Unraveled: Seeking God When Our Plans Fall Apart, Part 3: Public Grief That Inspires Action

A Sermon for August 25, 2019. Emory Presbyterian Church. 2 Samuel 3:7-8, 21:1-14

“Rizpah:” by Rev. Lauren Wright Pittman, A Sanctified Art, LLC

October 31, 1992. I was nestled in deep slumber like most teenagers on that Saturday morning of Halloween when my teary-eyed mother shook me awake to explain that a real-life nightmare had occurred shortly after midnight. My friend at school and in my church’s youth group, Bonkey Nezariah McCain, died at the age of 17—a victim of a drive-by shooting on the previous Friday evening.

I staggered out of bed in utter disbelief. A member of Shades Valley High School’s football team, Bonkey and his teammates had been celebrating their win over another school by eating at a nearby Pizza Hut. As the players walked out into the parking lot to head home, two guys in a car drove by and opened fire into the crowd. Although Bonkey wasn’t the intended target, he took three bullets to the chest. No one else was injured.

Bonkey’s death was devastating to many. He was a remarkable person with an abiding faith who, along with his mom, siblings, aunt and cousins, had persevered through many early struggles in life. He had a wonderful sense of humor and was an extraordinary singer who stirred our souls once with an a cappella version of a Boyz II Men song during a high school youth retreat. Most of all, Bonkey possessed that unique ability to make friends and connect folks quickly to one another regardless of their background and differences.

Nearly 30 years have passed and there’s hardly a day that goes by that I don’t think of my friend or wonder who he would’ve become as an adult. That singular horrific event opened my eyes to the reality of gun violence that permeates so many cities and countries, and that claims the lives of many young innocents who are caught in the crossfire of a gang hit or dispute between two armed parties. Bonkey’s death also made me more aware of injustices that are so prevalent in society, especially when I worked as a newspaper reporter after college and as an ordained minister for more than a decade.

The loss of Bonkey definitely changed his mother Carmen. A student in nursing school, she was already known for driving around inner-city neighborhoods with a sound system and microphone in the trunk of her car to preach about Jesus to gang members and drug pushers. When Bonkey died, she began a new crusade to combat gun violence on the streets, and to be a voice for numerous moms whose kids were killed by stray bullets. The last time I saw Carmen was when I visited her at home in April 2000. While we were catching each other up on our lives and mourning the recent death of her sister, killed in an act of domestic violence, she told me that God’s strength helps her through the tragedies in her life:[1]

I don’t stay laying in tears. You get up, dust yourself off and swing at the devil because he’s never going to stop coming…You have to instill with people that life must go on. Things are going to happen unforeseen; you can’t up and move away every time a tragedy occurs. You still have to carry the torch for other people to see…God always allows you to go through something so you can be a help to someone else. I know the force behind my message is pain.

Upon reading Rizpah’s story in 2 Samuel in preparation for today’s sermon, I immediately thought of Carmen and Bonkey. And when I gazed at the striking art, which is featured on the cover of your bulletin, I saw Carmen’s face.

I continue to see in the image of Rizpah, the faces of strong, courageous African American women from the harsh days of slavery and racial segregation weeping on the ground while their sons hung from the lynching tree. And I see the faces of countless brave women who, throughout history, have mourned children lost to brutal acts of violence and injustice in various situation.

Mamie Till, mother of Emmett Till, mourning the loss of her 14-year-old son who was beaten, murdered and lynched after being falsely accused of offending a white woman in a grocery store.

Mothers like Mamie Till, Gertrude Wesley, Alpha Robertson, Alice Collins, Maxine McNair, Judy Shepard; JoAnn Brandon; Sybrina Fulton, Gwen Carr, Lucy McBath, and Felicia Sanders. Mothers in New York City; D.C.; Shanksville; Newtown; Las Vegas; Orlando; Parkland; Pittsburgh; El Paso; Chicago; Los Angeles; Birmingham; Atlanta; Honduras; Haiit; central Africa; Israel and Palestine.[2]

And some of those women and many others see Rizpah as an example of valor when they are experiencing injustice in their lives.

In a book about the women of the Old Testament, the Rev. Wilda Gafney, an Episcopal priest and seminary professor, says: “Sermons about Rizpah are not unheard of in black churches; she has a following among womanist preachers, who remember, lament, and are strengthened by her strength.”[3]

In the same commentary, Gafney also reflects on the circumstances that required Rizpah to possess an incredible amount of fortitude in the midst of tortuous grief:[4]

Rizpah bat Aiah watches the corpses of her sons stiffen, soften, swell, and sink into the stench of the decay. Apparently, she is denied permission to bury her dead. Denial of proper funerary rites was a common means of cursing and punishing an enemy and their people in and beyond death in the ancient Near East. Rizpah fights with winged, clawed, and toothed scavengers, night and day. She is there from the spring harvest until the fall rains … sleeping, eating, toileting, protecting, and bearing witness.

The story of Rizpah is agonizing to comprehend. I imagine that many of you may be feeling a mix of emotions about this faithful woman’s plight. It is even tempting to simply close the eyes, turn the head and think of more pleasant things. And I would be lying if I didn’t say I had the urge to do the same and pretend that awful incidents like this don’t occur.

The Rev. Lauren Wright Pittman of A Sanctified Art, acknowledges the challenge of trying to grasp and make sense of Rizpah’s story:[5]

I don’t know what to say. This story leaves me without adequate ways to fully process the searing pain and utter wrecking of the life of this woman, Rizpah. She is a “low status” wife of Saul. She is raped by a man who denies his actions. Her two sons are sentenced to death as a king fumbles to rectify wrongs that cause a famine in the land.

She gathers her sackcloth and climbs the mountain of God to defend the bodies of her children and their half brothers. She spends day and night for up to six months fighting off birds of prey and animals of the night from ripping apart the bodies of her children and what shred of hope she has left.

David hears of her passionate, radical, public grief and is moved to delayed justice. He calls for the burial of Saul and Jonathan, but also sees to the proper burial of the seven sons that he carelessly offered up to appease God. Justice in this scenario looks like sheltered, buried, dry bones. Rizpah’s public unraveling causes the unraveling of David’s distorted version of justice. God doesn’t require a human sacrifice for the end of the bloodguilt. God ends the famine when David listen to the voice of this strong, fierce, unraveling woman.

Over the past two years, Elizabeth and I have become supporters of the justice work being done by attorney Bryan Stevenson, the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, a human rights organization based in Montgomery, Alabama. The author of Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, Stevenson has dedicated his life to helping the poor, incarcerated and the condemned.

Under his leadership, the EJI has “won major legal challenges eliminating excessive and unfair sentencing, exonerating innocent death row prisoners, confronting abuse of the incarcerated and the mentally ill, and aiding children prosecuted as adults.” Stevenson also spearheaded the creation of two significant cultural sites, which opened in 2018: The Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice—national landmark institutions that memorialize the victims of slavery, lynching and racial segregation and chronicle the connection to mass incarceration and contemporary issues of racial bias.[6]

Stevenson and EJI’s efforts have been chronicled in the powerful HBO documentary released in June and available to watch for free online called True Justice: Bryan Stevenson’s Fight for Equality. Elizabeth and I were watching the film this weekend and about midway through, Bryan Stevenson ponders how it can be overwhelming and difficult to represent people on death row and be fighting against the system. To this, he says:[7]

Photo Credit: HBO’s “True Justice: Bryan Stevenson’s Fight for Equality” June 2019

The truth is that if you stand next to the condemned, if you fight for the poor, if you push against systems that are rooted and heavy, if you keep pushing and fighting, you keep doing, you are going to get broken. What I realized is that I am part of the broken community. And when you realize that, you don’t have a choice in standing up for the rights of the other broken.

Hearing Bryan Stevenson speak those words, I thought to myself: That’s the best description I’ve ever heard about the Church and what it means to be the body of Christ in the world.

The scriptures and our faith teaches us that we are beloved children and creations of God who, in spite of our flaws and imperfections, are sent out to demonstrate acts of love in a broken world. When we serve the poor, the sick, the oppressed, the downtrodden and the imprisoned, we recognize our own vulnerabilities and shortcomings. We become aware of the brokenness in our lives and attuned to how our hearts break when injustice occurs.

And if we are to be the Church and the body with its many parts, we don’t have the luxury of turning a blind eye, remaining silent and walking away when we see the Rizpahs of society. It’s been disturbing to me to watch how many people, particularly those in positions of power, quickly dismiss another person’s Rizpah-like anguish and pain with an insulting 280-character Tweet or a video rant or belittling words in front of the press.

But it’s our calling, as it was David’s, to see injustice, listen to the cries of the hurting and the voices of the marginalized like Rizpah and then help create space where stories can be shared, people can be comforted, and peace and justice can be established.

Rev. Lauren Wright Pittman offers this blessing as we leave this place today to live out our calling to stand with the broken and do what is right by them:[8]

I pray that we learn from Rizpah. When we see injustice may we, like Rizpah, climb the mountain of God and defend those who cannot defend themselves. When we see someone unraveling in inexplicable grief, may this sight unravel us from the ways we are entangled with injustice.

May this too be our prayer today, tomorrow and always.

Amen.


[1]Her Fight Against Violence Hits Home by Andy Acton, The Birmingham Post-Herald, April 13, 2000.

[2]Mamie Till, mother of 14-year-o;d Emmett Till who was lynched in Mississippi on August 28, 1955; Gertrude Wesley, Alpha Robertson, Alice Collins and Maxine McNair, mothers of the Four Little Girls killed in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church Bombing in Birmingham, September 15, 1963; Judy Shephard, mother of Matthew Shepard, a gay college student who was beaten, tortured and left to die in Laramie, Wyoming, October 6, 1988; JoAnn Brandon, mother of Brandon Teena who was raped and murdered for being transgender on Dec. 31, 1993; Sybrina Fulton, mother of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin who was killed after leaving a convenient store in Florida on February 26, 2012; Gwen Carr, mother of Eric Garner who died from police brutality in New York on July 17, 2014; Lucy McBath, mother of 17-year-old Jordan Davis who was killed while he and his friends were listening to music in the parking lot of a gas station on November 23, 2012; and Felicia Sanders, mother of Twanza Sanders, who was killed when a white supremacist opened fire at Emanuel AME in Charleston on June 17, 2015. Mothers in New York: DC; Shanksville: 9/11 Tragedy; Mothers in Newtown, Los Vegas, Orlando, Parkland, Pittsburgh, El Paso: mass shootings; Mothers in Chicago, Los Angeles, Birmingham and Atlanta: cities with high homicide rates; Mothers in Honduras, Haiti, central Africa, Israel and Palestine: places where homicide, political and military conflict, genocide and war is ongoing.

[3]Gafney, Wilda C.. Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne (p. 206). Presbyterian Publishing. Kindle Edition. 2017.

[4]Gafney, Wilda C.. Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne (p. 201-202). Presbyterian Publishing. Kindle Edition. 2017

[5]Resources for Unraveled: Seeking God When Our Plans Fall Apart, A Sanctified Art, LLC

[6]https://eji.org/bryan-stevenson

[7]https://www.hbo.com/documentaries/true-justice-bryan-stevensons-fight-for-equality

[8]Resources for Unraveled: Seeking God When Our Plans Fall Apart, A Sanctified Art, LLC

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