John Patton and Royal McCarthy, who did the hard work of installing the art. I’m referring, of course, to the portraits of the Twelve Apostles that now adorn the walls of Lewis Hall, that were painted by Fr. George Leonard Shultz (grandfather of Annalee and Molly) and priest who served here in the 1960s when Fr. Jack Thompson was on vacation. (Fr. Jack wore this stole with symbols of apostles).
This Methodist pastor named Nancy Day now lives in New Orleans and she told me how Fr. Shultz (known affectionately as Fr. Shag) would show her and her younger sister the paintings which were hung up in his library and talk to them about each one. She said that, in those conversations, Fr. Shultz “planted the seeds that grew [their] love for God and the church.” I imagine Fr. Shultz talking to Nancy and her younger sister about the very Gospel passage we just read this morning in which Jesus calls his first disciples (who later become apostles), Simon Peter and his brother Andrew and their partners James and John; and urges them to go out into the deep waters and open wide their nets. During this last year at Christ Church, we have been going out into deep waters and opening wide our nets, buoyed by the spiritual wisdom and presence of the apostles, who I believe have been helping us uphold our core values during such a challenging time.
The first portrait I studied was that of St. Nathaniel son of Tolmai (also known as St. Bartholomew, whose symbol is a flaying knife), who is portrayed in Fr. Shag’s painting as holding a book under a fig tree, where (according to the Gospel of John) he supposedly had a mystical experience with God. This last year, I believe Nathaniel along with the prophet Amos (who was a fig tree farmer) have helped us uphold our primary core value (worship), especially during the first half of the year when we were not gathering in-person under this roof. Instead, we worshipped together in person by going out among the trees (like Nathaniel). We worshipped at Deacon Anne’s redwood-studded home during Holy Week and Eastertide; and this year, we finally returned to Sequoia Park for our Sacred Saunters during the summer and on the feast day of St. Francis. And in the Fall, a few of us gathered at David Lochtie’s home for a house blessing and Sacred Saunter around his “Tree of Forgiveness” and spiral labyrinth. When I returned from visiting family back East in the summer, I preached about the trees of Monticello; and how, according to Choctaw elder and Episcopal Bishop Steven Charleston, the wind in the trees whisper our name. And the Sunday after I preached about trees, we finally re-opened this building after sixteen months and after an enormous amount of preparation and renovation to increase ventilation. Our Regathering Task Force spent hours prayerfully creating a realistic plan based on guidelines from the diocese and county and state (that continue to change) to bring us all safely back into this beautiful building made of old growth redwood trees that were alive when Jesus walked the earth and when Nathaniel had his mystical encounter under his fig tree. What a joy it’s been for us to be back in this sacred space made of ancient trees that protect us and keep us warm and inspire us to worship.
This last year, the vestry supported me in beginning to undergo intensive training as a Forest Therapy Guide through the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy, which happened to be founded by a man named Amos. I’m still in training and I’ll be sharing more about that with you in the months to come, but today I want to share with you something that another trainee said at our last session. He lives up in Washington, but he said that the time when he felt most alive was when he first walked among redwood trees. He felt alive because the massive trees made him realize how small he is. They gave him humility and a helpful perspective on all those trivial things that we take so seriously. May our worship in this redwood sanctuary and among the trees here in Humboldt County continue to give us that same perspective, that humility that Amos and St. Nathaniel experienced under the fig trees.
The second portrait I studied was that of St. Matthew (and don’t worry I’m not going to go through all of them). Matthew’s story illuminates the ways that we’ve upheld our core values of discipleship and outreach. This morning we read from chapter 5 of Luke’s Gospel and in that same chapter we learn about the calling of Matthew, who was a tax collector. Jesus approached Matthew at his tax booth and simply said to him, “Follow me.” And Matthew got up, left everything, and followed Jesus along the way as a new member of Jesus’s community of compassionate companions. As a disciple of Jesus, Matthew developed disciplines of study and prayer. This last year, many of us have been gathering for Centering Prayer every Monday night under the leadership of Fr. David Shewmaker. Also, this last year, we began offering Evensong under the leadership of Mother Lesley. And we have been growing as disciples by learning from brilliant guest preachers and speakers like Professor Rachel Wheeler (from University of Portland), Dr. Tripp Fuller (from Edinburgh, Scotland), Dr. Alexander Shaia (from Spain), the Rev. Nancy Corran (a Catholic womanpriest from across the street), Pastor Paul Harris (who we hope will preach here again soon), the Rev. Jim Richardson (former interim dean of our cathedral) and most recently author and pastor Bethany Cseh (from Arcata). Every two months this last year, we’ve had a special guest at our Rector’s Forums, which have been our most popular offerings on our YouTube channel. And we hope to continue offering special guests this year on a regular basis.
Not only did the Apostle Matthew give generously of his time and his talent, he also gave generously of his treasure, which is why his symbol is the money bag and why Fr. Shag portrays him holding his money bag upside down. The painting reminds me of my first rector Ed Bacon at All Saints Pasadena, who would playfully say to the congregation, “When the offering plate comes to you, please empty out the contents of your purse.” This is exactly what the Apostle Matthew is doing in Fr. Shultz’s painting: giving generously of his financial resources to the cause of Christ, as you all have been doing this year through your pledges and gifts of time and talent and treasure, following the flow of God’s blessings. And during this last year, the vestry has been supporting the Food Bank, Betty Chinn, the Forgotten Initiative, and Sandy in Honduras like never before. We significantly increased our outreach giving at a time when so many other organizations have been tightening their belts. Like the apostles, we have been going out into deep waters and casting our nets wide. And perhaps one of the most important ways that we have been casting our nets wide (across the entire globe) this last year has been through our spectacular live-stream worship…
We don’t have a paid staff member who is responsible for our live-stream worship (like so many other churches). Thomas and Paul (and now Michael and others) are all volunteers in this capacity. (Thomas is on staff but this is not part of his job. He does this because he loves our church.) And if you compare our live-stream worship to any other Episcopal Church in the diocese and even in the country, we stand out as stellar and quite spectacular. We’ve invested an enormous amount of time and energy (blood, sweat, and tears) into our live-stream worship this year and it shows, because we want to uphold our core values of worship and outreach and we want to do justice to the beauty of this space and to share this space with the world so that we can be fishers of people. That’s why we keep encouraging you to share our online offerings with your friends. It might be the easiest way to evangelize.
One of my favorite portraits is the painting of St. Philip which is right above the Lewis Hall door as you exit. To me, he looks a lot like a young Prince Philip who described himself as an expert in “dontopedalogy,” which is the science of opening your mouth and putting your foot in it. The Apostle Philip was also known for putting his foot in his mouth and yet I also find him to be one of the most endearing and approachable and inviting of the apostles (probably because I’m a bit of a dontopedalogist myself). I feel St. Philip has been cheering us on as we’ve been attempting to uphold our core values of fellowship and hospitality, which have been especially difficult to practice during this time of pandemic and social distancing. Yet we have been so creative with gatherings on zoom, including our popular performance of A Christmas Carol, which was directed by David Powell who also played Scrooge. In December, during Arts Alive, we offered an art show for the wider community displaying the paintings of David Lochtie, inspired by our worship.
And we also managed to have a full house here when the bishop visited in July for Confirmations, and on Christmas Eve, during those short windows of time in between the delta and omicron waves. Earlier in the year, we premiered an Epiphany and Pentecost concert online; and in November, we hosted our first in-person concert here since 2019 with the Chamber Player of the Redwoods. Again, taking advantage of these windows of time in between the spikes caused by variants. And as we safely opened our space to the wider community, I learned from Merry that someone attending our concert was very eager to see Fr. Shultz’s painting of the Apostle Simon, since he had read about the apostle and painting in the Times-Standard.
So, through his paintings, Fr. Shultz continues to plant seeds in people’s hearts and minds here in the parish and beyond; and his paintings remind us that the apostles urges us on in fulfilling our mission and vision. They call us to be honest with our doubts like St. Thomas, to listen with our hearts like Simon, to wake up to the hope of resurrection like Peter, to recognize the ways we are complicit in violence like Judas, to hear the heartbeat of God in creation like St. John, to pause for times of prayer like Andrew, to be generous like Matthew, compassionate like Philip, and to remain open to experiencing God’s love here under this roof made out of redwood trees, like Nathaniel. Jesus’s original community of companions have been cheering us on as we have been glorifying God, following Jesus Christ, and serving all people through the power of the Holy Spirit as a community of compassionate companions walking together in the way of Christ’s love for all. Amen.