Sermon: Oil on Stone

July 23, 2017
Genesis 28:10-19

In 1861, a wholesale grocer named Wilmer McLean lived in Manassas, Virginia. As it happened, one of the first major battles of the Civil War would erupt nearly in his front yard. One of the Confederate Army commanders, General Beauregard, made Wilmer McLean’s house his headquarters during the battle. Beauregard reported that a cannonball fired at the house ended up dropping down the chimney. The casualty, he said, was the dinner being prepared for himself and his staff.

Wilmer McLean left Manassas two years later, about four or five months before another battle was fought in his front yard. He moved south, to a quiet village called Appomattox Court House. On April 8th, 1865, he answered a knock on his door and found a Confederate officer in uniform. They wanted to use his house to negotiate and sign the surrender of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia to the Union Army of the Potomac under Ulysses S. Grant.

McLean agreed.

And so, in his parlor, General Grant wrote out the surrender under what most considered generous terms. Once the soldiers turned in their arms, they went home. Those who owned farm animals were allowed to take them with them. They would not be prosecuted for treason. And Grant sent food from his army’s baggage train to see that the defeated foe had a meal.

Wilmer McLean was known to say that the Civil War began in his front yard and ended in his front parlor.

I’ve been to Appomattox Court House; it’s a National Historical Park these days. I’ve also visited other famous sites of the Civil War: Petersburg, Fredericksburg, Antietam, Gettysburg. I was young when my family went to Appomattox, and a good deal of my memories are shaped by the way my father has told the story of that place ever since:

It was a place that felt holy. There is a sense of peace to the place, of the cessation of war. It doesn’t have the desolate feel of Antietam, where so many died in just one day.

The minutes after the signing, it must be said, weren’t quite so holy. After the principal generals left, the subordinate generals began grabbing things for souvenirs. Major General Ord got the table which General Lee had used to sign the surrender; Major General Sheridan got the table which General Grant had used to draft it. They pushed money into Wilmer McLean’s hands or dropped it onto the floor as he protested.

They’d been eyewitnesses to history. They were articulate, speaking human beings. They could tell the story. And yet they seized the inarticulate objects of the room in order to be part of the story.

Rather like Jacob. He had just had a profound experience of the grace of God, the first one, perhaps, in his life. It’s the first one described for him in Genesis. It’s a vision that may have surprised him, both for its location and for its message. In that day, people believed that many of the gods were limited to a specific place. If you traveled, you could leave their sphere of influence and power. And Jacob, it must be said, had not been an upright and God-fearing person. He had stolen God’s blessing from his brother, and he had to wonder whether the God of Abraham and Isaac would honor a stolen promise. He’s on the run from his brother’s anger and his father’s displeasure.

And he has the dream. He wakes, and says, “Surely the Lord was in this place, and I did not know it!”

So he stands the rock he’d set his head upon upright (this would have been an older, more weathered rock than the ones you find out on a the lava fields. It wouldn’t have been any softer, but it wouldn’t have been sharp). Now he’s got something of a pillar. He’s got a flask of olive oil with him, possibly for cooking, possibly for scent. He pours it over the pillar to consecrate it, and renames the place “Beth El,” which is “House of God.”

We do the oddest things in the presence of God, don’t we? We put oil on a stone.

Is that to hold back the holy? I don’t know, though with Jacob, it feels that way. In addition to setting up this small altar (his grandfather Abraham had erected a larger one in Bethel some years before), Jacob offered God a covenant. It’s about as one-sided a bargain as you could ask for with God. It basically goes like this: “God, you keep me safe and make me prosperous and bring me back home, and I’ll worship you. In this place.”

It’s another bowl of lentil stew.

Oil on stone. Oil on stone.

It’s supposed to sanctify a place. It’s supposed to make it holy. But Jacob’s own words tell us that he knew it was holy. “Surely the Lord was in this place, and I did not know it.” Jacob didn’t have to do anything to make the place sacred. It already was.

Was the pillar a warning sign? Was the name of the place, the House of God, intended to warn people of what could happen to them if they ventured onto that holy ground?

Plenty of people have acted to proscribe, to limit, or to deny the powers of the gods. Think of Chiefess Kapiolani in 1824 standing bravely on the lip of Halema’uma’u in defiance of the worship practices of Pele. She stood there to declare the powers of another God, the Christian God, but in doing so she struck at the awe of Pele.

In something of a mirror image of that event, Princess Ruth Ke’elikolani is said to have slept in front of a lava flow advancing on Hilo in 1880. It stopped – and Ke’elikolani worshiped Pele, not Christ.

Oil on stone. Oil on stone. Keeping the holy identified. Circumscribed. At bay.

It’s a useless exercise. Tempting – who wouldn’t like a little obscurity between themselves and God?

But this place, this church, my home, your home, this town, all the other towns, this island, all the Hawaiian Islands, the islands across the Pacific and the Indian and the Atlantic Oceans and their watery cousins, all the continents and all the planets and all the stars and all the galaxies and all the heavenly objects we don’t even know how to describe: These are all God’s.

It’s all holy ground.

Whether it’s ground flowing, glowing red with the heat of Earth’s interior, or whether it’s the grassy slopes of Mauna Kea. It’s all holy ground.

Whether it’s the ground sprouting a majestic stand of koa or growing ferns in wild profusion. It’s all holy ground.

Whether it’s the ground beneath the sea, indeed the sea itself, whether it’s shallow or deep, sunny, or shadowed, whether it teems with fish or is apparently invisible of life. It’s all holy ground.

How do we treat holy ground?

We can’t run away from it. As we run, we’ll tread on holy ground with each footfall. We can’t hide it away. It stands above us and it washes over our feet on the beach. We can’t leave it all undisturbed. We have to live: we need shelter and farms and factories and offices and it’s nice to have a place to worship, too.

Can we, perhaps, consider each encounter with the land and ocean and cosmos as an encounter with the holy, from the most mundane trip to get another loaf of bread to the long walk out to see our island growing at Kamokuna? Can we consider each home we build, each factory we erect, each farm and garden and road as something with which we honor the sacredness of the ground beneath it?

I don’t know. I know we should. I think we have to. I think we have to acknowledge the sacredness of every patch of ground, and give it its due. I think we have to acknowledge that not everybody sees it this way. Even more, I think we have to acknowledge that not everybody understands honoring sacredness in the same way. Kapiolani on the one hand, and Ruth Ke’elikolani both understood the molten rock as sacred, and had entirely different ways to respond to that. Jacob put oil on a stone. Samuel piled up rocks. Solomon built a temple. Jesus cleared one. Christians have built churches and monasteries on sites associated with great events, ranging from the tomb of Jesus to visions of angels. In America, we spent a couple centuries building hotels on mountain peaks and scenic islands, and since the 20th century, we’ve been tearing them down.

So I’d like us to ask a new question: How will we honor this sacred place, on this sacred day, in our sacred time, with our understanding of the sacred, and acknowledging our neighbors’ understandings of the sacred? How will we acknowledge the Creator and the value of this part of Creation? How can we celebrate what God has done and not bury it beneath what we have done? How do we moderate our need, and greed, and self-aggrandizement in the way we honor each sacred place?

Wilmer McLean had to sell his house in Appomattox Court House. Twenty-five years later, some people bought it and disassembled it, intending to reconstruct it in Chicago at the World’s Columbian Exposition. They ran out of money, and the planks and beams sat exposed for fifty years. The house I visited in Appomattox was a reconstruction using at least some of the original bricks.

That seems to me like a bad way to honor a holy place. In the end, it did not destroy the peace of the place, but it still seems like a bad way to honor what is sacred.

Let’s find some better ones. We’ve got generations of bad examples behind us; let’s find some better ones. Let’s find a new way to pour oil on stone, not to avoid God, but to honor God.

Let’s find a new way to pour oil on stone.


The image is of Chiefess Kapiolani standing over Halema’uma’u crater in 1824.

Categories Sermons | Tags: , | Posted on July 23, 2017

Social Networks: RSS Facebook Twitter Google Stumble Upon Digg Reddit

Leave a Reply

close window

Service Times & Directions

Sunday School Classes

Sunday 8:45 am

Sunday Worship Service

Sunday 10:00 am

Adult Bible Study

Monday 6:30 pm, Wednesday 9:00 am

(International Young Adults Association)
Bible Study

Wednesday 7:30 pm

The Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga

(The Rev. Tevita) Sunday 1:00 pm Wednesday 7:00 pm (Sanctuary)

The United Church of Christ, Pohnpei - Hilo

(The Rev. Ichiro) Sunday 10:00 am (Bdg. of Faith)

The Samoan Church

(The Rev. Sunia) Sunday 4:00 pm (Sanctuary)

440 W. Lanikaula Street
Hilo, HI 96720
(808) 935-1283