On Holy Ground

Justin Thornburgh

North Shore Baptist Church

1 Lent B

2 Samuel 21: 1-14 (Non-Lectionary)

On Holy Ground.

Well, here we are in the season of Lent. The season of penitence and fasting. The season where we walk with Jesus toward Jerusalem and the cross of Calvary. I thought I would begin the Lenten Season by having us look at a nice uplifting text. This text where it appears God is appeased by human sacrifice. This text where David once and for all rids the world of the chance for Saul’s bloodline to maybe take over again. This text where seven innocent children are killed. This text with two mothers. One we do not hear from. One who declares this is Holy Ground. This is the text for today.  Let us Pray…

(Pray)

(Prologue: The Calm Ground)

It was December – up until the last few days it had been unseasonably warm.Sort of like this winter. But a cold front had just come through. Snow and ice had now blanketed the grass on the field in front of the housing projects. A field that was a battle ground between the towering edifices of Cabrini Green. The turf wars had settled for the moment. Out in the street on Larrabee Avenue, a man sits in his Buick. He sits there keeping warm – listening to the radio – wearing his unusual costume. He is a lay brother – the founder of an organization called Brothers and Sisters of Love, and he sits in his car – listening to the radio – wearing his cassock made out of old blue jeans. His name is Brother Bill Tomes. Brother Bill has been sitting in these war zones since 1983 – and next to him is a brief case filled with the obituaries of kids he has known. Who knows how many more there would be had he not stepped into the middle of countless gun battles; stopped to talk to the kid running out of the entrance of his building determined to get retribution for being dissed. Brother Bill sits in his car keeping warm – thankful for the chill in the air that seems to have calmed down tensions the hood. The ground was calm.

(Scene 1: Blood Spilt)

It was the spring time. It was the time when the planting was to begin, but not this year. Not last year, nor the year before. The ground was cracked and thirsty. The ground was barren and desolate. Nothing was growing, and the people were getting weary. They were dying by the hundreds. The ground was not producing and they were starving. Mothers held their crying children, with their bellies distended from bloating. Fathers, skin and bone crawling on their hands and knees searching for the tiniest morsel to give their children. Oxen and sheep lying on the sides of the paths, dropping from lack of food and water. Their king is at a loss. His people are dying, and he has tried everything he could think of. Finally he offered a prayer to God.

“O God who delivered your people from the hand of Pharaoh, you who made the ground dry so we could cross the Red Sea. You who helped us cross over into the to promised land. You, O God, who gave us this Holy Ground. Why are your people suffering? Why do you abandon us?”

“The land is dry, because of the blood spilt by Saul against the Gibeonites.”

Stunned. The kings stands there, at the altar. Hoping for more from the God who created the Cosmos. That is not the kind of answer he was looking for. What was he supposed to do with that? Are the Gibeonites not worshiping the God of Israel because of what Saul did? Was their ground so tainted that they refused to acknowledge his God?  So he summoned the Gibeonites to Jerusalem, and asked them what they needed in order to honor the God of Israel. They reply that because Saul broke the treaty they signed with Joshua all those years ago, they needed blood. However, they were not able to make that decision. They had to rely on  the graciousness of the king of Israel.The Gibeonites told David that they needed the remaining sons of Saul. They would offer them to the God of Israel as a sacrifice..but only if that is what the King chose to do. Then the rains would fall on their land and the land of Israel. Without a second though, the king agrees to their demand. After all, this is not only repayment for the bloodguilt of Saul, but a shrewd political move also as there will be no more potential threats from Saul’s line. He does spare Jonathan’s son, a grandson of Saul, because and oath he made to Jonathan. You see, Jonathan’s son is disabled and therefore not a threat to the throne.

The Gibeonites take five of Saul’s grandsons. Born of Merab, who at one time had been offered to David as a wife. They also take two of Saul’s actual sons born of Rizpah, one of his secondary wives. All seven are impaled together and left on the top of a mountain as an offering to the LORD. The ground is covered in spilt blood. This is at the beginning of the planting season, when the ground should be cared for and watered. Instead it is watered with blood thought to atone for Saul’s guilt. The bodies of the seven are left to rot in the sun that parches the ground. Vultures circle overhead. Wolves lie in wait, and as night fall the scavengers come out. And the rains do not fall.

(Scene 2: Our Own Famines)

Our lives can be parched and barren places sometimes. And during this season of Lent we are reminded, beginning on Ash Wednesday that we are dust and from dust we will return. We are invited to sit on the dry cracked ground. We are invited to consider way in which we can refocus our lives towards God. To remember what happened on Good Friday when Jesus was nailed to the cross. We are invited into the desert with Jesus these forty days.

That is all nice church talk though. It is easy to say those things, but how am I supposed to do that when I am spending my days writing papers, visiting friends going through personal tragedy, going to interviews, worrying about how I am going to pay back student loans if I don’t have a job.

You may be asking similar questions. Questions of how are we supposed to focus on these churchy things when there is so much going on in my own life that I can barely keep my head on straight. You may have just visited a doctor and received some news that stops the rain falling. You may have received an email from your boss saying there is mandatory meeting in the conference room, and to make sure to bring a box with you…your own ground is beginning to turn to the cracked ground of a field thirsty for water. You may be sitting in the baking sun, hungry, wondering when the next check will come so you can get the food your child needs. We have our own famines. Things that we need to get through in order to even survive. How can we be walking upon this ground with Jesus, fasting, repenting, when we need to find water or die.

It is during these famine times when we tend to try to offer God what we think God wants. Instead of entering into the desert with Jesus and fasting and repenting in trust, we try to find the most expedient way to get out of the desert and into the ground we we think will sustain us. I know I am guilty of this. Many Lenten seasons I say I will give up drinking pop or eating potato chips…this is easy because normally I don’t really eat or drink those things. But hey, I gave up something for lent, right? That will get me right with God. But in the end, for me, the rain doesn’t fall. I leave Lent as hungry as I went into it. I find the easiest or most politically correct or expedient way to offer myself to God. But the ground is still parched. The vultures circle overhead. And they wolves lie in wait, and as night falls the scavengers come out.

(Scene 3: Staking a Claim)

But something scares them away. As the wolves approach they are met with the end of a stick. A blow, knocking their heads away from the bodies hanging on the side of the mountain. They growl and attempt to take their stand. This is their meal. They, too, are starving, but again they are beaten with the stick. One gets a tooth knocked and retreats whimpering. Others try to attack again only to be met with the yowl of a mother grieving the death of her sons. Screaming the chases the wolves from the side of the mountain. Chasing them away, the wolves retreat. The mother returns to her spot. Her place of Vigil.

Rizpah. The mother of Saul’s two sons, has occupied the ground at the feet of the slain children. She has staked her claim. No animal, bird or mammal was going to take her sons. Those who walked by to gloat that the Gibeonites had defeated the house of Saul, were met with a mother, eyes sunken. Skin weather beaten and raw. Unkempt and dirty. Who said, these are my sons. “How dare you treat them like they are objects. They are the subjects of my life. They are my beloved sons. They took care of me. They are my pride and joy. How dare you try to take that away from me. Get out of here. You are on Holy Ground.”

When Rizpah made her dwelling place the feet of her slain children and the children of Merab, she marked that ground as Holy Ground. Death would be dignified as long as she remained there. The objects impaled there were not enemies, they were not offerings, they were not tokens or prizes. No, they were her sons. The subjects of her love. The ones who fed from her as infants, who watched her make meals as children, who ran around under her feet teasing each other. They were the ones who would get so angry at each other that they would have knock down, drag out fights, but in the end would embrace each other in a hug that could only be for a brother. These bloodied remains were her sons. And they were to be dignified, and as such, she marked the ground Holy.

And something happened when she did that. When she laid down at the feet of her Children. God heard her declaration of Holy Ground and started to transform things. Her world began to change. As she stayed on the side of that mountain day after day, night after night fighting off the beasts and birds of prey, God began to use that Holy Ground. People started to take notice of the crazy woman. The anointed woman. And word spread. God touched peoples’ hearts. Here was a woman who dignified the dead. Who showed respect for the loss of life, and would not stand idly by in the face of the indignity perpetrated by the Gibeonites. She would not stand idly by in the presence of a king who offered her sons to be as a sacrifice. And word spread to the king. And in hearing of this woman who had stayed at the feet of her beloved sons for the better part of six months, the scales fell from the eyes of King David.

God used the this Holy Ground to let David know what the real reason for the famine was. It was because neither Israel nor the Gibeonites showed respect for the dead. Saul’s bones were hung as war trophies. Carried around the land. They sons of Saul were left for the beasts and birds of the air. But because of this grieving Mother and her refusal to succumb to the barrenness of heart that was etched in the dry ground, in her declaration that THIS IS HOLY GROUND, God transformed David’s heart and the dignity of the dead was restored and all were buried. Because of one person saying this is Holy Ground, the rains began to  fall. Life was restored. Hope renewed.

(Scene 4: On Holy Ground)

Sisters and Brothers, God transforms. God can take the barrenness of what ever our burdens and transform them. We, I, need to have the courage to stand up and say that my parched ground is Holy Ground and let God do what God does when we stake that claim.

We are walking with Jesus toward that day on Calvary where he was crucified because of our unwillingness to see him as the Son of God. Because we refused to acknowledge that he was ushering in the Reign of God. We walk to the foot of the cross and watch at Jesus says, “Father forgive them.” We watch as Jesus marks that hill of public execution, Holy Ground. On this ground, I have poured out myself for the lives of all, so that they might be transformed by the Grace of God.  That Holy Ground is where death had its final stand. That Holy Ground is where God laid the foundations for the new life that is to come on Easter. That Holy Ground is where  we head this Lent.

As we enter Lent together, I invite you to name those places that are dry and desolate. Name the places that are in need of water. Declare before God that these places are Holy Ground. God will transform them.  God will change the darkness into light. God will let the rains pour. God will because God has in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The famines we may be in are not ours alone. Jesus is with us. Jesus sits in on the meeting where you are let go from your job. Jesus is in the doctor’s office with you. Jesus is at the side of the grieving. Because God in Jesus has been one of us. God knows our hurts and pains. God heals. Because God is with us we can declare our places of sorrow, hurt, and despair as Holy Ground. And God will transform them to joy, release, and happiness.

As you came in this morning you were handed a rock. During the hymn of response after the sermon, you are invited to come forward to the cross and lay that rock at the foot of the cross. During that time you are invited to name before God that which you need to name as Holy Ground. You are invited to name before God the famine which is keeping you from being able to declare Holy Ground. You are invited to name before God the joy you have found in being on Holy Ground. This will be the invitation all through out Lent. In the future there will be a basket in the narthex with rocks, and you are invited to grab one as you arrive.

God takes that which we name as Holy Ground and transforms it from the dry barrenness to a font of life. Washed in the abundant rain of God’s grace, all is made new.

(Epilogue)

BANG BANG BANG BANG. The familiar flash bang rouses, Brother Bill – this man of God. Rushing to where the gunfire came from Brother Bill is greeted by a site he has seen too many times before. Crumpled in the entrance way just off Hobbie Field – the killing fields of Cabrini-Green – the barren land – Sammy Hatcher is laying there, crumpled, dying. This is why this man in the blue-jean cassock is here – to witness in the midst of tragedy – the love of Christ. To say that this is not the ground of death, but Holy Ground. He holds the dying man in his arms reminiscent of the pieta of Mary holding the Crucified Jesus – holding him like a mother holds her child, seeing the pleading in the dying boys eyes, he grabs a handful of snow – lets it melt in his hand and places it on the head of this broken body. “Sammy Hatcher, I baptize you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit – become one with the Body of Christ. Be at peace – finally my dear boy.”  On that Holy Ground, young Sammy Hatcher was carried to be at the right hand of Jesus. God is able. What we declare Holy God will use.

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