Sermon Series: Questions Jesus Asked
“Are You Not of More Value?”
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; July 19, 2020
7th Sunday after Pentecost
Normally, Stephen was a happy fellow—content with life and hopeful about the future. But lately, things had taken a turn. What once had brought him joy, now left him despondent. “Could this be a midlife crisis?” he wondered. Stephen was an attorney and he, along with his wife and a college-friend, had a lucrative law firm just south of Atlanta. To outsiders, Stephen had it all—but in his heart—he knew that was not the truth—not the real truth. He had reached an impasse. He needed something more. But what?
A sense of gloom permeated Stephen’s waking hours and disrupted his sleep. He could go to sleep as soon as his head hit the pillow; he just could not stay asleep. So, there he would be, lying beside his sleeping wife, Sally, with his mental wheels spinning. On good nights, memories carried him back to the days of his childhood. He grew up with two loving parents who made sure Stephen had every opportunity. He wondered if they would be concerned if they knew what he was going through—all this worry and dread—over only God knew what!
God—now that was a subject for Stephen to ponder in the midnight hours. Raised in the church, as a child he loved being there as much as his parents did. But when he got older and began questioning some of the teachings of the church, he did not feel welcome anymore. By the time he graduated from law school he had lumped “those Christians” into one category—a group of people who were judgmental, anti-intellectual, and mean-spirited. He wanted nothing to do with people who claimed to be followers of Jesus but seemed to identify less with Jesus and more with whatever they happened to be against at any given moment.
But when he and Sally married, she wanted them to be involved in a church—as a couple. He tried. Really, he did. But to no avail. He still loved God, but his way of loving God would not allow him to check his mind at the door. Nor could he accept that God’s message for him had anything to do with a blueprint for a happy life, 5 steps to success, or excluding people different from him.
Besides the church, Stephen’s parents had another passion—being outdoors. They enjoyed hiking, swimming, biking, kayaking, and camping. Actually, they loved nature so much that early in their marriage they made a pact to visit every national park in the United States. Since they were both teachers with ample time off in the summer, the plan was challenging, but it was also achievable. What wonderful adventures they had traveling from coast to coast as a family. Oh, how Stephen missed those days.
One rainy evening, Stephen was catching up on some reading when his friend, Joe, called. They had attended college together and had been friends ever since. They had a lot in common—not least of which was a love of hiking, so much so, they spent one whole summer hiking along the Appalachian Trail. They had talked about doing it again sometime, but never got around to it. On the phone, Stephen and Joe caught up with one another. “How’s the family?” “How’s work?” that sort of thing. Finally, Joe got to the point of his call. “I have two weeks of vacation coming up and I wondered if you would like to go hiking with me in the Smoky Mountains? We always said we would take another trip. Let’s do it!”
Stephen hesitated, mentally clicking off a litany of reasons why he could not go. But then he realized none of his reasons were valid. He was in between cases at his law firm, and there were others who would gladly pick up the slack—especially Sally. She would be thrilled he was doing something—anything—to improve his somber demeanor.
The trip came together quickly and even before everything was loaded into the SUV, Stephen’s heart began to beat a little easier. So off they went, driving through Georgia and into Tennessee. The plan was to begin the trek at Newfound Gap Road outside of Gatlinburg and hike Alum Cave Trail up to Mount LeConte. From there, they would take in every noteworthy vista they possibly could—rain or shine.
Stephen brought along a small book that contained a variety of nature poems and excerpts from writings of people like John Muir, the Scottish-American naturalist who advocated for the preservation of the wilderness in the United States. After their first day of hiking, the two friends sat on a cliff at Mount LeConte, eating their dinner and waiting for the sun to set. Stephen pulled out his nature book and found words written by John Muir nearly a century before:
The mountains are calling and I must go…I am losing precious days. I am degenerating into a machine for making money. I am learning nothing in this trivial world of men. I must break away and get out into the mountains and learn the news…Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn.
Stephen yearned for nature’s peace—peace in his heart and mind and soul. He did not know where to start. Or did he? Maybe this was the place to start. So out on the trail, hiking and resting and eating and breathing in the splendor all around, Stephen talked to Joe about his life—the truth of how lost he felt. He told Joe that he believed in God and missed being with other believers. But when it came to organized religion, well…
Stephen could not have turned to a better person to talk to about faith because after college, Joe attended seminary to become a chaplain. Joe was a Presbyterian—the only Presbyterian Stephen had ever known. Yet, even as a chaplain, he never pushed his faith on anyone. Instead, he listened. He was such a good listener. For the next few days, the two friends had long talks over miles of mountainous terrain. Joe shared teachings of the Reformed tradition of which he was a part. He talked about how everyone was welcome at Christ’s Table. No one was excluded. He mentioned that different ideas were not only appreciated, they were expected. Joe shared the emphasis Presbyterians place on the sovereignty of God and on God’s grace—poured out for every human being. “Everything begins and ends with God,” he said, “and it is our life’s work to glorify God in whatever we say; whatever we do.”
When the trip was over and the two friends were about to part ways, Joe casually invited Stephen to church. Stephen promised to think about it and, sure enough, the following Sunday, he and Sally showed up at Joe’s church. Stephen was nervous but then, isn’t everyone nervous when they enter a church for the first time? They were greeted at the door by someone with a smiling face and a kind voice. It had been a long time since Stephen had been in a church and he had never been in a Presbyterian Church. The people were friendly and welcoming, and he sensed prayer was important to them, because so much emphasis was given to prayer during the service. Although the hymns were unfamiliar, there was one he really enjoyed: “God of the sparrow, God of the whale, God of the swirling stars…” And when the minister opened the Bible and began to read from the Gospel of Matthew, Stephen’s heart skipped a beat—it was one of his favorites: “Therefore, I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear…Look at the birds of the air.”
Stephen had read it many times but this time something new caught his ear. It was the question Jesus asked: “Are you not of greater value than these?” Immediately visions of all the wonders of nature he had seen since his childhood flashed across his mind like a vivid slideshow. There was the view from Mount LeConte, the Grand Canyon, the beautiful valleys of Yosemite and Shenandoah, and the geysers of Yellowstone. “Really, God? I’m more valuable to you than these?” In his heart, he heard the answer, “Yes, my child, more valuable than every wonder of creation your eyes have seen—and countless ones you have not. You are more valuable to me than any of them.”
On a Sunday morning, in a quiet place of worship, Stephen was surprised by God’s grace. Tears filled his eyes as he experienced God’s love washing over him. He remembered how Joe had described the people of his church—as loving, caring, and accepting. Were they, really? Could they honestly accept people with differing views and still love them? Would they welcome him—along with his questions and his doubts? Could this place offer a respite for his soul? Was there that much room around the Table? Stephen did not know the answers to his questions. But he knew this: he would be back to find out.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
*Cover Photograph for the “Questions Jesus Asked” Sermon Series taken by Rev. Rachel Crumley during a
Pastoral Pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 2009