March 26, 2017: Rev. Anna Fulmer
This Lent, we have been preaching stories that Challenge the Empire. We have heard stories of the Israelites challenging the Egyptian empire, the Roman empire being challenged by the words of John of Patmos and even Jesus himself. Today, David and the empire of Israel are even called into examination. Before this story, David is shown in the rest of II Samuel, how we know him: as the faultless, heroic, kind, and good. Yet here, a woman, Rizpah, calls into question the actions of the king and his empire. This narrative stands at odds with the rest of 2 Samuel. It is an intrusion to the rest of the story. And Rizpah stands as an intrusion to the commonly high regard we have for David.
If you choose to read this story at face value, here’s how the story goes: There is a famine. David prays to God. God says there is blood on the throne—and it’s not David’s fault. It’s conveniently Saul’s fault, the old king. So David goes to the victims, and asks how he can make amends. And they ask for the sacrifice of the sons of Saul. So David hands them over. They are killed. They are hung up for all to see, and then David, takes the bodies down and gives them a proper burial. Famine ends. Read this way, the moral of the story could be that vengeance is legitimate. God desires human sacrifice, the blood of Saul’s sons in order to bless the land. But, somehow, we cannot read it this way, because there’s another character to contend with: Rizpah.
You might wonder, “Doesn’t it say that God tells David “there’s bloodguilt on Saul and his house?” Yes. But beware when God’s will fits too snugly with our will. Beware when God’s will sounds conveniently like the king’s will. Beware any voice that has you focusing too much on another’s guilt and sin instead of your own. How convenient that God is punishing Israel and David for a dead king’s sin. And how ironic that we are just hearing about this bloodguilt, this violence Saul has inflicted. 1st and 2nd Samuel are a pro-Davidic texts. The flaws of Saul are obviously shown throughout these two books. Why isn’t this incident with the Gibeonites mentioned before? And why does David go to the Gibeonites? Why doesn’t the mighty David go directly to God?
This is a business deal. The people who could rise up against David are killed and his empire is secured. If Saul’s sons live, then there is a chance that they might overthrow David. So it’s better to eliminate them. Kill them. Then leave there bodies hanging on crosses as a sign. A sign of dishonor and shame. This is what happens when you oppose the king. This is what happens when you are connected with Saul. Mephibosheth is left because of an oath. Conveniently he is lame and for that society no threat. Yet, we know that David was not all evil. He writes beautiful poetry; he is God’s beloved child; he overthrows other evil powers with a single stone. I think this story shows how easy it is to listen to the voices that say power is claimed through blood and violence—even David falsely worships those voices thinking they are God’s. Even the great King David becomes a victim to power by controlling and intimidating with death sentences and bodies on crosses as a sign.
Enter Rizpah. Rizpah is the mother of two sons of Saul. Rizpah has not had an easy life. She is a second class wife of Saul’s, a concubine. And he is killed. She has no protector. After his death, Rizpah becomes a pawn for political advantage. An army general, Abner takes her as his own as he vies for the thrown. She is his prize, in the spoils of war. She isn’t asked; she is taken. Saul is dead. Next, Abner is killed. Then, her sons are killed. Rizpah is now a widow, with no sons. She has every reason to see herself as a victim. She has no power. And David has all the power. He is king, a “Goliath of evil” (Boesak). Yet somehow she affects change.
Rizpah lays down sackcloth on a rock on top of this mountain where the bodies, the bodies of her boys and the bodies of five other boys are hung up on crosses for all to see. She is alone. There are no men there with her to protect her from what others could do to her as a child-less widow. There are no sisters with her in solidarity. Rizpah is alone with bodies on a mountain. Morning, noon, and night, she defends them. She fights off birds and wild animals. She runs from cross to cross, body to body fending off vultures and animals. She refuses for their bodies to be desecrated. She refuses to accept the royal line that this was a sacrifice that had to be made, that this was what God required. Not through words, but through actions, she proclaims God’s Word. She mourns. She resists.
I am sure some saw Rizpah up on that mountain and thought, “Rizpah, you fool. Standing up there with those bodies isn’t going to bring your children back. Get down from there and get on with your life.” But what they do not realize is that Rizpah is not just saving some dead bodies. Rizpah is trying to “save the soul of Israel” (Boesak). She is saying in her motherly wisdom, “David, come down from your thrown. Come, see. Come look at these children, these children of Israel. This isn’t just some sacrifice. These are people. There are souls. These are children of God. Is this the kind of empire you want to create—with bloodshed, fear, and intimidation?” It is her action; her resistance, her mourning that finally wakes up the king. And so realizing the truth, he gathers the bodies of Saul and Jonathan, his “friend,” and of the other seven sons, and gives them a proper burial. How awful that David did not even see it worthy to give his friend Jonathan a proper burial until Rizpah awakens him. It is not blood, but the acknowledgement of truth that brings reconciliation. And how true, how fitting, that it is only after the truth is acknowledged that God restores the land.
Lent can be a time for fasting—from too much TV, chocolate, and soda. Yet God rejects our easy fasts, those that require nothing of us, but more from others. God rejects our fasts that lift us up and oppress others. And this Lent, we must ask the question, what is the fast that we choose? What if we are called to mourn in resistance, to cry out, to wait, what if Lent is about defending the defenseless, crying out against violence, standing with Rizpah, standing next those crosses. There’s a famine is Israel. But it is not caused by Saul. It is a famine of compassion, of love. Violence begets more violence.
This day remember: sometimes the greatest challenge to a king or an empire is presence. Stubbornness. Mourning. Anger. Grief. To stay when others have left. To mourn when others have stopped remembering. To believe in a fool-hardy mission. As Christians, we cannot leave bodies hanging on crosses. We must clearly state: God calls us to love and reconciliation, not to shed blood. For our Savior was killed on a cross by an Empire that thought it was safer to have him crucified. Here are three ways we can honor God and Rizpah’s sacrifice:
Number One: Get in the way. Rizpah gets in the way. She is not convenient for David; she stands in the way of what he would like to be the truth: that this act was justified. Your body, your presence is more powerful than words.
Number two: Stand with those who mourn. Rizpah is left alone on that mountain. No one joins her in mourning, in resisting. What she does is dangerous. I am sure people were scared of what David might do if they joined her on that mountain. But can you imagine how alone and vulnerable she felt? We are called as Christians to stand and be with those who mourn, those who are on the fringes, those who are vulnerable, even when it is dangerous. Even when it puts us at risk.
Number three: Acknowledge the truth. Rizpah acknowledges the truth. David’s actions are not just. This is not the sacrifice God chooses. She sees the truth. And in seeing the truth and standing with the truth, she helps others to acknowledge the truth: that there are bodies left on crosses, in need of burial, in need of peace, in need of restoration.
Get in the way, stand with those who mourn, and acknowledge the truth. It’s that easy and that hard. What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God? Amen.