Meg Peery McLaughlin
September 27, 2020
2 Samuel 21:1-14
Our UPC Children’s Committee organized a drive thru pick up a couple weeks back—
faith resources for families to use at home.
A beautiful children’s bible was included,
which captures a vast collection of our God stories.
But I’ll tell you the story we are about to read from 2nd Samuel, it isn’t in there. No way.
This story is hard.
The cliff notes are that a famine comes and God tells King David that the solution to this crisis was not going to be found through the windshield, but in the rearview mirror. The nation needed to wrestle with their history[i]. David himself hadn’t been the one responsible for the past injury, it was the former administration, under King Saul, but David nevertheless tries to make amends. The injured ones, the Gibeonites, well, they ask for seven of Saul’s sons to be killed. And King David obliges.
And you’re right if you’re asking if this is a bit off, and not just the awful death. But how it is awfully convenient that the solution here just happens to be retribution against the family who could be convinced of their right to the throne. But nevermind convenience, nothing to see here folks; just doing what is necessary what is necessary for the greater good[ii].
But this story focuses in on a woman. Rizpah. Former King Saul’s concubine. She is the mother of two of the boys. And in this story, Rizpah grieves—fiercly and publicly—and then, and only then, the famine ends.
It may be a story you have not heard before,
and it’s possible you’ll wish you hadn’t heard it at all,
I mean, who likes to hear about a nation struggling with its past injustice,
a nation making political decisions that are . . . questionable .
Who likes to hear about the awful death of innocent boys,
who just happen to have been born into the wrong family,
who likes to hear about someone in the rawness of wretched grief for six long months?
But friends, this story may not be in the Children’s bible, but it’s in ours.
And I believe that God has something to say to us through it.
So, now that I’ve prepared us a bit,
let us pray, and let us listen.
God, even in really hard stories, you are present.
May your Holy Spirit sustain us through the reading of your word,
that it would stir us
and shape us into who you would have us be.
Through Christ we pray, Amen.
Let us listen for God’s word for us from 2nd Samuel chapter 21
Now there was a famine in the days of David for three years, year after year; and David inquired of the Lord. The Lord said, “There is bloodguilt on Saul and on his house, because he put the Gibeonites to death.” So the king called the Gibeonites and spoke to them. (Now the Gibeonites were not of the people of Israel, but of the remnant of the Amorites; although the people of Israel had sworn to spare them, Saul had tried to wipe them out in his zeal for the people of Israel and Judah.)
David said to the Gibeonites, “What shall I do for you? How shall I make expiation, that you may bless the heritage of the Lord?” The Gibeonites said to him, “It is not a matter of silver or gold between us and Saul or his house; neither is it for us to put anyone to death in Israel.” He said, “What do you say that I should do for you?”
They said to the king, “The man who consumed us and planned to destroy us, so that we should have no place in all the territory of Israel— let seven of his sons be handed over to us, and we will impale them before the Lord at Gibeon on the mountain of the Lord.” The king said, “I will hand them over.” But the king spared Mephibosheth, the son of Saul’s son Jonathan, because of the oath of the Lord that was between them, between David and Jonathan son of Saul. The king took the two sons of Rizpah daughter of Aiah, whom she bore to Saul, Armoni and Mephibosheth; and the five sons of Merab daughter of Saul, whom she bore to Adriel son of Barzillai the Meholathite; he gave them into the hands of the Gibeonites, and they impaled them on the mountain before the Lord. The seven of them perished together. They were put to death in the first days of harvest, at the beginning of barley harvest.
Then Rizpah the daughter of Aiah took sackcloth, and spread it on a rock for herself, from the beginning of harvest until rain fell on them from the heavens; she did not allow the birds of the air to come on the bodies by day, or the wild animals by night.
When David was told what Rizpah daughter of Aiah, the concubine of Saul, had done, David went and took the bones of Saul and the bones of his son Jonathan from the people of Jabesh-gilead, who had stolen them from the public square of Bethshan, where the Philistines had hung them up, on the day the Philistines killed Saul on Gilboa. He brought up from there the bones of Saul and the bones of his son Jonathan; and they gathered the bones of those who had been impaled. They buried the bones of Saul and of his son Jonathan in the land of Benjamin in Zela, in the tomb of his father Kish; they did all that the king commanded.
After that, God heeded supplications for the land.
This is the Word of the Lord
Thanks be to God.
There are people who are changing the world with their tears.
There are so many Rizpahs.
I read about one in the New York Times just after Easter.
A woman, who arrives in hospital scrubs at the Metropolitan Plant and Flower Exchange just across the Hudson in New Jersey, to pick up a standing order: yellow daffodils. She brings the flowers with her to work at Hackensack University Medical Center. They aren’t for co-workers or patients. She carries them out back and walks into a parking garage, where there are three tractor trailers, with loud motors powering their refrigerators.
Her name is Tanisha Brunson-Malone and she works as a forensic technician at the hospital’s morgue. Inside each of those trailers are bodies in body bags, stacked on shelves three high, coronavirus victims awaiting pickup.
Ms. Brunson-Malone enters each trailer and walks the aisle between the rows, pausing at each new body bag. There, she carefully places a bright yellow flower on top.
David Feeney, the director of Feeney Funeral Home nearby, visited the hospital to pick up a body. “I had a feeling of dread and sadness,” he recalled. “No funeral director has ever seen this. Going into a tractor-trailer morgue.” Inside were rows of white body bags. It took a second to register what was on top of them. “I looked around and said, ‘Hey Tanisha, what’s up with all these flowers on the people?’” he said. “‘Do people actually leave flowers?’”
“She said, ‘No, no family is allowed for these folks. I did that.”
“‘I just feel like it’s the right thing to do.’”
She called the florist and now every Thursday she carries a fresh printout of the names of the dead, and enacts what she calls a “small gesture” for each name, each person.
“It was something I needed to do,” she said, “out of being emotionally exhausted and depleted. [iii]”
The US hit 200 thousand this week, 200 thousand deaths.
With all that we are bearing right now,
perhaps a story about bright yellow flowers is more palatable,
grief and flowers go together.
Or as my kids noticed this weekend the flag is at half mast.
“Why is that?” Zanna asked.
“Because our nation is grieving,” I said.
“Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died and we are sad.”
Grief & flags-at-half-mast go together.
In ancient times,
grief and sackcloth went together.
Mourners would wear the fabric as an outward sign of their inward pain.
Sackcloth is itchy and uncomfortable.
Have you ever borne witness to a grieving person say:
“Everything hurts. I want to crawl out of my skin?[iv]”
Grief and sackcloth go together.
But Rizpah, Rizpah takes it to another level,
she doesn’t just wear the sackcloth,
she makes a tent out of it.
She spreads it across the rocks,
and she stays there on it, under it,
from the beginning of the harvest, which would have been about March,
to the beginning of rainy season, which would be about now,
as long as we’ve been in covid isolation, 6 months.
From her sackcloth site, she fights off animals and birds,
she endures the smell, I can’t imagine it,
those boys bodies weren’t in bags, and certainly not in refrigerated trucks.
She says the boys names.
She will not stop.
This is a less palatable story than flowers and flags.
I bet there were those who would have wanted Rizpah to roll it back a bit.
As author Austin Channing Brown writes, “I imagine Rizpah made some people mad. I imagine there were those who defended what David had done. I imagine some people thought her actions were too much, over the top, disrespectful of the state, of the king.” [v]
But Rizpah’s grief,
it is not wrong
Her grief is not negative.
It is not destructive.
It is not violent.
Her grief points to what is wrong.
And what could be made right[vi].
And it is captured here in the pages of our holy text.
And Rizpah’s tears, they change things.
Her grief moves the king to something historic and profound.
David goes to collect Saul and Jonathan’s remains,
he is forced to face his nation’s messy history,
forced into a risky move– to go to the Philistines, Israel’s biggest enemy to collect the bodies,
and then he collects the bones of those seven murdered boys,
and gives them all an honorable burial.
Then and only then the famine ends.
Rizpah’s grief brings forth life again. There is that much power in it.
Yes, there are people who are changing the world with their tears.
There are so many Rizpahs.
And I don’t want the church to miss them—just because the story is hard.
We are surrounded by hard things right now,
emotionally exhausted and deleted, but church,
we will not close our eyes to bright yellow flowers,
to flags at half mast,
to sackcloth sites,
to world-changing tears.
For if God sees them,
ought not we?
[i] Rev. Becca Gillespie Messman, July 14, 2019 When Things Fall Apart
[ii] Austin Channing Brown, from her sermon at the 2018 Evolving Faith Conference
[iv] Rev. Becca Gillespie Messman, July 14, 2019 When Things Fall Apart
[vi] Austin Channing Brown, from her sermon at the 2018 Evolving Faith Conference.