(If you would like to watch our online worship service in its entirety, click HERE.)
(Genesis 28: 10-19a)
When I was six years old my grandmother on my father’s side – “Granny,” as we called her – married Dave, a wonderful man from Pennsylvania. For a while the two lived up there before returning to the mountains of North Carolina, where Granny had lived with her first husband, my grandfather, before he died an untimely death.
We took one trip to Pennsylvania to visit Granny and Dave. I was twelve and it was during the month of August, hot and humid as that time of year can be. On this particular day we were cooling off in a river that flowed through the terrain of a rural part of the state. Dave was teaching me how to throw the flat river stones that lined the embankment so they would skip across the water, all the way to the other side if you threw it just right.
But the memory that most surfaces from that day was something Granny showed me. The two of us were walking along the river bank, over all those stones; and at one point she bends down and picks one of them up. Getting my attention, and with a broad smile on her face, Granny shows me the stone. It was about the size of her hand and around an inch thick. Holding the rock on either side, she says, “Look, Steve – strong Granny!” And with her bare hands and minimal effort, she breaks the stone in two.
I was blown away. I knew my Granny was a strong woman – raising five sons, protesting the Vietnam war and fighting for refugee rights – but this was a whole new kind of strong. These stones were solid, dense. Not the kind that any normal human could so easily snap in two.
From that point on Granny was, without question, my greatest hero; right up until the day she died my junior year in college. And you know, it didn’t really matter when I learned later that day on the river how Granny had found the stone already broken; how she saw it down on the ground as we were walking by with the crack already through it. It didn’t bother me when she showed me how, if you held both parts together just right, you could hardly see the break. Somehow the secret behind Granny’s trick failed to lessen the wonder of it. Even to this day, I can still hear her voice echoing in my mind – Strong Granny!
In so many ways, Granny was like those stones. For stones are not the most malleable item. They cannot be manipulated or coerced. They don’t chip easily. They’re dense, which is to say, there’s not any empty space inside. Stones, like my Granny, are solid.
According to a quick word search there are some 357 references to stones in the Old and New Testaments. Some are troublesome – just ask the woman accused of adultery who was almost put to death by them; or the disciple Stephen who was. This morning we find a stone used for a very odd purpose. Jacob is the younger son of Isaac, who is blind and nearing death. Esau, Jacob’s brother, is the rightful heir to the blessing bestowed upon the oldest sibling. But Jacob, at the encouragement of his mother, pretends to be Esau and steals his brother’s birthright. When Esau learns of this he becomes enraged; and Jacob is forced to retreat into the desert by himself, a marked man, a son with a birthright that, for the time being, is totally useless to him.
So he is frightened, and tired, and depressed, and doesn’t have a clue what to do. The sun is setting, and his body is craving rest. There are, of course, no Red Roof Inns on the road from Beer-sheba to Haran. So he finds the most secluded spot he can, lies down on the dusty ground, and tries to get some sleep. And as if to highlight the extent of his misery, scripture tells us that Jacob grabs a stone and sleeps with it under his head.
Now can you imagine anything more uncomfortable than that? The stone is rough and doesn’t conform to his face and temple. But it is all he has. And maybe because of that stone, he drifts off into a troubled sleep and has a dream. A dream where the God of his ancestors appears to him in the form of a ladder ascending to heaven. Suffice to say that a ladder in the desert is about as rare as, well, my Granny breaking rocks in half!
Nevertheless, God speaks and makes Jacob three promises. The first is a promise of everlasting presence – God says, I am with you.
The second is a promise of protection – God says, I will keep you.
And the third promise God makes is a promise of a future – God says, I will bring you home. But this particular promise is full of nuance. God tells Jacob:
The land on which you lie I will give to you and your offspring;
And your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth,
and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east
and to the north and to the south;
And all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and your offspring.
Can you picture this? The hard, dry ground Jacob was lying on; the rough and unforgiving rock underneath his head, soon would be populated by his descendants down through the ages. The dust that whipped mercilessly through the desert air, embedding itself into skin and hair and eyes, one day will be rivaled in number by the headcount of Jacob’s expanding family tree. How incredible this promise must have been for Jacob.
And of course we know how this promise would unfold; how Jacob’s sons would form twelve tribes of Israel and Judah; how one of those sons, Joseph, would become the right hand of Pharaoh; how generations later God would raise Moses to lead God’s people back home where they would flourish and prosper under judges and kings.
And to think – all of it can be traced back to a young dispossessed man stretched out on the dry ground, with a stone as his pillow. The promise is indeed a blessing!
But the promise also carries a burden with it, does it not? I think about the paradox we often find in God’s promise and how the stone and the promise have a lot in common. Both are hard and solid and don’t bend or break under pressure. We know a stone isn’t going to wander off when we place it somewhere. It’s something we can count on. And the same is true with the promise of God – it’s not going anywhere; it’s something we can count on.
But there’s another side to the stone and the promise. Both carry some weight. I don’t know that I’ve ever come across a “light stone” before. In the same way, I don’t know that I’ve encountered a promise of God that did not require something of its recipient. The stone and the promise don’t always align with our wishes or desires. Jacob’s stone didn’t conform to the contour of his head like a pillow would have – that had to have been uncomfortable. Likewise, when God’s promise doesn’t conform to our lives, when it presses into our temples, it makes us uncomfortable too.
Think of some of the promises God has made in scripture:
I will be with you to the ends of the age.
Your descendants will number the stars in the sky.
I will be your God, and you will be my people.
I will give you the ability to speak my word to those who need to hear it.
Jacob. Abraham. Moses. The prophets. Even the disciples of Jesus – all of them were the recipients of both the blessing and the burden of God’s promise. And in their own way they, too, experienced what it was like to sleep on stones.
Years have passed; generations have come and gone. The beneficiaries and descendants of God’s promise have spread over the earth like dust. And now we, too, find ourselves the receivers of the promise of God. And, just like those who came before us, we are indeed blessed because of it.
But we also acknowledge the responsibility that comes with that promise; the burden it places on us as we seek to live our lives faithfully and authentically as God’s people.
The blessing and the burden – that is what it is like to sleep on stones.
There is a quote by the late Martin Luther King Jr. you’ve probably heard before. It often gets shared on social medial on MLK Day or in more specific circumstances, such as the one we find ourselves in now. The quote says:
The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.
It’s lovely and inspiring and speaks very much to the promise of a day when, as scripture says, justice will roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. And yet the quote is also misleading in a way – or, better put, incomplete. One might hear this and be tempted to ask, if the arc is already bending toward justice, long as that arc might be, does it really require me to do anything?
Which is why I am intrigued by the fact that King is actually paraphrasing a 19th-century Unitarian minister and abolitionist named Theodore Parker. In 1853, Parker published a book called “Ten Sermons of Religion;” and in the third sermon titled “Of Justice and the Conscience” he writes this:
I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice. (1)
You see the difference? The promise is still there. But there is something else. “From what I see,” he says, “it bends toward justice. From what I see. It is not a certainty that justice lies at the end because he cannot see that far. That moral arc, it doesn’t bend toward justice all by itself.
And that is the burden – the burden that rests squarely on our shoulders, to do our part to keep that curvature in place so that justice may indeed lie at the end of it. And that burden is even greater on us as people of faith; for we walk on hallowed ground and sleep on stones of thousands of years of holy promises – promises that place the burden on us to:
Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute – Psalm 82:3;
To Learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow – Isaiah 1:17;
To Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God – Micah 6:8;
And that’s just to name a few stones.
Seems that Jacob of long ago knew better than any theologian or biblical scholar what it means to sleep on those stones. Stones fashioned by a God who promises us much and expects much from us. Stones we cannot mold to our own whims and desires. Stones that will not permit us to rationalize, justify, explain, or distance our way out the work we’ve been called to. Stones that will not allow us to enjoy just the blessings of the promise but insist that we take on its burden as well.
Perhaps, friends, it is not such a bad idea to sleep on stones. For maybe then, we’ll encounter the crazy dreams of God and begin to see how that moral arc does not just bend toward justice all by itself. It needs the people of God to keep bending.
In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.
1 – https://quoteinvestigator.com/2012/11/15/arc-of-universe/
Featured art from https://www.saatchiart.com/art/Photography-River-stones-Limited-Edition-of-10/1201228/4785913/view