The Rev. Dr. Fred G. Garry
“A Table Spread Before My Enemies”
Scripture Reference: Matthew 6:19-21
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Sitting with our eldest grandson, Dmitri, I had a moment of déjà vu. Dmitri was playing a video game, Mario Brothers. It is a maze game. A little man runs through mazes facing danger and gaining rewards hoping to make it out alive.
A long time ago I watched Dmitri’s father do the same. Same little man avoiding deadly mushrooms, gathering gold coins and leaping over dark chasms. I was much younger and much older at the same time. A strange moment: Time was moving past me.
Yet again, I feel the need to confess. I am no good at video games. I am leaner. When I play a video game I lean and twist; lift my arms up or kick my legs. All with the mistaken belief these motions influence the game. People who are good at this sit very still, move only their fingers; they don’t lean.
I am not very good at video games but I like the idea of them, especially a game like Mario Brothers. Mario Brothers is a series of mazes. After you complete a maze you are awarded with an another more difficult maze and then another maze even more difficult. Finally, after all the levels a mastered game. This structure fascinates me, a series of levels that lead to mastery; this is the same structure as the one in the Sermon on the Mount we read today.
Beginning with our lesson today, and for the next six lessons, we have a series of challenges where mastery offers eternal life; you will come out alive.
Each challenge gets harder; each challenge builds on the last one. Each teaching is like a level of Mario Brothers or levels in language. You start at the bottom, or basic level, and then you move up unto harder levels. But you have to start at the bottom. These seven teachings of Jesus work this way.
This is good news and bad news for us.
The good news is that today’s lesson is very easy; this is Spanish 101 or the bunny slope. We understand and live this lesson pretty well. You know you can’t take it with you; you know there are no U-Hauls to the grave. The best things in life are eternal. Friendship, love, forgiveness, joy, peace. You keep them by giving them away, but you can get them and they don’t expire or rust.
And we know heaven, the eternal, is where we keep them. We don’t go the bank and deposit friendship; we don’t write on the deposit slip “an abiding joy.” No. We keep these in our heart, in the secret heart.
Most importantly, we got the memo of importance. Yes, we like nice things; we enjoy what money can buy. But we also know the things money cannot buy are more important.
Even MasterCard, in a moment of pure irony, gets this. Two tickets to the game $200; dogs and cokes and popcorn $50; hat and pennant, $75: a memory you will always share with your kid . . . “priceless.” The irony of Mastercard explaining the joy of financial ruin is actually pricey.
No. We understand all of this. So when Jesus says, don’t store up the treasures of the earth we know this. We may not always live this, but we understand it. And the opposite direction is true as well. Friendship, family, community, even having a good neighbor those are the places where true riches are found. And by being part of a church you are a living witness.
But again, this is level one, entry level, basic vocabulary of salvation. The good news is we got this one.
The bad news is that, for the most part, we don’t see our faith this way, as a series of obstacles we must overcome. We don’t realize there is a challenge to rise to, a path to follow, an art to master. It’s hard to win a game you don’t know you’re playing.
I was walking with a farmer a few years ago and he was talking to me about his life and crops and harvesting. But he surprised me when he changed the subject to technology. He said, “right now John Deere is paying for kids to go to college. But they are not paying for the 4H kid; they are paying for the kid who is good at video games.”
And this is true. So much of the machinery in modern farming is run from a screen, a joystick: young people who are good at video games are being recruited by John Deere. They need people who get the technology. They can teach them about agriculture later. They need someone who is not baffled by the idea of a drone.
On a different day we can talk about the dangers of this, but right now, just consider how often you feel frustrated by your phone or pad or computer or television because you don’t know what button to push. Part of this frustration is that I am trying to live or work on a level beyond my ability. I don’t know the basics. Sometimes I can’t even turn on the T.V.
I was raised with a knob you turned and a phone with a rotary dial and an antenna that adjusted the picture. I remember being amazed by the polaroid camera. Somewhere along the way the game changed, the levels were all adjusted. Entry level is now beyond me.
The rules changed, the levels adjusted, and there is remedial work I need to do. I need those classes in college for folks who didn’t get it in High School. I’m behind before I even start.
And this is true for these teachings of Jesus. This is what makes them so exciting but also daunting: they demand a whole new way of looking at our faith.
By in large, Protestants express their faith, define their faith (our theology) in the passage Abby read from Romans. We are Pauline. We think of faith as done; we imagine our faith as accomplished on the cross. We need to accept the free gift of Jesus that is finished. This is true and right, but this is not what Jesus is teaching today.
What Jesus did on the cross, the free gift of salvation, we cannot earn or deserve or demand (true); but it is not the truth that will guide us through the seven challenges of faith in the Sermon on the Mount. That Jesus made it through the levels is good, but it doesn’t mean we have made it through. Life is still a series of challenging levels of ever-increasing difficulty.
A big part of the challenge here is similar to what happens when people like me try to play video games or make my computer do something. Before I do anything, I have to reimagine the world, I have to unthink what I have thought. There is no knob to turn.
Today we need to unthink our faith as accomplished, done on the cross. This will not lead us forward. We cannot earn our salvation, but we have to learn the path to live our salvation. It is as if Jesus has given us the game to play. The gift is great, but now we have to play. Jesus has told us there is a place of rest for you at the end of this path; he has made it there and back (resurrection); but we have to walk the path now.
When I sat with our son Josh so long ago and when I sit with Dmitri now, I find myself doing the same thing: I ask questions. So, the mushrooms are bad? If you fall down the dark chasm you die? How do I fly again? In Mario Brothers mushrooms are bad and so are turtles. When I press him as to why a mushroom would be bad, Dmitri says, “Gramp, they are just bad.” And the same with the good parts. Gold coins are just good.
In our teaching today and the six that follow there are things that are good and things that are bad. There are parts here that give life and parts that take life away. This is a challenge leading to salvation or to ruin depending on how we do. No matter what Jesus did on the cross, we can ruin ourselves.
A line from the twenty-third psalm helped me see this: you prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. It’s an odd line. Strange until we consider the risk involved with a life of faith. David’s enemies were foreign armies, they were his own family, they were his own actions. God prepares a table in the presence of my enemies. David’s enemies were not symbolic; they were real. The Lord sustains David in the real presence of his enemies.
The enemy in our teaching today, the risk, is a word we don’t often use: the risk is sloth. Sloth is bad work, work done poorly, work not done at all. Sloth is believing you don’t need to work. And that is the danger inherent in our theology today. Jesus has done the work: what is there to be done? Well, a lot.
To overcome this challenge, to make it through this level, we need to trust the treasures of heaven. We know what is truly good. The best things in life are the love exchanged, the joy shared, the peace lasting over time.
Often what we fail to see is the work we need to do to get this peace, to foster love. In order to share joy, we need to find it, nurture it; in order to offer forgiveness we need to store up mercy and not squander it.
Sloth believes love just comes to us; faith is magical: we wish good things into being. Jesus says, “store up treasures in heaven,” he doesn’t say, “I have filled the storehouse of heaven for you.” Sloth believes Jesus not only died on the cross for us but fixes our problems.
Nothing could be farther from the teachings Jesus gives to his disciples. His life is a gift, true. But our faithful living is our work not his.
Rethinking the core of Reformed theology is not an easy task. Yet, if we want to follow Jesus unto freedom and find the power of what comes with each level of challenge, we need to lay aside the sloth of believing Jesus is doing our work for us. There is work for us to do. We need to work at love; we need to work at trust; we need to work at joy in order to master them. With such work we live the gift of salvation accomplished on the cross. The gift is complete; the work . . . not so much. Amen.
- Romans 6:15 - 23
- Matthew 6:19 - 21