Repentance, not sacrifice of others

A sermon preached by Pastor Ken Carrothers on June 21, 2020

•2 Samuel 21:1-14•

If you would have asked me last Sunday about our reading for today I would not have been able to tell you about it. I didn’t know about this story. This famine. David praying to God. God saying Saul left blood on the throne. David going to Saul’s victims and asking how he can make amends. The Gibeonites asking for vengence. David handing over seven sons of Saul who are immediately and publicly killed. Later David, taking the bodies down and giving them a proper burial. The famine ending.

That is the essence of the story and I had no idea. And as I tell this simplified version it actually makes it seem like vengeance is legitimate. That God perhaps desires human sacrifice. That God desired the blood of Saul’s sons in order to bless the land and end the famine. This simple telling includes the facts, but it isn’t necessarily a true telling. Because this shorter version leaves out a major character. We cannot read this story without Rizpah.

And I didn’t know about her last Sunday either. She was an unknown character to me. I had no idea about this remarkable woman who acted with incredible devotion, diligence and fortitude that moved the powers that be into a space of true transformation that offered healing to the land.

Now some will say hold your horses Ken, “God tells David ‘there’s bloodguilt on Saul and his house?’” that is where the change begins — not with this unknown woman. It is true. That is what God said. But we should be wary whenever God’s will fits a little too neatly with our own. Our spidey-sense ought to go into overdrive when God’s will sounds conveniently like the will of the powerful. We should stop when we sense God has us focusing too much on another’s guilt and sin instead of our own.

In today’s story it is a little too convenient that the famine the people are facing is God’s punishment for a dead king’s sin. It is a little too opportunistic that God mentions the Gibeonites and then David is quick to ask what they would like done, considering that he never asks anyone’s opinion. No, this feels like a setup.

This has the making of a business deal. It is a power play and David plays it like every other king in power. A king can’t risk an uprising. If Saul’s sons live, then there is a chance that they might overthrow David. So the wiser course of action is to eliminate them. Kill them off as an example. Leave their bodies hanging on crosses as a sign of what happens if you are threat. And if you can pull it off without dirtying your own hands, all the better. And so David pawns off the responsibility to the Gibeonites.

This is not to suggest that David is evil, but rather he is caught up in the system. This story shows how easy it is to listen to the voices that say power is claimed through blood and violence and how easy it is to interpret them as God’s will. The great King David becomes a victim to power by controlling and intimidating with death sentences and bodies impaled upon a hill. But soon he and all the people find out that vengeance is not the answer. Vengence is not the solution — for the famine does not cease.

Enter Rizpah — Rizpah is the mother of two sons of Saul. Rizpah’s life has not been easy. As a concubine, she was a second class wife of Saul. After Saul is killed she has no protection. After his death, Rizpah becomes a pawn for political advantage. Earlier in 2nd Samuel, we learn that an army general, took her as spoils of war. She wasn’t asked. She was taken in an act of violence. The general is later killed and then in this story so are her sons. Rizpah is alone. She has every reason to sneak off into the abyss. She has every reason to see herself as the victim. She has no power — and yet somehow she moves the powers that be into a space of true transformation. What is about the Biblical narrative that those who seem the most insignificant become God’s agents of change?

Rizpah lays down sackcloth on a rock on top of the mountain where the bodies lay — the bodies of her own two sons and the bodies of five other boys, someone else’s children. She is alone. There is no one standing with her. Rizpah holds vigil with the bodies of seven unarmed men who lay dead. Morning, noon and night she stands up to defend them. She fights off the birds and wild animals. Rizpah refuses to allow other beings to desecrate their remains. She is powerful in her devotion. She will not forget them.

And at some point the powers that be took notice of her— and while it was only in the course of a few Bible verses, please do not be tricked into thinking this came quick. Rizpah was there from when the harvest began until the rains came. It was months and months of devotion to these murdered children. Months and months of diligence against predators. Months and months of responding to the injustice of it all.

I doubt Rizpah set out to make a statement, rather I imagine she was driven by love. Love of a parent. Love for her children. Love for all children. And what came from that love? What came from that devotion? What came from one woman’s protest?

The powers that be noticed. The king took notice. David seemed to finally notice that the deaths didn’t change anything. Something else was needed. And David discerned that Saul and Jonathan’s remains needed to be cared for. Those who had died needed to be remembered. So David went and brought the bones of Saul and Jonathan back and drew them together with Saul’s sons so that they could all be properly cared for and buried.

The land was healed by compassion, not vengence, as the refreshing grace of God rained down.  The famine was broken not through the killing of seven sons of Saul, rather through the fierce devotion of Rizpah who stood vigil night after night at the murder of seven boys. One commentator even suggested Rizpah’s act could be reinterpreted as a sign of repentance that broke the cycle of violence.

For when David asked God what was up with the famine, he heard that it was because of Saul killing the Gibeonites. But David never took the next step. David didn’t ask God in humble and discerning prayer what should be done. If he had, I believe he would have heard a call to repentance rather than a call for more violence. But far too often that is the same trap we fall into — assuming we know what God wants. And in our certainty more evil is done. In the end Rizpah simply did what David should have done from the beginning. She grieved. She repented. She defended.

In that way Rizpah’s example reflects the very nature of God’s heart and offers us a word of hope. Our nation is in pain. Our nation continues to suffer through a famine in which we lack equality and inclusion. Our land is lacking freedom for so many. And the question that remains is what part will we, as people of faith? What part will we play is this unfolding narrative? Most of us cannot be a Rizpah because we have too much power and privilege to consider ourselves pawns of the system. But all the more, perhaps we can find a way to notice, to protect, to join Rizpah in that thankless, endless, anonymous hard work of devotion, diligence and fortitude. Could we stand with Rizpah? Might we stand with those who are grieving — those who feel powerless — those who are holding vigil — so they are not alone? Might we we join Rizpah in her grief and defense of all those who have fallen? Can we do the work that is tedious and loving at its core? Can do we the work of Jesus?

And let that be our act of repentance for all the ways in which we have not lived into who God has called us to be. Repentence for words not spoken — action not taken — protection not given. For it is repentance, not sacrifice of others that will bring healing to the land so all might experience the refreshing grace of God raining down. Amen.

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