Last Monday was a day of remembrance for me.
Thirty-two years ago, on that day, on March 6th, I had a cold. I know this because my cold caused me to sleep in my room at the fraternity house I was living in at Alma College. Normally, I would have slept in the unheated attic, along with most of my fraternity brothers. The attic would be whatever temperature it was outside, and we would see who could stay up there and endure the cold.
We were in college, but that doesn’t mean we were smart.
I had a cold that day, so I slept in my room, along with my roommate. Around 7 am, we heard someone’s alarm clock going off. We assumed that someone got up early, or had hit snooze and had gone to take a shower, and we complained about their insensitivity.
Then our door was broken down. It wasn’t someone’s alarm clock. It was a smoke detector. The house was on fire, and we were oblivious to it, until someone realized we hadn’t gotten out of the house. If I had been in the attic, I would have gotten out minutes earlier, when most everyone else was awoken by the smoke detectors. Instead, Pat Byrne broke down our door to get us out. Actually, he didn’t break the door. Ours was one of the room that still had a wall standing, and we went back into the wreckage days later. He snapped the deadbolt in half.
If you are ever the last ones to get out of a burning house, it is good to have an all conference defensive end come to get you. Fortunately, everyone survived the fire; only two people had minor injuries.
I’ve also survived two car accidents in which both vehicles, mine and the other car, were totaled. I’ve been hit by cars twice when I was growing up. I almost fell off of a cabin cruiser into Lake Huron, and held onto the hand rail long enough for others to pull me back on board. My dad and I were on Saginaw Bay the day that the Edmund Fitzgerald sank, the storm caused us to take hours to get back to shore. Only years later, I found out how scared my dad was that we wouldn’t make it.
I know I’m on bonus time. Anyone of these incidents, and probably more I haven’t realized, could have ended my life.
In the first part of today’s lesson, Jesus is asked about a tragedy that had happened. For some reason, Pontius Pilate took the blood of some people from Galilee and mixed it with the blood of animals they had sacrificed. Jesus also mentions a recent incident about eighteen people dying from a tower collapsing in Siloam. Jesus assumes the crowd wants to know if these people had sinned, and that their deaths were punishment for their sins. He tells them the victims of these incidents were not terrible sinners, but unless those that he is speaking to repent, they too will die.
When a tragedy occurs, there tend to be three schools of thought. One, they got what they deserved. Two, God is punishing us for something. Three, God let this happen to undeserving people. It’s their fault. It’s somebody’s fault. It’s God’s fault.
Think about a tragedy, any recent tragedy. Lord knows, there is a wide selection to choose from.
In the aftermath of the disaster, someone will blame the victims. They shouldn’t have been there. They shouldn’t have done whatever they were doing.
Some will say God is trying to get us to change our course, to call us to repent, by showing us what could happen if we do not repent, and continue in whatever sinful behavior this person thinks we are persisting in.
Or others will wonder where God was in this tragedy, and why God didn’t stop it from happening. This theory becomes more prevalent the closer to home the tragedy strikes, and the closer connection one has to those who are effected by the tragedy. Because, if we know those involved, we are pretty sure they didn’t deserve it, so it is either that God did it, or God didn’t stop it.
I would like to propose another option.
People die. Things break. Nature is uncontrolled.
We are beings that will be on this world for a relatively short time. Some way too short. But our time on earth is limited. I saw a sign Friday with a morbid, but valid point. Play with your kids today, because tomorrow you are one day closer to death. While that isn’t greeting card material, it is absolutely true. Today, we are all one day closer to dying. It is a fact.
Many people, when they are confronted with their mortality, create a bucket list – a list of things they want to do before they die. These come from a sense of urgency, often because they have been told that their number of days that remain are small, and countable.
But we don’t know if the number of days that remain for us are in the tens of thousands, or in the tens.
In the parable of the fig tree, a landowner and his gardener are discussing a fig tree. For three years since it has been planted, the fig tree has been given everything that it need to bear fruit. As of yet, it has not. The landowner has had enough. He tells the gardener to rip it out. The gardener asks for one more chance, for one more year.
That’s my other option. Life happens, and where life happens, death is sure to follow. But rather than blaming God for either causing, or not preventing, tragedy, what if we give thanks to God for the second, and third, and fourth, and more chances that we are given.
I know I would not be here today if not for the grace of God, my father drilling into me to always wear a seat belt, for the sturdy construction of two General Motors automobiles, my father’s quick hands and sure rowing ability, as well as the explosive power of number 99, Patrick Byrne. And I wouldn’t be here without the love of my mother, the wisdom of two other wonderful women who mentored and guided me, the blessings of dozens of friends, and the insight of a couple of little old ladies of the church.
So I choose to focus on the unknown number of days ahead, and not on the missed out days of the past. Yes, I would have loved for my dad to have lived to see me graduate from Seminary and see me ordained. Yes, I would love to still have my mom around. But I trust in God’s promises that I will see and be with them again. Because I will have all eternity for them to brag on me and tell me how proud they are.
And I choose to focus on taking these bonus days to focus on trying to repent each and every day of my life; to turn away from myself and turn back to God; to turn away from my will and turn back to God’s will. Each day I ask, “Lord, what wouldst thou have me do?” and each day I try. At the end of each day, I ask for forgiveness for not loving the Lord my God with all my heart, with all my mind, with all my strength and all my soul, and my neighbor as myself. Then I try to do the same thing tomorrow, and for each of the unknown number of days I have left.
Jesus knew how many days remained for him, and he went to Jerusalem, knowing his life would end there. But he went hoping that many would, because of his words and actions, be moved to repent.
If we can focus on the days ahead and not the days behind, if we can let people know it is not too late to repent and keep repenting, if we trust that there are days beyond the days that remain, then we are doing the work of our Lord. And blessed are the ones who come in the name of the Lord. AMEN.