In summertime, before we turn in for the night, David and I – as I imagine is true for many of you – try to determine how to make our bedroom comfortable. Do we open the window and let in fresh air? Turn on a fan? Maybe the AC?
This summer, on more nights than in previous summers, I find myself also thinking about beloveds near and far at their bedtimes. How unhealthy is the air in New York, where my son lives? How are people in Phoenix managing 118 degree days and 90 degree nights? How are my friends in Vermont coping following the floods?
I find these questions deeply unsettling. They are like stones under my pillow. (Show stone) For many of us, it is at night that our fears and our concerns seem to seep into and aggravate our consciousness – sometimes making it difficult to fall asleep or stay asleep.
Jacob, in the scripture we just heard, had good reason to be unsettled before bed. He had just stolen his brother’s birthright and was running for his life. He is alone in a foreign land, the first time ever away from his parents and home. Perhaps he was afraid – afraid that his brother would come after him and kill him; afraid of who or what was lurking while he went to sleep under the stars. Given all of his troubles, troubles of his own making, what might he have been thinking; how might he have been feeling, as he lay down on the ground, with a stone for a pillow under his head?
Columcille, too, had good reason to be unsettled before bed. Haunted by what he had done which led to the death of 3001 men, troubles of his own making, he, too, likely had much on his mind. Tradition holds that Columcille also went to sleep with a stone for a pillow.
Please take the stone you were given this morning in your hands. What are the concerns and fears, the symbolic stones under your pillow, that sometimes make it hard for you at night to fall asleep or stay asleep?
After what Jacob and Columcille had done, we might think that God would simply wipe God’s hands in disappointment and disgust. Here are two men whom God has given so much: Jacob, grandson of the greatest patriarch, Abraham; and Columcille, an extraordinarily talented scribe, poet, and monk. Yet neither were satisfied with what they had. Both took something that did not belong to them. Jacob stole the blessing intended for his brother; Columcille, without permission, copied his master teacher’s prized possession.
When I think about what troubles me at night, our climate emergency, I sometimes wonder why God doesn’t just wipe God’s hands in disappointment and disgust, too. Since the Industrial Revolution, we humans have mined and deforested and polluted and overbuilt and overconsumed, taking what doesn’t belong only to us, triggering the extinction. Since the 16th century, humans have driven at least 680 vertebrate species to extinction. Famed, late Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson estimates that 30,000 species per year (or three species per hour) are being driven to extinction. No population of a large vertebrate animal in the history of the planet has grown that much, that fast, or with such devastating consequences to its fellow earthlings.
Environmental lawyer, professor, and former U.N. Development Administrator Gus Speth, offers this: “I used to think the top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse, and climate change. But I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed, and apathy.”
The first two are exactly what got Jacob and Columcille into trouble – selfishness and greed. And they, along with apathy, are often what gets us into trouble, personally and collectively.
The good news is that God did not give up on Jacob. Or on Columcille. Or on us.
Jacob’s dream reveals a God who is not far away in some distant heaven, but right here on this earth beside us; a God who wants to use us – in spite of our shortcomings – to be blessings for others; a God who said to Jacob and says to us in our most vulnerable moments, “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”
Wow. Just when you think that God would have given Jacob or Columcille the Divine Finger Wag of Disapproval, our God does the most surprising thing of all – God enlarges their missions. He offers them a course correction.
Jacob took his father’s blessing for himself and for his future family alone. God had a bigger idea. He will use Jacob to bless ALL the families of the earth.
Columcille first felt called to establish monasteries in Ireland. God had a bigger idea. Columcille will expand his mission to Scotland, establishing monasteries as centers of learning in Iona and across Scotland. Iona would become a center for pilgrims throughout the world.
No matter what may keep us up at night, the stones we sleep on, those things that we look back on in regret or look forward to in fear… no matter what we have done or what we have failed to do, the stories of Jacob and Columcille remind us that God sticks with us.
In our lowest moments – even when of our own making – God reaches to us through dreams and visions and solitude and prayer and nature and music and art and in so many countless ways, to help us remember that our lives are in God’s hands; that we are here to serve God’s purposes. Perhaps we humans are finally beginning to realize that God has given us a mission that is beyond our own self-interest: we are called to see that God is right here on earth with us; it is not just the human family we are called to care for, but all species. Maybe that is our bigger mission.
We do not need to hold onto the stones we carry – our past regrets or our future fears – by ourselves. We can take those things that keep us up at night and surrender them to our loving God. We can trust that the God who did not give up on Jacob or Columcille, does not give up on us – as individuals or as inhabitants of earth.
When I was senior at the University of Vermont in 1985, I was asked to give a speech at a statewide Catholic Youth Day. The bishop would be in attendance. As I prayerfully prepared, I felt called to speak on the opportunities and limitations for women in Catholicism. Let’s just say that the Bishop was not pleased. In fact he was so displeased, he called the priest at the Newman Center on campus and told him that he needed to cut ties with me. I was informed that I was no longer able to serve as a lector, greeter, or eucharistic minister – but I could still attend worship. Let’s just say I didn’t feel welcome any longer.
Given the way I was raised, I really wondered what would happen if I didn’t go to Mass on Saturday at 4 p.m., as I had throughout college. Would I get the Divine Finger Wag? Would God leave me? The fear of it was like a stone under my pillow, keeping me up at night.
On the first Saturday that I didn’t attend Mass, I felt uneasy all day. Sitting in my dorm room as 4 turned into 5, much to my surprise, I felt God closer to me than ever. The next morning I decided to attend the local Episcopal Church and discovered, like Jacob, that God was very much in that place and I did not know it. As the years have progressed, I’ve experienced that God’s presence can’t be confined to any particular place or any particular religious practice, but that the gates to heaven are as open as our own hearts, that every element of earth is a portal to the divine.
Later in the service, as communion is offered, you will be invited to surrender to God whatever it is that may make it difficult for you to sleep at night, by placing the stone you are holding onto a plate that Lindsay or I will be holding. Then you are invited to pick up a piece of bread or a cracker, a symbol of the gift of God’s presence offered to us no matter who we are, no matter what we have done or not done; a symbol of God’s love that can be found anytime or any place our hearts are open. Amen.