Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
October 15, 2017
“Down on One Knee”
The lectionary passage today is from Matthew 22: 1-14. But first read the version found in the Gospel of Luke.
16 Then Jesus said to him, “Someone gave a great dinner and invited many. 17 At the time for the dinner he sent his slave to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come; for everything is ready now.’ 18 But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, ‘I have bought a piece of land, and I must go out and see it; please accept my regrets.’ 19 Another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to try them out; please accept my regrets.’ 20 Another said, ‘I have just been married, and therefore I cannot come.’ 21 So the slave returned and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and said to his slave, ‘Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.’ 22 And the slave said, ‘Sir, what you ordered has been done, and there is still room.’ 23 Then the master said to the slave, ‘Go out into the roads and lanes, and compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled. 24 For I tell you, none of those who were invited will taste my dinner.’”
I can’t read that story without picturing a group of nuns in their habits singing on TV in the 1960s: “I cannot come to the banquet, don’t bother me now. I have married a wife, I have bought me a cow. I have fields and commitments that cost a pretty sum, pray, hold me excused, I cannot come.”
An advice columnist explained the right way to decline invitations so you don’t look like a jerk or seem anti-social. Among the mistakes people often make is offering a string of excuses, such as I have married a wife, I have bought me a cow. The columnist advised to avoid making excuses. And never lie, because you can get caught. And don’t try to avoid an invitation by blaming someone’s health – like, “poor little Johnny doesn’t feel well.” Just say I am unable to attend and leave it at that. She advised sending a text that says SICMI. “Sorry, I can’t make it.” Frowny face.
I’m not so sure about using a text… but in fact, the method of declining an invitation is not the problem here. Because the real problem is that I’ve been avoiding the real problem. I gave Jess the wrong text to read – by intention. And when you hear the real text, you’ll understand why. It’s essentially the same story, but not quite. Listen and compare.
Matthew chapter 22
2 “The kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son.
(so far so good)
3 He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come.
(No excuses, just SICMI, frowny face)
4 So the king tried again and sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner; my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ 5 But the invited guests made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business,
(notice they didn’t make excuses, they just walked away to do other things – but get this, so now listen to what those who didn’t walk away did. Yes, some walked away to their farms or businesses…)
6 but the rest of them seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them.
(they really, really didn’t want to come to the wedding banquet. Naturally,)
7 The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned down their city
(Over a banquet! Talk about escalating the situation).
8 Then the King said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. 9 Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ 10 Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; and the wedding hall was filled with guests.
(so, after that brutal attack, the story ends with a nice positive note – everyone in town, both good and bad, was invited. Happy ending! If only Matthew stopped the story there! Listen:)
11 “But when the king entered and saw the guests, he noticed a man who was not wearing a wedding robe. 12 He said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ The man was speechless
(or chose nothing to say).
13 Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
(So, let me get this straight. You instruct your servants to go out and bring in everyone you can – good and bad – from the hedges and the highways and then he’s upset because someone is wearing the wrong thing?
Then the conclusion: the excuse, or rather the explanation, for this parable:)
14 For many are called, but few are chosen.”
So, can you see why I avoided this parable as long as I could!? It’s dark. It’s violent. It’s absurd. And in our world today, we get enough of that kind of thing in the news. Who needs more on Sunday morning?
I immediately went to one of my go-to commentators, who basically advised skipping it. He said, listen “let’s just admit it: this is an ugly parable. So, either tell the truth or choose one of the other three far more attractive and certainly more edifying passages appointed by the lectionary for the day.” But, I like a challenge. Someone once said, sometimes you have to squeeze the text hard enough until you get a drop of gospel. There has to be a drop of gospel in this somewhere, right? We’re going to try.
So, in any Bible study, you have to start with context. At the time Matthew is writing this, relationships among Jews about who Jesus was were at a low point. This is not a Jewish vs. Christian debate. This was an internal family affair. But sadly, over the centuries, this text among others has been used to divide Jews and Christians, to justify inquisitions, crusades, conquests, and holocausts. The argument is that Jews were the ones invited but they declined the invitation, which was met with severe consequences. For religious geeks like me, this is known as super-secessionism, or a replacement theology.
But scholars will rightly note that the anger expressed in this parable is simply like those times we have dreamed about final justice for people from whom we feel rejected. I can’t wait until they get theirs… As it was written originally, understand these are the fumings and frustrations of a powerless minority. But, centuries later, when Christians were in the power positions, they misused texts like these to justify their actions. This parable is dark and violent, yes. And absurd. And, as is true in other gospel texts, its very absurdity is part of the point. This isn’t real. This didn’t really happen. This is not literal. And it is also not, as often happens in the spiritualized interpretations of parables like this; this is not a story about God. God is not the murderous king.
Who is it about? The actual king. Who, at the time, was the murderous, paranoid King Herod… the Bible’s bloodiest tyrant. If you were among the first ones to hear this story, it would have made instant sense because he was one in a line of three king Herods who, like this one, didn’t just merely overreact by burning down a city but, like Herod the Great, killed a whole swath of innocent babies because he feared they might one day overshadow him. Focusing on the king helps the story start to make a little more sense.
It also makes sense, then, why people would decline an invitation to his palace – or just walk away. But it only explains so much. The bigger problem, to me, is the disturbing reaction to the guy wearing the “wrong clothes” to the wedding banquet.
Remember when you heard Jess read Luke’s version it was simply called a great dinner or a grand feast. In Matthew, it is specifically a “wedding banquet.” And that’s very important. It’s an interpretive clue. In biblical custom, when guests arrived, they would be given a wedding garment to wear. It’s not like not having a tux you pull out of your closet every time you need it. The wedding garment was provided by the host as you walked in. Which raises the obvious question: Why wasn’t he wearing it? What happened to the garment he was given? Even if he snuck in, the king’s representatives had compelled both good and bad to attend.
What’s going on here? It’s a form of protest. It’s not that he didn’t have the right clothes. He chose not to wear them. It was one thing this man who had been compelled to attend could do to register his dissent. And all of a sudden, this parable makes a lot more sense.
As I wrestled with the text, it reminded me of other invitations rejected recently, to another grand palace. Including the invitation to the national championship winning men's basketball team from the University of North Carolina. They confirmed a few weeks ago they will not visit the White House. A spokesman said the team was invited but "we couldn't find a date that worked for both parties. We tried about eight or nine dates but we couldn't work it out —we would have liked to but we are not going." Besides, they had just gotten married and “bought me a cow.” And, like the Golden State Warriors, had other stuff to do.
Why would anyone turn down such an invitation? To miss out on the chance to see the king’s palace and eat at a grand wedding banquet seems absurd. Imagine the food and wine and dancing and simply the chance to rub shoulders with the richest and most powerful people in society. But when the invitees had all turned it down, everyone else had no choice. There was nothing they could do about it, except the man who realized he could do one thing. He could refuse to wear the wedding garment.
It was such a relief that this ugly, dark, and violent parable finally made some sense, even though I still struggled to find the drop of gospel. I’m grateful that the Bible doesn’t shy away from darkness and violence. It’s not about fairy tales and happily ever afters. It reflects real and raw emotions, it knows our jealousies and the temptation of revenge, the things we feel when we struggle and fail, times when we feel lost and alone, as well as triumphs. And the ultimate triumph of God.
The Bible reflected reality then, and sometimes we’re surprised by how well it often reflects reality today. Including how human nature remains surprisingly consistent, despite thousands of years of experience in between. And how what one person could do in the face of a paranoid king and an oppressive Empire then is not that different from what we can now. One man provoked absurdly over-the-top outrage from the king for refusing to the wear the right clothes; while another man provoked Twitter outrage by simply getting down on one knee.
Not everyone admires Colin Kaepernick, or the growing number of those who have followed his lead. We can disagree about whether it is appropriate or not to use the occasion of the national anthem to protest. But can’t we agree that the reason behind it has been lost? Twisted and manipulated into false arguments about the honor of the military and the defense of flag, nation, and anthem. The intent of this distraction is to deflect the purpose of the protest in the first place. The country simply cannot own up to the extent to which we were founded on white supremacy and, more importantly, how our institutions continue to work to maintain the structures of white supremacy. Resulting in a blind eye to the ongoing mistreatment of African Americans. And telling brown-skinned, Spanish-speaking American hurricane survivors to “stop complaining, hurry up and fix it yourselves because we’re not going to help forever.” Imagine saying that to Kansans?
Dropping to one knee asks the country to honor the as-yet unrealized potential of our nation and its flag and anthem. It believes in our potential. In turn, the flag and anthem demand we answer the question: How can we create a more perfect union? Liberty and justice for all. It seems obvious that we have to ask, do we even want that?
The only thing the wedding guest could do to register his protest was to refuse to wear the garment provided. One thing athletes can do is drop to one knee. And then stand back and watch how it causes an outrage on a scale similar to “Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” “If they won’t stand, fire them and take away their citizenship.” You might say, both are a tad bit of absurd overreaction.
Maybe the meaning of “many are called, but few are chosen” is about how all of us should be getting down on one knee, or some other form of protest in response to white supremacy, yet only a few will. Yet it’s how each of us affirm “I am the Church.”
Kaepernick speaks openly about his Christian faith. He said “God guides me through every day and helps me take the right steps and has helped me to get to where I’m at. When I step on the field, I always say a prayer, say I am thankful to be able to wake up that morning and go out there and try to glorify the Lord with what I do on the field. I think if you go out and try to do that, you can be happy about what you did.”
Back to the parable. Though perhaps it now makes more sense, does it still need a drop of gospel? So we go back to context. This story is one of the last told in the life of Jesus. This story is part of the build up to the end, part of the increasing outrage and one more example why those in power decided to kill him. Therefore, we have to remember that this parable is not simply a story unto itself but part of salvation history.
After Jesus was crucified but before he was raised from dead, some traditions claim he descended into hell. I’ve always been a little ambivalent to that but members of my last church in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction always told me how meaningful it was to them. That they experienced Jesus descending into their own personal hells to raise them with him. And it’s true. To all the rejected, all the condemned, Jesus came to lift us. To those judged and thrown into outer darkness, Jesus liberates the captive, releases the prisoner, and offers good news. There is no one suffering the weeping and gnashing of teeth today that Jesus leaves behind on the third day. The gospel proclaims: Though weeping may last through the night, joy shall come in the morning.
To me, the gospel message is that God will redeem all the trials we have been through and all that is still to come. The consequences of resistance might be severe, but still we shall claim our dignity and self-respect and declare our hopes and prayers. And affirm our discipleship to Jesus who chose the consequences for himself in him simple protests. To show the rest of us how. And that we’d be OK.
As I said last week, when we don’t know what else to do, we can get down on our knees to pray – for ourselves, for our loved ones, for our suffering world. And know that God hears and heals. And when we don’t know what else to do that would really honor the lives of those who died for our flag, we can get down on bended knee and pray that our country’s ideals matter more than blind allegiance to something that has not yet been realized for all people. And when we do that, we fulfill our calling and our actions affirm “I am the Church.” That’s who you are. That’s who I am. We are the Church. Together.
 Luke 14:16-24 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 David Lose
 http://day1.org/878-sorry_im_busy.print, http://dancingwiththeword.com/the-wedding-robe/
 Our stewardship theme this year is I am the Church, You are the Church, We are the Church, Together